Can driverless cars save the planet?

August 28, 2015

Driverless cars could provide considerable economic and environmental benefits for Australia.

The widespread introduction of driverless cars could play a significant role in reducing car ownership and oil consumption by as much as 90%, according to an Australian researcher.

Driverless cars, in combination with a rail transport network for high-density and longer trips, would achieve resource savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Dr Gary Ellem  from the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment at the University of Newcastle.

Ellem spoke at the Geological Society of Australia’s Forum: Powering Sydney in to the Future last week.

His claim is backed up by research published in July 2015 by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Nature Climate Change showing that per-mile greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 90% for driverless, electric cars when compared with petrol-powered private cars.

According to Ellem, Australia’s dependence on the private car is proving to be a major economic, energy and climate security issue, and is estimated to cost the Australian economy around $1 trillion in car and oil imports over the next decade.

Ellem says there are two distinct paths being taken in developing a commercial driverless car.

“One group of companies is looking to build an autonomous car for personal use that they will sell you, and the other is trying to build a car that could be shared. The second approach is predicated on offering a service,” he says.

Driverless cars employed as shared car service could reduce the total number of cars on the road, reducing embodied greenhouse gas emissions from car manufacturing. And because they will likely be electric-powered cars, there will be savings in imported liquid fuels, and will help in the shift to alternative energy.

Driverless vehicles are already operating in many parts of the world, such as Heathrow Airport in London, where autonomous vehicles are used to transport passengers. Similar systems are in use at Morgantown in the United States, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and in Suncheon, South Korea.

Considerable progress, however, still needs to be made until we see completely driverless cars travelling our city streets and freeways.

“The timeline we’re talking about is possibly full autonomy by about 2025 or 2030, with increasing levels of autonomy in between,” says Ellem.

Prototypes on public roads June2015

Untapped opportunity

Ellem believes there are significant economic opportunities for Australia to contribute to the sector, as the driverless cars bring together the digital economy, smart manufacturing, transport, planning, and the energy and research sectors.

There have already been significant breakthroughs across a range of driverless car technologies.

Sensors, such as radars, digital cameras, and remote sensing systems like Google’s LIDAR are reducing in size and cost, and are increasingly being integrated in to mass production cars.

Graphics processors are also becoming smaller, cheaper and faster, and are increasingly being targeted at driverless car applications.

“Pretty much every auto manufacture on the planet has a driverless vehicle program,” says Ellem.

“I spend part of my time being a futurist. So when a new technology appears, I try to work out whether it’s incremental or transformational. The driverless car looks to be far more transformational than incremental and can offer a transport service that improves on the private passenger car.”

Carl Williams

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