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Are driverless cars bad for the environment?

Four experts at the 2018 Silicon Valley Energy Summit debated whether autonomous vehicles will hurt the natural and human environment. 

BY Mark Golden, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center
ClockJune 27, 2018

Autonomous vehicles are bad for the environment, argued the team that triumphed in the annual debate at Stanford University’s Silicon Valley Energy Summit.

Polling before the debate had the audience—both in person and following live on YouTube—squarely supporting driverless cars. Some 62% were against the provocative proposition that such vehicles hurt the natural and human environment. Only 20% supported the suggestion that such cars do damage, and 18% were undecided.

“The most efficient, environmentally friendly way to move people is by buses and trains at high utilization,” argued Ognen Stojanovski, research scholar at the Program on Energy & Sustainable Development within Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. “Instead, with autonomous vehicles we'll no longer want to go on CalTrain. We'll want to be by ourselves getting work done, sleeping, whatever. We’ll want to live farther and farther away from where we work.”

Driverless cars will result in the rebound effect, said Stojanovski, who previously helped launch Otto, an autonomous trucking company acquired by Uber. He spearheaded policy, research and advocacy for Otto and Uber.

“Once you make things easier to move around, you get a lot more of it moving than you had before,” reasoned Stojanovski. “So, we're going to have a lot more people driven to a lot more places than they previously were.”

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The shared autonomous-vehicle model is to park in the suburbs at night to recharge. They’ll have to rely on coal, natural gas or nuclear power to do that.

The team supporting autonomous vehicles was not unprepared.

“Every year 1.3 million people die on the roads in car accidents,” contended Michael Ostrovsky, a professor of economics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Plus, tens of millions more get injured and disabled every year.

“Self-driving cars won't drink, won't text while driving. They won't get tired, won't get distracted,” said Ostrovsky. “Self-driving cars will eliminate all of those deaths and injuries.”

But Stojanovski polled the audience: “Who wants to be the first to ride a tiny, efficient, autonomous vehicle on a highway full of regular drivers in SUVs?” Few hands went up.

“Think about the end state, not the transition,” Ostrovsky pleaded. “The transition from horse-drawn carriages to cars was messy for a little while. When all cars are self-driving, we’ll all be much safer.”

“But the real revolution with self-driving cars will be moving away from 90% of cars on the road containing one person,” Ostrovsky said, “to much more convenient carpooling options or small-scale public transportation where you have four to eight people in a minivan.”

The liberty to work, sleep or play games—however people want to spend their increased free time—will benefit the human environment that was part of the resolution under debate, Ostrovsky added. Plus, autonomous vehicles move more smoothly through traffic and adjust their routes to bottlenecks better than humans do. Less traffic congestion will improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Brian Goncher, Ostrovsky’s debate partner and an executive with Deloitte Services, added that improving the efficiency of transportation will boost productivity and greatly benefit the economy. Plus, “a whole spectrum of people in our society who cannot drive today, like the blind and disabled, will have much improved lives from this revolutionary change.”

Jeff Greenblatt, principal of consulting company Emerging Futures and Stojanovski’s teammate, countered that the traffic-jam-pollution argument applies only to driverless cars versus human-driven cars. The best congestion reducer—public transportation—will be undercut, he said, by autonomous vehicles.

“People who have taken CalTrain lately know it’s maxed out,” Goncher retorted. “Shared autonomous vehicles will compete with driving personal cars, not public transportation.”

A driverless car with a person in the back seat, Greenblatt maintained, is no better for the natural environment than a person driving alone.

AV plus EV, sharing and renewables 

Multiple times, the team against the resolution tied autonomy with shared vehicle services like Uber and Lyft, as well as to electric cars running on renewable power. Stojanovski and Greenblatt reminded their rivals that the debate was about autonomous vehicles, not about shared cars and the electrification of transportation.

Shared, connected, autonomous mobility is exactly what the first letters spell out: S-C-A-M,” Stojanovski quipped in the typically light-hearted contest.

“The idea that we’re going to have fleets of solar-powered, driverless, shared cars is a mirage,” he explained. “The shared autonomous-vehicle model is to park in the suburbs at night to recharge. They’ll have to rely on coal, natural gas or nuclear power to do that.”

In the end, the "pro" resolution team convinced 26% of the audience to change their position from disagreement with the anti-AV sentiment (or from undecided) to agreeing with it. The "con" team changed a fourth as many—8% of the audience—from "agree" or “undecided” to “disagree.”

The winning team started with the advantage of having a much bigger pool of potential converts than the “con” team had. But Greenblatt and Stojanovski clearly won over most of the undecided voters, who diminished to 8% from 18% at the beginning.

Moderator Jeff Byron, a member of the Band of Angels, joked at the end about the potential confusion of the “pro” team arguing against autonomous vehicles, (i.e., in favor of the resolution), and the “con” team promoting the benefits of driverless cars.

“It looks as though the majority of changes were to the agree side from disagree or undecided,” Byron said. “So, I'm confused. Who's that?”

Kidding aside, the former California energy commissioner concluded, “the ‘pros’ have won it.”

The SVES 2018 debate can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. The annual conference was held June 21. For more information, visit sves.stanford.edu.

Media Contacts

Mark Golden

Precourt Institute for Energy

(650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu

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