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The Green Room: Eco-Considerations Of Driverless Cars

Driverless Cars are in the news: On July, 20th, the University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center unveiled its test track for connected, automated vehicles. Once thought of as fantasy, driverless cars are real and are being researched right here in our backyard. In this installment of 89.1 WEMU's 'The Green Room,' Barbara Lucas looks at the environmental implications of this cutting edge technology. 

Barbara Lucas  (BL):  July 20th saw the grand opening of Mcity, a simulated urban environment on the University of Michigan’s North Campus for testing automated cars. Here’s U.S. Senator Gary Peters.

Peters: Today is the launch of technology that is going to transform our country, it’s going to transform our planet…

BL:  He reminds us that on this day, 46 years ago, another revolution in transportation was taking place.

(Background sound of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”)

BL:  I take a ride in one of the test cars.  I’m relieved there IS a driver, as a backup.  It’s a far cry from Armstrong on the moon, but it does feel momentous.

Demonstrator from Honda:  Hi Barbara, let’s sign a quick release before we get going here.  We need to get buckled up because this is a hard-breaking situation and you need to be buckled up.  Here we go!

BL:  As we drive along, a walking robot mannequin appears suddenly in front of the car.

Automated voice:  “Pedestrian coming from the right.  Early warning alert.”  Multiple beeps

Demonstrator:  And a hard brake. Sound of braking.  So again, the driver had nothing to do with the braking. 

BL:  Next up is testing the car’s ability to see a bicyclist approaching.

Demonstrator:  Remember the system can see where we cannot. So again, the alert will come before we ever see the bike.  

Automated voice:  “Bicycle coming from the right!”  Beeping.  Sound of braking.

Demonstrator:  And sure enough!

BL:  The University of Michigan researchers I speak with are full of hopes about this technology.  Dr. Louis Merlin is an urban planner, and an avid bicyclist. 

BL: As a bicycle rider, how are you going to feel with having driverless cars on the road, are you going to feel better or worse? 

Merlin: I will feel better. I think driverless cars are more likely to obey the rules of the road, go the speed limit, yield to bicyclists.

BL:  Dr. Merlin notes that driverless cars will use less gas. 

Merlin:  A certain percentage of fuel use comes from how we drive, how aggressively we drive. If you’re light on the gas pedal and light on the brake you will use five or 10% less gas.

BL:  He says while humans find it hard to drive at a slow, steady pace, driverless cars will do so automatically.  He tells me about “platooning,” which will increase the safety and efficiency of highway driving. 

Merlin:  On the highway, if every vehicle is automated you can have them very close together, safely. These vehicles are all talking to each other electronically, constantly.  If the vehicle in the front brakes, the vehicle 10 vehicles back already knows that vehicle is braking, instantly, and can brake at the same time at the same rate.

BL:  I also spoke with Dr. John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute.  He says with fewer crashes, cars can be lighter.  Smaller engines will help with efficiency too.

DeCicco:  We could see horsepower going the way of the horse.  Right now cars are very overpowered and there's kind of this car culture, gear-head culture, that perpetuates a horsepower war. 

BL:  He says another major game changer will be a move away from the car ownership model, towards an Uber-like rental system.  Dr. Merlin agrees.

Merlin:  If you don’t own your car, if you just rent it when you need it….  Most of the trips we take are by ourselves, so the car that will come pick you up will be a fuel efficient, one or two person car.  Probably an electric car. So it changes the entire nature of the fleet because instead of buying the biggest car to fit the biggest trip I can get the car that is the right size for that specific trip.

BL:  Can automated and human-piloted cars mix?  I’m told that to reap the safety and efficiency benefits, a system must be 100% automated.  Hmm…  how do we go from zero to 100%?  Designated areas may be the answer.

Merlin:  We will see automated only districts in certain places.  Just like we have an H.O.V. lane, we may have an automated only lane.  In certain downtowns that are very congested we may have automated only downtowns because you can get so many more vehicles through there than you can if you have human drivers that are behaving erratically.

BL:  Dr. Merlin is very excited about the potential for less space devoted to parking, which he says is the largest use of prime urban land.

Merlin:  These cars that are shared could potentially go from one person to the next person.  They are parked for very short periods of time.  And b ecause they are self driving, where they are parked you could place out of the way.  It could be that all the parking a city needs is a couple of park-and-ride lots by the freeways.

BL:  But both Merlin and DeCicco point out that these many positives are not assured.

DeCicco:  The environmental benefits of automated vehicles are not automatic benefits!

BL:  What could be eco-unfriendly about driverless cars?  Urban and Regional Planner Dr. Jonathan Levine explains.

Levine:  The downsides are there is enormous potential for increase in vehicle miles traveled.  While it wasn’t talked about today, it ought to be talked about more.

BL:  He says if riding in a car becomes safer and more pleasant, we may find an automated vehicle in every garage.

Levine:  People living far distances from work.  People sending their vehicles to circulate rather than having to park.  Think about that!  Huge potential for increasing vehicle miles travelled.

BL:  Dr. DeCicco says both utopian and dystopian visions are equally possible.  His dystopian vision…

DeCicco: Often I call this the Barcolounger on wheels. Where you take something like a Cadillac Escalade and you make it even bigger, it becomes a Robo car where you don't have to drive it and you put in essentially sofa beds, big screen TVs, surround-sound, and you move even further out from your place of work. Into the countryside and you can commute that long distance in comfort and luxury consuming extra gallons of fuel along the way.

BL:  Dr. Merlin says we’re at a critical juncture.

Merlin: A lot of the people who are researching just think of this of as a technological problem. It is more than that, it is a social problem. And the opportunity is just tremendous. And I'm concerned that we are not thinking about it broadly enough.

BL:  He says the eco-benefits will increase not only if automated cars are rented, but if trips are shared by more than one rider.  Dr. Levine illustrates.

Levine: …so that if I’m going to the same place as you, maybe we know each other and maybe we don’t, but hey, the vehicle can put us together, no problem.

BL:  To Dr. DeCicco I express a concern:

BL:  Has anybody asked the women of the world if they are going to feel comfortable getting in a car with a stranger and no driver?

DeCicco:  That's a great question. And it’s one reason why I have a bit of skepticism towards this shared vision.

BL:  I also wonder if driverless cars can top mass transit’s ability to preserve open space and reduce congestion.  Dr. Merlin tells me his research shows that if Ann Arbor were to replace its bus system with driverless cars, congestion would increase during peak hours.  Here’s Dr. DiCicco.

DeCicco:  We need better transportation systems in cities now and we can't do that by just jamming a bunch of automated vehicles into the cities.

BL:  Using automated cars to connect with andcomplement mass transit seems to be the answer, as expressed by Ann Arbor’s Mayor Christopher Taylor.

Taylor: And most importantly these projects will ensure our community integrates cars, buses, and bicycles into a seamless safe and effective transportation network, and we couldn’t be more excited.

BL:  No matter how this all plays out, I have one last question: Who’s going to pay for the pay for the infrastructure these cars will drive on? 

(More sounds of moon landing.)

BL:  Fixing potholes is proving harder than getting man on the moon.  

For more information on Mcity click here: The University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center's test facility.

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.