Automated vehicles - automatically low carbon?

Revolution in mobility technology creates great opportunities for cutting emissions – but there are challenges too.

The combination of connectivity, automation plus shared vehicle ownership and use has the potential to make car travel greener and cheaper, cutting energy use and helping accelerate the introduction of low carbon vehicles. However, these energy and carbon benefits are by no means guaranteed and will require strategic policy interventions to maximise them according to a new report by the Institute for Transport Studies commissioned by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). 

The ITS report ‘Automated vehicles - automatically low carbon?’ indicates that better coordination and connectivity between vehicles and infrastructure is likely to improve energy efficiency, as well as potentially make road transport safer and quicker. 

Co-authored by Dr Zia Wadud and Professor Jillian Anable the report was presented at the LowCVP Conference at the Olympic Park in London. Over 170 delegates at the Conference ‘A Low Carbon Transport Future: The UK capability to lead the way’ heard responses from key stakeholders to the implications of the technology shift; how connected and autonomous vehicles hold out the prospect of a revolution in the ways we will move around in future. 

The report by ITS indicates that:  

  • The net impact of the technical developments will ultimately depend on how their introduction spurs further innovation in vehicle and transport system design combined with mobility service provision.
  • The majority of system-wide energy efficiency benefits are likely to result from high levels of connectivity and coordination between vehicles and infrastructure, not through automation per se.
  • At full automation (i.e ‘driverless’ vehicles), the impacts are highly dependent on the degree to which the current paradigm of individual private car ownership transitions to new models of shared access and use.
  • Automation and connectivity together can result in some vehicle-level energy efficiency benefits.
  • Full automation could help accelerate the transition to low carbon vehicles by reducing the practical difficulties often anticipated with these vehicles such as refuelling/recharging.
  • Most of the large-scale benefits of fully automated vehicles can only materialise when they are widespread and affordable which is likely to take several decades. 

The research suggests that in order to realise the potential to make car travel greener and cheaper much more work needs to be done to encourage shared car ownership. Government policy can provide a supportive environment for new mobility services to develop by delivering open data protocols, supporting technology incubation and providing local authorities with resources to enhance skills and offer incentives to local mobility service companies. 

There are potential challenges, though, in that energy demand and traffic may increase, say the researchers, as car travel becomes more popular due to the fact that autonomous cars leave the occupant free to use travel time for other activities. Amongst other policy responses could be a need for demand management to mitigate against unsustainable increases in the use of cars. Potential policies might include road user charging, low emission zoning and regulating empty running. 

The authors say that achieving the desired combination of outcomes related to carbon, energy, air quality, safety and accessibility will need careful, synergistic and timely policy design with coordination between the automotive and telecommunication industries, transport system operators and mobility service providers. 

They say that regulations or innovative policies may be required to encourage manufacturers to provide efficiency optimising features like automated eco-driving, eco-routing, platooning or energy saving algorithms in the vehicles. 

Low carbon, alternative fuel pumps and charging stations need to be planned and designed for automated, unattended dispensing or charging in order to alleviate the inconveniences of refuelling these vehicles and encourage their uptake, according to the researchers. 

Co-author of the study Dr Zia Wadud commented: “Automation can offer large benefits to the society, not only in carbon terms but also in improving safety and social inclusion. However, a lot of these benefits will depend on how we use the technology. Let’s not be blinded by the excitement associated with driverless cars, saying the technology alone will solve all the problems. We know that there could be some risks - like there are for most new technologies. We need to be careful and be proactive about resolving these risks early on to fully reap the benefits of automation and intelligent connectivity.” 

LowCVP Managing Director Andy Eastlake added: “It’s clear that there are significant potential benefits from the coming mobility revolution through connectivity and automation. However, in order to grasp the full environmental benefits of these technologies we need a strategic, coordinated policy response that will have to involve a wide range of stakeholders working in partnership.” 

Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said: “Autonomous and connected vehicles have the potential to revolutionise our road transport. Whilst they could make our roads safer we are yet to fully understand the impact on congestion and, ultimately, the energy consumption associated with the vehicles. The UK needs to have a better understanding of future scenarios, gaining insight into how the end users may adopt this technology. In addition to gaining public consensus Government and industry need to work together to establish a co-ordinated transport policy to make the most of these technological developments.” 

Further information 

Download the report Automated vehicles - automatically low carbon?

Related research Help or hindrance? The travel, energy and carbon impacts of highly automated vehicles.

Read more about the LowCVPIMechE