While some recent conversations about transportation in the U.S. are relatively simple – like the supply and demand for oil – others are more nuanced and complex. America is a car-dependent country, with more than 90% of households estimated to have access to a vehicle. But with the changing climate and the growing concern about the environment, people are looking to alternative transportation solutions. An emerging answer that may enable Americans to maintain the feeling of independence could be self-driving vehicles.

Self-driving or automated vehicles are cars that do not require human drivers to safely operate the vehicle. These cars combine sensors and software to navigate, control, or drive the vehicle. While there are currently not any fully autonomous, legally operated vehicles in the U.S., several major automakers and researchers are making headway in transforming our transportation system.

Many leaders in transportation such as Nissan, Google, Tesla, and Uber have developed leading-edge technologies in automated driving. Each of these brand’s prototypes include internal maps of the vehicle’s surroundings based on a wide number of sensors, as well as radars. Software is then responsible for processing these inputs, navigating a path, and directing instructions to the car’s actuators. The hard-coded controls, predictive modeling, and obstacle avoidance algorithms allow the software to navigate traffic rules and avoid any hazards. While these manufacturers and automakers have gained major ground in automated technology, the potential positive impacts are the most promising.

According to research from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), automated cars could reduce energy consumption rates by 90 to 200 percent. This would have a tremendous effect on the environment as more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Other positive impacts are that of conscious efforts from policymakers and auto manufacturers to prioritize efficiency. Self-driving vehicles could be programmed to choose fuel-efficient navigation. Additionally, self-driving vehicles can enhance ride-sharing programs. Major ride-sharing organizations can increase the longevity of trips. Where an Uber or Lyft driver would need to take breaks, automated vehicles can provide carpool service at all times provided they have fuel. This round-the-clock service could provide an easier alternative for those looking to commute late at night or early in the morning. Another benefit is that of safety in terms of environmental impact. Because self-driving cars can eliminate human error, the need for heavy safety equipment will decrease. Without heavy glass and other materials, cars would be lighter and require less energy to run – which may even reduce wear and tear on the roads.

The positives are multiplied when electric self-driving cars are introduced to the equation. Electric cars are already 95 percent efficient compared to the 30 percent efficiency that traditional combustion engines run. The eco-friendly aspect of self-driving vehicles would be magnified by combining these efforts with electric vehicles.

There remain significant legal and regulatory barriers as well as ethical dilemmas and concerns. Self-driving cars do not entirely eliminate human error, they simply change which human is in charge of the vehicle – from the in-person driver to the software engineer who coded the car’s brain. Even when autonomous vehicles are approved for the road, it is unlikely drivers will gain complete freedom to read, eat, nap, or work in the car as they might on a train. Regulations will likely require drivers to keep their eyes on the road at least for the foreseeable future. While this may be boring, it will also help speed along innovations in the space.

The future of self-driving vehicles is dependent on consumers, manufacturers, and automakers. Just like any other environmental choice, there will have to be a willingness to revamp daily choices and considerations when it comes to transportation. And while the wait for this technology could be long, everyone can stand to benefit from these technologies for decades to come.


Written by Rachel Spencer, Communications Intern


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.