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How Autonomous Vehicles Will Help Businesses Reduce Their Carbon Footprints

Image credit: Zapp2Photo/Shutterstuck

Self-driving cars are on the horizon and widespread adoption holds many promises. On top of reducing collisions and alleviating traffic, autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically shrink our carbon footprint. That’s a major win — not only for the public but for businesses, too.

Fuel, electricity and business travel cost a lot of money. Reducing a company’s carbon footprint is as much a financial boon as it is environmental. Companies that up the ante by replacing their piloted vehicle fleets with autonomous ones can get ahead of the curve as demand for sustainable practices increase from both consumers and the government. Here’s how driverless vehicles can help companies lead that charge.

Efficient driving patterns

One of the main precepts behind driverless technology is that robots will be smoother on the pedals than we are. Hard-braking events and excessive acceleration contribute to increased CO2 emissions — and they’re inherently the domain of humans.

Companies that embrace automation may see a reduction in costs associated with wear and tear, and they’ll also be playing a part in shrinking their footprint. Driverless fleets can optimize scheduling (which we’ll get to later), plus choose fuel-efficient routes. Efficient driving behavior also helps mitigate the effects of congestion — another source of CO2 emissions.

Enhanced traffic flow

There’s a strong correlation between traffic congestion and CO2 emissions. One study from the University of California Transportation Center makes the case for policymakers to focus on congestion-mitigation programs to reduce greenhouse gases. They found that improving collective traffic speeds from around 34 mph to about 53 mph could reduce CO2 by over 20 metric tons.

As mentioned above, the main variable for stop-and-go traffic is the human driver. Remove the human variable, and the results are impressive.

Autonomous vehicles will interact with each other and highway infrastructure, such as traffic lights, signs, medians and the road itself. This constant web of interaction enables cars to move in a kind of synchronous dance, improving traffic flow and dramatically reducing accidents. Last year, at the Washington Auto Show, a team of researchers reported that even just 5 percent of driverless cars on the road could reduce fuel consumption by upwards of 40 percent and minimize braking by a whopping 99 percent.

Improved aerodynamic efficiency

One byproduct of synchronous-moving, driverless cars is their ability to follow each other closely on the road. Keeping a close following distance could improve fuel efficiency, especially for a convoy of commercial trucks.

It’s a system called “highway platooning,” and an MIT study found that it could reduce fuel costs by up to 20 percent — the more trucks in the platoon, the less drag you get. In addition, platooning improves scheduling policies. In their simulation, convoys leaving at fixed five-minute intervals were more efficient than those leaving at, say, three- to seven-minute intervals.

The study does not take into account how human drivers would feel sharing the road with an impassable wall of trucks stretching several hundred feet. As Esurance found in a recent report, the majority of drivers in the US are still wary about self-driving cars. Obviously, parameters are in order for everyone to get on board.

Innovation alongside smart policy

Research from the Department of Energy reports that autonomous vehicles could bring fuel savings of almost 90 percent — if solid policies are in place, that is. If not, fuel consumption could conversely increase by 200 percent.

One of the biggest drawbacks for self-driving vehicles is that they could increase the number of miles driven on the road without proper oversite. Not having to watch the wheel means people might be more amenable to commuting farther distances and taking extra trips.

There’s also the issue of zero-occupancy vehicles picking up groceries or simply driving around the block in lieu of parking (especially in crowded cities). Diligent efforts from the government and automakers will therefore be important to assure efficiency. There’ve been talks of incentivizing cars to be programmed to choose fuel-efficient routes. Highway mandates could also penalize vehicles that are unoccupied, or reward car owners who let their vehicles be used for ride-hailing.

The onus will still be on businesses to implement best practices around automation. Doing so protects their bottom line and streamlines general business operations. More importantly, it improves the health of our ecosystem — the very system that sustains us.  


Haden Kirkpatrick is the head of marketing strategy and innovation at Esurance, and is constantly thinking about how self-driving will impact both the auto insurance industry and the environment.

[Read more about Haden Kirkpatrick]


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