Opinion

Autonomous Vehicles Can Drive the United States to a More Sustainable Future

In his speech to Congress last month, President Joe Biden articulated a vision for how environmental sustainability and American jobs can go hand-in-hand. Fully autonomous vehicles stand to play a significant role in this vision for America’s future.

When most people think of AVs, they think of the technology’s potential to increase safety and convenience. But the transition to AVs also offers the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support U.S. economic growth. With a supportive policy framework, AVs could play an important role in the Biden administration’s vision of sustainable growth.

An autonomous future will contribute toward significant environmental improvements. Programmed with eco-driving and other measures, AVs can reduce their energy use and emissions. For example, AVs will be programmed to drive smoothly, with fewer starts and stops. This will help reduce traffic congestion which in turn will reduce emissions. Research has found that autonomous long-haul trucking can reduce fuel consumption by at least 10 percent. The industry is also working on how AVs can use more efficient routes to improve traffic flow and mitigate congestion, thereby reducing emissions.

Electric vehicles continue to lag behind in adoption by American consumers, representing fewer than 1 percent of the vehicles on our roads today. One in 5 Californian EV owners have actually switched back to a gas-powered car because of charging difficulties. AV companies can help to boost the country’s shift to electrification as they build fleets with hybrid and battery EVs.

With the right policies and industry considerations, commercial electric AV services can expand the number of clean miles driven on American roads. AV fleets operated by the industry are particularly well-suited for accelerating EV adoption because companies can determine how to charge thousands of electric cars more efficiently than an individual consumer.  Electric AV rideshare and deliveries could reduce the number of personal vehicle trips that we take to work, school and errands.

AVs will also reduce the number of trips Americans need to make, saving time and reducing emissions. Autonomous electric delivery vehicles will be able to make routine deliveries, saving people time and carbon-intensive trips. Partnerships with companies like Domino’s, Kroger, Walmart and UPS are already in the works, while industry also considers how it can benefit small local businesses. One study found that electric AV deliveries to our homes and businesses could reduce 407 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over 10 years.

It’s also important to remember that even though AVs will remove the driver from behind the wheel, the industry will still rely on American workers, with research showing this new industry will create jobs and spur billions in U.S. economic growth. Workers are needed already for AVs’ engineering, development, manufacturing and servicing, and the growth of the industry will drive new jobs. A new study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation projects that fully autonomous long-haul trucks alone would boost spending across the economy by $111 billion, creating over 25,000 jobs per year over the next three decades.

AVs will also spur new types of mobility that support jobs and local economies. Autonomous trucks will be able to operate nearly 24/7, therefore opening up new markets for farmers to deliver fresh foods. Packers and shoppers will be needed for contactless delivery AVs. For instance, autonomous deliveries can come from the neighborhood florist and bakery while AVs can bring passengers to and from their favorite restaurants and stores.

Our world revolves around moving people and goods from point A to B — whether that’s across the neighborhood, across the state or across the country. Fully autonomous vehicles are not a partisan issue; they’re a groundbreaking technology that holds the potential to be one of the most transformative leaps in human innovation. A few American cities like Phoenix and Pittsburgh have started already to see the safety and mobility benefits firsthand, but now it’s time to take the next steps and untap the technology’s true potential.

Bipartisan leaders have previously introduced provisions that would help American industry to safely and carefully increase the number of AVs permitted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the road through expanded exemptions. As Congress holds a committee hearing on AVs today, it’s time for the Biden administration and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to support these kinds of surgical but critical steps that would bring the United States closer to a safer, greener and thriving future.

 

Ariel Wolf is the general counsel to the Self-Driving Coalition.

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