All driverless cars should be electric, greens tell DOT

Source: Ariel Wittenberg, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2016

Environmentalists are urging the Obama administration to use self-driving cars as vehicles for greening U.S. transportation.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center and Southern Environmental Law Center¬†asked¬†the Department of Transportation and U.S. EPA to “evaluate ways for autonomous vehicle fleets to accelerate the transition to zero emissions, electric-drive vehicles and allow for further integration of renewable electricity.”

“While some autonomous vehicle pilot projects involve electric-drive vehicles, automakers will also deploy technologies to vehicles that rely on fossil fuels,” the groups wrote. “Exploring zero emission options for autonomous vehicles will help ensure that the technology reduces pollution.”

The push for electrification of autonomous vehicles comes in a letter expressing concern that DOT has focused on the safety implications of driverless cars to the exclusion of considering other aspects of the technology.

Under Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, DOT has been bullish about getting out in front of emerging autonomous-vehicle technology and has begun taking steps to determine how best to regulate it. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released an assessment in March of how current standards would consider autonomous vehicles, a move many consider a first step toward rulemaking (E&ENews PM, March 11).

While the environmental groups said they agree safety should be the top priority in regulating autonomous vehicles, they argue that DOT should not have tunnel vision when it comes to the technology.

By leaving regulations to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the groups write, DOT “may be missing some of the bigger policy concerns that must be taken into account before any deployment of these technologies.”

The letter asks DOT to work with EPA and the National Economic Council to “carefully consider the potential greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts — both benefits and detriments — that result from accelerating autonomous vehicles.”

Environmentalists have applauded companies like Google that are using electric cars in their pilot programs (Greenwire, Feb. 16).

The group’s letter describes the possibility that shared autonomous vehicles could help ease congestion, but it also warns that autonomous vehicles could have the opposite effect, attracting passengers to take longer trips more frequently, crowding roadways and increasing urban sprawl.

“Many potential impacts of autonomous vehicles are unclear, including impacts on vehicle miles traveled, vehicle emissions, public transit, and land use, which in turn can have significant positive or negative impacts upon our environment,” the groups wrote. “We urge USDOT to carefully consider the wide variety of potential impacts that can arise from this valuable new technology.”

The letter also asks DOT and EPA to study how different rates of autonomous vehicle deployment could affect traffic congestion and how using autonomous vehicles for freight delivery could help limit emissions nationwide.