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What if the autonomous vehicle was an environmental disaster?

The call for projects of the Evra program to test autonomous vehicles in France was managed in 2018 by Ademe. By entrusting the Ecological Transition Agency with the task of selecting the candidates, the State has clearly indicated that it is banking on this technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions largely responsible for global warming. The 2020-2022 recovery plan has further accentuated this discourse.

Reinforce the reign of the car

The problem is that this technology in itself does not guarantee to be more virtuous than current modes of transport. This is what underlines this week a report of the association of the ecological factory carried out at the request of the Forum Vies Mobiles, a think tank of the SCNF. The transport of goods was excluded from the study which scanned the scientific literature available on the subject.

Contrary to popular belief, this technology does not carry the promise of a major upheaval. “It is not an innovation of rupture but of continuity”, said Jill Madelanat, one of the report’s authors, during an online conference.
Continuity with the system we know today, which is that of the domination of the car. “Cities and territories have been shaped for the benefit of the car with its well-known externalities such as air pollution, noise or even accidents”, also observes the director of the Forum Vies Mobiles, Christophe Gay. A model which continues to spread more and more and which will not be called into question by autonomous vehicles.

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Heavy vehicles clad with sensors

Then there is a timing issue. Deployed in an extremely progressive manner, autonomous vehicles are not expected on a large scale for ten or twenty years. However, it is urgent to initiate changes now if we want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The various studies on the impact of autonomous vehicles are shared concerning future consumption. Some provide for more economical and fluid driving resulting in energy savings. But the reverse is more likely to happen.
Packed with sensors and batteries, equipped with a computer system and new leisure devices, autonomous vehicles will be heavier. They will therefore consume more energy.

The four buttons within easy reach of passengers in Waymo's autonomous car.

Infrastructure changed, data increased tenfold

But that won’t be the only environmental impact. It will be necessary to change the road infrastructure such as signage and road markings, install separation barriers between the lanes or even install roadside units. All this new equipment, in particular the sensors and the batteries, will emit greenhouse gases during their production, consume non-renewable resources and pose a problem at the end of their life for recycling.

Finally, this new mode of transport will generate very large amounts of data and require connection to high-performance telecommunications networks such as 5G. This will again have an impact on the environment.

The autonomous shuttle would be the least risky scenario

The overall impact of autonomous vehicles will actually depend on the scenario that emerges. What size of vehicle? How far ? How many people transported? What frequency? The least risky scenario would be that of an autonomous shuttle deployed in rural or peri-urban areas.
But this last option will perhaps not be the most widespread, car manufacturers, like Renault, BMW or Tesla, rather rely on the private car and the big ones of tech on the robot-taxis. This is the case with Alphabet, and its Waymo service, which already operates in the United States.

Whatever scenario becomes widespread, rebound effects are feared. “Autonomous vehicles could encourage more kilometers to be traveled and generate urban sprawl”, underlines Jill Madelanat.
It is also feared that autonomous shuttles will compete with public transport or with soft modes of transport such as cycling or walking.
This will be the case in particular with the RATP experiment, which is to link the Parisian stations of Lyon, Bercy and Austerlitz, which travelers previously reached on foot.

A political choice

For the ecological factory, the autonomous vehicle is not a technical choice, but a choice of society. We want to add: a political choice. The report underlines that the public authorities agree to invest large means in this technology while hoping on the other hand to be able to reduce the operating costs of public transport by eliminating drivers. But is it really a good financial and social calculation?

Should we also seek to move more and more, when a good number of inhabitants aspire to shine more in their neighborhood? Can’t we invest more in solutions low tech and develop less heavy and less complex modes of transport for local journeys? The debate has begun.

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