Runaway driverless cars will increase congestion and accelerate climate breakdown
The unregulated advent of driverless cars could increase traffic in European cities by 50% to 150% by 2050, which would be like a rush hour that lasts all day, a new study by Europe’s transport campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) reveals. A ‘Wild West’ unregulated increase in driverless cars – as anticipated by some in the industry – could result in 40% more CO2 emissions from cars between now and 2050, making Europe's climate goals all but impossible to achieve .
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Automated vehicles with no driver could become so cheap to run that they would encourage people, or even cars without people in them, to travel more and for longer. To ensure driverless vehicles do not lead to increased CO2 emissions, cities should refuse access for automated combustion engine cars. This could cut emissions by 23% between now and 2050 compared to a world with no electric or driverless cars.
But the study shows that zero-emission, driverless cars, even if they are actively shared, will not solve the congestion problems in Europe’s cities. This is because such vehicles will be ultra-cheap and ultra-convenient creating an increase in demand for car travel quickly filling any road space that might become available. The additional car travel could come from public transport users, active travel such as cycling or simply higher overall travel demand.
However, the modelling shows that cities that gradually reduce space for cars  while simultaneously rolling out shared, electric, automated cars could shrink vehicle activity by 60%. This change in urban planning will reduce emissions from cars by 32% between now and 2050, which combined with a shift to zero-emission vehicles, would put European car emissions on track to completely decarbonise transport by 2050.
Yoann Le Petit, new mobility expert at T&E, said: “Automation, electrification and sharing are three revolutions that can transform the way we move around. But whether this will be a good thing for the environment or for the livability of our cities depends entirely on the choices governments make. If we want sustainable mobility we need to ban driverless cars with combustion engines and gradually reduce road space for cars in our cities. We need mayors across Europe to press on with this fourth revolution and reclaim the streets for their people.”
Automation is not a reality yet but the risks are already apparent. App-based ride hailing platforms such as Uber – which is piloting automated vehicle services – encourage new trips and lead to more kilometers driven, increasing emissions and worsening congestion. In a scenario where Uber cars are automated, the cost of these services is expected to drop sharply (perhaps by more than 50%) and, as a consequence, demand would sharply increase. If driverless Uber cars have one occupant (not shared) and are powered by combustion engines (not electric), these new mobility services will increase air pollution and exacerbate climate change.
“The business model of companies like Uber relies upon rapid growth and automation is one of the biggest ways they plan to expand. Whether this increases emissions or congestion is of no real concern to them. Still, we believe that if managed well ride hailing services can play a role in reducing car dependency and improving urban mobility. But this requires regulators to do their job. We urgently need policies to ensure all taxi and uber-type vehicles operating in large cities are zero emissions no later than 2025, with incentives for shared rides, and a gradual reduction in parking slots available for private cars,” said Le Petit.