One way to cut emissions: Get rid of the driver

Self-driving cars are coming. Afraid yet?

The people who gathered at the 16th annual “Advance the Choice: Future of Transportation” conference in Riverside on Thursday didn’t seem too troubled by it. In fact, they welcome the revolution.

Technology already has allowed some new cars to do quite a bit on their own to assist drivers, including pre-emptively braking or dodging out of the path of wayward lane-changers. Tesla’s Autopilot function lets drivers semi-chill out while the car stays between the lines, even on curvy roads, an innovation that already paid off off for a Seattle driver.


Jim Madaffer

As Jim Madaffer, commissioner of the California Transportation Commission, pointed out, Google already has let its autonomous cars roam a million miles around the world, with its scant few accidents attributed to humans driving badly in regular non-futuristic cars.

“It’s not just the stuff of dreams anymore,” Madaffer said. “It’s the new reality.”

Sure, some people are concerned about privacy, with all that car-generated data floating about. And of course, while you’re sipping your coffee and reading Smithsonian magazine in the passenger seat of your self-driving car, a hacker could find a way to crash you.

But assuming the nerds get that problem solved, there are so many benefits associated with autonomous driving that it could be, as Madaffer said, the biggest transformation in our automotive culture since Henry Ford built the assembly line.

The key benefit is safety: Every year 33,000 people die in vehicle accidents, the vast majority of them caused by human error.

Lightening the driving load for humans also would, theoretically, produce fewer greenhouse-gas emissions like carbon dioxide, as well as fewer “criteria pollutants” like nitrogen oxides that make up smog. Autonomous cars tend to drive like little old ladies, slow and steady, obeying the letter of the law on traffic stops.

Madaffer showed the recent “60 Minutes” segment on the autonomous-vehicle industry in Silicon Valley, and there was a telling moment: The Mercedes in which the report is riding (with an engineer only grabbing the wheel in dicey situations) enters a freeway, and doesn’t speed up. It’s programmed to go the speed limit and not one mph above. A car behind it speeds around. You can almost hear the driver inside cursing at the Mercedes’ computer brain.

BMW i8

Hey, he’s parked in a handicap spot! A BMW i8 plug-in hybrid outside the conference. This car does require a driver. And about $136,000 to buy.

Human beings are not rational. They make impulsive, hasty decisions that heighten the risk of an accident. And whenever they mash on the accelerator needlessly, darting in and out of lanes to gain one car-length of advantage, they create additional emissions. Multiply that act by millions and millions, and you have a mind-boggling amount of wasted gasoline.

Will humans ever allow a machine to take over their beloved automobile? The conference, hosted by the Western Riverside County Clean Cities Coalition and the Center for Environmental Research & Technology at UC-Riverside’s College of Engineering, touched on the likely skepticism of the American public.

“The human element is going to be the hardest element to engineer for,” said Steven Cliff, a physicist who’s assistant director of sustainability for the California Department of Transportation.

Like all of us, he’s seen people go to a parking garage, get into their car, turn it on (to charge their phone or just listen to the radio). Which is not, in fact, great for our lungs or the environment.

“If you’re just idling, you’re getting zero miles to the gallon,” he said.

True. Why do we do it? Answer that question, and you’ll have unlocked something about the human experience. Good luck with that.

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(Photo: A Google driverless car. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)