PhotoSelf-driving electric cars have been drawing a lot of attention in recent months as the next step in transportation. There is a lot of testing left to be done before they roll out en masse, but many people are thinking of how this new technology could be used to benefit society.

In particular, the introduction of self-driving taxis may not be too far away. A new study conducted from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows that this could not only be a cost-effective means of public transportation, but that it could be a very green option as well.

These taxis have the potential to be much more efficient than the ones that are currently being used. By utilizing a concept called “right-sizing,” customers would be able to call for a taxi based on its size. So if you have a party of four people that need to get somewhere, a taxi that could accommodate all of you would pick you up. However, if you were riding alone then a smaller taxi could come for you.

A cost-effective option

Self-driving electric cars also have the added benefit of being much more cost-effective. Because taxis put on so many miles every year, using vehicles that run on an alternative fuel source, such as electricity, would save a lot of money in the long run. Other factors may end up costing more, such as maintenance, insurance, and the cost of the vehicle, but they would be offset by the amount of money that would be saved yearly on gas.   

The cost of running the taxis would also go down due to the vehicles’ ability to run without a driver. By cutting this large expense, companies would be able to lower fare prices, which directly benefits the consumer. The researchers estimate that autonomous taxis would be much cheaper than their manual counterparts by the year 2030.  

Environmental impact

While this new technology would certainly save consumers money, that is nothing compared to the environmental impact that they could potentially have.

"When we first started looking at autonomous vehicles, we found that, of all the variables we could consider, the use of autonomous vehicles as part of a shared transit system seemed to be the biggest lever that pointed to lower energy use per mile," said Jeffery Greenblatt, who co-authored the study.

By utilizing right-sizing principles, autonomous taxis would be able to cut down on energy use and reduce emissions. The researchers calculated that the emissions of an autonomous taxi in 2030 would be 63 to 82 percent lower than a hybrid vehicle, and 90 percent lower than a gas powered vehicle, of the same time period.

Another environmental factor to consider is the advent of a cleaner electric grid. Power plants are becoming more and more involved in using renewable energy sources, and by 2030 this will mean that electricity will emit fewer greenhouse gases. This will make electric vehicles an even greener option in the future.

Reduced emissions

Self-driving taxis would also allow companies to stop using fuel sources that negatively impact the environment. The researchers calculated that if five percent of taxis became autonomous by the year 2030, then over seven million barrels of oil could be saved annually. This could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.1 to 2.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

A lot of research is left to be done in order to see just how beneficial these vehicles can be in the future. In particular, scientists are hoping to create vehicle designs that optimize battery life. They would also like to create simulations that could accurately determine how self-driving taxis could react to city driving conditions.

The full study has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.  

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