Could Autonomous Cars Increase Pollution And Sprawl?


Though we’re only at the dawn of the self-driving car era, many people are more than ready to welcome our new autonomous automotive overlords. Autonomous cars are being hailed as the solution to urban sprawl, pollution, and of course traffic congestion. But what if autonomous cars have the opposite effect, increasing fuel use and encouraging people to live even farther from their place of employment?

That’s what Ken Laberteaux, principal scientist of Toyota’s future transportation team, fears will happen. According to a speech Laberteaux gave at the Automated Vehicles Symposium recently in San Francisco, autonomous vehicles could pander to humanity’s never-ending quest for convenience, and the crux of his argument lies in the simple fact that most people are lazy. In an era where fast food, fast internet, and short attention spans are the norm, it’s hard to argue his point.

“U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things. The pattern we’ve seen for a century is people turn more speed into more travel, rather than maybe saying ‘I’m going to use my reduced travel time by spending more time with my family.”

Harsh but true statements I’m afraid, though it’s important to recall the many benefits autonomous cars could offer as well. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication could reduce or practically eliminate traffic accidents, one of the number one killers of Americans of all ages, and it could make traffic congestion nothing more than a distant memory. Far from vaporware, even non-automotive entities like Google realize the important of autonomous cars.

The future holds a lot of promise, but just as many pitfalls. Autonomous cars could be a blessing or a curse, though that has yet to be decided. Good thing we probably have a few decades left to figure it all out.

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.