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How will self-driving vehicles affect the environment?

Autonomous vehicles are on track to change logistics forever. Some believe that might be a good thing for the environment.

On-the-road vehicles are one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gases and pollution today.

While many manufacturers do not own and manage their own fleets, they can and should still be concerned with the environmental impact of their shipments and deliveries. As such, they are showing legitimate interest in the emergence of self-driving vehicles in the shipping supply chain and how these autonomous means of transportation can affect costs, timeliness and environmental impact.

Many believe that self-driving vehicles will lead to lower costs, faster and more reliable delivery, and lower pollution. These new efficiencies are expected to grow as the technology is introduced in a limited way, and then as it takes more control as it matures and new equipment takes over the roadways. Let's look at the likely evolution path.

The first self-driving tractor-trailer rigs will hit the roadways very soon -- likely in 2018. These first rigs will still have human drivers as a safety measure to take over the controls in congested areas where there is still some doubt about the reliability of self-driving technology, such as in areas with pedestrians and unreliable human-driven vehicles that don't always obey traffic rules or act predictably. The open road portion of the trip will likely be more efficient, reducing fuel consumption and the associated pollution.

More efficiency, less pollution and faster, more reliable delivery are the expected benefits of these self-driving vehicles.

As the technology matures and proves itself in use, driver rules will likely be relaxed, enabling vehicles to operate longer between mandatory rest cycles for the human monitors -- they won't really be drivers at this stage. More efficiency, less pollution and faster, more reliable delivery are the expected benefits of these self-driving vehicles.

driverless trucks

As the final stage of development, delivery vehicles are predicted to become truly autonomous. At this point, vehicles will no longer need the seating and sleeping accommodations and the controls for the human driver, so the cab will be smaller and lighter, which, in turn, can enable more savings and less pollution. These advanced autonomous vehicles may also run on electricity, since this technology is evolving in parallel with the control systems. Electric vehicles emit far less pollution than gas or diesel vehicles.

More efficient routes and more efficient driving should reduce emissions substantially, even before electric vehicles become common. 

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This was last published in November 2017

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