Autonomous vehicles and electric propulsion systems are said to offer myriad benefits, chief among them greater efficiency and reduced emissions. Now, however, one study has found that electric robotaxis may in fact lead to an overall increase in emissions.
According to a recent report from Automotive News, which cites a study conducted by researchers from Harvard and MIT published in Environmental Research Letters, the low costs of using electric robotaxis may entice travelers to go on trips they would otherwise not take, as well as take trips alone rather than pool rides with other travelers. As such, these two factors may in fact result in a rise in overall emissions, even though vehicles equipped with electric powertrains are in fact cleaner than equivalent vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines.
Of course, the issue over emissions and transportation solutions is hugely complex, with numerous factors to consider. According to Elizabeth Irvin, who serves as senior transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, electric robotaxis could indeed become part of the solution to reduce emissions when integrated into a renewable, zero-emission electricity grid, with widespread ride pooling, and deployed in conjunction with accessible and reliable mass transit. However, that involves quite a few caveats that may or may not come to fruition.
Indeed, commuters in the U.S. are by and large against pooling rides via ride-share services, with concerns over privacy, security, and extended ride times. That aversion may actually increase with the widespread adoption of electric robotaxis, according to a report from the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.
What’s more, the Harvard and MIT research finds that inexpensive electric robotaxis may also diminish the ridership base for mass transit, thus impacting emissions even further.
Of course, there are further wrinkles worth pointing out. The Harvard and MIT case study is based in San Francisco, which has a higher adoption rate for hybrid and electric vehicles, thus setting the bar higher for emissions improvements as compared to a less green city. Additionally, the electricity source used to charge the electric vehicles is a major determining factor in how green they actually are.
General Motors debuted its own electric robotaxi, Cruise Origin, in January of 2020. GM began manufacturing the first batch of pre-production Cruise Origin AVs in June. The automaker also recently announced that it was increase EV and AV investment to $35 billion by 2025.