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These researchers think we’re nearing ‘peak car’ — and the consequences could be dramatic

Uber employees stand by self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid cars while test driving the vehicles, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)

On Thursday the Rocky Mountain Institute — an energy-focused think tank known for its boldness in predicting technological change — released a truly sweeping report on the future of vehicles. And if it’s right — something that, to be sure, can be questioned — then we would be on the verge of an energy and technology transformation to rival the sudden decline of the coal industry.

The institute certainly isn’t the first to suggest self-driving cars are something special. Uber and Lyft are already exploring self-driving robotaxis. Apple, Google, and Tesla are also in the game. But what’s striking is the optimism about a real technological transformation that could arrive from the merger of two vehicle trends — automation and electrification — and the idea that it could happen quite fast, with major consequences for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is possible that a new mobility system will emerge in the next few years that is superior to our existing system in almost every way,” write the study’s authors, Charlie Johnson and Jonathan Walker.

Autonomous cars won’t just be safer and more energy efficient, the study argues. Hiring one to taxi you around will also become very cheap, they argue, once these vehicles can be electrified, rather than running on gas. The upshot is that at some point, perhaps quite soon, it will make more economic sense to have a robotaxi ferry you around on all your trips than to personally own a car. At the same time, as the trend becomes widespread — with fleets of autonomous vehicles, owned by companies or cities, on the road and not running on gas — our greenhouse gas emissions will plunge, the research suggests.

By the year 2018, the study argues, “solely using autonomous taxis for transportation could cost the same as owning and operating a car.” More specifically, the researchers think that electric robotaxis might quickly rival the per-mile cost of personal car use, which they say is 85 cents per mile.

“We think as soon as Uber is ready to pull the driver out of their autonomous vehicle — right now they have a safety driver in the vehicle, but they’re testing the autonomous software,” says Walker. “As soon as they can remove that safety driver, the cost of that service is going to be about the same as owning and operating a sedan in Pittsburgh.”

And of course these vehicles will be electric because that, too, will save money — in this case, for the companies that own and operate them. The huge distances that autonomous vehicles might drive in their lifetimes will mean that even if an electric vehicle costs more than a gas vehicle to purchase, it will make up the difference over the course of its use.

Most striking is what this would do to greenhouse gas emissions. The study suggests a major decrease in gasoline demand and, as a result, a major increase in electricity demand, and a plummeting of transportation-sector greenhouse-gas emissions. Walker said the reduction could be as large as 800 million tons per year in the U.S. by 2035, a huge contribution to fighting climate change.

“Personal mobility hasn’t changed in 100 years, and it actually plausibly could in the next five to 10,” Walker said. The study also forecasts that this means that “peak car ownership in the United States will occur around 2020 and will drop quickly after that.”

The Rocky Mountain Institute isn’t the only such bullish voice. John Zimmer, the co-founder of Lyft, recently wrote at Medium that “by 2025, private car ownership will all-but end in major U.S. cities.” Meanwhile, a study last year of the adoption electrified robotic cabs found they could slash our greenhouse gas emissions, by 2030, by tremendous percentages.

But is this all too gung-ho? To find out, I queried several outside experts about the scenario.

Jeffrey Greenblatt, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who co-authored the just mentioned study on greenhouse gas reductions from electric, shared, and autonomous vehicles, said the work seemed pretty solid. “It’s clearly optimistic, but I think it’s based on reasonable assumptions of the future cost of automated technology, as well as the total cost of ownership of vehicles.,” he said.

Margo Oge, a former EPA transportation and air quality official and author of the book “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars” agreed about the Rocky Mountain Institute’s “overall findings that autonomous, shared mobility will utilize largely electric power trains as they will be cheaper to operate. It’s the most economical strategy  for autonomous shared mobility and it will help significantly reduce carbon pollution – especially as the utilization of those EVs will be much higher than the conventional powertrains they displace.”

However, the speed of the transition is another matter, Oge said, and here, the group might be off.

“In the end the overall success of autonomous mobility will be based on public trust,” she said. “It’s not just an issue of technology. Trust takes time to develop.”

It’s still not clear how people — or, for that matter, legal systems — will deal with the possibility of occasional autonomous vehicle crashes, even if they are significantly more rare than today’s car crashes. Moreover, the programming of these vehicles to deal with situations like an automotive version of the ethical “trolley dilemma” — in which a vehicle would have to “choose” whether or not to kill its driver in order to save multiple other individuals — is bound to spur controversy.

Another transportation researcher, Susan Shaheen of the University of California-Berkeley, praised the Rocky Mountain Institute work for trying to push us in thinking about what the future could be like. “I think the purpose of papers like this is to set a visionary plan,” she said. But Shaheen also noted some potential drawbacks — for instance, regulatory.

“By 2018, a question to ask is, are cities going to be ready to convert to a shared, automated, electrified fleet?” she said. “Chances are, we will not be at that point.”

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Walker admits that there could also be regulatory and cultural hurdles to such a vast transition. “Certain cities and states may make it legal, and some cities and states may not,” he said. And then, there’s just the possibility that some Americans love their cars and won’t want to give them up, he said.

And there’s yet another problem, noted Don MacKenzie, a transportation researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle — what happens outside of urban areas?

“This will not work so well when you need a ride to your cottage or the state park for the weekend, where there is no one else for the vehicle pick up after dropping you off,” he wrote by email (though MacKenzie agreed with other aspects of the report). “In such conditions, an important question becomes whether people will be willing to give up owning a personal vehicle. If they still have that personal vehicle, there’s a good chance they will continue to drive it (and drive it more).”

Nonetheless, Walker said that the bullish scenario is something the group is standing by.

“There’s people who say the technology’s not going to be ready, but they’re quoting things like 5 or 10 years, when a year ago, they were quoting 30 years,” Walker said.

Read more at Energy & Environment:

Think California’s current drought is bad? Past incarnations have lasted hundreds of years

Scientists may have solved a key riddle about Antarctica — and you’re not going to like the answer

What the ‘sixth extinction’ will look like in the oceans: The largest species die off first

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