Will robo-driving lead to fewer or more emissions from land-based transport?

Today there’s automobility. What’s next (on the land-transportation-operations horizon), full autonomobility, that is, driverless control? On the surface, that notion sounds quite oxymoronic. At any rate, we’ll just have to wait and see.

When the Hawaii Area Rapid Transit’s HART light rail system comes online, that time projected to be a little more than a year from now, as a city-centered, rail-propped, fully autonomous, mass transit network, it will be, as reported by Dan Zukowski, a Trains news correspondent, America’s first.

The HART system is being built as a so-called relief valve for area motorists – many of whom find themselves jockeying for position with car commuters on the island’s main thoroughfare, many of the latter with hours-long commutes – the group the transit agency is targeting to make the switch from motor-vehicle driving to a light-rail ride, one that operationally-speaking will be completely hands-free.

It isn’t that the electric trains will be emissions-free. It’s also that once the service is up and running, area emissions from the transportation sector will purportedly be less, thus leading to cleaner air. That portends to be one of the benefits that such a light-rail operation can offer.

Hydrogen-fueled train

Could that be characteristic of motor vehicle operation, specifically, and the land-based transportation-operation platform, in general? I see no reason why not.

Now thinking about the future of land-based travel and transportation long-term, and what this is likely to consist of, look like, entail, autonomous motor vehicle operation, meaning a complete or comprehensive driverless motor vehicle operating platform, it appears that this is the direction the realm is headed, at least in the U.S. Disclosure: It could take decades before getting there, that is, assuming it all works out.

In that it does, how will operations stack up emissions-reduction-wise compared to today’s driver-operated motor vehicle platform?

Getting back to railroad operations especially where trains are either diesel-locomotive pulled or pushed, in today’s operating environment, locomotive engineers (those whose jobs it is to drive trains) more often than not, I suspect, are (no pun intended) trained to “drive” these mobile devices in the most efficient manner possible to reduce fuel use (conserve fuel), expedite schedules, minimize wear-and-tear on rail infrastructure and equipment, save money and, by extension, improve locomotive and train performance so as to be of benefit to the air through reduced emissions and perhaps through extended locomotive and locomotive-parts life. If this all sounds like a win-win-win, it is.

Now imagine in the case of HART and other similar services, if, with driverless techno-capability, even greater efficiencies result.

And, also imagine with such a protocol being carried over to the autonomous motor-vehicle-operations world (which includes goods-moving and commercial on-road equipment) it is more of the same. Think of the potential for emissions savings, air relief! I surely do.

Monorail train, Las Vegas, Nevada

All of this is especially important considering transportation and land-based transportation in particular, that this sector’s connected emissions are growing, not the other way around, even with advancements in engine fuel efficiency and other aspects being what they are.

Could emissions in a world where driverless operation is king, worsen? Absolutely. That’s the other side of this same coin, the other wheel at the opposite end of the same axle, if you will, the main discourse related to today’s post. The long and short of it: Of course, they could.

What if the bulk of robocars are powered using internal combustion, gas-driven engines, and the number of traveled vehicle miles experiences even further increases? What if ride-hailing services become much more popular than they are currently and because of this, transit operations take a hit on account of such and become less heavily patronized?

Under such scenarios, emissions from the land-transportation sector, instead of going in reverse, in other words, becoming less of an issue, become even more pronounced. If this sounds like a lose-lose-lose proposition, it is.

Autonomous vehicle operation could very well one day be in full swing, meaning across the board where land-based transportation is concerned.

If it is, hopefully, it is with the greatest efficiencies coupled with the greatest air-quality-improvement gains fully realized. This would be a best-of-both-worlds situation, made that much more promising if driving-related accidents and fatalities were once and for all time rendered null and void.

That would certainly be something, would it not?!

Images: Vivarail (upper); Clean Energy Canada (lower)

– Alan Kandel