Electric and Autonomous Cars Are Not A Panacea

google car

Next week is National Drive Electric Week 2015.

On a fairly regular basis I hear a comment that autonomous and electric vehicles will solve a multitude of our worst transportation problems. Well, each will solve some problems. And create others. They’re far from a panacea, though.

The personal benefits of Battery Electric Vehicles, BEV’s, are certainly numerous. They’re quieter and smoother to drive, they charge at home so you always wake up to a full tank and never have to go to a gas station, and likely have much lower long-term operating and maintenance costs. On the other hand, finding a place to charge away from home can still be a problem, many have limited range, and there’s limited selection of models. These are all changing quickly, though.

I am a huge fan of electric and autonomous cars and doubt that I’ll ever purchase another car that requires gas. Even so, they don’t fully solve any problems though they do make a few a bit less severe.

BEV’s – The Good

PollutionDepending on your power source there is some pollution created in the generation of electricity, but this is less per mile driven than individual cars and it is not being spewed forth in places we spend most of our time. Hopefully over time this will get better. There is also ground and water pollution from oil and other excrements from ICE (internal combustion engine) cars avoided with BEV’s.

Oil Consumption – For a long list of reasons from environmental to geo-political, I am not a fan of burning fossil fuels. BEV’s help reduce this considerably.

Noise? – Electric cars are a bit quieter than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, at least below about 30 mph. Above this, tire noise (and thumping bass) is the bigger factor for most cars.

Gas Stations – Gas stations are not appealing. I think that within the next three years we’ll begin to see a noticeable decline in their number due to an increase in BEV’s and people driving less.

Autonomous Vehicles – The Good

Safer – Self driving autonomous vehicles (AV’s) should be considerably safer for those riding in them and those around them. How much safer and how soon we’ll see; this is still a big question mark.

More Efficient Space – AV’s should be able to utilize driving space more efficiently by driving closer together, not having as much congestion causing start-stop elasticity problems, and better lane discipline (EG, left for passing, right for cruising).

More Efficient Delivery – Delivery trucks are a major problem especially when they block lanes to load and unload. Autonomous driven (and electric) vehicles should allow companies to utilize a fleet of many more, but much smaller, vehicles that should result in many fewer problems.

Have we got it upside down with subways? We shove people down in to grungy rat mazes while goods are in the fresh air and sunlight. What if instead goods were delivered through a network of tunnels using autonomous electric vehicles. http://subwaynut.com/ind/hoyt_schermerhorna/index.php

Have we got it upside down with subways? We shove people down in to grungy hot stale-air rat mazes (with numerous actual resident rats) while boxes are in the fresh air and sunlight. What if instead goods were delivered through a network of tunnels using autonomous electric vehicles and the people were in the sunlight? Photo: Jeremiah Cox

More Efficient Fuel Consumption – Autonomous driving can be much more fuel-efficient for ICE and EV’s than human drivers can achieve.

Other – They will also free us of the chore of driving and let us work, eat, read, do makeup, fix our hair, play a game, talk on the phone, or text while going somewhere. Yep, I know.

Problems They Won’t Solve

Space – BEV’s require as much paved space to drive and park as ICE vehicles. Autonomous cars will allow somewhat more efficient use of space but likely only about a 10% reduction at most. This is better, but is it good enough? Some claim that we’ll be able to have narrower lanes but this I think is based on our overly wide and dangerously designed driving lanes in the U.S. It is possible and even safer for human driven cars to use much narrower lanes than we use today.

Safety – BEV’s are just as dangerous as ICE. No benefit for the 30,000 people drivers killed every year in the U.S. AV’s should help, but that help is some way out. Over half a million people will likely be killed in the U.S. by errant drivers while we wait on autonomous cars to fix our poor driving and poorly designed roads.

Sharing With Bicycles – Some, including many advocates of bicycle driving, claim that once we have autonomous cars that we’ll no longer need segregated bikeways because autonomous cars will make it safe and efficient for everyone to share. So, they suggest there’s no need to build infrastructure today that we’ll not need in fifteen years.

Autonomous vehicles will I think eventually make sharing much safer. One big question is how much safer? And whether or not sharing the road will ever be as safe as segregated facilities?

A problem AV’s will not solve, and this is a big one, is that people in cars capable of going whatever speed they want don’t want to be stuck behind someone riding a bicycle at 11 mph. This is a problem today, even with our piddly few people riding bicycles. What if we had three times as many people riding bicycles? Or achieved the rate of Europe and had 15 times as many?

Neither electric nor autonomous control will allow you to safely pass thru a bicycle rider.

Neither electric nor autonomous control will allow you to safely pass thru a bicycle rider.

Imagine how well electric and autonomous cars will be able to move once a lot of people begin riding bicycles.

Imagine how well electric and autonomous cars will be able to move once a few more people begin riding bicycles.

Worse, though, is what this does to road efficiency. If all of our autonomous electric cars have to slow to the 11 mph pace of bicycle riders we’ll have all congestion all day. Of course this might reduce how much people drive. Nah.

Fuel Consumption – BEV’s, while much better than ICE, will still use considerable amounts of energy.

Non-Renewable Resources – The batteries for BEV’s will likely continue to consume huge amounts of various elements in their manufacture (and tires, etc). There are efforts underway to create batteries from renewables but most experts put practical use out at least another couple of decades.

Pollution – Energy generation, disposal of batteries, tires, etc.

City Financial Problems – Cities depend on revenue from misbehaving motorists. Will AV’s interrupt this cash flow? (Thanks Nate.)

Walking And Bicycling Will Still Be Important

BEV’s and AV’s will certainly provide some great benefits but will in no way change our need for better, safer, and more comfortable walking and bicycling infrastructure.

Health – We have a major health problem with our high number of overweight, obese, and inactive people in the U.S. and the associated costs. Someone who lives a moderately healthy lifestyle costs about $3,600 per year for healthcare over their lifetime, but someone who is overweight costs about $11,000. Someone who is obese averages about $16,000 per year over their lifetime.[1]  We can’t afford this. Active transportation, and bicycling in particular, are likely critical to changing this. Sitting in an electric car while it drives us to dinner won’t improve our health any.

Comfort – A street with fewer and slower cars and less noise, compliments of some people choosing walk or ride bicycles instead of drive, is a more pleasant and comfortable place to be, sit, shop and eat. Imagine Grand Ave in St Paul or Nicollet or Central in Minneapolis with 1/3 as many cars.

Enjoyment – Riding and walking is enjoyable. We do it when we’re on vacation and sometimes on weekends. We should be able to ride to dinner, the grocery, or school every day without having to worry about imminent death.

Money – Riding a bicycle to lunch is still much less expensive than driving a car, even if that car uses electricity instead of gas.

Long list of other reasons walking and bicycling will continue to matter: Local Mile | Why Bicycle

While I heartily endorse our switching to electric and autonomous vehicles, they are far from a panacea and we can’t drop the ball on other initiatives like protected bikeway networks, traffic calming, and better (and more dense?) land use policies.

For more on autonomous and congestion here’s a great post from Monte.


Drive Electric Week Events:


Ride and Drive at the Mall of America: Saturday, September 12th, 2015. 11 am – 4 pm  RSVP at https://driveelectric.eventbrite.com

Electric Vehicle Display at the Minnesota Twins Game: Wednesday, September 16th, 4 – 7 pm; More detail to come!

Smart and Fast: Cars remaking the world of the electric company: Thursday September 17th, 7 – 9 am

Electric Vehicle Display at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market: Sunday, September 20th, 8 am – 1 pm


[1] Per year over each person’s life and using current 2015 dollars.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

33 thoughts on “Electric and Autonomous Cars Are Not A Panacea

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    I’m not sure I’d put the fines in the “problem they won’t solve” category. Cities shouldn’t be relying on that as a revenue source in the first place, and flat out removing the source of a very inequitable enforcement system seems like a net total win to me.

    The rest is a pretty good rundown. I want to be an optimist. I’m skeptical AVs will make building more urban places with better transit/walk/bike infra politically easier. Arguments for free, plentiful on-street parking, free flow of traffic, and against user fees will slightly shift to free flowing traffic by cannibalizing parking lanes for more thru-lanes, no user fees, and ensuring AVs have a place to drive or park somewhere else while they wait. And EVs take away much of the environmental (climate and local pollution) arguments against single occupancy vehicles – which is great! – removing an under-priced externality from the bucket of reasons to design places differently.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      The city finances was a bit tongue in cheek as was the comment that AV’s would free us to talk and text while we drive. I perhaps should have added a smiley.

      I want to be an optimist but I’m with you.

  2. James WardenJames Warden

    This statement is extremely optimistic:

    “I think that within the next three years we’ll begin to see a noticeable decline in their number due to an increase in BEV’s and people driving less.”

    There were about 119,710 plug-in vehicles sold in the United States in 2014, a year in which there were 16.5 million total vehicle sales. The 2014 BEV total was a 23 percent increase over 2013, but that same year there were 1 million more vehicles sold total compared to the year before. So even with the growth in electrics, we’re seeing more ICE cars drive onto the road than BEVs. For the latest year, BEVs were only about 0.7 percent of total sales.

    To compound the issue, the average age of vehicles on the road right now is 11.4 years. Admittedly, that’s high for the past decade. It was in the 8-year range in the mid-1990s. But even if you figure there’s some room for that number to come down, you’re still looking at 8-10 years for vehicles to be replaced. When you have a replacement rate like that, it’s going to take some time for BEV share to become significant even when they do start to make inroads in annual new-car sales. I think we’ve got quite a bit of time before gas stations really start struggling en masse, although I’m sure the writing is on the wall in the long term.


    1. Monte Castleman

      I don’t think we’re going to see a reduction in the average age of vehicles unless electric cars become so practical that there’s incentive to discard gasoline cars before they’re ready. Gasoline cars really have gotten better since the 1980s. My family bought a Dodge Colt in 1980 that lasted 80,000 miles before trading in. In 1992 They bought a Dodge Colt that lasted 250,000 miles before being totaled in a crash. The short average age of cars in the 1990s was still the poorly built ones of the previous decade not being retired yet.

      I was talking to a Tesla owner at the state fair. He believes that very soon, battery technology is going to be good and cheap enough to be the primary car for most people. And agreed that the Volt would have been more of a success if they had made the styling wild like a Prius, I guess so everyone can notice the fact that you’re driving a hybrid. But that the complexity of the Volt will be unnecessary as batteries will get better.

      And people are only driving less in per capita terms, not in total terms, which is what’s important to sustaining gasoline stations. There was a stink a while ago when our neighborhood grocery store was booted out so the landlord sell the land to someone to build a gasoline station. Everyone said they would never shop there, but there’s only two stations in the neighborhood, and judging at how busy it that was just talk.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        There are a lot fewer gas station in the city (and in other cities) than there used to be. A drive down any of the main thoroughfares will include passing a lot of former gas station sites. Maybe that’s driven by oil company consolidation?

        1. Monte Castleman

          I think it’s more so that the economics don’t work for small stations anymore. There’s not much profit in selling gasoline, so they have to sell an awful of it, and/or have bigger stores that will lure people in away from pay at the pump. I imagine the profits on Kwik-Trips’s coffee are huge. Now if they could only have coffee dispensers at the pumps…

        2. James WardenJames Warden

          The National Association of Convenience Stores estimates that the number of convenience stores selling fuel actually increased by 0.7 percent from 2013 to 2014. That’s well below the 1990s peak, though. Its hard to credit BEVs with anything prior to a year or two ago. Maybe Monte’s right and it’s consolidation? Maybe the economy hit them hard?

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Oh, it’s definitely not BEVs that’s driving the decline from the peak of decades past.

            I think Monte’s right about the business model changing. That’s probably the main driver.

      2. Nathanael

        For what it’s worth, I expect electric cars to last *longer* than gasoline cars. At least until the “planned obsolescence” guys get their hands on them.

        It will take a while for the fleet to turn over to electric. But I think the longer life of electric cars will help with that.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Well, I can certainly be an optimist. And on some days a pessimist. Today I’m an optimist (I’m reading David and Kevin’s book).

      2017 will be a big year for introductions of new BEV’s. Today we (the U.S.) really only have three viable options; Leaf, i3, and Model S. In 2017 there will be at least 14 viable BEV’s on the market in the U.S. with several at lower price points and offering quite good value.

      I think BEV’s have only really garnered mindshare this year. Prior to this it was mostly enthusiasts who were very aware of them and shopped for them. I think that by 2017 many more people will be shopping explicitly for BEV’s and others will be open to them as an alternative.

      Charging options have grown dramatically this past year and will continue to grow over the coming years. This along with knowing friends who have BEV’s and seeing more and more on the street will significantly reduce range anxiety as a barrier.

      Except for trucks and SUV’s I think it will quickly become difficult to justify the costs of a ICE vs BEV.

      It’s already getting tough for gas stations. I think the next year or two will be OK for them as people drive a bit more but 2017 will likely see fuel consumption begin to decline dramatically.

      1. James WardenJames Warden

        I could definitely see 2017 being the year we look back on as the point at which things started to move toward BEVs. But the math of car works against a fast change. There are 253 million cars on the road. Last year, there were just 16.5 million new cars sold, which was the highest number since we had a record in 2006. So even if we have another near-record year (which some analysts doubt) you’re still looking at new car sales making up only 6.5 percent of the total cars on the road. That doesn’t offer a lot of room for change and effectively means trends of today are determined by car sales of 8-11 years ago. The number of BEV sales could double, triple or even quadruple and still not alter that trajectory all that much — remember, we’re talking a market share of 0.7 percent in 2014.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          We’ll see. I think that the transition of new car sales will happen quickly. Somewhat similar to the change from CRT to Flat Panel. The benefits of BEV’s are just too compelling. In 2018 it may become difficult to sell a new ICE car except at the very bottom of the market and many of those folks might choose to hold out a year or two rather than buy antique technology.

          But yeah, I’m not sure how quickly BEV’s will drive out existing cars that people (or their banks) already own. Maybe I’ll change my three year prediction for the beginning of the decline to ‘three to five years’.

        2. Nathanael

          In 2017 I’m only expecting total electric car production to be in the1 million range. It’ll take a while to ramp up to replacing all cars.

  3. Rosa

    I think if self-driving cars actually are safer for pedestrians and cyclists, their behavior will so enrage passengers (WHY ARE WE GOING 11 MPH BEHIND THAT BIKE INSTEAD OF BUZZING BY THEM? WHY ARE WE WAITING FOR THAT TRAFFIC LIGHT? WHY DID YOU YIELD TO THAT OTHER CAR?) that the folks who can afford them will stick with driving themselves or taking a taxi.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I really don’t think not being able to run red lights is going to make people avoid self-driving cars. The vast majority of them already choose not to in “manual” cars.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Or let me rephrase: stopping at a yellow light is almost unheard of. Many/most of these decisions not to stop result in running a read light.

        An autonomous car would presumable stop when it can’t make the yellow. The “driver” might find this frustrating.

        1. Monte Castleman

          It’s only frustrating if you’re driving. If you’re in a self-driving car you’re probably working on your laptop or taking a nap so you won’t even notice. Despite the cute Google car that everyone shows pictures of, the complete lack of interest in “manual” city cars makes me think that the form-factor for self driving cars is not going to shrink, and quite possibly might even get bigger to focus on comfort. With them facilitating longer commutes, the ability to put someplace other than a garage or parking ramp, and no intimidation about driving a huge vehicle (which will be a lot cheaper with electricity) we might even see RV-like amenities like small beds and lavatories start to appear in higher end self-driving cars.

          1. Rosa

            don’t you think the people with that kind of patience are already taking the bus?

            The idea of commutes so long they require beds and lavs is pretty dystopian, actually. (and currently a very small RV – the minivan-sized ones that are increasingly popular – runs $40K-$80K, without any self-driving capability)

            1. Monte Castleman

              Except for the ones that refuse to ride buses. Or live where buses aren’t even a option.

              I agree that right now an 40K-80K or so RV doesn’t make sense. But right now a very nice, loaded car like a Jeep Grand Cherokee is actually in the 40K range. If in the future you can save 100K or more on a house by living outside of the MUSA line, like in St. Cloud, that would change things.

      2. Rosa

        only the first two or three after the light changes, plus one that was turning left. So everyone who assumes they won’t get run over for it.

        Can you IMAGINE trying to make a left turn where there’s no left turn arrow, on a busy street, in a car that stayed behind the crosswalk til there was a clear shot to turn? Try it on any non-one-way downtown street during the day.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I’m not sure what the issue is with left turns. Pulling into the intersection to wait for a left turn while the light is green, which may only be possible once oncoming traffic has been stopped by the red, is perfectly legal, and is in fact recommended by the Minnesota Driver’s Manual. It’s only illegal to enter the intersection once the light is red, not be caught there. That’s what the point of the two second all-red interval is, to give traffic caught in the intersection a chance to clear

          1. Rosa

            I had no idea it was legal! It’s certainly routine.

            If that’s legal i have no idea why Idaho stops aren’t, then. They’re just as routine and just as safe.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      While that’s a factor, I don’t think it’s the primary one, but I do think we should be skeptical of universal choice to give up autonomy. If it’s actually safer, we may need policy to encourage/enforce it.

      1. Monte Castleman

        There’s still people that prefer “manual” cars in the sense that you have to shift gears, and frankly driving is fun to a point (but gets old fast on a 1 hour commute). My father hates automatics, I learned on a manual, but when it was time to buy my own car I got an auto. What I can see happening is first, self-driving car only lanes, and then finally a ban on “manual” cars in the cities. You see people driving old Model Ts around the country roads, but not on I-35W. As time goes on we’ll probably even remove infrastructure from the freeways like highway signs and lighting that will not be needed if they become self-driving car only routes.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I have a manual transmission, because driving is fun. Commuting by car is not fun.

          The politics will get interesting if we start banning non-autonomous cars, I think. But if we’re going to get all the alleged benefits of self-driving cars, we will need to.

        2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          I think you’re right on how it will happen. Timing will be interesting. Today’s tech needs really good painted lines to function well and gets confused in rain. No idea how they’ll get around the snow covered lines problem.

          Might the government release restrictions on using highly accurate GPS? This could allow functioning on all streets not just those with really good lines.

          I’d guess 10-15 years before all new cars have viable AV functionality. Maybe 5 or 10 years after that it will be politically feasible to limit some express lanes (curb separated to keep old tech cars from causing problems). Maybe 15-20 years for enough older cars to be removed from service that you can politically say that most motorways or even all are limited to AV only?

  4. Brendan Jordan

    Walker – many thanks for posting this! We are looking forward to a great event tomorrow, with a great display of vehicles in the Mall of America Rotunda, and a great Ride-and-Drive event in the East Parking Lot. If you plan to attend – register if you want to receive email updates (its a FREE event), or check the website for updates.

    I agree that EVs are not a panacea, but would argue that urbanist strategies are not either! If we’re really serious about deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, we need more than one strategy. We can, as a society, encourage more walking, more biking, more transit, and more dense and walkable neighborhoods. We can see the current trend in VMT reduction continue and accelerate.

    What certainly won’t happen, barring some Kunsler-esqe cataclysm, is the total elimination of cars. And avoiding some very bad outcomes for the climate requires very nearly total elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation – more reduction that we can get from “urbanist” strategies alone. We need to assume that we’re still going to have vehicles and figure out how to reduce their emissions. And electric vehicles are one of our best shots at a very low carbon vehicle strategy – particularly as our electric grid continues to get cleaner with more integration of wind and solar power.

    I’m advocating a “both-and” strategy. I celebrate all the great efforts to make our cities more walkable, bikeable, and transit friendly. This is good for the climate, and great for quality of life. But let’s also cut the greenhouse gas emissions from the many car trips we will inevitably have with us.

    There are a lot of other interesting areas of alignment between the EV and “urbanist” strategies, but that’s a post for another time…

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Brendan, I completely agree. I’ve written here and elsewhere numerous times that cars and driving are not evil, only perhaps the over-use of cars when there are better alternatives that we should be exploring. Walking is great for maybe a 1/2 mile, bicycles for 2 – 5 miles, and transit for any distance. Likewise, cars (owned, carshared, or ??) are great for trips longer than 2-5 miles or for trips requiring more hauling capacity.

      For More: https://streets.mn/2014/03/11/garage-logic/

      1. Nathanael

        I’d add one other thing: Cars are great for diffuse trips (where everyone is going in different directions), but terrible for concentrated trips (such as a million people flooding into a factory or a downtown office building at 9AM).

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