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