Do self-driving cars have more 'green' potential than plugins?

Self-driving or electric? One researcher contends that green-car advocates should support connected cars that are increasingly intelligent, leading toward partly and fully automated driving.

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File
A man looks at a Twizy, the Renault electric city car, during a presentation of the Wattmobile, a new self-drive Autolib-style electric car service at Gare de l'Est train station in Paris. A new study contends that green-car advocates should support connected cars that are increasingly intelligent, leading toward partly and fully automated driving.

What technologies will have the most impact on making cars greener and transportation more sustainable--and provide that impact fastest?

Suppose that the key isn't plug-in electric cars, but in fact connecting cars to each other and to the infrastructure around them--making traffic flow vastly more efficiently?

That's the controversial thesis put forward by John DeCicco in a recent post on the University of Michigan's sustainability blog, perplexingly titled "Of Carts and Horses, Cars and Smarts."

He also made the same argument, in a rather more measured way, in an analysis published last year by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

DeCicco, now a research professor at the University of Michigan's Energy Institute, was previously a senior fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund, so his views should carry some weight.

He contends that green-car advocates should support connected cars that are increasingly intelligent, leading toward partly and fully automated driving.

"Those concerned about climate and other environmental impacts," DeCicco writes, "should redirect their enthusiasm to accelerating the adoption of connected and automated transportation systems."

"A careful look at the many considerations involved," he says, "suggests that environmentally led efforts to jump-start the market for electric cars amount to putting the cart before the horse."

DeCicco notes that the auto industry itself is vastly more captivated by automating increasing parts of the driving function than by vehicle electrification (with the notable exception, we should add, of Nissan, General Motors, and Tesla).

 And he makes an interesting parallel: Intelligent cars would simply replace the intelligence lost when the car--a mute, unaware, mechanical device--replaced the horse a century ago.

Remember the stories you may have heard from aged relatives about how their dad could rely on the horse to know its way home even if he fell asleep at the reins?

Perhaps the most important point is that consumers will perceive value--and be willing to pay for it--in cars that can park themselves, drive themselves, offer limited "autopilot" abilities, and so forth.

Thus far, it's not clear that the mass market will pay significantly more to buy electric cars in volume, in part because their lower running costs are not particularly apparent at the time of purchase.

We're not convinced that DeCicco is right when he says that advocates and industry may have to choose one or the other--automation or electrification.

But advocates of sustainable transportation and greener vehicles should consider the benefits of automation--and how they may play into a future where vehicles are much smarter than today, as well as more electrified.

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