MIT Study: Self-Driving Cars Could Drive Up Carbon Emissions


A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the computers that power autonomous cars could become a significant source of carbon emissions if widely adopted.

For years, Michigan taxpayers have subsidized research on autonomous cars, which aim to drive themselves using a series of sensors and advanced technology.

The goal of autonomous vehicles is to reduce traffic deaths and relieve humans of manual driving. In 2021, the most recent data available, there were 282,640 crashes in Michigan. Of those crashes, 1,068 were fatal, according to crash data from the Michigan State Police.

The study said 1 billion autonomous vehicles, each driving for one hour daily with a computer consuming 840 watts, would consume enough energy to generate about the same amount of emissions as data centers.

Data centers housing computer infrastructure currently account for about 0.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, or about the annual carbon emissions of the country of Argentina, according to the International Energy Agency.

“We are hoping that people will think of emissions and carbon efficiency as important metrics to consider in their designs," study co-advisor Vivienne Sze said in a statement. Sze is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. "The energy consumption of an autonomous vehicle is really critical, not just for extending the battery life, but also for sustainability."

Michigan has spent millions investing in self-driving vehicles and industry 4.0, according to a Michigan Economic Development Corp. report. One of the core objectives of the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, a part of the development corporation, is to “further develop systems and for deploying autonomous and shared transportation.”

The development corporation hasn’t responded to a request from The Center Square for comment about the study. The Office of Future Mobility and Electrification is also tasked with accelerating EV adoption, the goal of which is to reduce carbon emissions from transportation.

Michigan is developing a 40-mile corridor for connected and autonomous vehicles between downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor that allows for a mix of connected and autonomous vehicles, traditional transit vehicles, shared mobility and freight and personal vehicles.

Michigan and other partners have invested in autonomous vehicles since 2013, according to a 2017 Department of Transportation report. A 2022 report from The Citizen’s Research Council of Michigan recommends state transportation planners should “refocus efforts on proven solutions to today’s problems.”

“Michigan cannot be a leader in automotive by chasing transient technology trends,” the Citizen’s Research Council report said. “The industry appreciates that Michigan officials are interested and engaged in the development of new technologies, but there should be more reflection and less reflex when investing public resources. Such efforts distract from finding real solutions to real problems that exist today.”

A 2021 Department of Transportation study said out of 49 state transportation departments reviewed, 27 states were involved in connected autonomous vehicle activities while 22 states were not.

Michigan is partnering with Cavnue on its CAV corridor, The Center Square reported in 2020. Cavnue didn’t provide a comment to The Center Square about the MIT study by time of publishing.

“There is no denying, the future of vehicles is connected and automated,” Tyler Duvall, co-founder and CEO of Cavnue, said in an Michigan Economic Development Corp. article deeming the company a "success story." “A network of CAV corridors powered by an integrated hardware, software and advanced roadway operation solution can ensure that the future is safe and efficient. Coupled with the industry leading center of excellence in automotive that calls Michigan home, it only makes sense to begin here and grow a network of CAV corridors across the rest of the country.”

The National Science Foundation and the MIT-Accenture Fellowship partly funded the research.

We thank The Center Square for reprint permission.

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