Tomorrow’s Uber: Robot Taxis That Fight Climate Change

A new study finds that self-driving electric cabs would slash greenhouse gas emissions.
Jul 7, 2015·
Anna Hess is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is a reporter for the University of Pennsylvania’s daily newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and mentors students in West Philadelphia public schools.

Self-driving cars aren’t just cool—they could help cool the planet.

Driverless electric taxi prototypes in the works today would reduce per-mile emissions of greenhouse gases and be cost-effective, according to a study released Monday by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

So, Why Should You Care? Researchers determined that per-mile greenhouse gas emissions of an autonomous electric taxi in 2030 would be 63 to 82 percent lower than those of a hybrid car on the road that year. A self-driving taxi’s emissions would be 90 percent less than a 2014 gasoline-powered vehicle. Transportation accounted for 27 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 and nearly 40 percent of California’s. Those emissions are not only accelerating climate change but emitting pollutants that are harmful to human health.

The Berkeley Lab researchers attributed half the emissions savings to matching the size of the taxi to the number of passengers on any given trip.

"Most trips in the U.S. are taken singly, meaning one- or two-seat cars would satisfy most trips," Jeffery Greenblatt, a study coauthor and a lab scientist, said in a statement. “That gives us a factor of two savings, since smaller vehicles means reduced energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

RELATED: Google’s Self-Driving Pod Cars Hit the Road

The researchers estimated that while privately owned electric cars will still be more expensive in 2030 than gasoline cars, taxis would be more cost-effective. If driven 40,000 to 70,000 miles per year—the typical mileage of a U.S. taxi—the electric vehicle would be cheaper because its lower cost per mile would make up for the higher purchase price.

Google last month started testing its self-driving, battery-powered “pod cars” on the streets of Silicon Valley, and its autonomous Lexus SUVs have logged more than 1 million miles. Tesla also plans to make self-driving versions of its luxury Model S electric sports sedan, and Uber is working with Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University to develop self-driving technology and improve mapping and safety capabilities.

“In the future there’s the expectation that autonomy will get to the point that cars can drive themselves, which is way, way down the road,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said in an interview with Re/code. “What we’re really excited about ultimately is transportation as a service decongesting cities and greening cities.”