Vehicle Automation is cool but will it save energy? We talk to an expert

(ACEEE blog, 26 Mar 2019) We’re in a new era of rapid advances in vehicle technologies. Safety, mobility, and convenience benefits are spurring the development, for example, of connected and autonomated vehicles or CAVs. Sure, the cars of the future sound cool, but what will they mean for our energy use, infrastructure, and transportation policy?

To answer this question, ACEEE is holding its first CAV forum —a day-long event in Washington, DC, on the energy impacts of vehicle automation. We caught up with one of the speakers, Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit that provides research to help manufacturers and municipalities plan for the future. We asked her about the opportunities and challenges of widespread CAV adoption. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

How might vehicle connectivity affect fuel efficiency, whether directly or indirectly?

There will be a direct effect. When the vehicles can communicate with infrastructure to find out where traffic jams are and how to avoid them, they don’t idle in traffic. When they communicate with smart traffic signals, they can learn how long the light will be and essentially tell a driver, ‘you’re not going to make that green light, you might as well just take your foot off the gas now and just coast.’ That will help a lot. 

When vehicles communicate among each other, they can decrease following distance and lane width, which should enable a greater throughput. This means fewer bottlenecks, less idling time, and a shorter commute, which is both more efficient and better for the environment. Of course, fuel economy, CO2, and GHG emissions are pieces of this too—and when it all goes together you begin to see some remarkable changes that will add up.

Let’s talk timing—how long until we see fully autonomous vehicles?

That’s a loaded question! We will see “level four” vehicles by the early 2020s. Level four vehicles have the technology to drive themselves, but are in a geo-fenced area, which is an area or very specific route that only autonomous vehicles are allowed to drive in. This reduces interaction with others on open roadways.

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ACEEE blog, 26 Mar 2019: Vehicle Automation is cool but will it save energy? We talk to an expert