Self-driving cars are the future. But exactly what that future will look like is still to be determined.

What is more certain is that California will play an outsize role in shaping our transportation future. Our state is at the epicenter of automated driving technology development. It is also a pioneer in tackling climate change at the gas pump, through our Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the Zero-Emission Vehicle program. California is ideally positioned to show the world how a driverless transportation future could help clean the air and cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Without this kind of leadership, driverless vehicles could end up doing a lot of environmental damage.

The 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative at the Institute of Transportation Studies of the University of California Davis recently released a policy brief on Keeping Vehicle Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Check in a Driverless Vehicle World. It highlights the actions policymakers can take to ensure the automated vehicle revolution goes easy on the Earth. 

The 3 Revolutions policy brief focuses on two measures of potential trouble: vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If everyone simply switches from traditional cars to driverless vehicles, both VMT and GHG can be expected to rise. That’s because driverless cars are expected to make travel cheaper and dramatically more convenient: among other predicted impacts of AVs, people will no longer feel stuck behind the wheel, but will be able to spend travel time working, resting, or entertaining themselves with screens or hobbies instead. They might even decide to live further away from their jobs, where land is cheap and housing units bigger, as commuting in traffic would not be perceived a strong deterrent.

A suite of strategies can help keep greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled in check, even as driverless vehicles take over the road. Among others, these include:

As we cruise towards a future in which traveling by car doesn’t require constantly paying attention to the road, we must continually improve our understanding of what driverless cars mean for our society and how policy decisions can steer automated transportation in the right direction.

Driverless transportation could usher in an era of better, safer, more affordable mobility while keeping air quality and climate change in check. But we can’t expect all those good things to happen by accident. It will take California’s leadership to set an example of decisive and sustainable action.