How to Introduce Autonomous Cars Without Cooking the Planet

Many of us can’t wait for autonomous cars, and would pay a lot to have one and be freed up from the hassles of driving. State governments should welcome autonomous cars, too. As Sebastian Thrum convincingly argues, they’ll be safer than human-piloted ones. And they’ll pretty clearly lead to better traffic flow (because they can drive so close to each other) and fewer parking hassles.

In fact, the only real problem with them that I can see is that they might lead to more total miles driven. I know I’d take a lot more road trips if I didn’t have to drive during them. And I value the convenience of car travel enough (no one makes me take off my shoes) that I’m willing to pay for the gas, even if it becomes expensive.

More miles driven by globe-warming cars is not great news for the globe. But a solution seems straightforward, at least in theory: states should initially allow autonomous cars only if they’re also zero / low emission vehicles. As a sweetener to this deal, they could allow these cars to use carpool lanes at all times, and let the passengers text, telecommute, read, watch TV, and do whatever else to their heart’s content.

I would take this deal in a heartbeat. I would buy the pokiest, least sexy, dorkiest car ever made if it freed me from driving, and I’d recharge it / refill it with whatever was necessary. I’d do so even if the car were a lot more expensive than its closest non-autonomous equivalent, or than most other vehicles on the road.

And I think I’m far from alone on this. I bet there are literally millions more like me in America alone. If this is right, we’d instantly become a big market for zero emissions vehicles, which would drive their prices down via economies of scale.

I understand that autonomous cars aren’t yet ready for prime time. But they will be pretty soon. States can and should get ready for this day not by finding ways to disallow these vehicles or constrain their spread, but by designing legislation that uses their advent to accomplish as many societal goals as possible.

I think the proposal outlined here would accomplish several such goals. Do you agree?