Autonomous vehicles and conservation

Tom Pienkowski

Autonomous vehicles offer plenty of potential environmental benefits. For instance, they will probably have fewer accidents, which means that heavy safety features can be removed making cars lighter and more energy efficient. But like all new innovations, it’s hard to predict how driverless cars will change the world. For example, if kids get dropped off at school by a driverless vehicle – instead of being taken by parents on their way to work – does this mean more cars on the road?

Autonomous vehicles and conservation

Timothy Hodgetts – based at WildCru here in Oxford – has highlighted one of these potential environmental downsides. Driverless vehicles are going to change the architecture of urban and rural areas. Not having to drive frees people to do other things – sleep, eat, work. This reduces the cost of travel time making people more likely to commute further. For example, one study estimated that shared autonomous vehicle use might increase travel distances by about 10%. However, if in-car infrastructure changes (like installing desks) then this could be higher. If you’re happy to commute further, then you’re no longer bound to living within green belts around cities – why not live in The New Forest and work in London?

More people living further from cities means urban areas will sprawl into the countryside. Housing might be less dense, but it's going to leave fewer ‘wilder’ places in the UK. This pressure isn’t going to affect all species equally though. For example, reptiles and large slow-growing mammals tend to be highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation whereas small fast-reproducing birds and mammals are less so. However, it's typically those species that are already sensitive to habitat modification that is of most concern to conservationists. Anticipating how autonomous cars might affect our cities and countryside is going to be important if we’re going to take the best from driverless technology.

The high initial cost of purchasing driverless cars means most households won’t be able to afford them, at least initially. As a result, the first driverless cars we see on our roads are going to be owned by product-service providers like Uber. Service providers may welcome more sprawling cities - more people spending more time using their service. On the other hand, ‘ecomodernists’ argue that many of humans environmental challenges could be solved if we lived in cities. They suggest that intensive agriculture could support dense cities, leaving expansive areas for nature. This argument resonates with E.O. Wilsons controversial ‘half-earth’ project, where humans vacate half of the earth and leave the rest for nature. To a certain extent, people are naturally moving into cities and vacating natural landscapes. (However, we might be better improving the quality rather than quantity of nature protection. Moreover, exactly how this goal would be achieved, and the humanitarian consequences, are highly questionable.) However, driverless cars might push-back against this urbanising trend. Clearly, there is a role for regulation. However, governments face challenges in regulating fast-moving sectors and appear to struggle with housing policy. Will governments be able to anticipate and act on the potential impact of driverless technology on wildlife?

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