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Driverless Cars and Fuel Efficiency Spotlighted in Scientific American

January 25, 2016

The potential to slow pollution through deployment of automated vehicles is gaining more and more traction in the news. In a recent Scientific American article, reporter Camille von Kaenel asked NREL's Jeff Gonder for a transportation researcher's thoughts on both the sustainability benefits and uncertainties that will accompany an increase in driverless cars.

"The impact can be dramatic, but there remains a lot of uncertainty," said Gonder. "There needs to be further research to try to more intelligently understand where the key tipping points are in the evolution of the technology, so we can help encourage the beneficial impacts and mitigate the negative impacts."

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced that the Obama Administration's budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 will include nearly $4 billion over 10 years for automated cars-investing in research and testing of self-driving cars and connected vehicle systems. Von Kaenel considered how self-driving cars may significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by streamlining traffic through intelligent vehicle technologies such as platooning. Yet she warned that many uncertainties remain about the impact that automated vehicles may have on travelers' behavior.

Gonder added that pilot programs throughout the country will be particularly important in evaluating how people will react to the technology.

"Without the technologies out there and people interacting with them, it's really just speculation and relying on surveys," he said. "That type of real-world experience would really enhance understanding and reduce uncertainties associated with making predictions about individual behaviors."

Vehicle automation and connectivity are two strategies under exploration in NREL's new Sustainable Mobility Initiative, which approaches transportation as an intelligent, integrated, and dynamic network of travelers, services, and environments-rather than just vehicles and roads-to optimize mobility and significantly reduce energy consumption.

—Nicolene Durham