Toyota: Self Driving Cars Could Increase Pollution, Commute Times, Not Decrease It

Self-driving cars, we’re often told, are the key to making our cities cleaner, our days less stressful and more productive, and our fuel bills smaller.

In theory, that’s all true, given the expectation that we’ll continue to make the same trips in a self-driving car as we currently do in our human-driven ones. Yet the advent of self-driving cars could actually have the opposite effect, increasing the amount of time we spend in our cars, contributing to urban sprawl, and increasing pollution too.

If your car drove itself, would you spend more time in it? If so, you could end up increasing pollution, not decreasing it.

If your car drove itself, would you spend more time in it? If so, you could end up increasing pollution, not decreasing it.

That’s according to Ken Laberteaux, senior principal scientist for Toyota North America’s team studying future transportation. Speaking at this week’s Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, Laberteaux warned that human nature could easily scupper the benefits autonomous driving technology could offer us. Essentially, he argues, humans are lazy — and if autonomous cars give us a good reason to be lazy by allowing us to be distracted with other things while commuting, we’ll be tempted to live further away from our jobs.

“U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things,” he told Automotive News. “The pattern we’ve seen for a century is people turn more speed into more travel, rather than maybe saying ‘I’m going to use my reduced travel time by spending more time with my family.'”

Laberteaux has a point. As humans, we tend to think of commutes as time spent travelling, not miles travelled. We all have our own personal tolerances for what we consider an acceptable commute time, with some people finding anything more than ten minutes is intolerable while others will happily spend an hour or more travelling to and from work every day.

Ask yourself: If your commute could be cut from an hour to just thirty minutes thanks to interconnected autonomous driving technology, would you find yourself looking for a house in a less densely populated area? While not everyone would want to, we’re pretty sure those who could afford to would choose to live further out if they could, preferring cheaper, larger houses further out of town than tightly-packed city homes.

Could urban sprawl and pollution increase with the advent of autonomous cars?

Could urban sprawl and pollution increase with the advent of autonomous cars? (Image: Google Maps)

Naturally, the effects of this particular phenomenon would be most obvious in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, London and Paris, where any type personal vehicular commute is almost impossible. As we know from bitter experience  it can often take just two hours to drive from the south west of England to the outskirts of London, a distance of more than 100 miles. From London’s outer M25 orbital motorway to the centre of town — a distance of less than 20 miles in some places — can take almost as long in rush hour.

Essentially, the worse a city’s current congestion is, the more likely autonomous driving would push that city’s boundaries further out, extending urban sprawl. But there’s even a darker side to autonomous commutes which Laberteaux hints at: the mobile office scenario.

With the driver relieved of their duties behind the wheel, the autonomous car of the future could give rise to the long-distance office commuters: workers who happily spend several hours per day commuting to and from work in their own autonomous vehicle, but spend the entire time attending to work-related matters. Similar to today’s modern long-distance train commuters, they may have special dispensation to spend less time in the office in exchange for working on their way to and from work, using mobile Internet connectivity to remotely log into their company network.

Those type of commuters, perhaps contractors or consultants, would no-longer feel so constrained when picking their next contract or client, since they would be able to work as they travel. Like those taking advantage of less congested streets, they would travel further and produce more pollution than they currently do.

To help alleviate this problem, Toyota says what it calls a ‘co-pilot’ approach would be preferable to completely autonomous vehicles. That way, Laberteaux says, drivers would receive all of the safety benefits of autonomous drive technology, but wouldn’t be so tempted to live further way from work.

Toyota’s preference falls in line with a switch made earlier today by Nissan, which announced that for now, it too was favouring the implementation of discrete driver-assisting autonomous driving technologies rather that fully autonomous, zero-driver input cars.

Here at Transport Evolved, we’ve got to admit the draw of living further away from the city centre would be a big one if we didn’t actually have to drive our cars. But what about you? Would you welcome the shorter commute time from fully-connected, autonomous driving, or would you just use it as an excuse to live further away from work? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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  • CDspeed

    I agree with Mr. Laberteaux, look at any business person, computers were once supposed to speed up your day, and so were cell phones. Instead of using the increased productivity to allow for more personal time, people are using technology to pile on more work. I’m sure we’ve all been around someone who takes business calls when ever they come in, and sits working in their home office when they should be taking some time for themselves. I’m sure people won’t use autonomous cars to make their lives easier, they’ll just use it so they can work more, and then we’ll still be over worked, and stressed out. Not to mention becoming less skilled behind the wheel.

  • Michael Thwaite

    Dammit! He’s probably right isn’t he. However, I’m not convinced (using my non-scientific blog-comment level logic) that pollution would go up but rather it might not fall as much as we’d like to see. And, I still think that there will remain a practical limit, my 90min commute is _far_ too long though I’m not spurred to move house to reduce that but rather to find work that has a less time consuming commute so, perhaps there will still be limits.

  • Good reason to start privatizing roads, so their use can be limited by price, since the probable future is electric autonomous cars fueled by home solar panels paying no gas tax.

  • Ben P

    Wow! Such hubris! Car crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the developed world, especially among young people. We have technology being developed that could possibly reduce that number to zero, but we can’t let anyone have it because it MIGHT increase pollution!?nnI want my completely autonomous self driving electric car!!

  • D. Harrower

    Mr. Laberteaux assumes that these autonomous vehicles of the future will all be ICE and thus, polluting. What does it matter if I spend a few more hours a day in my solar, wind, or hydro-powered EV?nnnToyota doesn’t have anything solid in the autonomous pipeline and they’re openly hostile to BEVs, so they’re throwing up a cloud of FUD under the guise of “environmental responsibility”.

  • HamTech87

    I have a hard time believing that car companies are making this decision because they care about pollution. This is the industry that fought pollution-reduction (and safety) measures for decades.nnnMy bet is that they are afraid that their sales will decline with self-driving cars, and are coming up with ways to rationalize their argument.

  • Farmer_Dave

    So Toyota’s answer to a hypothetical problem is to ensure humans are required to keep working (driving) even when they don’t want to?