Robocabs Join the Fight Against Climate Change
NuTonomy aims to launch paid self-driving car rides in Singapore
From Gas to Green
Most companies struggle to adapt to climate change. Yet there are some who make great strides in preserving our terrestrial existence. In the US, huge efforts are being made to increase the production of sustainable energy. And rightfully so – electricity is the largest contributor to carbon emissions, accounting for 29% of total emissions in 2015 .
Transportation comes in a close second at 27% (Figure 1). Just like electricity, transportation is a universal and recurring theme throughout the world, especially in urban habitats.
Making transportation more efficient opens up new possibilities in the shapes and sizes of our future vehicles. The cars of the future will be optimized for power utilization, weight, and route. A study by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and University Leeds in the UK showed that innovations in transportation, such as a lighter-weight body and a reduction in aerodynamic energy consumption – by automating cars to drive in a tight formation – could reduce global carbon emissions by 23 to 25 percent .
A sleek design and efficient lithium-ion batteries are important. But so is the algorithm that oversees the driverless drive. Herein lies the magic of NuTonomy, an MIT tech start-up that aims to tackle urban driving, one of the most complex aspects of driverless technology. To test their driverless vehicles, NuTonomy recently announced a partnership with Grab, Uber’s biggest competitor in Asia .
NuTonomy was founded at MIT in 2013 by Emilio Frazzoli and Karl Iagnemma, who worked on robotics and intelligent vehicle navigation. They have raised a total of US$16M, led by Highland Capital Partners, with participation from the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), Ford Motor Company and other existing backers including Signal Ventures and Samsung Ventures. NuTonomy’s partnership with the Singapore government is a win-win deal – with its limited land area and an ageing workforce, Singapore is keen on optimizing its public transportation system and actively encourages its residents to use public or shared modes of transportation .
Making Driverless Cars a Reality
A study in Nature Climate Change published in 2015 forecasted that emissions per mile from the use of personal vehicles could be reduced by as much as 94% by 2030 in the “best-case scenario”, where electric autonomous taxis are launched and successfully commercialized . Driverless taxis can create the greatest impact when combined with ride-sharing services. The study highlights that with increasing demand for travel, optimizing and reducing energy consumption in transportation systems has never been more important. As Tesla and Google continue to engage in an arms race for driverless technology supremacy, the rate of innovation is likely to accelerate – meaning that driverless taxis may be a reality as soon as 2025 .
NuTonomy’s first public trial will be an audacious testament to their advanced software. Gearing up for the launch of their full vehicle fleet in 2018, NuTonomy has raised a Series A round of about US$16M in 2016 to complete their trials. In similar fashion, Uber acquired Otto, a self-driving trucks start-up, and formed a US$300 million alliance with Volvo Car Group to develop self-driving cars .
The adoption of driverless cars faces many challenges. One is regulation. But NuTonomy is cleverly strategic – Its partnership with the Singaporean government allows it to thrive under favourable regulatory conditions. Its Singapore test bed is a major asset for its growth plans in Southeast Asia. These days, one can see the NuTonomy vehicles whizzing around One North, Singapore’s innovation hub. But soon, should the trials succeed, NuTonomy’s algorithms could well replace the steering wheels of Grab drivers.
Like most innovative companies developing cutting-edge products to disrupt the status quo, NuTonomy isn’t saying that it is the silver bullet in the fight against climate change. Self-driving technology is merely one of many avenues to reduce carbon emissions. Global warming is a call to action to all stakeholders – governments, large auto manufacturers, startups and consumers – to embrace clean energy and efficiency in the way we travel. And as such, driverless technology, along with leading-edge car design and high-quality lithium-ion batteries, are all necessary technological breakthroughs to enable a cleaner and greener future.
The Moral Dilemma
Now imagine this – a self-driving car carrying your family of five on a highway spots a bouncing ball ahead. As the vehicle approaches a child runs out to retrieve the ball. Should the car risk its passengers’ lives by swerving to the side – where the edge of the road meets a steep cliff? Or should the car continue on its path, ensuring its passengers’ survival at the child’s expense? How should it decide?
This scenario and many others pose moral and ethical dilemmas that carmakers, car buyers and regulators must address before vehicles are given full autonomy.
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 Greenblatt, J. and Saxena, S. (2015). Autonomous taxis could greatly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions of US light-duty vehicles. Nature Climate Change, 5(9), pp.860-863.
 CNBC. (2017). What you need to know about booking a driverless Grab taxi. [online] Available at: http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/22/uber-rival-grab-partners-with-driverless-car-firm-nutonomy-in-singapore.html [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].
 Russell, J. (2017). MIT spinout NuTonomy just beat Uber to launch the world’s first self-driving taxi. [online] TechCrunch. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2016/08/24/mit-spinout-nutonomy-just-beat-uber-to-launch-the-worlds-first-self-driving-taxi/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].
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 Malavika Vyawahare, C. and Malavika Vyawahare, C. (2017). Robocabs Might Make Big Cut in Pollution. [online] Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/robocabs-might-make-big-cut-in-pollution/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].
 Lee, M. (2017). Self-Driving Car Startup NuTonomy in Talks to Raise New Funds. [online] Bloomberg.com. Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-27/self-driving-car-startup-nutonomy-in-talks-to-raise-new-funds [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].
Student comments on Robocabs Join the Fight Against Climate Change
DT, thanks for the article. I think that consumers need to be able to see the unique selling point before adopting these new technologies. The question I ask myself is what is in it for the consumer to adopt autonomous vehicles? Will they reduce their transportation cost? Ride-sharing services had very clear cost benefits to the consumer, but it is not clear what those of driverless technology will be. Additionally, should the aspiration to reduce our carbon footprint come at the cost of our safety? It is well known that one of google’s driverless cars caused a collision by changing lanes in the pathway of a bus!
On a separate note, the numbers are staggering: transportation represents 27% of carbon emissions. Whereas your article focuses on ground transportation, I wonder how much of that transportation number is actually aviation.
Finally, to your moral question… This is a broader discussion of the limitations of artificial intelligence. I interpret this as one of AI’s biggest challenges – pre-programming decisions that are usually reactionary/instinctive in human beings.
While I think that there is a case to make that driverless technology could help reduce the carbon footprint of consumer vehicles by providing the most efficient route which would hypothetically reduce the total amount of time that vehicles spend on the road, it doesn’t seem as clear cut to me that (1) investing in driverless tech is the best way to reduce carbon emissions and (2) that it actually reduces emissions at all. On (1), driverless tech still means that there are vehicles on the road which may be running on less efficient power sources, so it doesn’t address the root cause of the carbon emissions. On (2), driverless cars would enable people that cannot currently drive (e.g., old people that have poor eyesight) to “ride” and be on the road, thereby increasing the total number of vehicles on the road, which would result in more congestion and all cars spending more time on the road. It seems like driverless tech is one piece of a bigger solution to reducing emissions, but until the rootc cause is addressed, I am skeptical that it will work.
I agree with Shreya’s point above that asks whether driverless cars would actually reduce emissions. The Fortune article linked below describes a phenomenon in which people that would typically carpool (sharing a single family car, for example), can now each ride separately, multiplying the number of miles driven. Additionally, living in San Francisco during the rise of Uber and Lyft, anecdotally, I saw the impact of the availability of convenient rides on city-dwellers willingness and likelihood to utilize public transportation systems. With autonomous vehicles, the price for convenient rides will continue to fall (since riders no longer have to pay labor cost for a driver, for example), exacerbating the lost usage of public transport. This could in theory be extrapolated to a world in which cities no longer pay to operate public transport systems at all. The post states that Singapore is still invested in its public system, but would other global cities remain as invested?
It would be interesting to look at the “break-even analysis” for emissions saved from efficiency of AV routing, etc, versus GHG emitted due to increased miles driven as a result of dynamics described above.
I agree that driverless vehicles represent a significant opportunity to reduce the climate change caused by of transportation. Thanks for sharing some stunning figures about the potential impact. However, I have two concerns. The first is that autonomous technology might just be applied to gas-powered vehicles, mitigating the possible energy savings. Electrification seems like the major opportunity, not just automation. The second concern is that automation might increase vehicle usage so much that it eliminates the reduction in climate impact from shifting to electrified vehicles. I can imagine that if I don’t have to drive my car and electricity prices are relatively low, I might have it circle the block for hours instead of paying for parking. I could also see autonomous vehicles shifting almost all commerce to automated delivery, since the cost would fall dramatically. The climate impact would depend on how much usage increases as well as the environmental impact of the energy source, but this is one of the potential complications from autonomous vehicles that regulators may need to address.