Could Driverless Vehicles Lead to More Pollution?

The operations and logistics departments of a company often have a greater impact on the environment than most other business functions. This is why when a company wants to “go green,” it often looks to its supply chain to play a leading role. Best practices in sustainability are becoming more crucial to a supply chain’s success as managers balance the triple bottom line of financial, social, and environmental good. All of this led to my interest in a recent Freakonomics podcast on environmentalism.

Driverless Truck Polluting

Electric Cars Could Cause More Pollution

In the podcast, Harvard economist, Ed Glaeser, suggests that electric cars, marketed as a “greener” travel option, could actually do more environmental harm than good. His reasoning is that the incremental cost of driving one more mile in an electric car is drastically less expensive than one more mile on gasoline. Naturally, this will lead to increased driving distances. Although that mile also impacts the environment to a lesser degree, the increased mileage might actually have an overall negative impact on the environment. If each mile produces half the pollution, but you drive three times farther, then you’re not moving forward environmentally.

Driverless Vehicles Means More Driving

This concept of unintended environmental side effects made me rethink one of my favorite technologies – driverless vehicles. I’m passionate that the future of logistics is in driverless semi-trailer trucking. It may be fifteen or more years away, but the pressures to reduce freight costs will eventually lead to driverless freight transport. However, as driverless shipping becomes cheaper, it will likely encourage more trucking.

For example, the main reason that I don’t go on more road trips is not the price of gas but the personal discomfort of driving. If I could simply sleep and then wake up at my location, I would travel by car much more often.

Extrapolating to the logistics arena, I foresee that driverless freight making shipping drastically less expensive. This would affect companies in numerous ways. For example, big-box retailers such as Walgreens could start shipping inventory between their stores to level out over stocks and stock outs. Freight could travel more quickly to greater distances, which would reduce the number of needed warehouses. If UPS and FedEx deliveries could make driverless deliveries, small parcel shipments would skyrocket. Online retailers would grow in dominance as the cost to serve consumers would drop.

Yet with my enthusiasm for the benefits of driverless vehicles, I had not considered the environmental consequences this technology might have. As the cost of freight decreases from not having to pay drivers, the number of miles that trucks drive will increase. The rise in pollution from trucks driving day and night could easily cancel out the advances in fuel efficiency we hope to make in the next few years. However, the decrease in costs and risk to human life involved in accidents still make the widespread use of driverless vehicles appealing.

Now What?

This is article is an open-ended thought, not a call for immediate action. The world is moving toward logistical automation, so anticipating each aspect of that future paradigm is essential. Widespread use of driverless vehicles will require support from society and public policy. Awareness of all the consequences will help the supply chain industry usher in this next generation of technology.

If you’re interested in the topic, here are a couple more articles worth reading:

Thoughts on Driverless Trucks by Kevin Gue of Auburn University

Daddy, What Was a Truck Driver? by Dennis Berman of the Wall Street Journal

The First Driverless Cars Will Actually be a Bunch of Trucks by Evan Dashevsky of Tech Hive

How will driverless vehicles influence your supply chain? Will our society allow the widespread use of driverless trucks? What other consequences must we consider to best utilize driverless trucks?

Please leave your thoughts in a comment below. In addition, if you’re interested in starting a venture into driverless trucks, please let me know. I’d love to be part of the endeavor.

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