Autonomous cars and the drive towards sustainability

Author: Emmanuel Salami (Doctoral Researcher)

Research group: Law, Technology and DesignThinking 

A lot of progress has been recorded since the 1960s when the concept of Autonomous Cars (AC)  first featured in science fiction.[1]. Today, ACs are being developed at a pace that indicates it is only a matter of time before they become (fully) integrated into the socio-economic fabric of the society.

The Society of Automotive Engineers have highlighted five levels of autonomy in autonomous vehicles.[2]. In level 1 and 2, the system takes over some of the driving tasks but the driver is required to continually monitor the system and must be able to take over the driving as soon as it becomes necessary; level 3 requires less monitoring of the system by the driver while at level 4, the system is able to drive the car in normal operation and in defined surroundings but the driver can intervene at will; Level 5 is the final, fully automated and autonomous driving stage. For the avoidance of doubt, level 5 forms the focus of this blogpost. 


Figure 1: This is a depiction of level 5 AC and the interactions between AC, human beings and devices which are necessary for AC to function properly. Image A (cloud service), Image B, D, F (Internet of Things), Image C and E (vehicular cloud service)  all interact together to support the functioning of AC.

Do AC contribute to sustainable development ?

One prominent contribution of AC to sustainable development is the reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants which cause global warming. It has been found that 58% of AC are built on an electric powertrain while a further 21% utilise a hybrid powertrain.[4]. Therefore, AC built on an electric powertrain significantly reduce air pollution by not utilising  fossil fuels, thus making it environmentally friendly.

Such AC will even be more sustainable when they are charged using wind, solar or other renewable energy sources because there will be zero emissions both in the course of driving operation and power generation. AC built on a hybrid powertrain will have both a battery and a gasoline engine. The gasoline engine takes effect when the batteries run out of power, typically after 15 to 50 miles of travel.[5]. Therefore, AC will contribute vastly to environmental sustainability in both the electric and hybrid models, even though the contribution of the former outweighs the latter.

Furthermore, AC, by self driving, effectively means that one car can drive an entire family out - drop each member at their destinations and park itself until it is time to pick them back up. This will reduce the number of cars needed by each household and will also consequently reduce the total number of cars on the road, thereby contributing to the reduction of vehicle emissions. This shared mobility component of AC will also cut across the public transport system thereby further reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. There is no doubt that autonomous cars will be more beneficial for the purpose of sustainable development. Some sustainable development benefits of AC are depicted in the table below:

Contribution to Sustainable Development

Traditional Cars

Autonomous Cars

Greenhouse gases

They release greenhouse gases and pollutants which cause pollution

They release way less  greenhouse gases


They are more prone to accidents causing damage to the physical environment, plants, animals, etc.

They are less prone to accidents.

Lesser vehicle congestion

One household would need multiple cars encouraging vehicle congestion and pollution.

Car sharing is possible which ensures AC can drive the household around without any human intervention.

 How can regulation help achieve the sustainability potential of AC?

Although AC contribute to environmental sustainability because of a reduced or non-use of internal combustion engines, they can still result in some level of environmental pollution. Researchers have found that AC can result in increased rates of transportation because of the ease that comes from riding as a passenger while being able to do other things.[6]. The capability of sending cars on errands (for example, sending the car to park itself at home or calling it back for use) will also increase AC use.

The implication of this is that there will still be emissions from power generation in AC built on electric powertrains, while those built on hybrid powertrains will generate emissions both from power generation and their internal combustion engines.

In order to ensure that over usage does not hinder the sustainable development benefits of AC, it is necessary that the law is used as a tool for social enforcement. One way of achieving this could be by taxing private use of AC to discourage unnecessary use (such as sending AC on errands). Law can also be used to encourage the use of publicly available pooled AC through the creation of incentives such as subsidised transportation costs that encourage people to use them.

The increased costs attached to the private use of AC and the availability of more affordable and publicly available pooled AC will eventually reduce the vehicles on the roads which will be advantageous to the environment. Other legislations such as traffic laws, product liability/insurance laws, data protection law, and intellectual property law, etc. may be considered as incidental legislations which must be reviewed/specifically enacted for AC to become widely accepted in the society.


It has been established that AC can contribute to sustainable development in the society. The law is a veritable tool that can facilitate the adoption of this environmentally friendly technology. Therefore, a number of laws (as listed above) are needed to support the process as a whole. Where necessary, the gaps in relevant laws must be identified and new laws introduced to ensure that AC becomes part of our society.


1. The Evolution of Autonomous Cars On-Screen, (Vanarama). https://www.vanarama.com/blog/cars/the-evolution-of-autonomous-cars-on-screen

2. Andreas Herrmann, Walter Brenner, Rupert Stadler, Autonomous Driving: How the Driverless Revolution will Change the World, Emerald Group Publishing, United Kingdom, 2018, p. 3, 8-9, 47-51.

3. United Nations Brundtland commission, Sustainability, (un.org). https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/sustainability 

4. Why Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Are Inextricably Linked, (government technology). https://www.govtech.com/fs/Why-Autonomous-and-Electric-Vehicles-are-Inextricably-Linked.html

5. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Electric Vehicles. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/electric-vehicles#:~:text=Less%20harmful%20air%20pollution,in%20neighborhoods%20near%20busy%20roadways

6. Giovanni Circella, Scott Hardman, Driverless cars won't be good for the environment if they lead to more auto usea, (January 28, 2022). https://theconversation.com/driverless-cars-wont-be-good-for-the-environment-if-they-lead-to-more-auto-use-173819



  1. Hey Admin, nice article. Nice to read your article. We hope to receive such valuable articles from you in the future. Thank you for sharing with everyone.

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  2. Kudos to the author for their enlightening blog on autonomous cars and sustainability. Their insights illuminate a greener future. In the realm of car rental Pune, I offer a convenient platform for individuals to easily rent cars, promoting eco-friendly travel choices.