Connected, Automated, Zero-Emission Cars
Are Essential for Improving Livable, Sustainable
John S. Niles
Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES)
4005 20th Ave West, Suite 111
Seattle, WA 98199
One of the public policy goals for livable and sustainable communities is to minimize the use of
automobiles. This paper focuses on introducing and justifying an important new policy principle.
Even when car travel is minimized with smart growth land development policies, transportation
demand management, and increased public transit, a significant level of automobile use will
remain. As a result, reducing the environmental, economic and safety impacts of those remaining
automobiles should be an essential element of a livable, sustainable community. Fortunately,
fundamental and disruptive technological advances in new vehicles—automation, connectivity,
and electrification—as described in this paper are fast emerging to make this new priority
livability, sustainability, smart growth, electrified vehicles, automated driving, connected
vehicles, personalized mobility, traffic safety, smart cities, urban planning
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One of the shared public policy goals for the two concepts of livable and sustainable
communities is to minimize the use of automobiles (1). This paper focuses on introducing and
justifying an important new policy principle: Even while car travel is reduced with smart growth
land development policies, transportation demand management, and strong public transit,
reducing the harmful environmental, economic and safety impacts of the remaining and
irreducible vehicle use is essential – not optional, not merely desirable, but essential -- for livable
and sustainable communities.
The U.S. Government supports livable communities through the Partnership for Sustainable
Communities formed in June 2009 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
(HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA). As described by the Federal Highway Administration, “These three agencies
have pledged to ensure that housing and transportation goals are met while simultaneously
protecting the environment, promoting equitable development, and helping to address the
challenges of climate change” (2). The Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the
University of Michigan defines "livable communities" as "places that seek to balance economic
and natural assets to meet the diverse needs of local residents in the present and in the future.
These communities offer a variety of housing choices, convenient transportation options, healthy
lifestyle options, reduced air and water pollution, and protection of natural landscapes. These
communities also allow people to live closer to jobs and save money on personal transportation”
As part of a Graham Institute-funded integrated assessment of innovative and disruptive vehicle
technologies, a partnership of the University of Michigan Connected Vehicle Proving Center
(CVPC) and the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES) has
explored the hypothesis that the broad deployment of cars with electric motors for oil-free
propulsion, wireless data connectivity, and automation applications for driver assistance and
eventual autonomous vehicle control is essential to the growth in the livability and sustainability
in U.S. communities. This hypothesis has not been previously advanced to date, based on
evidence from existing programs (4). This paper provides support for the hypothesis.
Because the design of livable, sustainable communities seeks to reduce automobile use by
residents and visitors, the hypothesis is counterintuitive and perhaps surprising. As noted by the
first Secretary of Transportation in the Obama Administration, Ray LaHood, "Livability means
being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post
office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids at the park - all without having to
get in your car" (5).
SEATTLE AS AN EXAMPLE
Although the need to use a car may be minimized within a livable community, the experience in
such communities to date is that cars still drive into and through the geographic extent of livable
places that have roads.
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An example of a U.S. city that strives to have livable, walkable neighborhoods is Seattle,
Washington. Figure 1 is a map from Walk Score showing the high walkability of many
neighborhoods in this city, depicted in green.
Figure 1: Walkable Neighborhoods of Seattle, Washington Shown in Green
Map from http://www.walkscore.com
For moving around without a car, Seattle has ubiquitous public transit (Fig 2) and an extensive
bike lane network (Fig 3).
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Figure 2: Public Transit Routes in Seattle, Washington
Map from King County Metro
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Figure 3: Bicycle Lanes and Paths in Seattle, Washington
Map from King County Geographic Information Services
Furthermore, parking at the curb throughout the city is controlled with time-metered pricing or
residential permit requirements. Still, the Seattle Department of Transportation map of traffic
volumes on roads throughout the city (Fig 4) illustrates that massive traffic flows are always
close to or in some cases passing through walkable neighborhoods.
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Figure 4: Daily Vehicle Volumes in Seattle, Washington
Map from City of Seattle Department of Transportation
As long as significant car usage continues, how cars affect the environment remains pertinent to
livability. Cars now and in the future are likely to provide a large share of the mobility in and
between livable communities, as frequently noted by veteran transportation analysts (6).
Or consider the example of the entire four-county Seattle-Tacoma region. The creation of dense,
transit-oriented livable communities is a major priority in the public spending and policies of the
Metropolitan Transportation Plan of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), a plan that
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prescribes government resource allocation to transportation programs out to year 2040. However,
even with the emphasis on livability and half of all government spending on transportation
allocated to public transit including a doubling of bus service, PSRC’s computer modeling of
future travel demand forecasts the mode share of automobile use in trip making at 82.4% in 2040
Even considering the frequently observed ongoing decline in per capita miles of driving in North
America over the past decade (8), there is no doubt from even the lowest car usage forecast
scenarios that automobiles will remain a dominant mode for surface travel in urban environments
and elsewhere (9).
Therefore, it is important to recognize and reduce the many present ways in which cars cause
environmental damage that detracts from sustainability and the impacts that reduce livability.
These impacts are several, to be described next. Fortunately, harm reduction in each area is in
sight from new technology applications.
ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE FROM AUTOMOBILES, AND SOLUTIONS
A first and prominent negative impact of cars comes from the air emissions produced by the
petroleum-burning internal combustion engines found in the majority of today's cars. These
emissions are approximately proportional to the amount of petroleum fuel burned (10). Harmful
air emissions include the six EPA-regulated pollutants plus greenhouse gases (GHG). These
local emissions are now recognized as causing premature deaths at the same rate as car crashes
Fortunately, a switch from petroleum fueled engines to zero-emission electric motors is an
increasingly available power train option. Plug-in hybrids and battery-only electric car sales are
growing rapidly, currently doubling year over year (12). Along with improvements in internal
combustion engines, an increase in the proportion of cars using batteries and electric motors for
propulsion reduces air emissions. The reduction of the need to use increasingly expensive
petroleum fuels is another community economic benefit of automobility that trades out gas
station fill ups for plug-in recharging at home, at work, in shopping centers, and at other
common destinations or roadside stops.
The U.S. Government has mandated higher fuel economy in cars and light trucks, which is
forecast by a recent National Academy of Science panel to be an important step to reduce air
emissions, along with improvements in internal combustion engines and new fuels like natural
gas and biofuels, plus evolution of the electric power grid to zero carbon. (13). The new 54.5
miles per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standard for 2025, along with
emission control rules at the multi-state level following the leadership from California is going to
force car makers to produce and sell more cars that are electric powered (14). A further benefit of
electric cars is their quietness compared to cars with internal combustion engines, so quiet that
government is intervening to make sure they make some noise for the sake of safety (15).
A second obvious negative impact of cars is fatalities, injuries, and property damage from traffic
accidents of all sorts. 33,561 drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists died in 2012 in motor
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vehicle mishaps in the U.S. There were 2.36 million serious injuries. Costs from vehicle
accidents exceed $70 billion per year. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for
Americans aged 11 through 27. According to the NHTSA, most mishaps involve driver error or
But thanks to development of computers, software, and sensors over the past decade, the
prospect is now at hand for vehicle automation to substantially reduce vehicle mishaps large and
small. This was clearly revealed by industry presentations at the Transportation Research Board
(TRB) Road Vehicle Automation Workshops in July 2012 and July 2013 (17), and has been
affirmed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a policy statement
(18). Cars with automation capabilities – such as lane-keeping and automatic braking – are going
to be increasingly deployed over the course of the decade just ahead, with capabilities by the mid
2020s for periods of no-hands, no-feet, safe driving.
Automation technology has already been developed and deployed by some manufacturers that
keeps cars from colliding with other vehicles, with bicycles, and with pedestrians (19), as well as
lane-keeping to prevent vehicles leaving the roadway. How fast this technology deploys onto the
streets of USA is dependent upon its price to end users, as influenced by incentives and
regulations from governments, suggesting an important public policy role.
A third negative impact from autos is the extensive occupation of street space and parking lot
space by cars, manifested in the worst case as traffic congestion and packed parking lots, which
typically occupy an average of about half the land area in urban commercial development (20).
Advanced vehicle automation provides the capability of reducing street traffic and parking
demand in communities where leaders are seeking livability.
First of all, automation to the extent that cars can move autonomously to new locations could
mean fewer cars needing parking. But even if the number of cars used does not decrease with
expansion of automation, there is the prospect of taking some parking capacity in dense areas out
of service because automated cars can be parked closer together or in lots that are less proximate
to walkable, livable community zones. Outside of parking, simply reducing the number of
vehicle collisions removes a significant cause of road congestion. Automation of vehicles also
supports smoother driving patterns in vehicles with internal combustion engines, which improves
energy efficiency and thus reduces air emissions (21).
At the same time, vehicle automation opens up the potential for improving the performance and
sustainability of public transit, a signature element of livable urban communities. Automation of
vehicle control yields new options for reducing the cost of transit operations by offering mobility
with a lower requirement for highly skilled human operators than has been the traditional pattern.
Vehicle automation also provides opportunity for new forms of transit – for example, driver-less,
multi-passenger shuttles making multiple trips with no driver salary cost – that could efficiently
serve lower density suburban residential zones better than fixed route buses (22).
Automated vehicles have capabilities that fit well with the denser residential zones characteristic
of smart growth and livability. Speed limits can be electronically maintained and enforced.
Electric urban vehicles can be smaller and lighter, thus more compatible with narrow streets and
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less space dedicated to parking. Increased opportunity for shared vehicle use and non-owned
multi-passenger shuttle vans could also potentially lead to fewer vehicles requiring parking (17).
These are all potentials that will require public policy guidance.
In summary, new vehicle technology in motor cars with associated new capabilities such as car
sharing, ride sharing, and driverless transit, could potentially take down air pollution, GHG
emissions, crashes, traffic congestion, and parking space. All of these issues are on the list that
sustainable, livable communities try to deal with by reducing vehicle ownership and car use. In a
future scenario where some level of car use remains in livable communities, new vehicle
technologies in the residual vehicles can reduce the same negative impacts that reducing the
number of vehicles per capita addresses.
CONCERNS AND CONCLUSION
Concerns have been raised that future autonomous driving that lets drivers do other things
besides paying attention to the road while on daily commuting trips could make cars more
popular at the expense of public transit. This might make sprawling land use more attractive by
facilitating easy, comfortable travel in cars that are safer and greener. In response we would note
that smart growth is often well incentivized by land use controls, the rising cost of travel from
fuel prices, and provision of urban amenities that support higher density residential zones.
At the same time, suburbanization continues to expand (23) inexorably even with the automobile
fleet in very early stages of electrification and automation. The safety and GHG reduction
benefits that accrue from the expanded deployment of new vehicle technologies are compelling
and may come to enlarge the popular definition of livability to include safer, cleaner, more
comfortable motorized personal mobility when it is desirable, such as in family trips during off-
Whether cars become more attractive or less attractive in any segment of a community, they are
still going to be a major mode of travel even if motor car use were to end up decades from now
at half or less of today’s levels. Outside of livability programs, widely-accepted public policy
steps are being taken to lower the damage that cars do to the climate and to people on the planet,
no matter where people live.
For this reason plus the inevitable ubiquity of cars in all American communities, we conclude
that the expanded deployment of clean, safe cars is not benign and neutral in the context of
livability and sustainability, but rather essential. This is true for those who reside in livable
communities of intentionally dense design with convenient transit service, and as well,
obviously, for everybody else.
Financial support to Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES) for the
preparation of this paper and for any conference presentations based on it comes from the
Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute and the Connected Vehicle Proving Center, both
at University of Michigan.
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Useful review comments on earlier drafts were provided by Steve Marshall at CATES, Steve
Underwood at Connected Vehicle Proving Center at University of Michigan – Dearborn, Clark
Williams-Derry at Sightline, and anonymous reviewers selected by the Energy Committee of the
Transportation Research Board. Nothing in this paper should be construed as endorsed or
confirmed by any individual or institution except for the author and CATES itself.
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