Robot Taxis to the Planet's Rescue

Taxi drivers get almost 500,000 New Yorkers where they need to go every day – and may be contributing almost 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year.

Going by the most recent numbers from New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission, 13,437 yellow taxis are currently authorized to operate in New York City. When you take into account other taxis and driver services like limos and Uber, you wind up with about 75,000 vehicles available for hire around the city that never sleeps.

These sorts of fleets are so crucial to life in New York that they're cultural icons. But their environmental impact is staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average gasoline-powered privately owned passenger vehicle (with a fuel economy of about 21.6 miles per gallon and yearly distance driven of about 11,400 miles) releases 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. But taxis are estimated to travel three to six times farther than privately owned vehicles. Meaning that gasoline-engine taxis contribute 14.1 to 28.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year, and New York City's yellow taxis alone may be contributing as much as 378,293 metric tons.

Of course, some of those vehicles have electric or hybrid engines, so that's probably a high estimate. If we could magically replace every yellow cab in New York with an electric or fuel-cell vehicle tomorrow, we would reduce those emissions by about 66 percent. Which would be, in scientific terms, pretty rad. However, as the Fw:Thinking video above explains, science doesn't dream small. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory investigated how autonomous vehicles could further reduce taxi emissions.

Robot-driven cars, in addition to being way safer than human drivers, also have the capacity to be far more energy efficient. Experts say that if we can network autonomous cars into the growing Internet of Things, then our roads and traffic signals will work together with our vehicles to prevent accidents and keep traffic flowing around sticky areas. Automated taxi services could also streamline the process of deploying the perfect-sized car for the job at hand: Ultra-compact vehicles for one-person commutes and larger ones for groups, travelers who failed to pack light and students schlepping volcano-related science projects.

The results from Berkeley Lab considered all of this, plus the improvements to electric engine technology that we'll probably see over the next 15 years. And they determined that compared with today's gas-powered vehicles, self-driving electric cabs of 2030 would reduce emissions by 87-94 percent. Robot, you can drive my cab.

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