MIT self-driving emissions paper gets wide media attention, not all positive

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MIT self-driving CO2 report sparks hyperbolic headlines and an intelligent rebuttal

In January, the respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sparked media uproar with its article “Computers that power self-driving cars could be a huge driver of global carbon emissions”.

Indeed, its website boasted of the worldwide coverage, including “MIT study finds huge carbon cost to self-driving cars” in Dezeen, and “Self-driving cars could be a massive source of global carbon emissions” on the BBC.

MIT News self-driving CO2 media coverage, January 2023
MIT News self-driving CO2 media coverage, January 2023

Just one tiny issue. These fall firmly into the category of hyperbolic headlines.

Self-driving emissions prediction

The opening sentence of the report goes in hard: “In the future, the energy needed to run the powerful computers on board a global fleet of autonomous vehicles could generate as many greenhouse gas emissions as all the data centers in the world today.”

Shock news: self-driving cars will need computers… and computers need power! There must be more to it, right? Nope, not really.

The central point is: “that 1 billion autonomous vehicles, each driving for one hour per day with a computer consuming 840 watts, would consume enough energy to generate about the same amount of emissions as data centers currently do.”

Self-driving balance

There’s so much to take issue with, but thankfully – and here’s some great news – this time we don’t have to… because Brad Templeton, who worked on Google’s car team, has already done so, quite brilliantly, in Forbes.

“The study makes poor assumptions, and as such its conclusion is incorrect, but these sorts of studies are often latched onto by the opponents of new technologies due to their confirmation bias, and used as propaganda,” he says.

Spot on sir. For something with such positive potential, self-driving attracts an awful lot of vitriol.

For the record, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) paper behind the headlines – “Data Centers on Wheels: Emissions From Computing Onboard Autonomous Vehicles” – is more tempered, including a commitment “to further analyze and potentially reduce the carbon footprint of AVs”.

Excellent. Maybe pop across to MIT’s own climate dept, where Sergey Paltsev, Deputy Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, says: “Electric cars are actually much, much better in terms of the impact on the climate in comparison to internal combustion vehicles. And in time, that comparative advantage of electric cars is going to grow.”

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched in 2019.