How Autonomous Cars Could Impact Energy Use

The complex algorithms used by self-driving vehicle technology use massive amounts of energy, which could lead to a steep rise in carbon emissions as autonomous cars become more commonplace.

2 minute read

February 2, 2023, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Photo of cars on two-way separated highway with illustrated lines between them indicating tech-driven decisions

carlos castilla / Autonomous cars

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) warns that, without changes in technology, the growth of autonomous vehicles will spur massive energy consumption. As Rima Sabina Aouf reports in Dezeen, “The study found that with a mass global takeup of autonomous vehicles, the powerful onboard computers needed to run them could generate as many greenhouse gas emissions as all the data centres in operation today.”

As Aouf explains, “The high emissions are the result of the huge computing workload placed on each self-driving vehicle.” The vehicles use ‘deep neural networks’ to constantly make inferences that drive decisions. According to the study, “One billion vehicles would make 21,600 trillion inferences. To put that into perspective, the researchers say all of Facebook's data centres worldwide currently make a few trillion inferences each day.”

Study co-author Soumya Sudhakar says that “If we just keep the business-as-usual trends in decarbonisation and the current rate of hardware efficiency improvements, it doesn't seem like it is going to be enough to constrain the emissions from computing onboard autonomous vehicles.” 

Autonomous car manufacturers can get ahead of the problem by working to improve the efficiency of their hardware and algorithms. “In a scenario where 95 per cent of global vehicles are autonomous in 2050, the study suggests that the technology's efficiency must double about every 1.1 years, such that each autonomous vehicle is consuming less than 1.2 kilowatts of energy for computing.”

Tuesday, January 31, 2023 in Dezeen

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