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People will need to share electric robotaxis to avoid increased emissions, a study found. Photo: Cruise

Electric, self-driving taxis might not be the answer to our climate problems that many people think, a new study finds.

Why it matters: Transportation is the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which is one reason that the Biden administration is pushing for a rapid shift to electrification.

  • But instead of reducing energy consumption and emissions that contribute to climate change, widespread deployment of electric robotaxis could exacerbate those problems, the joint Harvard-MIT study found.

What they're saying: “While electric vehicles themselves have lower emissions than traditional gasoline-powered ones, our work shows that deploying electric robocabs en masse on America’s streets could actually increase the number of trips, miles driven and overall emissions,” says Harvard law professor Ashley Nunes, the study's lead author.

What they did: By studying data from San Francisco, Nunes’ team concluded that the convenience of ubiquitous fleets of robotaxis would increase demand for rides, generating more trips and more vehicle miles traveled — erasing the electric vehicles' environmental benefits.

Key takeaway: To avoid worsening emissions, electric robotaxis would need to be 55% cleaner than today's EVs — or people need to stop riding solo, the study concluded.

  • Without more renewable energy sources, as many as 75% of rides would need to be shared, up from 20% today.

Yes, but: The pandemic has soured people on ride-pooling, Nunes acknowledges, which means robocabs must reduce their carbon footprint even more.

What's needed: The researchers offered several policy recommendations, including:

  • Clean up the electricity grid, using more renewable energy sources.
  • Rather than subsidizing EV purchases, federal and state governments could offer discounts for ride-pooling.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 20, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The breadth and limits of corporate carbon moves

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This week will showcase how more big companies are taking steps to cut emissions — and why corporate pledges only go so far.

The big picture: It's Climate Week. That's the annual New York City event that brings together businesses, governments and activists for speeches, symposiums and pledges. The event typically serves as a venue for corporations to announce their latest efforts, and that's already starting.

DOJ sues American Airlines, JetBlue to block "unprecedented" alliance

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Justice Department on Tuesday sued American Airlines and JetBlue to block an "unprecedented series of agreements" that will consolidate the two airlines' operations in Boston and New York City.

Why it matters: The civil antitrust complaint alleges that the planned Northeast Alliance (NEA) "will cause hundreds of millions of dollars in harm to air passengers across the country through higher fares and reduced choice," the DOJ said in a release.

FBI: Body identified as Gabby Petito, death ruled a homicide

A memorial dedicated to Gabby Petito near City Hall in North Port, Fla. Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

A body found in Teton County, Wyoming, on Sunday was confirmed to be the remains of missing 22-year-old blogger Gabby Petito, the FBI announced Tuesday.

Driving the news: The death was ruled a homicide by the Teton County coroner's office, the FBI said. The cause of death has not been determined.