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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

Oct 21, 2021 - Economy & Business

Carmakers rush to build batteries for electric vehicles

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Almost every week, another major automaker announces a billion-dollar-plus investment in battery manufacturing, and with it, thousands of new American jobs.

Why it matters: Eyeing President Biden's climate agenda, carmakers are racing to create a domestic battery supply chain to support their aggressive rollout of electric vehicles by the end of the decade.

Net-zero emissions fight breaks out before COP26

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Here's a sign of how tough it'll be to win new emissions-cutting moves at COP26: Big developing nations are refusing to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Driving the news: That's spelled out in a new statement from countries including China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter by far, as well as India and Indonesia.

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.