The future of individual transport by car should be electric and as fully automated as possible: That is the vision that many car companies are now pursuing. However, computer systems with which vehicles could drive autonomously consume additional energy. A team of researchers at MIT has now calculated the potential carbon footprint of such computers in autonomous cars. The result is not particularly pleasing as long as the technology does not become more efficient.
840 watts per autonomous vehicle
In the paper by the group around Sertac Karaman from the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), various models are set up. In one scenario, the MIT researchers assume that there are a billion autonomous vehicles (Level 4 and Level 5) on the road, driving for an hour every day. According to their calculations, this amount alone would have the same CO₂ emissions as all the operating data centers on the planet combined. To do this, the researchers used a relatively moderate 2020 estimate by the International Energy Agency, which assumes that data centers – there are now over 2,700 of them in the USA alone – are responsible for around 0.3 percent of total carbon emissions per year.
In their scenario, however, Karaman & Co. reckon with a fairly high 840 watts consumed per vehicle. In addition, given the continuing technical hurdles, it will probably take a very long time before so many autonomous cars are on the road. For comparison: market researchers estimate the total stock of cars (cars and trucks) in the middle of the last decade at around 1.25 billion, meanwhile it should be over 1.5 billion. In addition, computer technology is developing very quickly, especially in terms of performance per watt.
Hardware efficiency would have to double every 1.1 years
But whether the speed is sufficient is an open question. In another of the calculated scenarios, the MIT team even comes to the conclusion that hardware efficiency would have to “double faster than every 1.1 years” to leave a smaller carbon footprint than the data centers. In this scenario, 95 percent of the global vehicle fleet would be autonomous by 2050, computing power would have doubled every three years, and the planet’s pace of carbon reduction would continue as it is now.
The data centers used Karaman & Co. as a comparative value because their CO₂ emissions are already significant and could increase in the future, according to the research team. “We draw the comparison to the on-board computers of autonomous vehicles, since these also consume electricity for data processing and have even been referred to as ‘data centers or supercomputers on wheels’,” says the study’s first author, master’s student Soumya Sudhakar. However, it was not calculated directly whether (and how) the automation consumes more energy than it saves. “We cite some example work in this active research area. Further exploration of this area would be an exciting future research direction to better understand such trade-offs in more detail.”
To home page
Leave a Reply