Sustainable Smart Mobility (Part II)

By: Marshall B. Distel

[In Part I of this two-part series, Online Master of Natural Resources student Marshall Distel explored transportation infrastructure innovations and the potential role of autonomous vehicles in sustainable development and urban mobility. In this final installment, Marshal delves deeper into connected and autonomous vehicles, their impact on transportation, policy, and sustainability.]

Connected and autonomous vehicles are one of the most anticipated new technologies that may dramatically alter transportation systems and whole urban environments. The prospect of AVs, also known as self-driving vehicles, first started to gain traction within the past decade. The appeal of AVs has increased significantly as new research has suggested that their widespread adoption could lessen transportation-related environmental degradation through a reduction in carbon emissions and energy consumption (Lim & Taeihagh, 2018).

While the notion of self-driving cars may seem like a thing of the distant future, studies have suggested that by 2030, 95% of U.S. vehicle-miles traveled could be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles (Arbib & Seba, 2017). There are numerous states that are already seeking regulatory approval to test AVs.

Since 2012, 41 states and the District of Columbia have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles, while 33 states have already introduced legislation (NCSL, 2018). Even though many state and municipal governments have enacted legislation to promote the testing and deployment of AVs, there is still a great deal of uncertainty with regards to how this new technology will impact city planning and global sustainability.

The Potential Impact of Autonomous Vehicles

The smart mobility paradigm is rooted on the premises that technological advances in transportation will be used to support economic efficiency, environmental quality, and social equity. As the global urban population continues to grow, city planners and policymakers should aim to employ new transportation technologies to address the increasing demand for urban mobility. However, it will take more than just technology to ensure that innovations in smart mobility foster sustainable development. Extensive planning is needed to evaluate how technology related to smart mobility and AVs could be used to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Existing studies have revealed that autonomous vehicles may have a profound impact on economic productivity, roadway congestion, social equity, and the environment. Although, the impacts could be tremendously positive, or conversely, enormously negative. For example, according to research from the Department of Energy, AVs could reduce transportation-related energy consumption by as much as 90%, or could increase it by more than 200% (Gaskell, 2018).

On the other hand, the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis found that the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles could lessen transportation-related emissions contributing to climate change by more than 50% (UC Davis, 2017). Other studies claim that the connected nature of AVs will provide beneficial social and economic outcomes by optimizing the flow of traffic and improving overall efficiency, roadway safety and the accessibility to transportation (Lim & Taeihagh, 2018).

In terms of social equity, AVs may offer affordable and convenient mobility models that could be accessed by all citizens, regardless of age, physical disability or socioeconomic status. To ensure that this new technology results in both societal and environmental benefits, city planners and policymakers will need to evaluate policies that support the sustainable implementation of AVs.

Implementing Policies to Foster Sustainability

The introduction of smart mobility and driverless vehicles will only have a beneficial impact on sustainable development if city planners and policymakers play an active role in the implementation of policies and strategies to use this technology to advance social, economic and environmental opportunities. To ensure that advances in smart mobility support sustainable development, it will be imperative to implement policies that foster driverless technology, electrification and shared mobility.

Driverless technology is needed to support mobility for all users, regardless of age or physical ability; the electrification of the vehicle fleet will be essential to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and shared mobility will be essential to reduce congestion, save energy and promote social equity. While the need to promote driverless technology and vehicle electrification may be clear from a sustainability perspective, the shared mobility aspect is often more ambiguous, but equally as important.

If autonomous vehicles are adopted privately rather than as a shared model, the total U.S. vehicle-miles traveled may increase by 2-3 trillion miles over the next 30 years (Calthorpe & Walters, 2017). Moreover, a study conducted by the by the University of California Davis concluded that there would be minimal societal or environmental benefits from the adoption of autonomous vehicles unless they are both electrified and shared. The greatest environmental and public benefit would come only if a significant percentage of the population were to abandon personal vehicle ownership for ridesharing.

The implementation of autonomous vehicles must be coordinated with city planners, ridesharing companies and public transit providers to create an urban mobility future that enhances social equity, economic productivity, and environmental sustainability. Recent studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the International Transport Forum and the German Public Transport Association have shown that it would be possible to transport every citizen to their daily destination with at least 80% fewer cars on the road (UITP, 2017).

The dramatic reduction in the number of vehicles would not only improve the efficiency of urban mobility, but it would also have a profound impact on the built environment. The reduction of personal vehicles would reduce the need to provide large parking facilities within the center of cities, which would open up valuable space for other uses. Moreover, with a vast reduction in the number of vehicles, more street space could be made accessible for bicyclists, pedestrians and other streetscape improvements. Therefore, to achieve these outcomes, it will be essential to regulate autonomous vehicles as a shared model that is able to be integrated with traditional public transit services.


A future with electrified and shared autonomous vehicles may support the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development. In the coming decades, city planners and policymakers have the opportunity to transform urban mobility by making transportation more affordable, accessible and sustainable. The implementation of a shared system of autonomous vehicles with on-demand shuttles could decrease the overall number of vehicles needed, increase vehicle occupancy rates and reduce roadway congestion.

However, without a range of compelling policies to foster a future of shared mobility, the introduction of autonomous vehicles could fuel increased congestion and urban sprawl, while also adversely impacting climate change targets (UC Davis, 2017). If left up to individual choice and the market, the introduction of autonomous vehicles would likely lead to more vehicles, more vehicle-miles traveled and a slow transition to fleet electrification. Overall, it will be vital to enact enabling policies to steer the future of autonomous vehicles on a path to sustainability.


Marshall Distel is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program. He expects to receive his degree in May 2019.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Clément Bucco-Lechat, and Minesweeper.