The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) plans in 2018 to adopt a methodology for forecasting long-term impacts of autonomous vehicles (AVs) to help stakeholders, lawmakers, and the general public to better understand forthcoming changes in the transportation landscape. This addition reflects the large potential of AVs to alter trends in transportation and fuel consumption in the coming decades. Besides demand patterns, the EIA will look at the impact of AVs on sales, vehicles ownership, and fuel economy in its methodology. The new methodology, to be rolled out in its 2018 Annual Energy Outlook, will allow the government agency to provide guidance in this area and put together long-term projections on AV adoption and its impact on the energy and transportation sectors similar to its scenarios for oil supply, energy prices, and alternative fuels.
The EIA announced this next step in a report on AVs released last month that analyzed the impact of the technology through 2050, but with most of the focus on 2026-31. The EIA study highlighted the many wide-ranging positive effects of AVs, but also emphasized the number of uncertainties surrounding the new tech. Given the great enthusiasm that AVs have fostered, the EIA’s scenarios in coming years should spark a high level of interest and debate among industry, government, and consumers.
In its report, which was prepared by Energetics Inc. and Z, INC., the EIA noted that the outlook for the impact of AVs on petroleum consumption in the light-duty sector is wide in the outer years of its projections, ranging from a 44 percent decline to a 42 percent increase versus baseline expectations. However, it emphasizes that the greatest factor in reducing fuel demand with full autonomy would be vehicle and powertrain resizing, which refers to making cars lighter, with electrification, platooning, and eco-driving as the other key dynamics that can cut demand relative to expectations.
The EIA says that the greatest factor in reducing fuel demand with full autonomy would be vehicle and powertrain resizing, with electrification, platooning, and eco-driving as the other key dynamics that can cut demand relative to expectations.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the impact of autonomy on fuel demand, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) urges the federal government, through the Mid-term Evaluation (MTE) for fuel economy, to begin measuring the impact of new technologies and business models, such as autonomous vehicles and ridesharing, for future incorporation into the standards, as they could lead to large reductions in oil demand in the longer term, especially if the right incentives are put in place. The MTE, which the Trump administration reopened earlier this year, provides the opportunity to update fuel economy standards that were first put in place in 2012 and help boost incentives for auto and tech companies to develop more efficient AVs and deploy alternative fuel drivetrains. Also through the MTE, the government can shift to regulating the entire mobility system instead of just single vehicles. This would bring about a structure to slice oil demand further than expected in the original fuel economy standards.
Autonomy certain to cut demand for fuel in trucking
When considering autonomy in buses and both light and freight trucks, the EIA sees lower demand compared to its base case in all scenarios.
There’s uncertainty about how AVs will impact fuel demand in the light duty sector. But when considering buses and both light and freight trucks, the EIA sees lower demand compared to its base case in all scenarios, with demand being reduced by as much as 18 percent in each sector by 2050 as a result of adopting the new technology. For freight trucks, this outlook stems from manufacturers reducing the speed for most automated trucks in order to boost safety, while platooning technology should also bring about fuel savings. In fact, the EIA projects that fuel consumption for the freight trucking industry could be reduced by 4.5 percent by 2030, almost 14 percent in 2040, and more than 18 percent in 2050 compared to the reference case from simply adopting level 1-3 technology. For buses and light trucks, reduced congestion and smoother traffic flows will underpin significant fuel savings.