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"The Driverless Horseless Carriage: Steering the Anticipated Environmental Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles" (Natural Resources and Environment)

Natural Resources & Environment
Spring 2017

Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry—and ultimately the American way of life—in the early twentieth century by cultivating the moving assembly line, ushering in the age of mass production. The Third Industrial Revolution, The Economist (Apr. 21, 2012). The post-World War II housing boom coupled with the passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 led to the construction of a vast interstate highway system. The contemporaneous increased affordability of personal automobiles made living outside of city centers more accessible than ever before. Seth Browner, The Post-World War II Suburb in the United States, The First-Year Papers (2010–Present) 1, 1 (2013). Consequent land-use policies and restrictions engendered urban sprawl, leading to lasting socioeconomic, human health, and environmental impacts still tangible today. Just as the “horseless carriage” revolutionized land use and the American way of life in the twentieth century, autonomous vehicles (AVs) will have an enormous impact on land use and the environment in the twenty-first century.

Policy makers have an opportunity to anticipate the effects of this technological development on the environment rather than retroactively manage the unintended consequences. This article explores the manner in which emerging AV technology could impact current traditional strategies for managing environmental costs and benefits. The first section presents an overview of AV technology, the expected timeline of development, and the current legislative landscape. The second section examines potential impacts to the built and natural environment using history as a blueprint. Finally, the third section analyzes the impacts of these environmental costs and benefits on traditional environmental policies and recommends changes to such policies to anticipate and account for these AV impacts.

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