Study finds that computing needed for self-driving cars could generate more emissions

A study from MIT researchers has found that if autonomous vehicles become widely adopted, the energy needed to run the powerful computers on board could generate as many greenhouse gas emissions as all the data centers in the world today.

The researchers built a statistical model to study the problem and determined that 1 billion autonomous vehicles, each driving for one hour per day with a computer consuming 840 watts, would consume enough energy to generate about the same amount of emissions as data centers currently do. To keep emissions from zooming past current data center emissions, each vehicle must use less than 1.2 kilowatts of power for computing, which would require more efficient hardware.

The researchers used a Monte Carlo simulation to explore the range of possible outcomes for each variable. They found that the emissions from autonomous vehicles could exceed those from data centers if the global fleet of autonomous vehicles reaches 1 billion and the average power of the computers on board each vehicle is greater than 1.2 kilowatts.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.

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