Will driverless cars decrease fossil fuel consumption?

There was a time when manual transmissions always outperformed automatics on the track, but you won't find a clutch on today's F1 supercars anymore. Those have been replaced by semi-automatic paddle shifters mounted to the steering column. Even on the street-legal consumer side, acceleration is a shifting landscape.

While six-speed manuals such as the Lingenfelter Chevy Corvette and Dodge Viper Hennessey Venom still hold the top 0 to 60 mph times, today/s automatics are increasingly accelerating faster and getting better fuel economy than their manual counterparts in what amounts to a significant changing of the guard.

In the automotive world -- as in computing, Jeopardy!, and sometimes even chess -- technology is outperforming humans.

With much talk about driverless car technology lately, that begs a number of questions. One example: Vehicle fuel efficiency, hybrids and electric vehicles are central to a transforming, cleaner, greener transportation system; What will driverless cars mean for fossil fuel consumption in the transportation sector? At RMI, we're very interested in the answers to this question.

Individual driverless cars come with important opportunities for increased efficiency. Groups of driverless cars likewise have the potential for even greater collective efficiencies, for example through shared reduced drag. And driverless vehicles seamlessly connected to smart infrastructure offer even greater promise still.

Consider hypermiling, which focuses on maximizing fuel efficiency through driving technique and has a cult of devout enthusiasts pushing the limits of their vehicles' mpg. For example, one driver on hypermiling site ecomodder.com is coaxing more than 86 mpg out of a 1988 Honda Civic, besting its EPA rating by close to 175 percent.

Hypermiling requires a whole new approach to driving -- how fast you drive; how you accelerate, brake, and approach hills and traffic lights. Most drivers aren’t well versed in how to hypermile; they just try to maintain (or not overly exceed) the speed limit. But driverless cars could do the hypermiling for us. (The Honda Civic Hybrid’s Econ Button is already a small step in that direction, prioritizing efficiency over a driver’s lead foot tendencies.)

And while hypermiling is often derided as “a fun way to drive slow,” driverless cars—via connected autonomy—could actually enable us to get places faster while still maintaining hypermile-like fuel economy.

Next page: Driverless drafting and a "Days of Thunder" reference