Automated cars may boost sprawl and fuel use, Toyota scientist warns


Toyota Motor Corp. is cautioning that the appeal of autonomous cars carries the risk of adding to urban sprawl and pollution, as they may encourage commuters to travel farther to work.

Technologies that let a driver turn vehicle controls over to the car itself should begin arriving late this decade, said Ken Laberteaux, senior principal scientist for Toyota’s North American team studying future transportation. Faster commutes can bring unintended consequences, Laberteaux said in an interview at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco on Wednesday.

“U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things,” Laberteaux said. “The pattern we’ve seen for a century is people turn more speed into more travel, rather than maybe saying ‘I’m going to use my reduced travel time by spending more time with my family.’ “

Toyota and other auto manufacturers, along with technology companies such as Google Inc., are accelerating research into systems to partly or fully automate driving. While benefits could include eliminating traffic accidents and congestion, and in turn cutting fuel use, driverless technology may also result in people using their cars as mobile offices during commutes.

U.S. regulators are encouraging development of automated vehicle systems to reduce traffic accidents that kill more than 30,000 people per year. Regulatory and legal issues with self-driving cars, such as liability in accidents, have yet to be addressed and are among the topics being discussed at the San Francisco conference.

Toyota has said it favors more of a “copilot” approach to automated vehicles, rather than a driverless system. The carmaker, based in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, hasn’t said when it will sell the vehicles.

The company’s shares have fallen 5.4 percent this year, compared with a 1.8 percent drop in the benchmark Topix index.

Local governments could take steps to avoid lengthier commutes by drivers of autonomous cars by using tolls, for example, Laberteaux said. Such steps also tend to be unpopular in the U.S.

“We’ve created an entire culture and economy based on the notion that transportation is cheap,” he said.