Computers that power self-driving cars could be a huge driver of global carbon emissions
Author: Adam Zewe
In the future, the energy needed to run the powerful computers on board a global fleet of autonomous vehicles could generate as many greenhouse gas emissions as all the data centers in the world today. That is one key finding of a new study from MIT researchers that explored the potential energy consumption and related carbon emissions if autonomous vehicles are widely adopted. The data centers that house the physical computing infrastructure used for running applications are widely known for their large carbon footprint: They currently account for about 0.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or about as much carbon as the country of Argentina produces annually, according to the International Energy Agency. Realizing that less attention has been paid to the potential footprint of autonomous vehicles, the MIT researchers built a statistical model to study the problem. The researchers also found that in over 90 percent of modeled scenarios, to keep autonomous vehicle 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. In one scenario - where 95 percent of the global fleet of vehicles is autonomous in 2050, computational workloads double every three years, and the world continues to decarbonize at the current rate - they found that hardware efficiency would need to double faster than every 1.1 years to keep emissions under those levels.