Autonomous vehicles are going to be electric

 In Electric Cars

The electric vehicle (EV) is expected to be the next wave in vehicle transport. As a result, OEMs are committed to producing a variety of EV models in the coming years. For example, earlier this year, Ford announced an EV investment of $11 billion promising a 40 model range by 2022. Notably, other manufacturers such as BMW and Volvo have made similar pledges in anticipation of electrification.

Not far behind is autonomous vehicles (AVs). To provide a car with self-driving capabilities, you need a selection of camera sensors that create images of the surrounding environment, and either Radar or Lidar that measures distance and detects obstacles. For instance, Tesla vehicles have eight cameras’ and one Radar (notably, other manufacturers prefer LIDAR), that is integrated into the vehicle’s framework.

Self-drive testing is well underway. A notable front-runner is Uber, who look to take advantage of the technology with their vehicle sharing platform. Similarly, Tesla’s autopilot system embedded into the Model S, X, and the latest Model 3, already provides drivers with advanced self-driving capabilities.

However, it hasn’t been a smooth ride so far, a recent fatality involving an Uber self-driving vehicle in Arizona, rightly raised concerns. While in this case, the driver may be only partially to blame, it does, however, highlight the improvements required to the technology before it is deemed ready for widespread public use.

Uber testing an AV in San Francisco (Source: Google Images)

With that said, AVs have great potential to improve the current transport system. Self-driving technology can improve efficiencies in many areas.

The obvious one is reduced labor cost as human drivers will no longer be required. Moreover, AVs will be able to operate 24/7, which will have implications for the space needed for parking. AVs will also be able to communicate with each other, meaning that route planning will be more efficient, which could lead to much less road congestion, and as a result, AVs will be able to serve the current transport demand with fewer vehicles. Finally, road safety. Although problems have been well publicised, the overwhelming consensus remains that AVs will be much safer than human drivers.

Further to this, platooning technology, which allows vehicles to operate in close proximity and benefit from aerodynamic drag reduction is being trialed on public highways with heavy-duty vehicles. The technology is only currently applicable to relatively simple environments, i.e., driving in a straight line, but, as the technology develops it could be well suited to AV fleets in more complex urban areas.

You might be thinking, well this is all great but why are autonomous vehicles going to be electric? The short answer is because of the environmental impact, but first, let’s dive into the complexities of adding autonomous technology to a vehicle.

AV equipment adds considerable weight to a vehicle, meaning AVs will require additional power. For a conventional car, this will increase fuel consumption, and similarly for EVs, reduce the battery range. Notably, the industry has recognized the significant power requirements for a self-driving system, and therefore are pushing to reduce power requirements through chip adaptions and technological breakthroughs.

Interestingly, a recent study by the University of Michigan and Ford Motor Company claim that the added weight effect is more substantial on gasoline vehicles than EVs.

Perhaps more importantly, the study argues that the reason AVs will align with EVs is due to the disparity in the environmental impact of the two fuel types.

The US study compares the environmental impact or life-cycle emissions of autonomous technology on gasoline and EVs. Significantly, the research claims the critical factor is not the AV system itself (even though it does create emission efficiencies), but the choice of fuel. The main findings are displayed below.

Taking the worst-case scenario ‘worst US grid region’ as an example, this essentially means that fossil fuels serve the majority of electricity production, autonomous-electric vehicles (AEVs) produce fewer emissions than its gasoline counterpart. The most significant difference occurs when the mix of renewable energy is at its highest point. In this example, it relates to the ‘best US grid region’ where emissions from gasoline vehicles are seven times greater than EVs. In other words, AEVs can potentially reduce emissions by over 80 percent compared to gasoline vehicles with AV integration.

This is important, as it suggests that AEVs produce dramatically fewer emissions than gasoline autonomous vehicles. Therefore, AEVs are best suited to reduce emissions in the sector and therefore help meet policy targets. Moreover, notably, further improvements can be made by encouraging more clean electricity.

It is also the case that policymakers have set deadlines to ban the use of fossil fuel vehicles. For example, The UK and France have set the end of gas and diesel vehicles by 2040. Similarly, Norway a market leader in EVs have established a more ambitious deadline of 2025. Therefore, integrating autonomous technology with conventional cars would be short-term and arguably counter-intuitive.

Nevertheless, cost remains a critical barrier. EVs are still relatively expensive to gasoline vehicles, and currently, autonomous technology costs more than the car itself.  With that said, signs are positive.

Both technologies, once economies of scale take off, will become financially more appealing to consumers. Experts predict that self-driving technology will fall 90 percent by 2025. Similarly, according to Bloomberg, EVs are expected to reach price parity with gasoline vehicles by 2025, implying that overtime EVs and AEVs will be price competitive.

So, why are autonomous vehicles going to be electric? The first reason is down to the fact that EVs will help reduce transport emissions significantly, which is more than positive in the eyes of policymakers. Moreover, while in the short term autonomous technology will add to emissions output when integrated with EVs, the technology is more of a benefit than a burden.


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