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Autonomous and electric: The perfect marriage?

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter

1-03-2021

       

In this article, we look at the shift to both driverless and electric, and question:

  • Were ambitious predictions for driverless and electric cars for 2025 ever realistic?
  • Will driverless cars be electric?
  • Are hybrid models the answer to combining driverless and electric tech?

Autonomous and electric: The perfect marriage?

It seems near impossible to talk about driverless cars without another emerging tech cropping up: electric. For a long time, the two technologies have been linked as green travel solutions. Where autonomous cars promise increased efficiency, electric vehicles promise reduced emissions in our cities (though the ecological impact of battery production is far from perfect) and so many have assumed the two would launch in tandem.

 

Similar goals have been set for both technologies too. Though the progress of AVs is falling behind early predictions Professor Nick Reed, a transport consultant involved in UK self-driving trials, explains, “Reality is setting in about the challenges and complexity,” but driverless could still be here by 2025. The shift to electric is expected to be equally challenging, but governments and manufacturers across the world have plans in place. Norway has put a ban on new petrol vehicle sales from 2025, the UK from 2030, California from 2035 and there are incentives to make the switch across Europe. Plus, companies with an interest in driverless tech are pledging their commitment to electric too – Lyft has promised to be all electric by 2030, and Uber plans to follow in 2040. So, are the two technologies intrinsically linked? Or will the shift to driverless vehicles be simpler than that to fully electric transport?

 


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Will driverless cars be electric?

Electric vehicles are limited by the distance they can travel between charges and driverless functionality, which requires a significant amount of power, reduces this range even further. Bulky lidar and cameras on the car’s exterior, though essential for driverless capability, impact aerodynamics – researchers from a recent Carnegie Mellon University project have found this alone could reduce range by 5-10%.

 

Yet there is still room for hope. Though autonomous features do risk reducing range and degrading batteries through fast charging of electric vehicles, those same researchers are sure that smarter software and hardware tweaks could make the technologies integrate smoothly. Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, adds, “We’re getting to a point where we won’t need to choose between autonomous driving and electric cars.”

 

 

Are hybrid models the answer to combining driverless and electric tech?

At the moment, hybrid looks like the best option for most OEMs. As Jim Farley, Ford CEO, explained back in 2017, “Hybrids help provide the significant amount of electrical power required for self-driving sensors and computing systems without having a significant impact on the mileage.”

 

Essentially, hybrids will give OEMs the opportunity to launch AVs sooner than if they were to wait for fully electric vehicles to be ready. Argo’s Bryan Salesky explains that it’s all about economics. “The way we look at it,” he says, “hybrids make sense in the very near term and then, as battery technology improves as we can put more and more battery power. We can phase in the fully electric vehicle.”

 

Many are committed to mastering this all-electric solution – batteries which supply greater range with less degradation and more efficient self-driving hardware are both in development. Plus, solid state batteries, which replace the liquid electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries with a solid one, look like a promising solution. They have a lower carbon footprint and pack up to 10 times more power, meaning less weight and more miles per charge. Toyota plan to debut one this year, but mass production is still a way off.

 

Another possible solution might be fuel cell technology. Hydrogen has been discussed as the ideal zero-carbon fuel for some time, but it has only recently started to become a viable option for manufacturers. By 2025, Toyota believe hydrogen cars will cost the same to produce as hybrids and the Hydrogen Council, an organisation made up of 92 major companies, claims the 2020s will be “the decade of hydrogen”. Hybrids, then, may not be the best option for much longer.

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Autonomy takes priority

Many major OEMs are, by necessity, committed to electric. It’s evident that electric vehicles are the future of automotive and that’s evidenced in the fact that major manufacturers like Volkswagen are retooling factories to build EVs and companies like Daimler are shifting their focus from car production to the tech arena. But there also seems to be an awareness that, to see AVs become a reality in the near future, we can’t link autonomous and electric tech too closely.

 


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For most, this means staying open to both hybrid and electric options. Waymo, for example, are developing their self-driving tech with both the fully electric Jaguar i-pace and Chrysler Pacifica hybrids. To meet the latest predictions – Ford aims to get AVs on the road in 2022 and Volkswagen want AVs on sale by 2025 – electric may just not be possible. And as they scale up, infrastructure, particularly the availability of fast charging points, will become an even greater problem.

 

If autonomy is to take priority, we may transition to a driverless future before a fully electric one is realised. That said, it’s clear the intention to make autonomous and electric technology work together seamlessly is there. We’ll just have to wait a few years longer to see it in action.

 

We’re always eager to hear what you think. Would you rather see an electric AV than a hybrid one? Do you think EVs, not AVs, should be manufacturers’ priority? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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