The Drive Toward Electric Autonomous Vehicles

The Drive Toward Electric Autonomous Vehicles
Not to be outdone by Tesla, Ford's lineup of electric hybrids command attention along with other carmakers on the road.

With Tesla’s announcement this year that their long-awaited Model 3 is available at the promised base price of $35,000, it seems that all roads are leading toward autonomous electric vehicles. This crash course is due to the technology convergence of batteries, sensors, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and their associated costs, causing a pile-up so big that the world cannot avoid. Invisible hands are now steering us toward a new transportation future.

The estimate is that the average car today is only used 4% of the time, meaning that most vehicles sit dormant the equivalent of 350 days per year. However, Uber and Lyft are having the biggest impact in denting the traditional car ownership/usage model, this even despite some of the pain Uber is feeling in the market including some countries banning them from operating. In 2017 in San Francisco, ridesharing accounted for 20% of the total odometer miles. That doesn’t even include autonomous vehicles and how that could wreck the automobile industry’s sales.

The acceptance of autonomous vehicles is already at 57% worldwide. When you consider that it would be safer, reduce congestion due to eliminating the number of cars between 25% to 50%, reduce the cost of maintenance, eliminate the need for car insurance and free up parking spaces, it’s easy to understand why it is already so high. Autonomous electric vehicles could also improve mobility for seniors and minors who don’t have a license, further increasing the usage rate.

Plus, Ford Motor Company and other carmakers have added their “two cents” to the electric-car market, stepping up targets for EVs and electrified vehicles.

Some people are already integrating new mobile-based technology to make services better. Poland’s Idea Bank has already developed a vehicle-mounted ATM that will come to your location, so you don’t have to go to the bank. I am sure this is one of many examples of how autonomous electric vehicles can be used to improve everyday life in the future.

We’ll most likely always have cars; the shape and form and what level of autonomy continue to be answered by the future.

Autonomous on the Farm When Autonomous Wasn’t Cool

Maybe because more of the population can relate, it seems self-driving cars daily grab the headlines. The quieter revolution has been going on down on the farm much longer.

For decades, U.S. farmers have been using similar autonomous technology to give them a preemptive approach to planting, harvesting and maintaining our crops. Ask any Arizona farmer today and he or she will talk about the continuing possibilities of driverless farm equipment either because they’re using some form of it already or enjoy seeing the demonstrations equipment dealers regularly display.

Autonomous tractors already use advanced sensors and systems planned for self-driving cars. And, most tractors sold in the United States already include auto-steering systems that even give additional control in low-visibility situations.

In fact, farmers and ranchers can purchase the technology for automating an old tractor without even purchasing a brand-new model. It’s basically plugin and play.

In some sense, the self-driving vehicle on asphalt is playing catch up with the self-driving vehicle on farmland.

 

Environmental Cause

With the emphasis on climate change, there has been a radical expansion of renewables over the last decade. What can be mapped back to President Carter’s speech on April 18, 1977, advocating for permanent renewable energy sources in the wake of the Oil embargo ( https://alternativeenergy.procon.org/view.timeline.php?timelineID=000015#1951-1999) was energized by President Obama’s call in 2009 for doubling renewable energy within the following three years. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_the_United_States). President Obama’s plans were fueled by $16.8 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, of which $3.5 billion went towards renewable energy projects such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels development. $11.3 billion went towards energy efficiency and conservation programs, and $2 billion went towards advanced battery development. Add to this the federal tax incentives and state-mandated Renewable Portfolio Standards, and we are halfway home to the destination of electric vehicles.

In the United States in 2017, about 64% of total electricity generation was produced from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), but we are veering away from coal. The fracking revolution has done more for the environmental movement than any campaign promise could ever accomplish. In the search for more fuel, fracking has allowed the United States to become energy-independent again, becoming a net exporter of oil for the first time in 75 years in 2018. It has also made coal-fired generation uneconomical, sending a fleet of existing coal plants to the junkyard (decommissioned).

The focus on curbing pollution emissions doesn’t stop with power plants. While many of us have heard about the “War on Coal,” over the years there has been a less targeted approach on transportation and vehicle emissions. Transportation was the largest contributor to CO2 emissions (28.5% compared to 28.4% from Electricity Production) in 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions ( https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions). Previous approaches to reduce pollution have been in the form of fuel efficiency standards, but the world (or at least just the United States), didn’t seem ready to give up the control of having their hands on the wheel of their own vehicles. However, technology is changing the future of car ownership and how we power them.

With coal declared dead by the Sierra Club, the electrical grid needed to find something to fill this pothole. Natural gas as peaking plants, typically used like the nitrous in racecars, are being converted to more baseload power production. The Energy Information Administration expects renewable energy (solar and wind) to be the fastest energy source for at least the next two years. The technology convergence in these fields has made renewables cheaper than all other energy sources in some cases. The rapid expansion of rooftop solar and the energy efficiency brought on by social awareness and technology has led to declining load growth for multiple utilities, leaving them looking for new load sources.

However, most renewables coming online are intermittent. Basically, the problem with solar is that it doesn’t produce at night. Wind has a different schedule, with things ramping up late at night and early morning. While clean and affordable, they don’t match the needs of the American consumer, affecting the reliability of the grid.

The Power Grid

The power grid needs to work like your gas pedal, giving you power when you want it. And, when you try to pile 300+ million people with their own schedules and needs, you need the responsiveness that your gas pedal provides.


 

Since battery storage has yet to be perfected on an economic scale, the electric utility world is worried about the reliability of the grid. Solar production in California is so great, some Arizona utilities are being paid to take the over-generation. This creates a huge problem, known as the Duck Curve, as the solar production declines with the sunset, and the load goes up as people arrive home after working.

 

Another huge problem for utilities is resilience. Natural disasters (forest fires, hurricanes, etc.) have demolished the electrical transmission infrastructure areas of California, Houston, Puerto Rico, Florida, and others and exposed them to major outages. Multiple areas are looking towards micro-grids to improve resilience, but most areas don’t have a generator included in their system or at least sufficient enough to power the whole community. That is why these areas are pursuing batteries to enhance resiliency. This interest is speeding the development of batteries to be used in electric vehicles.

Besides resiliency, energy utilities are looking toward batteries to shave peak load, the way peaker plants used to provide energy during the heat of the day in the summer. If utilities can capture the excess energy during the day and shave the peak in the afternoon, they could get a return on their investment. Some companies are already doing this, and it’s called time-of-use arbitrage. This could also work on congested transmission lines as well.

If batteries are dispatched on an economic scale, resilience, reliability, and load-shaving could be improved. What if they could get all the benefits of batteries without having to pay the capital?  What if they could tap an underutilized asset that might parallel our needs by being parked on the grid when we need them? What if that same asset needs us as much as we need it, kind of like the rideshare model? 

Most utilities see batteries in electric vehicles as the solution to their problems. Most environmentalists see electric vehicles as the solution to the transportation pollution problem. Some companies see electric vehicles as the next big market opportunity. That is why Dyson has promised to invest $2.7 billion to build an electric vehicle by 2020.

How is this possible? Because, according to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation” Tony Seba, the average autonomous electric vehicle will have 20 moving parts as opposed to 2,000 in an internal combustion engine. It is estimated that battery costs will continue to decline and hit the magic price point in 2024 and that the cost of an electric vehicle will continue to decline. Some estimates are that autonomous electric vehicles will be in the $22,000 range in 2025. Mr. Seba estimates that the U.S. vehicle fleet could shrink by 80% by 2030. The last speedbump for autonomous electric vehicles is the battery charging infrastructure.

With all these factors steering us towards an autonomous vehicle future, it wouldn’t surprise me if we get there in the next decade. While I may place last on the drive towards autonomous electric vehicles, I sure won’t mind a faster, safer and less crowded commute every day. So next time (or the first time) you see a driverless vehicle, try not to swerve. It will probably avoid you anyway.

 

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