Blending self-driving systems with fully electric vehicles: is this reality just around the corner, or is there still a long way to go?

In the US only, 28% of greenhouse gas emission are due to transportation. More than half of that can be traced back to light-duty vehicles such as cars and mopeds. What if self-driving cars could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The short distances covered by electric vehicles and the idea of using self-driving cars as robotaxis to cover hundreds of kilometers each day, are just some of many conflicting aspects that emerge when trying to combine e-mobility with automatized transportation systems. For instance, all the additional equipment needed to make a car into an autonomous vehicle sucks up a lot of energy, reducing the range of the journeys.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University estimate that this tradeoff is not that big of a deal after all. In fact, they found that smart software and hardware tweaks could make battery-powered self-driving cars a reality soon.

The automobile industry is divided on the topic of self-driving vehicles: some believe that gas hybrid vehicles will be the key to success, others believe that fully electric ones will be the reality. This reminds us that autonomy is both an ambitious research project and a potential multi-trillion-dollar business, and that different players see different paths to market.

Dan Pierce, a spokesperson for autonomous vehicles at Ford says that the company is planning on moving towards battery-electric self-driving cars in the future. However, the company plans to launch gas-electric hybrid autonomous vehicles in 2022. In fact, Ford’s studies show that up to 50 percent of a battery-electric vehicle’s range would be sucked up by the computing power demanded by self-driving software and that the fast charging required to run a fleet of self-driving cars would degrade the electric battery too quickly.

General Motors, and its self-driving-tech subsidiary Cruise, have a different perspective: Cruise unveiled a six-seat electric vehicle and says it will be the foundation of a probable self-driving ride-hail service. Before that moment comes, Cruise plans to rely on an all-electric Chevrolet that has been tested in San Francisco. In addition, Cruise wants to make charging more convenient by building more charging infrastructure in city centers.

In recent years,  autonomous driving has gone from “maybe possible” to “now commercially available”. In December 2018, Waymo, the company that emerged from Google’s self-driving-car project, officially started its commercial self-driving-car service in the suburbs of Phoenix. Now smaller startups like May Mobility and Drive.ai are running small-scale but revenue-generating shuttle services. 

The key to the long term success of automakers is the rebranding and rebuilding of the companies as “mobility providers” before the idea of car ownership becomes a distant memory. Countless startups have popped up to fill niches in a fast growing sector, focusing on laser sensors, compressing mapping data, setting up service centers, and much more.

According to some predictions, driverless tech may, on one hand, add $7 trillion to the global economy and save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few decades and on the other hand it could devastate the auto industry and its associated gas stations, drive-thrus, taxi drivers, and truckers. Some people will prosper. Most will benefit. Many will be left behind. What is the best compromise? There is no easy and straightforward answer to this question.

Let’s go back in time for just one moment and think about when automobiles first started rumbling down streets and people called them “horseless carriages”. That made perfect sense: those were vehicles that did what carriages did, minus the horses, so “horseless carriages” was more than appropriate. By the time the term “car” became a term of common use, the invention itself had become something completely new and different to the original concept. In just over a century, it reshaped how humanity moves and thus how humanity lives. This cycle has restarted! The term “driverless car” will soon seem as outdated as “horseless carriage.” We don’t know how cars that don’t need human drivers will mold society, but we can be sure a similar gear shift is on the way.

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