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Driverless Cars Before Electric Ones

John DeCicco's picture
University of Michigan Energy Institute

Research Professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Feb 26, 2013

Pushing electric cars into the market before we have driverless cars is putting the cart before the horse. Those concerned with sustainable transportation should turn on to the promise of intelligent connectivity and help overcome the regulatory, insurance and institutional barriers that can inhibit the rapid evolution of “tuned in” autonomous mobility. That will be more productive than attempts to mandate or subsidize plug-in cars, which lack a scalable business case in an unconnected transportation world. 

In spite of so much breathless advocacy from electric vehicle (EV) proponents, electrification itself is not a game changer for mobility. Putting a plug-in powertrain into the 19th century machine that had such a profound impact on the 20th century doesn’t make it a 21st century breakthrough. It just makes it a more expensive car.

Certainly the electric car has its passionate believers who are jazzed about the technology. Some consumers very much want to get off of oil or cut their carbon footprints. EVs can do both, no doubt about that, though at very high cost. Individuals who feel strongly about those issues and are willing and able to pay the added price are much to be admired.

But private passion does not justify public subsidy. As long as there are less expensive ways of reducing oil use and cutting carbon, neither taxpayers nor automakers nor consumers at large should be asked to absorb the high costs of electrification. Given the urgency of the climate problem, the focus should be on the most cost-effective options available today, which EVs are not. And given current fiscal constraints, public resources are best reserved for basic research to seek better batteries, advanced materials and other enabling technologies that can be used in a variety of products.

For cars, the real game changer will be intelligent connectivity. The safety benefits of vehicles “tuned in” to each other and their surroundings will be substantial, and it’s that potential that motivates government and industry research on connected transportation. Autonomous capability will liberate consumers from the need to drive, which will then disconnect them from the 20th century cultural expectations that define the high-power, full-function vehicles of today. Once mobility is networked, EVs are much more likely to thrive, especially in urban and suburban regions where most trips are fairly short and well suited to the technology.

What intelligent connectivity offers that mere changes of fuel or powertrain do not is the vast value proposition that will follow from freeing up consumers’ time. Think of the appeal of being able to dispatch robot vehicles for numerous errands both personal and commercial. Opportunities will open up for numerous connected mobility services and profitable new business models once autonomous systems provide the fertile ground on which mobile apps with a whole new meaning can flourish.

A widespread misconception is that getting EVs on the road is necessary for faster progress in reducing CO2 emissions. Such claims are based on numerous, but ultimately flimsy, scenario analyses that work backward from an imaginary future of renewable electricity while assuming that progress cannot be made in counterbalancing the CO2 emissions from liquid hydrocarbon fuels. As far as the car itself is concerned, the most cost-effective path forward is ongoing fuel economy improvement of gasoline and diesel vehicles. Including plugless hybrid drive, new fleet efficiency can be tripled over the next three decades. The costs will be incremental and so well within the realm of affordability for automakers and their customers.

There is indeed an urgent need to limit net CO2 emissions much more than can be done through efficiency alone. However, the next priority is to focus upstream in energy sectors where greenhouse gas emissions are yet to be well controlled. It’s not cost effective, necessary or fair to saddle the car market with ever greater expense as long as the electric power industry, oil and gas industry and other major energy and industrial sectors remain largely unconstrained on carbon. Vehicle electrification can wait until it makes sense for other reasons, which will only happen in a connected transportation world.

Unlike the difficult durability, safety and cost barriers posed to batteries by the challenges of electrochemistry, the obstacles to connected mobility are mainly nontechnical. The necessary communications capability, sensor technology and computing power are all available, and the costs of such systems can drop quickly through competitively driven economies of scale. A great deal of engineering has to happen, but none of it requires scientific breakthroughs.

In this regard, the automation of mobility is at a point similar to that of the automobile at the end of the 19th century. Internal combustion engines had already been invented and using them to propel motorcars was also worked out. What then triggered rapid progress were commercial innovations, including mass production to slash costs while boosting wages and car loans to close the remaining gap to mass affordability. Once an expansive business case was made, the accompanying institutional and policy changes fell into place, including the financial formula of fuel taxes to support roads. It was such nontechnical breakthroughs that enabled the rapid growth of personal automobility that is still underway around the world today.

Vehicle-to-vehicle (v2v) connectivity concept (source: US DOT)

Indeed, electrification isn’t a prerequisite for intelligently networked transportation, and so connected mobility can evolve while piston power still propels plenty of vehicles. The same design freedoms opened up by connectivity will enable engineers to develop far more efficient combustion-based cars, using less material along with compact gasoline and diesel engines and plug-free hybrid drive for energy-efficiency gains across the board. Horsepower can then go the way of the horse (consigned to nostalgic fans of racing) and vehicles can be better matched to their everyday missions, which are as mundane as they are essential.

Like the automobile a century ago, the driverless car must evolve; it cannot be centrally planned, at least not in a western democracy such as the United States. Today’s attempts for a government-led transition to EVs are as ill-considered, and are likely to be as ill-fated, as all the other top-down efforts to deploy alternatively fueled vehicles seen over the past three decades.

In addition to the wasteful subsidies for EVs themselves, another dubious use of public money is financing EV infrastructure. Sadly, that is the case for well-intentioned but poorly grounded programs for community “EV readiness” and investments in recharging corridors (analogs of the similarly questionable hydrogen highways). The advent of wirelessly charged robot cars will render such investments obsolete. It will make the CHAdeMO vs. SAE charger debate look like Betamax vs. VHS in the age of streaming video, except that there won’t have been any profitable period at all. In the form promoted today, EVs are destined to limp along for a decade or two, passionately embraced by a few and desperately subsidized for a few more, until rendered irrelevant by the real value revolution wrought by driverless technology.

As for connected mobility, only market forces can sort through the vast array of possibilities for how it might evolve. At one end of the spectrum are systems based on intensively networked podcars, an approach better described as automated rather than autonomous. This is the vision articulated by Reinventing the Automobile, for example. At the other end of the spectrum are autonomous vehicles having performance capabilities the same as today’s full-function automobiles. That approach is seen in the sport-utility vehicles used in the DARPA challenge and the ordinary vehicles equipped for autonomous driving in the Google car project. In between and beyond these two poles is a broad set of options that will only expand as more creative minds get engaged.

For now, automakers and policymakers are taking a cautious, stepwise approach to connectivity and other intelligent transportation systems, emphasizing technologies that assist the driver rather than take away driver control. Lane departure and proximity warnings and other crash avoidance mechanisms, adaptive cruise control, automated parking and parking location assistance, real-time traffic and incident information and other intelligent transportation services are all early steps that can add incremental value in today’s market even though they remain bound by the constraints of an unconnected system overall.

The most exciting opportunities are those emerging around v2x technologies, such as vehicle-to-vehicle (v2v) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (v2i) communications. For now, that does not include v2g, the vehicle-to-grid vision that inspires many plug-in proponents. It is premature to spend money on v2g demonstrations still fundamentally based on the deaf, dumb and blind cars of today, which will become anachronisms in a tuned-in transportation future. A more useful tack will be supporting the development and testing of automated and autonomous vehicle systems, developing open communications standards and protocols that will enable a mobility internet to evolve, and forging a public consensus for the regulatory, financing and insurance reforms needed to accelerate adoption of driverless vehicles. The private sector can then take the lead on exactly when, where and how to make the technology succeed in the market.

The policy emphasis on electrifying transportation sooner rather than later is just the latest act in the long-running, politically scripted circus known as the alternative fuel follies. It’s time to turn on to the promise of truly tuned-in mobility and drop out of the premature promotion of plug-in cars today. 

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James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Feb 25, 2013

Thank you for this posting.  Can you elaborate on exactly how converting to driverless cars would reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

John DeCicco's picture
John DeCicco on Feb 26, 2013

I didn't claim that in the article; indeed, it states that "the next priority is to focus upstream in energy sectors where greenhouse gas emissions are yet to be well controlled." Such a focus will become all the more important if driverless EVs are involved because although they can be quite energy efficient, EVs still shift CO2 and other emissions impacts upstream. 

In terms of broader sustainable tranportation benefits, the most clear advantage of driverless cars will be safety. In terms of overall pollution, the impacts will depend on how well emissions and other environmental harms are regulated throughout the entire vehicle-energy system in terms of production, use and waste handling. The potentially very high efficiency of driverless cars can help in many aspects of energy-related pollution, but just how much will depend on the circumstances. 

James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Feb 26, 2013

Thank you for your response.  I apologize for misreading your article.  I would like to know what you mean in your reply in your reference to the potentially very high efficiency of driverless cars.  Is this potential very high efficiency unique to driverless cars, or are you thinking of anticipated efficiency gains in both conventional and driverless cars?

I'm not trying to be argumentative, I sincerely want to know, as I certainly agree with your assertion that the promotion of electric vehicles as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is misguided at best.  I am very intrigued by the implications of driverless cars,and I would like to know about your thoughts.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Feb 26, 2013

I think that might make a stronger, more immediate appeal than vague things like energy scarcity, energy security, or even climate change, for what its worth. It might be a useful avenue for expanding discussion 

Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on Feb 26, 2013

Interesting article. I personally am agnostic to EV vs Driverless concepts. I figure they'll both arrive sooner than I'll be comfortable with just like smart cell phones. 

John DeCicco's picture
John DeCicco on Feb 28, 2013

In "conventional" (in this context, meaning human-driven) cars, the efficiency gains are incremental. As I allude via linking to my earlier Fuel Efficiency Horizon study, those stepwise gains could add up to a substantial gain over time. However, such incremental efficiency improvements wouldn't do much more than partially offset growth in travel in the years ahead, particularly if one takes a global perspective. 

Driverless cars will dramatically open up the efficiency potential, likely enabling an order-of-magnitude improvement or even more. However, the range of possibilities for the types and usage of vehicles, including robot vehicles, will also open up. Because driverless cars will be a truly disruptive technology, the impacts are impossible to predict quantitatively. My instinct is that the net effect -- more driving by more vehicles but with much greater efficiency -- will be beneficial relative to any forseeable incremental improvements in conventional (human-driven) vehicles. But just how well that will translate to net GHG reduction, I can't say. It's a topic I and undoubtedly others will examine, at least as well as can be done with hypothetical scenario analysis, in the months and years ahead.  

Nevertheless, as far as climate protection is concerned, the prospect of driverless cars does not in any way reduce the need for much greater focus upstream in reducing the net GHG emissions impacts associated with fuel supply systems, whether the fuel supplied is a liquid, electricity, hydrogen or other option. The need to get on with that upstream carbon management task is one of the ancillary themes of my post. On this point, prematurely pushing EVs does nothing to clean up the electric grid per se


John DeCicco's picture
John DeCicco on Mar 2, 2013

James -- see new comment above; I accidentally did a new comment instead of replying to yours. 

Oscar Fleury's picture
Oscar Fleury on Mar 2, 2013

DARPA and Google are government-abiding entities just making you believe that fully automatic driving will take the motorcar into a brilliant future -- are you sure the person you can see hands-off behind the steering wheel is not driving the car by his feet?

Fully automated flying is long-standing state-of-the-art (and easy at that). Hence, the Pentagon's strategists know only too well that with modern composite materials and electric propulsion the ultra-light tilt-rotor aircraft is a sleeping giant threatening their power-enforcement joker, i.e. total control of the global airspace, once it wakes up and the civil society takes possession of the global airspace with myriads of these aircraft.

@Barry Sweezey:

With 80 - 90% of cars moving around with the driver only, single-seaters will indeed be the mass-market -- whereby, yes, the remaining 10 -20% of passengers can be handled by tandem taxis (a bonanza for the jobless).

Moreover, moving one person in a one-seater electric car is more efficient than in the same car with a thermal engine -- since electric motors, unlike thermal engines, are down-scalable without loss of efficiency.

This said, the main benefit of tiny single-seaters is indeed the fact that all level-crossings in urban road networks can be made into roundabouts without heavy infrastructure changes -- besides the fact that the number of parking spaces can roughly be doubled on currently available surfaces. Also, narrow bidirectional lanes can be easily transformed into one-directional ones by a central separation strip -- whereby it must be noted that roundabouts and one-way streets are mandatory in order to protect tiny ultra-light vehicles from likely fatal collision damages.

And... the urban mini EV will come as the detachable cockpit of an ultra-light electric tilt-rotor airframe landed vertically at the urban periphery!

Birds fly since 200 million years -- humanity's future is in the air!

Individual freedom of movement being the most basic life resource, flying your own ultra-light electric tilt-rotor aircraft to the urban periphery where your cockpit detaches to become a mini electric city car to drive downtown, is the solution that will impose itself over time -- whether John DeCicco or any other of his fans do understand this issue or not...

Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on Mar 3, 2013

John, you write "likely enabling an order-of-magnitude improvement or even more". You realize an order-of-magnitude is 10x? There is no way a driverless car is going to get 400 mpg on the freeway, "or even more", if currently it has a rating of 40 mpg.

And really do I care about mileage? No I don't. I care about not wasting my time driving. 

More importantly though driverless vehicles are a stepping stone towards driverless "heliquads". They'll be battery operated, driverless and get us to our destination in a fraction the time. 

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