The Evolution & Benefits of Autonomous and Electric Vehicles
While autonomous (AVs) and electric vehicles (EVs) are still in their infancy, the development and adoption of these two technologies are rapidly expanding. With innovation and advancements in technology continuing to push the needle forward, electric and autonomous vehicles are poised to disrupt the transportation landscape – triggering the largest shakeup the industry has seen in over a century.
In The Road to Driverless Cars: An Overview of Autonomous Vehicles, part one of our five-part series, we delved into the history and basic anatomy of AVs. Now, in the second leg of our series, let’s analyze the invaluable benefits AVs offer.
What Are the Benefits of AVs?
1 | Greater Road Safety
In 2018, The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a series of traffic safety statistics, one of which determined 94% of all vehicle accidents are a result of human error. This percentage is historically consistent, with evidence dating back to a 1979 Indiana University study that identified human error as the main cause of 93% of traffic accidents. In a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study of traffic fatalities for 2018, there were 36,560 fatalities which were a result of vehicle involvement. The Urban local and collector roads, the locations currently considered for the earliest introduction point for AV’s, had 11.7% of the fatalities (4,266). While AVs realistically won’t end all traffic accidents, they do stand to significantly reduce their frequency and severity.
2 | Greater Independence
In a 2017 National Household Travel Study (NHTS), researchers found an estimated 24.6 million Americans struggle with traveling outside of the home due to disabilities. Categorically, these disabilities include restricted or prohibitive movement as well as those battling vision impairment – which impacts over 7.2 million Americans over the age of 16. Autonomous vehicles have significant potential to open a completely new mode of mobility and personal freedom, including employment, for many of these individuals.
3 | Reduced Travel Congestion
With the utilization of sensors and Lidar systems in autonomous vehicles, comes the ability to maintain a consistent distance, minimizing the stop-and-go surge associated with normal driving patterns. As the adoption of autonomous vehicles increases, it will prompt a corresponding uptick in traffic flow efficiency. One of the clear-cut winners for the AV would be in dense urban environments where the vehicle population is limited by logistics, but transport of many people is necessary.
4 | Environmental Gains
Currently, the autonomous vehicle market is dominated by electric vehicles (EVs), as they produce zero carbon emissions and are ideally suited for dense urban areas where pollution is most concentrated. This proves to effectively minimize our ecological footprint when leveraged in a robotaxi service or ridesharing capacity.
While decidedly not urban, another potential environmental benefit can be found in platooning (the process where a single manned truck is followed by a convoy of synchronized EV trucks using autonomous technology and other driver support systems). Using this method to transport cargo and goods across long distances results in lower emissions and decreased driver operating costs.
The ABC’s of AVs, EVs, and HFCs
AV and EV Marriage
Many of the perceived benefits of AVs uncovered nearly 35 years ago still remain true and prevalent today. While safety and convenience continue to reign supreme, perhaps the largest component impacting the rise of autonomous vehicles can be attributed to the extreme growth of the EV marketplace. When operated continuously, electric vehicles are an excellent environmentally-friendly solution, serving a multitude of customers in urban environments and taxi-type roles.
AVs require a substantial stable power source to adequately fuel the sensing and hardware components. Fortunately, this is available through the EV battery power source. Additionally, AV systems can seamlessly integrate into an EV vehicle system to further enhance the safety aspect of autonomous operations.
AV and EV Evolution – HFC
A future consideration for AVs would be the potential migration from EVs to Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) vehicles provided the market and infrastructure continues to evolve for HFCs. Worth noting, HFCs today suffer from the same inefficiency (currently around 38%) and technology constraints EV batteries encountered twenty years ago.
Two decades ago, the average range of an electric vehicle was around 60 miles with 80% charge achieved in 2-1/2 hours and yet today, with advancements and breakthroughs, over 400 miles is realized, and an 80% charge achieved in around 30 minutes. Hydrogen itself remains cost prohibitive with an essentially nonexistent market outside of specific use-case or testing installations. In general, HFC vehicle packaging lags behind EV powertrains with the hydrogen tanks creating additional layers of difficulty incorporating. Considering these advancements, technology will likely evolve for HFCs, conversion efficiencies will improve, and infrastructure will grow as the market matures, however full replacement of EVs is highly unlikely. A benefit for AVs utilizing HFCs would be the ability to fill a hydrogen tank in essentially the same time as filling a petrol tank with similar or greater range versus their EVs counterparts, meaning more operational uptime.
AVs powered by HFCs also present their case when considering platooning and climate. While there are companies making the news stating the range of their batteries is on par or exceed the average daily mileage of a long range over the road truck driver (650 miles), in principle to achieve this range the batteries must operate between 50 F and 86 F. Due to the thermal operational window for batteries and their added weight, AVs for heavy truck platooning powered by HFC may be a viable step forward in the years ahead.
In the third part of our series, we’ll explore the business case for AVs, covering the who, what, where, and when. Stay tuned.