Electric vehicles and driverless vehicles: The chicken and the egg
Two revolutions are happening in the automotive industry: driverless vehicles (DV’s) and electric vehicles (EV’s). In this article, Matt McGeehan CA examines the interdependence between these two technologies and some of their potential impacts.
EV sales are rocketing; partly driven by sleek models such as the Tesla model S and the BMW i8. In the first quarter of 2018 year-on-year sales of EV’s more than doubled in China and sales in Norway were up 48%.
The EV revolution hasn’t changed how we drive and the human is still in charge. However, the DV revolution is upon us with Ford forecasting commercially available driverless cars by 2021.
DV’s are controlled by a combination of RADAR, LIDAR (light detection and ranging), Sat Nav, video and infrared sensors. All this data is controlled by processing units similar to those used in computer games. All of these technologies already exist and development now hinges on harnessing them for steering, braking and acceleration functions. As DV proponents point out, airliners are already DVs.
The word “driverless” is not an all or nothing choice. In fact, it’s a matter of degree and the Society of Automotive Engineers has developed five levels of autonomy as follows:
Human controls the critical driving tasks but has technological assistance such as cruise control.
|Vehicle can control two functions at the same time such as steering and acceleration e.g. when self-parking. The driver is still in control at all times.
|Vehicle controls safety-critical functions of driving within certain conditions. Human driver still needed to monitor and manage changes in road environments.
|No driver interaction when vehicle is within its “operational design domain” such as within an urban environment under a certain speed. Vehicle has manual controls so that humans can take over when required e.g. extra-urban or above a certain speed.
|Vehicles completely autonomous in any circumstances. No human involvement in driving. There’s no steering wheel or pedals. Interior is effectively a lounge for the passengers.
Level 3 has effectively been achieved and only legislation is preventing Audi from selling its Level 3 enabled A8 saloon in the UK. Even Ford’s promises for 2021 are essentially for a Level 4 DV.
However, there’s a good reason why development shouldn’t stop there. Humans stay alert when they drive. However, when asked to supervise rather than drive, we get distracted, our reactions slow down and there’s a real risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. Therefore Level 3 or 4 is often viewed as a kind of “cruise control plus” and so the march to Level 5 autonomy continues.
Advantages of DVs
We love our cars and we love to drive. Most of us remember the thrill of passing our driving test and getting behind the wheel of our first car. However, there are many reasons to welcome DV’s.
- Human drivers make mistakes. There are over a million vehicle accident deaths every year and most involve driver error. Once the artificial intelligence is sufficiently well developed, DV’s should reduce road accidents which will reduce pressure on the emergency services.
- DV’s will allow us to work, read, sleep or watch a movie whilst getting from A to B.
- They will make cars accessible to the visually impaired and others who are currently unable to drive.
- DV’s could do errands for us while we are not in the car such as going to a drive-thru to pick up a burger.
- A DV doesn’t need to park outside your house. It could drop you at the front door and go off to find a remote parking space. This would open up our clogged suburban streets.
- Street lighting could be reduced as DV’s could navigate complicated junctions autonomously using RADAR, LIDAR etc.
- Our cars are parked 95% of the time. DV’s would allow us to use, share and park our vehicles more efficiently and reduce demand for parking.
Disadvantages of DVs
Level 5 DV’s would have some major disadvantages.
- Millions of people who make a living from driving, such as taxi and delivery drivers, could become redundant. Add these to the car mechanics who will be impacted by the EV revolution and the socio-economic implications could be significant.
- DV’s could increase congestion if people stop to shop and order the DV to circle rather than park.
- DV’s will conflict with conventional drivers who may take advantage of the DV’s inbuilt requirement to give way.
- Level 5 DV’s can’t make moral judgements when faced with a no-win situation such as choosing which of two cars to collide with.
Opinion about DV’s is divided. However, development is set to continue until we have some level of autonomous DV technology alongside the EV technology already on our streets.
What comes first - the chicken or the egg?
Let’s look at the inter-dependency between EV and DV. We clearly don’t need DV technology to have EV’s. The EV revolution is already happening ahead of the development of DV technology.
However, there is more dependency in the other direction. To harness the full benefits of DV technology the EV revolution needs to be in place. EV’s are a necessary condition for the success of DV’s for the following reasons;
- EV’s are easier to automate than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
- If we want to combine zero emissions with reduced fatalities then it makes sense to piggyback DV development on the back of EV technology.
- EV’s have fewer moving parts than ICE vehicles and there’s much less risk of a DV breakdown.
- The biggest factor is fuel sourcing. An ICE-powered DV couldn’t roll into a petrol station and safely fill itself up. However, an EV/DV could autonomously park over an induction loop and charge itself. It could even re-park itself, leaving that charging point free for other vehicles.
So, the EV revolution is the chicken which allows us to fully harvest the golden egg of DV technology.
The combination of EV and DV technology will undoubtedly change the way we travel. Indeed, as we climb the five autonomy levels, the verb “to drive” becomes increasingly redundant. The potential benefits could be significant. However, we must not ignore the environmental costs as well as the potential socio-economic impacts.