If you’re thinking that the so-called driverless vehicles are also fuel efficient and will contribute to the welfare of the planet, think again. According to a report in Bloomberg by Gabrielle Coppola and Esha Dey, “Autonomy and battery power could end up being at odds.”
The reason? “Self-driving technology is a huge power drain” . . . with some of today’s “fully autonomous systems” consuming “two to four kilowatts of electricity—the equivalent of having 50 to 100 laptops continuously running in the trunk, according to supplier BorgWarner Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI). This makes it “likely [that] robo-taxis that are constantly on the road will be too energy-hungry to run on battery power alone.”
I’ve written quite a few blogs on how the automotive industry isn’t real happy with the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, and how attempts to further reduce the carbon footprint is resulting in other consequences. Loading a vehicle up with the type of electronics it takes to power and drive an autonomous vehicle, according to automotive engineers quoted in the Bloomberg article, is an enormous challenge to lightweighting and emissions reduction.
Bloomberg quotes Scott Gallett, VP of Marketing at BorgWarner: “We’ve been battling all the time because the governments are always pushing for a few percent improvement every year. This just amplifies that challenge.”
Tempe, AZ, is currently a testing ground for autonomous cars, and typically three of them can be seen almost daily driving together, their roof-tops loaded with sensors to ensure safe movement on the typically crowded streets of this heavily populated university town. People who share the road with these vehicles are known to express a bit of trepidation about the ability of these vehicles to achieve that goal of safety.
Bloomberg suggests that the optimum method of combating these power-hungry, driverless systems is to go hybrid gasoline-electric, rather than all-electric, and quotes Jim Farley, Ford’s President of Global Markets: “If you are trying to maximize your utilization" of an autonomous vehicle, a battery-electric car "is really restrictive for your business.” Farley notes that Ford believes “hybrids are ‘the right tech to start with."
So, is the automotive industry engaging in a game of tug-of-war with itself? The more it searches for greater energy efficiency and CO2 reduction through vehicle lightweighting, the more weight is added through the use of electronics and batteries. What this all really means is that the great hope of environmentalists to rid the world of fossil fuels isn’t likely to happen any time soon.
Not only do electric vehicles need strong, reliable electric power to charge their batteries, which comes primarily from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, hybrid vehicles that use gasoline alongside electricity are proving to be optimal for heavy-duty driving capabilities.
As I have often mentioned, the law of unintended consequences is always in play and that is particularly true with technology. Solving one situation that is perceived to be a problem often creates other, unforeseen real problems.