Six Reasons Why Electric Vehicles and Autonomous Vehicles Will Inevitably Merge

As the automotive industry evolves, two major innovations have emerged almost in parallel – increased electrification, peaking in fully electric vehicles (EVs), and increased driver assist features, peaking in the (not yet achieved) idea of self-driving cars (client registration required for both). A common question we receive is whether these two must be combined: Must self-driving cars be electric? The short answer is no – or, more accurately, not yet. It will be possible to make a competent self-driving car using older internal combustion engine (ICE) technology as the power source that drives the wheels. However, there are six good reasons why it is most likely that self-driving cars will be overwhelmingly electric – that is, six reasons why the two technologies will “merge”:

  • Technology-focused early adopters want both innovations in the same car: Automotive innovations are expensive, and they come to premium cars first. Tesla’s $100,000 EVs exemplify this premium well, but the same applies to driving assist features too, which in more advanced forms add thousands of dollars to the price of a car. The type of early adopters that can afford such price premiums often seek out technological differentiation as their reward – which means they want the OEM to include both electric and self-driving features in the same car, like in the new Mercedes-Benz S Class (client registration required). As these innovations eventually trickle down and become more affordable, the initial pairing demanded by early adopters will carry on through to the mass market, as well.
  • It is easier to implement autonomous features on EVs: Between their multitude of sensors and advanced computing hardware and software, self-driving cars require more from a car’s electrical subsystem. Today, ICE engines still largely use 12 V electrical systems, running off a single lead-acid battery; the higher voltages and energy stored in an EV battery pack allows much more design freedom when it comes to self-driving hardware and software implementations. It is also simpler to control an electric motor and battery pack than an internal combustion engine, with its thousands of moving parts and complex cabling (for example, “drive by wire” technology is a more natural fit for EVs). Indeed, in their prototyping of autonomous features, General Motors, Nissan, and Google have each opted to use EVs as their starting platform (client registration required). None of this is to say that ICE-based cars are impossible to make self-driving; the engineering is just somewhat simpler when using an EV.
  • Wireless charging integrates seamlessly with autonomy: A self-driving car will have a hard time filling itself with gasoline. It would either require its driver to do it, or a gas station attendant to do it, or a robot (see Fuelmatics and Rotec Engineering). Wireless charging, which is now coming to market for some plug-ins from Audi, Toyota, and others, does away with this issue (client registration required). An autonomous car can drive to an open parking spot, align itself properly, and self-charge using wireless charging. Better yet, it can move itself when done, allowing for a higher utilization rate of charging infrastructure (while EVs that are not self-driving would be stuck there until their owners moved them). Wireless charging is also more efficient as a function of alignment – and self-driving cars will be able to park themselves optimally, every time, to ensure the highest possible wireless charging efficiency. Finally, it enables “opportunistic charging”: Rather than waiting until the battery pack is nearly empty, a vehicle can charge itself when it is between driving duties.
  • More efficient self-driving extends range, which is an EV pain point: All developers of EVs still struggle with range anxiety, and any technology that can extend driving range will be welcomed. Early studies indicate that self-driving technology may improve driving efficiency by 5% to 10%, thanks to smoother braking and acceleration, as well as more logical coasting and regenerative braking thanks to advanced mapping and predictive algorithms (client registration required). For EVs, extending driving range by 5% to 10% using autonomy will be a welcome side benefit. More tests remain to be done to quantify the exact bump, but the promise is there. Once it arrives, OEMs could use it to allow cars to drive longer distances (lower range anxiety for same price), or to make cars cheaper (same range anxiety, but smaller battery pack lead to a lower price point).
  • Both technologies will mature at around the same time: Despite Tesla’s high profile, EVs are still not popular, barely making up about 1% of new car sales worldwide. Likewise, despite Google’s showy prototypes, fully self-driving cars are a distant promise. However, both are steadily progressing: Year by year, batteries get less expensive, helping EVs sell better. Year by year, sensors and software improves, allowing driver assist features to improve in their sophistication, making steady progress towards full autonomy. By our estimate, it will be around 2030 that both technologies will mature – that is, when plug-ins will become the mainstream drivetrain type, and when full autonomy will be achieved (client registration required for both). That happy coincidence will allow the two innovations to enter into a virtuous cycle, with each benefiting the other.
  • Both technologies will become mandated by governments: As EVs become more affordable and more mainstream, the idea of governments allowing OEMs to sell ICE-powered cars will be seen as increasingly irresponsible. Indeed, a number of governments around the world are already debating about when to ban the sale of ICE-powered cars. That will not happen for a while, but the time will come when the ICE will be regulated out of existence. Similarly, once driver assist features conclusively prove that they are much safer than human drivers, governments will mandate that they become standard equipment, just like they did with airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and other innovations. Essentially, the end game for why self-driving cars will be EVs will be because governments around the world will force OEMs, by law, to implement both technologies. That could be from an outright ban, or a subtler policy shift that makes ICE vehicles become economically unviable, because of higher taxes, penalties, or added-cost components.

Having a single disruptive innovation take over the market, be it the electric drivetrain or autonomy, is impactful enough. Having both happen, at around the same time, is a terrifying prospect for incumbents all across the value chain, from automotive OEMs and suppliers all the way down to oil and gas companies. Those working on either innovation – be it electrification or autonomy – should make every effort to keep up with both areas, and develop meaningful partnerships that bridge the divide, since inevitably the two technologies will merge, resulting in something greater than the sum of the parts.

By: Cosmin Laslau