The dream world of autonomous vehicles offers limitless possibilities. But as manufacturers well know, reality has its limits.
The technology needed to bring electrically powered autonomous vehicles to life exists, but there are many hurdles it needs to clear before society’s roads are populated with self-driving cars.
“The adoption of new technologies in transportation through history is interesting, and it’s exciting to realize the industry is in another wave of innovation where no one knows exactly how it will play out,” Nizar Trigui, chief technology officer of Bridgestone Americas Inc., said in an email. “Just like history saw an overlap of horse and buggies alongside automobiles when they were first introduced, Bridgestone expects to see the public embrace fully electric vehicles more as the world develops to accommodate them.”
Longer range, lower price
Autonomous vehicles likely will have to be electric for both regulatory and engineering purposes. EVs currently make up less than 1 percent of the global fleet. The Center for Automotive Research has that figure reaching 8 percent by 2030 thanks to investments by major original equipment manufacturers and government regulations driving fuel economy requirements.
But it will be awhile before EVs take a majority share.
“I think we’re at least 20 years away from that shift to where the alternative propulsion methods become the majority,” said Larry Williams, president of Henniges, which produces rubber automotive parts like weatherstrips. “We’re moving in that direction, but it’s a very small piece today. Even the ones who have publicly come out and said they’re going to eliminate it are still 15 to 20 years out before they get to that point.”
CAR Group CEO Carla Bailo said the main reason consumers aren’t buying EVs is that their cost relative to other vehicles is too high, and she said those with longer range are simply not affordable. But range is a close second, and in some ways goes hand-in-hand with price. Bailo said until consumers believe they can use an electric car to get wherever they want to go comfortably, it’s a tough sell.
Shashank Modi, research engineer with CAR Group, said battery range is improving, and would take a huge leap if the industry switched to solid state batteries, which are five times more energy dense and charge five times faster than a lithium ion battery.
On the plus side, prices for batteries and driver avoidance systems keep coming down as manufacturers scale up and make chemistry advances. Bailo said in a future economy some parts might become commoditized if they become shared products, which could help drastically bring prices down in one area to allow for further investment elsewhere in the vehicle.
“Whatever the discussions are around E-mobility, the range expectation of the customer is the No. 1 priority we have to solve in order to make an E-mobility industry possible,” said Frank Mueller, CEO of Vibracoustic, which produces noise and anti-vibration automotive parts.
Charged up infrastructure
Even if EVs become more affordable, there would need to be infrastructure improvements. Bailo said there are not enough charging stations for drivers to take an EV on a long trip confidently, and even if there were, the makeup of these stations would have to change.
EVs take anywhere from 20-30 minutes on average to fully charge, a lot longer than a quick trip to the gas station. These charging stops would need to be equipped with things to do.
Grid balance also will be key.
“Our country does not have the infrastructure to support a mass movement to electric vehicles,” said Bill Reynolds, manager of Orotex Corp.’s Novi, Mich., plant, which makes anti-vibration and noise reducing parts. “The combustion engine is going to be prominent for a very long time. Our electrical grid cannot support even a single digit switch to electric vehicles. The big thought that we’re all going to go there, it can’t be supported right now.”
Bailo said the industry must work together with the power companies, who also must push to make power renewable.
The U.S. grid is strained as it is, so power providers must price accordingly to encourage customers and fleets to charge during off-peak hours—from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Bailo said there also will be the opportunity to take power back from the vehicle into the grid if someone has the vehicle plugged in overnight or while sitting at work for eight hours.
Hurdles aside, electrification seems to be inevitable.
“The auto makers are still going to go with electrification,” Bailo said. “It’s going to happen because if you look what’s happening in China and Europe, they need that portfolio across their model line. It’s not going to slow down the development of those required propulsion systems.”
The step from electric to self-driving vehicles is just as daunting. Bailo said the main issues with autonomous vehicles primarily have to do with communication.
Initially, there will be the impact of legacy vehicles that don’t communicate at all. Bailo said the average age of a vehicle on the road today is approaching 12 years and could get longer thanks to the current debt ratio and loan lengths. Figuring out how a self-driving car communicates with these vehicles will be a significant challenge.
“When you have that melding of products, it’s going to limit where you can put an autonomous vehicle,” Bailo said. “In geo-fenced areas, where legacy vehicles aren’t permitted, we’ll see that in five years. But again, that’s a small percentage in totality when you think about all the vehicles that are sold.”
There also needs to be infrastructure in place for these vehicles to communicate, both to cloud systems and with one another. Bailo said rules and policies must be consistent across jurisdictions.
“You can’t change a car’s brain just because it changes across a county, city or state line,” she said. “We need to have the correct rules and processes in place. Right now, the technical side is sorely lagging.”
Autonomous vehicles also give hackers another opportunity to wreak havoc on society. Bailo said there’s no way to prevent hacking, but they can be equipped with reactionary defense systems to fight them off.
“The question becomes how much do you put in to prevent it, from both an infrastructure and vehicle side,” she said. “More importantly, if you’re hacked you need to be able to recognize it very fast and attack back. Managing that hacking is going to be the key to survival.”
The biggest issue will be building trust with the consumer. Bailo said when cars were first developed and launched, people didn’t trust them, but eventually came around. The same cycle likely will occur with autonomous vehicles.
In order to get there, however, regulators will need to determine how stringent the rules governing self-driving technology need to be. A painful reminder occurred in March when an autonomous Uber struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old-woman who was crossing a street in Tempe, Ariz.
Modi said part of the issue was the woman didn’t know that Uber was being driven by a computer, underscoring the need for—at least initially—clearly labeling which cares are automated. But the other problem was that Herzberg was jaywalking, which Bailo said underscores another issue with autonomous vehicles: Humans don’t always follow the rules.
“We program a vehicle to follow the rule, but if the rule isn’t followed it makes the programming of that product extremely difficult,” Bailo said. “So we need to decide if we’re going to put more strenuous rules in place to allow for the programming to be done with some degree of control.”
Autonomous vehicles are projected to evolve quickly. Trigui said technology allowing the driver to concentrate on other things—like a book or a movie—while still being ready to step in at a moment’s notice should reach the market during the next 10-15 years.
But significant advancements will be required before the driver truly can disengage.
“The industry will still have a long journey toward the elusive level of a full-autonomous vehicle, without a steering wheel or pedals,” Trigui said.