Autonomous EVs are the vehicles of a carbon-free future

Industry research suggests that autonomous electric vehicles have a firm place in industries, but why are they more efficient than driving ourselves?

There was a time when we could only imagine cars driving themselves. Little did we know that this vision for mobility would actually become reality. 

Digital technology is taking the lead in the race to stop climate change and while electric vehicle (EV) innovators are in the hot seat, technology firms are preparing for a revolution driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)—it could be the end of the road for drivers themselves. 

Although it may seem a case of doom and gloom for those who enjoy driving, generally, consumers’ ideas of mobility are changing—many of them warming to the idea of e-mobility and the gradual introduction of autonomy. Industry research on the topic suggests that internal combustion engines (ICEs) will inevitably take a back seat, leaving technology firms free rein to shape the next generation of mobility and provide sustainable progress for all parties involved. 

What exactly does the next generation of mobility look like? 

In years to come, electrification will be commonplace in the automotive industry, and already firms are working towards it. Tesla was one of the first organisations to incorporate self-drive functions into its commercially available cars—enabling cruise control and automatic steering—however, the next-generation self-driving cars will be much more intuitive with fully automated driving capabilities.

Consumers can expect to see autonomous electric vehicles (A-EVs) appear thick and fast, with companies like Waymo—a Google business—and Baidu already carrying out projects to retrofit EVs with AI-powered technologies. Their innovations represent a percentage of the potential market as automation is carefully integrated into the latest production line cars. 

The mobility landscape is changing and technology firms are turning vehicles into highly intelligent digital devices, of which some are built for specific roles like food delivery and other last-mile logistics tasks while others are designed to bridge the gap between humans and computers. With some of the most apparent benefits being convenience, safety and efficiency, how exactly can computers reduce emissions faster than humans?

“The biggest difference between human-driven EVs and autonomous ones is that the A-EV could be used for much longer,” says Adam Dorr, Director of Research at RethinkX, an organisation that conducted extensive research into the topic, providing great foresight into the industry as early as 2017. 

“Since the vehicle can reposition itself, the economics point, overwhelmingly, to it being used as a taxi, just as Cruise, Waymo, and Baidu are doing today. Even Tesla says their cars could be used as taxis.” 

TaaS enables automated commercial services

These days, many cars barely leave the garage. Typically they are used to fulfil short, regular trips as products and services become locally available—not to mention food delivery becoming commonplace in modern society. Across the UK alone, the average consumer drives no further than 10 miles and is able to charge an EV at home. Such trips will likely include grocery shopping, appointments and dropping their children off at school. If you look at the US, the average mileage is 14,263 in a year according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Transportation-as-a-service (TaaS) is a response of technology firms to the changing mobility landscape and the demand for emissions reduction, and, if used properly, it could be incredibly convenient for consumers and lucrative for ride-hailing and logistics operations. Firms like Nuro—founded by ex-Google professionals—are stripping down four-wheeled machines to provide automated functions that would otherwise be carried out by humans. 

As the automotive landscape evolves into one that could only be described as ‘futuristic’, further solutions are expected to arise as a result of this. Electric cars will be the primary machines to achieve autonomous capabilities, but before long, similar solutions could drive aircraft, drones and other vehicles. “The technologies that get a car to drive itself—cheap sensors, powerful AI, high-performing electromechanical components—will be the pebble that triggers the avalanche of labour automation of all kinds,” according to Dorr. 

However, there is also an element of human resources that comes into play as “the computer that takes away a truck driver’s job will take away many other jobs.” 

The way Dorr feels technology could help industries and workforces to succeed is by breaking down economic barriers and further raising the bar of limitations. “In a world with little demand for human labour, we also remove the key limit to economic productivity, paving the way for untold prosperity.

“Of course, we will need to fundamentally rethink our economy, and perhaps relinquish the belief that every person must ‘earn their keep’ through toil.”

Automated EVs allow climate prosperity; they decarbonise

As the industry awaits a shift in the workforce, a undeniably positive effect of A-EV adoption is decarbonisation; a much-needed advantage brought on by autonomous vehicles—among other initiatives. 

While it is understandable that drivers would be sceptical about using self-driving cars, computers are much more efficient than humans. RethinkX predicts the number of vehicles on the road is set to decline as autonomy enables a much leaner approach to mobility. It is also possible that autonomous cars will take over the other aspects of vehicle ownership, such as charging, maximising regenerative braking capabilities, and maintenance requirements. Dorr likens the incentives of A-EVs to those of smartphones. 

“A consumer only needs to use a smartphone once to know if they like it. An A-EV is a smartphone on wheels. Get bums in seats and people will know, on the first ride, if they like the service,’ says Dorr. 

On the business side, there are a few factors involved in deploying A-EVs for the most sustainable outcomes: 

  • Policy - Besides the legal aspects of self-driving cars—effectively putting lives in the hands of computers—policy could dictate energy sourcing requirements and minimum sustainability benefits to warrant the deployment of autonomous vehicles. 
  • Cost - While autonomy provides many potential benefits for e-mobility, the cost of EVs are yet to reach parity, let alone the self-driving technology for cars. While battery prices are expected to fall, this is the priority for the industry as it looks to decarbonise. 
  • Sentiment shift - Driving is an age-old form of mobility and while the pros of self-driving cars may be apparent, adoption requires a sentiment shift to both electrified vehicles and hands-free driving. 
  • Reduced barriers to purchase - One of the main drivers of EV adoption is price and would likely be the case for A-EVs when they are brought into the mass market. reducing the cost of technologies and EV components is the hurdle, automation the next. 

However, autonomy is not the sole cure for environmental unrest. For any industry, true decarbonisation lies in the supply chain and businesses must ensure that renewably-sourced energy is used throughout. So, for A-EVs to decarbonise, energy firms must decarbonise. 

With electrification putting pressure on energy providers to increase grid capacity at scale, sourcing will become a major factor in the general sustainability success of e-mobility, but for A-EVs, the shift is inevitable while the cars that use robotic and AI will use renewably-sourced energy more efficiently, reducing strain on energy providers.

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