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Rise of the EV Will Transform Transportation

The steady spread of electric cars, now estimated at one-million globally, not only heralds the era of emission-free driving, it also portends the transformation of transportation as we've know it.

Published: 08-Jun-2016

By John Gartner

The personally owned internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle has had a nice run. In many regions of the world, inhabitants have primarily driven their own automobiles for the majority of commuting, socializing, and errand-running trips for nearly a century.

Future generations, however, will be much less likely to ever fill up a gas tank or take the wheel of their own car. The future of mobility, as envisioned by Ford’s CEO Mark Fields and many others, as autonomous, connected, electric, and shared (which I’m now calling ACES) will hinge on the reciprocal relationship between vehicle electrification and other technologies.

As outlined in Navigant Research’s recently published Transportation Outlook: 2025 to 2050 whitepaper, the ACES technologies that are being independently developed by groups within OEMs, Tier Ones, and startups will gradually penetrate the transportation market over the next decade. However, the arrival of a new generation of purpose-built vehicles that are conceived and designed to incorporate all of these technologies to serve the new mobility construct will greatly accelerate market transformation in the coming years.

Electrification will be the lever for this change because of its positive interactions with the other ACES factors. In the case of autonomous vehicles, electrification is beneficial because the extensive volume of sensors and processors required to operate effectively requires substantial amounts of electric power, which is best provided by an electric vehicle (EV). To aid its effort to create an autonomous EV, General Motors (GM) purchased an interest in Cruise Automation to add self-driving capability to the Chevrolet Bolt.

Fully autonomous EVs would benefit from wireless charging, since requiring a person to plug in a driverless car is self-defeating. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is making progress toward developing a 20 kW wireless charger, which would triple the rate of Level 2 charging and enable autonomous cars to more quickly charge themselves while waiting for the next journey.

Connectivity is a requirement for both electric and autonomous vehicles, so the rise of each of those markets is expected to push connected vehicle technology to the mainstream first. Connectivity will enable autonomous vehicle systems to be updated frequently for keeping current with new maps and to effectively route the vehicles based on the current driving conditions. Over-the-air updates will also help to keep the onboard autonomous applications current as the high rate of innovation in applications continues.

Increasingly popular carsharing and ride hailing programs (as well as traditional taxi services) have already seen a higher-than-average level of electrification (from hybrid EVs [HEVs], to plug-in hybrid EVs [PHEVs], to battery EVs [BEVs]) in their fleets, a trend that will rise as more electric models become available. Legitimate concerns exist about mobility services taking replacing a percentage of mass transit trips and thus adding to vehicle miles traveled and increasing both traffic congestion and urban emissions. If these vehicles are electrified and connected, their impact on both emissions and traffic congestion can be partially mitigated by effective routing.

OEMs such as Daimler and BMW have seen carsharing programs as effective methods of demonstrating EV capabilities to prospective buyers, and they now recognize the benefits of adding autonomy to electric shared fleets. GM and Ford are partnering with carsharing and autonomous technology companies in Silicon Valley, while Google and Fiat (which will coincidentally be coming out with a plug-in Town & Country model) are working on self-driving minivans that would make for appropriate carpool vehicles.

However, EVs used in the carsharing and ride hailing markets will have much higher vehicle miles traveled than personal vehicles, which will negatively affect battery capacity and reduce their lifecycles more quickly. While carsharing is likely to reduce new vehicle purchases as some individuals will opt not to buy a car, the shorter lifespans of vehicles used in these services will somewhat offset the reduction of new car sales. The expansion of EVs in carsharing will also provide a supply of second-life batteries that can be used to provide emergency power or grid services. Once ACES technologies are prevalent, EVs will play a larger role in supporting the grid. For example, autonomous EVs with wireless charging could drive themselves to open charging locations where grid services are needed.

The ICE won’t go away quietly. Technical challenges to these innovative technologies, resistance from ICE-centric OEMs, countries with ingrained car cultures, and individuals with attachments to owning a car as the epitome of personal freedom will ensure that this transformation takes place over decades, not years. But regardless of the pace, EVs will be central to the future of mobility.

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