The Electric and Autonomous Future

As an electric vehicle charging company, we always get asked about the future of electric vehicles and how we will ensure relevancy with autonomous vehicles. This post is all about our views on autonomous vehicles, how they will grow, and what potential futures might look like.

Is there a surefire answer on when autonomous vehicles will become the new standard in automobile transportation? Not in the slightest. John Zimmer of Lyft says they “will quickly become widespread and will account for the majority of Lyft rides” by 2021. Meanwhile, Elon Musk thinks “almost all cars produced will be autonomous in 10 years [2027].” The various predictions are plentiful, however the one thing everyone can agree on is that autonomous vehicles have to be fully electric vehicles.

Let’s take a step back though, and understand more about autonomous vehicles. First, the term autonomous doesn’t imply complete and total autonomy. The Society of Automotive Engineers have defined 6 stages of autonomy, ranging from 0 (Think a car with only cruise control and ABS braking) to 5 (No steering wheel needed). US Congress is currently on track to adopt a full suite of regulations for autonomous vehicle adoption, including one placing the NHTSA in charge of regulating autonomous vehicles. That being said, there are a huge number of non-governmental organizations really spearheading the movement to autonomy and making this dream a reality. Some of the most prominent players include Waymo (Alphabet), Tesla, Uber, and Cruise (BMW).

So, what are the key obstacles facing autonomous vehicle adoption? It everyone is right and fully autonomous vehicles must be electric, there needs to be a significant amount of infrastructure development for wireless charging stations. Another major obstacle facing the market is the cost of vehicles. This is a concern today, but shouldn’t be a concern in 5-7 years. Some electric vehicles are already cheaper than gas powered vehicles when looking at the lifetime cost, however the purchase price is expected to reduce drastically as scale increases in the coming years.

Another major obstacle, as with any connected device, is security. When talking about objects that weigh several thousand pounds and can travel over 100 mph, security is critical and any lapse could result in untold damage. Last year, Elon Musk acknowledged that “one of the biggest concerns for autonomous vehicles is somebody achieving a fleet-wide hack.” This is especially relevant for Tesla which offers periodic over the air updates to their firmware and software.

Finally, legislation and standardization of autonomous vehicles, while it won’t prevent adoption, has the potential to seriously delay it if it doesn’t lag too far behind in the first place. One big fear is how autonomous vehicles decide and prioritize who is saved in the case of an impending accident. While there will no doubt be accidents with autonomous vehicles, especially with autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles on the road in tandem, there could potentially be a 90% reduction in fatalities.

Now let’s take a step forward and imagine a world with autonomous vehicles everywhere. What will it look like? The short answer is the nobody knows, but the long answer is that there are so many different potentials. If the market veers more towards a sharing economy where companies like Uber and Lyft own their own fleets, then perhaps we will have fewer vehicles on the road and traffic will flow amazingly well to the point where traffic becomes an antiquated word. Or, perhaps there are too many players in the market and everyone wants to own their own autonomous vehicle, leading us into a state of perpetual gridlock. Will we need to invest in new infrastructure and sensor networks in order to provide for these vehicles?

How do all of these changes affect what city planners and developers have been building for the past century? Will public transportation become obviated as a means of travel due to lower costs of maintenance and the sharing economy with driving? Perhaps public transportation will become a necessity to travel to hubs of shared vehicles? There will also be a shift in mindset of travelers, where the destination will not be the only priority, but also the journey to get there. Perhaps speed will no longer be as important as it is today in planning transportation routes. There is no easy way to predict the future. Perhaps there will only be a few key players in the industry who will help shape it, but only they know currently what the future is that they have in mind.

Not only will transportation change, but the city itself will be affected. Back in 2015, Beijing banned five million cars for two weeks from driving in the city, and the results were stunning. Clear blue skies were seen with visibility for miles. Shortly after cars were allowed back on the roads, smog once again enveloped the city in harmful gases. This points to the conclusion that autonomous vehicles, by nature of the fact that they will be electric, will help reduce pollution in cities. Another concern cities face is the reduction in income for the Highway Trust Fund as there will no longer be gas powered vehicles to pay the gas tax. There will be less wear and tear on the roads due to electric vehicles and potentially reduced traffic, but the government will have to figure out a new way of taxing vehicles and the drivers in order to maintain the public infrastructure required. Some states, such as Georgia, have implemented a fixed annual amount to pay for electric vehicle drivers ($200 in Georgia)

Lastly, the private real estate market may suffer due to underutilized parking structures. While most surface parking lots are awaiting higher revenue-generating developments, above- and below-ground parking decks cost significantly more ($10-30,000/space vs. $2,000/space). If these lots are empty, there is an opportunity to become a charging hub for autonomous vehicles, but if the market dictates otherwise or if it is too costly to retrofit a parking deck with enough power, we will begin to see parking decks torn down to be replaced by high rises and multi-family housing complexes which will be able to recoup the money more quickly.

What does all this mean? It means that there are numerous ways in which the market can grow. I for one am convinced of an electric and autonomous future. The question is, how the various market forces, some of which are listed in this post, will affect the trajectory of the market and the standard operating procedures for living with autonomous vehicles. Nobody knows right now, but rest assured it will be figured out soon.