As our urban transportation landscape becomes automated over the next decade, it could spark an electric car revolution that for some has been overdue.
Spend enough time around these early self-driving vehicles and you notice that nearly all are hybrids or purely electric Fords automated Fusion, the similarly equipped Fusion hybrids that Uber is deploying in Pittsburgh, the Google cars bopping around the peninsula of Northern California, the Chevrolet Bolts being tested in San Francisco and suburban Phoenix.
Today, hybrids, plug-ins and pure electrics are a marginal piece of the U.S. market, accounting for a scant 2.8 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. through the first eight months of 2016, according to hybridcars.com.
But a decade from now, electric cars will appeal far beyond the granola-eating, tree-hugging, climate-change evangelizing base that has sustained them thus far. You may not own one, but you will have ridden in them. The change wont be instant, but it will be steady.
So why will our autonomous future likely be an electric one?
First are the regulatory reasons, namely gas mileage requirements. Then there are engineering reasons; electric vehicles are easier for computers to drive. And, of course, ride-hailing services will increasingly make up a higher percentage of daily miles driven, and it will be easier, cheaper and safer to recharge an unmanned car than to gas one up.
One of the biggest changes will be in the growing difference in cost of ownership between electrified and internal combustion engines, Ford CEO Mark Fields said this month, repeating his companys pledge to spend $4.5 billion to introduce 13 new electric vehicle nameplates by 2020.
For the auto industrys home, Detroit, and surrounding southeast Michigan, it means auto-related job growth will come more in highly skilled areas such as robotics and software development than in traditional manufacturing trades.
A competition, of sorts, between Silicon Valley and Detroit has been ongoing in the past decade for the engineering and computer programming talent needed to create the next generation of smart, connected and ultimately self-driving vehicles.
The two sides will likely have to work together either through mergers and acquisitions or strategic partnerships and electric cars will be the platform.
The federal governments corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards will vary depending on the mix of trucks, SUVs and passenger cars a manufacturer sells, but a substantial portion of electrified vehicles will be needed to achieve the goals.
And then there are the engineering reasons.
There are a lot fewer moving pieces in an electric vehicle. There are three main components the battery, the inverter and the electric motor, said Levi Tillemann-Dick, managing partner at Valence Strategic in Washington, D.C., and author of The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future. An internal combustion engine contains 2,000 tiny pieces that have to be kept lubricated, and they break every once in a while.
An electric car needs more electrical brainpower to manage the vision, guidance and mapping technology and process the ever-growing volume of software coding.
Most of these vehicles will initially be deployed in dense urban environments think Ubers demonstration in Pittsburgh. There almost certainly will be stringent emissions guidelines in place. Electric vehicles have no emissions.
Glen DeVos, Delphi Automotive vice president of engineering, said most hybrids and electric vehicles are configured for drive-by-wire, steering-by-wire and brake-by-wire systems that structurally are compatible with automated driving. The by-wire technology replaces traditional mechanical control systems with electronic control systems. This flexibility expands the number of options for the vehicles design. Eliminating mechanical linkages can reduce weight.
Another factor is that automated vehicles for ride-hailing services will be used more intensely up to about 40 percent of a 24-hour day, Tillemann-Dick estimates, compared with less than 5 percent for privately owned vehicles that spend most of a day in a driveway or parking lot or deck. If ranges of current EVs such as the Chevrolet Bolt are already 238 miles, that likely will improve by the time these vehicles meet safety regulations and are deployed in large numbers.