Electric cars set to go driverless

Click above to hear discussion broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1, 30th November, ’15

Google Car

Google plans to bring a driverless electric car to market in 2018, and is already road testing driverless vehicles in California (Credit: Google)

Electric cars have been around the late 19th century, but they have never matched the appeal of cars run on either petrol or diesel.

That is all set to change, as the most popular cars on the market in coming decades are likely to be both electric and driverless.

The question is, is Ireland ready for electric, driverless cars, how do they work, are they safe? and how will they potentially make our lives better?

History 

The first commercial electric cars appeared as early as the 1880s and ‘electric drive’ cars as they were called were popular with early drivers.

However, from the turn of the 20th century, there was a growing demand for cheaper automobiles, from the general public.

From the 1920s, petrol was becoming more easily available and cheaper, petrol driven cars had a longer range, had greater horsepower, and the introduction of automatic starting mechanisms in petrol cars increased their appeal to all groups.

Yet, from as early as 1908, when the first Model T Ford’s were mass produced, the popularity of the electric car was waning.

In the mid 1960s the United States Congress introduced the first bills recommending support for the development of a new generation of commercial electric cars to try and deal with the issue of air pollution.

This paved the way for a revival of interest in electric cars in the 1970s, a revival which was further helped following the soar in oil prices following the Oil Crisis of 1973, and the birth of the environmental movement.

It seemed to many back then, 40 years ago, that the time had come for electric cars, but people resisted buying them, due to their cost, so-called ‘range anxiety’ and the daily hassle of recharging their batteries.

The situation stayed like that for the following decades, with electric cars remaining a niche market, but in the last decade two things happened.

Governments, including the Irish government, began actively promoting e cars as a way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, and to reduce reliance on imports of fossil fuels from The Middle East.

In Ireland this mean grants for people buying e cars (there is a 5k grant in place) and tax relief. Allied to that the ESB began building a network of public charging points, and there are now about 2,000 on the island.

The other thing that happened is that battery technology – which has been slow to develop for technical reasons – has started to improve.

Fully electric cars (there are also electric/petrol and electric/diesel hybrids) are totally dependent on batteries, usually lithium ion types.

These batteries, like the ones in our smartphones, are efficient, but the are expensive. This of course, affects the sale price of e cars.

The e car batteries need to be 80 per cent cheaper, some industry analysts say, in order for e cars to break through into mass use, and truly  compete with cars based on the internal combustion engine (ICE).

Some believe it will be possible to make cost cutting improvements to the lithium ion battery, while others say a new battery technology is needed.

Technology 

Electric are based on pretty simple technology, which hasn’t changed all that much since the first electric cars appeared in the 19th century.

One hundred per cent electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, the Ford Focus Electric and the VW e golf all make use of an electric motor.

There is a battery, of a series of connected batteries, that link to the electric motor and provide the power to drive the car forward.

They are green because they are based on electricity rather than petrol or diesel, but, of course, electricity can be produced by burning fossil fuels.

The battery is vital, as it charges the electric motor, and determines how far the car can travel without a charge, and its performance.

The first battery used in any electric vehicle was an old fashioned lead-acid battery which was itself invented in 1859.

The batteries that are, these days, used in electric cars are lithium ion batteries which are light, and have a good ability to store energy.

The problem with lithium ion batteries, as many of us will know from using smartphones, is that they need to be regularly recharged, and that after hundreds of recharges, they can become depleted, and just ‘die’.

So, there is a desperate need for a new battery technology that do not need to be recharged as often, and don’t die with lots of re charges.

From the buyers point of view, the big downside with electric cars is that they have to be recharged for hours, overnight, and that the driver might still, with a long journey, feel that he might needed a top up recharge.

This is something called ‘range anxiety’ and it’s a well known factor that has turns off buyers and that e car makers are trying to address.

Cost

Yes, there are a few competing options. Perhaps the most promising is one being developed in the UK at Cambridge University.

Scientists there last month announced they had found a way to develop batteries that are one-fifth the coast and weight of current e car batteries.

The technology is called lithium air technology and it’s important because it can reduce the cost of electric cars, while also enabling them to match the range of petrol and diesel cars.

Electric cars, based on these, the scientists say, could drive from London to Edinburgh with a single charge, hugely increasing the range of e cars.

This new technology also produces batteries which can store a lot of energy, and can recharge thousands of times without the battery dying.

Yet, lithium ion batteries, as well all know from our smartphones, have to be recharged often, and after repeated charging they can gradually die.

A lithium air battery can create a voltage from oxygen molecules – air – in the vicinity of the positive electrode. It appears to be a big breakthrough.

This all looks promising, but it is just emerging from the lab, is at the development stage, and may be a decade before it enters the real world.

Disappointing

Sales of e cars in Ireland remain disappointing low, despite the efforts of Government to promote e cars through subsidies, grants and tax breaks.

The ESB have been actively promoting the greater use of e cars in Ireland by building a network of public charging points and grants. Grants are of 5k are available from  the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland for buyers of new e cars.

Minister Coveney has been pictured driving a fully electric Nissan Leaf, and the ESB has been busy building infrastructure to support e cars.

Yet, in 2014, Ireland’s Central Statistics Office reported that just 222 electric cars were sold, which, is poor, but significantly up on the 55 cars that were sold in 2013.

The Government has set itself a target of 230,000 e cars being in use in Ireland by 2020. We currently have a little over 10,000 e cars here.

To compare, there were 13,929 petrol cars sold in 2014, and 47,559 diesel cars. So, electric is still very much a niche market in Ireland.

Ireland might use Norway as a comparison, a country of similar size, where 23, 390 electric vehicles were registered in 2014 alone.

The Norwegians have encouraged this through the lack of VAT on e cars, and free car parking, free access to bus lanes and free public charging points for e car owners. Ireland has followed some of these measures.

Barriers 

People are still reluctant to purchase e cars, and one of the mainr reasons is the ‘range anxiety’ already mentioned  as well as the perceived hassle of charging batteries for hours overnight.

People might also enjoy driving, and feel that an electric car, running silently without gear changes, is not what they traditionally enjoy.

For e cars to really take hold here, the Government might have to follow Norway’s lead and allow e cars travel in bus lanes, and park for free.

Allied to that, the cost of e cars needs to come down. I think they really need to be cheaper than existing petrol or diesel cars to break through.

They might also need to have a ‘unique selling point’ that marks them out as distinctly different or superior to petrol or diesel cars.

There are signs that this might happen, as electric cars are set to become driverless, and that this will happen a lot faster than we might imagine.

Driverless 

Hard-nosed analysts of the global car industry are convinced driverless cars WILL happen, and will happen in the near future.

Certainly, companies with huge reputations like Google, and Apple are reportedly investing in developing a driverless, electric car.

Volvo are working on one too, as are BMW, and legislation has already been passed in some US states permitting cars to be driverless.

VW too, who are under huge pressure these days of course, are reportedly work on an electric driverless car of their own.

The people who look at these things closely are expecting that a driverless car will be for sale inside the next five years.

The market potential is huge, according to the Boston Consulting Group, who estimate the driverless car market will be worth $42 billion by 2015.

The Google X driverless car is expected to hit the market in 2018, with Apple’s Project Titan to arrive in or around the same time.

It is very interesting that technology companies like Google and Apple are investing so heavily and secretively in driverless cars.

These giants clearly believe that people will be travelling in driverless, electric cars in future, using the Net, Apps, or whatever else freely.

Inside a Google car, Google have a captive audience to promote all kinds of other technology which people will use freely on their way to work.

Many of the barriers that would have blocking the development of the driverless car are being removed.

The two biggest blocks are legislation and the willingness of people to use them. A lot is happening on the legislation side.

For example, six states in the US have already passed legislation allowing the testing of driverless cars out on the public roads.

The world has already had its first driverless car crash, which happened in July last when a driverless Lexus crashed and three Google employees got minor injuries.

Also, just last week a the Google driverless car had an encounter with the law in Silicon Valley California for driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.

The police officer pulled over the prototype car and spoke with the people inside, but no ticket was issued.

Legislation

Irish and UK legislation would have to be substantially changed to allow for driverless cars to operate here, but it needs to happen urgently.

The UK is addressing this in law, and we need to too.

The other legal issue people would have is who is to blame if a driverless car crashes. People don’t want to be held account for something that is not under their control – understandably.

This led Volvo last month to say that it would take liability for any crash of any of its driverless cars – others will probably follow.

But, generally speaking the driverless car will be far safer than a car piloted by a human, who may be tired, distracted, or drunk.

Game changer 

We have had technologies in our cars which are not under our control already for years.

The best example perhaps would be ABS braking. This has been around since the 1980s, where control of the braking is taken from the driver to best ensure that wheels don’t lock, and spin out of control.

There are also systems which help us to park -self parking systems – where sensors guide a car as well as cruise control.

But, the vision for a driverless car goes way beyond these familiar features to a situation where a person, or persons, sit in, type or speak in a destination point, and then sit back and relax, read or work.

The driverless car will be able to sense its surrounding using existing technologies like RADAR, GPS and computer vision.

They will update their maps based on sensory input, and be able to track their position everywhere and adjust to all driving conditions.

Most of the ideas for driverless envisage a person in a driver’s seat, with a cloud, or wifi connection to other vehicles all around them.

The vehicles will communicate each other’s position and destination, and share the sensory input on road blocks,  accidents or weather conditions.

All that intelligence will better get everyone safely from A to B. Dublin might have a swarm of electric vehicles, efficiently moving all of us.

A giant, traffic management system, with zero pollution, and an order of magnitude safer than what have. Safety, and efficiency might drive this.

It is not about breakthrough technology it is about incorporating a range of existing technology into a 21st century vehicle, which has, up to now, been run on an internal combustion engines, born in the 19th century.

 

 

 

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