What You Need To Know About Electric Cars and Autonomy

Imagine for a moment that it’s 7:00 am. You wake up to your Smart Home’s flashing lights and the beep of an alarm tailored specifically for your sleep cycle. As you get out of bed, your voice assistant device goes through its daily routine: news headlines, the weather, and morning traffic. “I’ve scheduled your ride for 7:30 am,” it says. You finish getting dressed and walk out the door with a few minutes to spare and your briefcase in hand, to a sleek vehicle that’s wirelessly charging at the station outside of your home. Getting into the vehicle, you set the destination to your office and recline, ready to enjoy 15 minutes of a podcast before the workday. You get to the office and exit the car so that the next rider can hop in. As you scan your phone to pay the barista at the company café, you can’t help but smile as you reminisce about the days when your coffee didn’t cost more than your morning commute.

Mornings like this may sound futuristic, but, believe it or not, these mornings aren’t as far off as you might think. Tech companies all over the world are competing to develop the autonomous car tech of the future.

You may have heard of some of the companies currently involved:

General Motors:

The world knows GM as a titan in the automotive industry, but perhaps not as many are aware that GM is a leader in the development of an autonomous vehicle known as the Cruise AV. This vehicle has more than just a clever name, the vehicle itself will have no steering wheel or pedals and is already being tested on San Francisco roads.

That’s right, fully functioning autonomous vehicles exist today. Digest that one for a bit.

Alphabet’s Waymo:

Waymo has a first-mover’s advantage. They’ve been working on their autonomous technology since 2009, giving them a tremendous amount of data compared to the competition. With 5 million self-driven miles under their belt, Waymo is certainly a force to be reckoned with. They’re currently gathering user feedback with real riders in Arizona.

Daimler-Bosch:

Mercedes’ parent company Daimler has agreed to team up with German engineering and electronics company Bosch to release several autonomous models as early as 2020. With a systematic approach and mission to reduce road congestion and increase efficiency, these two companies make a powerful duo.

Aurora Innovation and Partners:

The startup company Aurora Innovation has partnered up with companies Volkswagen and Hyundai to release autonomous fleets as early as 2021. Like many other players, plans for launch include a “mobility as a service” platform, reinforcing the use case for autonomous vehicles as true assets.

But what really makes a car ‘autonomous’?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of things do.

The Society of Automotive Engineers or “SAE” decided to create some handy classifications for us to use. SAE identifies 5 different classifications for autonomous vehicles.

Level 0: This is the level most of us drive today. These cars require our attention and direction 100% of the time and have no automation.

Level 1: This level is called “Drive Assistance” and is classified by the vehicle either being able to steer by itself or being able to accelerate and decelerate based on observations of its surroundings. And if you think that sounds intelligent, just keep reading.

Level 2: Also called “Partial Automation” this level can accomplish both of the tasks described above instead of just one. These cars can manage steering and acceleration as well as deceleration. Unfortunately, the driver is expected to perform all of the other driving tasks in this level of automation.

Level 3: This level is called “Conditional Automation” and means that all driving tasks are automated. The driver is still expected to pay very close attention and intervene if needed.

Level 4: Known as “High Automation,” this level automates all tasks and has the capability to intervene even if the driver doesn’t. Chevrolet’s Cruise AV falls into this category as well as Alphabet’s Waymo and other AV projects.

Level 5: Rightfully named as “Full Autonomy” this Level is exactly that. All driving tasks are automated in all kinds of environments and the car requires no attention from the driver. This is why Level 5 autonomous cars are being designed without a steering wheel. It’s simply unnecessary.

You might be wondering, why is the future both electric and autonomous? Wouldn’t it be easier to rig ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles with autonomous features?

Well, believe it or not, electric cars and autonomous technology complement each other well. So much so, that within a few years they may even be synonymous. Here’s why.

Ease of Development:

In an electric vehicle, there are only two key moving parts aside from the wheels: the rotor and the reduce gear. On the other hand, a typical ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle has over 300 moving parts. So why is this important? It turns out that autonomous technology is much better suited to handle the less complex system found in electric vehicles.

Picture it like this. In a human body, your muscles are responsible for hundreds of thousands of functions. Now, what would be easier? Creating a system which could automate those hundreds of thousands of functions, or creating a system which only has to accommodate a few hundred?

The same line of thinking applies to autonomous vehicle development. Why make the engineering process more difficult when an electric car makes a much simpler alternative?

Access to Fuel:

Early AV (autonomous vehicle) pilots are likely to occur in dense, urban environments in the form of rideshare or municipal fleet vehicles. Accessing a charger to refuel will be easier to do than driving to a gas station. Even in cities today, chargers are quite plentiful.

Maintenance:

Electric vehicles require much less maintenance in the long term than ICE vehicles do, mostly due to having less moving parts. In a world where the car accumulates more miles on average, it’ll be important to keep maintenance costs down.

It’s clear that autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles are a match made in heaven. We can’t wait to see how far the world will take these technologies.