Analysis: The smarter road to electric cars

  • 17-Jun-2013 03:05 EDT
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John M. DeCicco holds professorial appointments at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and School of Natural Resources and Environment, where he teaches and conducts research on multiple facets of transportation energy use and the climate challenge.

Policymakers have become quite enthusiastic about electric vehicles (EVs). In response to the generous subsidies and mandates lavished on the technology, all automakers now have programs for plug-in hybrid or battery cars, and new models are being introduced each year.

Nevertheless, electric drive is not the disruptive technology that many green groups and EV buffs proclaim. Putting a battery-based powertrain into a vehicle still defined by a 19th century mobility vision doesn't make it a 21st century innovation. It just makes it a more costly car and a less capable one at that. Although a small niche will certainly exist, the low volume of EV sales speaks in high volume of its poor business case overall.

The real game changer for mobility is intelligence. Although it will come in stages, autonomous capability will liberate consumers from the need to drive, freeing them from the 20th century cultural expectations that define the high-power, full-function cars of today. Only when mobility is networked will EVs really begin to thrive, especially in urbanized regions well suited to the technology.

In contrast to electrification per se, intelligent connectivity offers the vast value proposition that follows from freeing up consumers' time. That will be a big boon during personal travel and also enable the dispatch of robot vehicles for goods movement as well as personal errands. The safety benefits of vehicles tuned in to each other and their surroundings will be enormous. Opportunities will open up for numerous connected mobility services and profitable new business models once autonomous systems provide the fertile ground on which mobile apps with a whole new meaning can flourish.

Unlike the difficult durability, safety, and cost challenges that electrochemistry poses for batteries, the barriers to connected mobility are mainly nontechnical. The necessary communications technology, sensors, and computing power are all available, and the costs of such systems can fall quickly through competitively driven economies of scale. A lot of new engineering is needed, but none of it requires fundamental scientific breakthroughs.

The automation of mobility is now at a juncture similar to that of the automobile at the end of the 19th century. Internal-combustion engines had already been invented, and using them to propel motorcars was also worked out. What then triggered progress were commercial innovations such as mass production and car loans. Once a broad business case was made, the accompanying institutional and policy changes fell into place, including fuel taxes to support roads. It was these nontechnical breakthroughs that enabled the rapid growth of personal automobility that continues globally today.

Electrification isn't a prerequisite for intelligently networked transportation. Connected mobility can evolve while internal combustion still propels many vehicles. The same design freedoms opened up by connectivity will enable engineers to develop far more efficient gasoline vehicles using markedly lighter structures and compact engines. Cars can be better matched to their daily missions as brute horsepower gives way to competition over smart technology.

EVs do reduce oil use and emissions. However, they are a costly way of doing so, and it's a myth that getting EVs on the road sooner rather than later is crucial for quickly cutting carbon. The most cost-effective path forward is ongoing fuel economy improvement of gasoline and diesel vehicles along with gains in grid-free hybrid drive. Those technologies do not need tax credits because their costs are within the realm of affordability for automakers and their customers.

Early adopters of electric vehicles deserve applause, but they don't deserve subsidies. It's not good policy to use mandates or public financing for EV infrastructure to shift the costs of electrification onto consumers at large. Rather than being squandered on expensive deployment initiatives, scarce tax dollars are best reserved for fundamental R&D on batteries, advanced materials, and other basic science and engineering research needs.

Only market forces can sort through the vast array of possibilities for how connected mobility might evolve. The options span a wide range, from networked podcars operating in systems better described as automated rather than autonomous, to full-function robocars as seen in the Google project. Both between and beyond these two ends of the spectrum is a broad set of opportunities that will only expand as more creative minds get engaged.

For now, automakers and policymakers are taking a cautious, stepwise approach to connectivity and other intelligent transportation systems, emphasizing technologies that assist rather than replace the driver. Lane departure, proximity warnings, and other crash-avoidance mechanisms, adaptive cruise control, automated parking and parking location assistance, real-time traffic and incident information, and other intelligent transportation services are steps that add incremental value in today's market even though they remain bound by the constraints of an unconnected system overall.

The most exciting opportunities are those emerging around V2X technologies, such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications. For now, that does not include V2G, the vehicle-to-grid approach promoted by many plug-in advocates. It is premature to spend money on V2G demonstrations based on today’s EV designs, which will become obsolete in a tuned-in transportation future.

A more useful tack is supporting the development and testing of automated and autonomous vehicle systems, developing open communications standards, and working out the protocols necessary for a mobility internet to emerge. It will also be crucial to forge a public consensus for the regulatory, financing, and insurance reforms needed to accelerate adoption of automated vehicles. The private sector can then take the lead on exactly when, where, and how to make the technology succeed in the market.

Like the automobile a century ago, the driverless car must evolve; it cannot be centrally planned. Today's attempts for a government-led transition to EVs are as ill-considered, and  likely to be as ill-fated, as other top-down efforts to deploy alternatively fueled vehicles during the past three decades. In short, pushing electric cars into the market before we have driverless cars is putting the cart before the horse.

John M. DeCicco of the University of Michigan wrote this article for AEI.

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