An electric driverless future faces many hurdles, says Nissan

For all the talk of an energy crisis, you might think that every bit of energy – whether from oil, wind or solar – would be used in some capacity. That is not necessarily the case. In fact, electricity generated by solar panels is often being wasted.

“There’s so much capacity that’s underutilised,” said Chris Reed, vice-president and components engineer at Nissan Technical Centre North America. “I was out in California and they were talking about when the wind turbines and solar panels are running, they actually have to burn it off because they have too much power.”

If more consumers switched to electric cars, that energy could theoretically be used to power those vehicles instead of going to waste. “There’s a way to manage this as a total system right now without increasing the capacity of the grid that we can really optimise,” said Reed.

This is easier said than done, however. For starters, consumers are still largely apprehensive about electric vehicles. Whether it’s the price, range anxiety or other issues, petrol-powered cars far surpass those powered by electricity. Said Reed: “Sometimes customers think they know what they want and they can’t really enunciate it, so we listen to lots of different customers. We could come in with a 200 kilowatt battery but it’d be super heavy and bigger and it would take away cabin space. It would give great range but it would be super expensive.” Reed believes it is important to strike a balance and offer an electric car that meets consumers’ actual needs versus their perceived wants.

Wireless charging

Wireless charging has become a mainstream part of new smart devices but what about electric vehicles? Could it be possible to charge a car while driving over an electrified roadway?

JeSean Hopkins, senior manager of EV infrastructure and sales operation at Nissan, isn’t sure where technology like that might end up. He said the economics of roadway charging could prove to be very challenging. “I think you will, in the future, see public areas where you can pull into a spot and wirelessly charge,” said Hopkins. “Certainly at home I think that will be an option.”

Sheltered environments, such as a home garage, could be the perfect place for wireless car charging but Hopkins noted the difficulty of offering similar functionality in public, particularly in areas with fluctuating weather conditions. Rain, snow and ice could cover and/or damage the charging platform, leading to costly repairs that could have been avoided by using another charging mechanism.

Looking ahead, Reed dreams of a future where drivers will always have access to the grid, regardless of how the charging is conducted. This would eliminate any of the concerns that come with electric vehicles. “In the interim there’s growing pains,” said Reed. “It is a combination where you’ve got this range issue and charger availability.”

Reed’s own experience has taught him to locate quick charging stations on the way to the airport, which he visits often in traveling for work. He realises that may not work for all EV drivers. Said Reed: “I think we have made great leaps and bounds. At the same time, it’s a big country and we need a lot more. I think, from all my conversations with electric companies between industry and other government agencies, everyone recognises what we need.”

Hopkins added that the cost of a level 2 charger has “come down significantly” since the launch of the Nissan Leaf. “Things like that go a long way toward helping adoption, making it easier for the consumer to contemplate a move to electric vehicles,” said Hopkins.

Safer future

In addition to the evolution of EVs, Reed spoke about the future of autonomy and how he hopes it will help the industry eliminate fatal accidents. “I think the industry, including us, has made tremendous strides in safety,” said Reed. “The cage of the vehicle, all the airbags, etc. From that value proposition we’ve pretty much maximised the height of what you’re going to get out of that. You keep tuning it a little bit but you’re not getting big gains. The next gains come from the vehicle-sensing technologies where it’s going to avoid accidents.”

Reed described the path to autonomy as a step-by-step journey that starts with one feature at a time, such as emergency braking. “Effectively, the car is looking for you,” he said. “When it sees your stopping distance is not enough, it stops the car. The industry hasn’t even recognised the benefit of that on the insurance side. If every car had that, would you ever have rear-end collisions? Well, of course. The system is not at all speeds yet. But from a practical use standpoint, we know that it’s dropping the amount of those rear-end collisions. Do people die in those rear-end collisions? No, not necessarily but less accidents are in the roadmap to get to zero fatalities.”


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