EVs may be the future but it’s not anytime soon

The challenges facing electrification of transport explored by Susan Kuchinskas.

Udelv’s autonomous truck recently delivered groceries from a local market to two customers in San Mateo, California. Udelv says it’s the first self-driving delivery on public roads. The icing on the cake: it’s a fully electric vehicle. Is this the future of mobility? Yes and no.

All-electric vehicles as replacements for petrol-powered cars and trucks are seen as crucial for clearing the air, while truly autonomous vehicles for private and public transportation could make transport safer and more efficient.

Putting these two innovations together with integrated mobility systems could produce what the University of California at Davis’ Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways consortium calls a revolution in urban transportation. By 2050, cities would have ubiquitous private car sharing, increased transit performance – with on-demand availability – and strengthened infrastructure for walking and cycling, allowing maximum shared trip efficiency.

However, as Udelv has found, combining autonomy and all-electric driving is not easy.

“There are physical limitations with electrical batteries that are complex to resolve. Charging time is an issue. You can speed it up with fast charger but it’s very expensive and damages batteries. If autonomous driving is not economically beneficial, it will remain a science project,” says Udelv CEO Daniel Laury. These are all issues Udelv is working on and Laury promises a “sophisticated solution” in the future.

Battery breakthroughs

Woongjung Jang, director-advanced driver assist systems for Hyundai, recently said that the intense power consumption of autonomous vehicles precludes full battery-electric autonomy in the near future. Yet many experts think that batteries will evolve in synch with autonomy, with batteries becoming cheaper and lasting longer and autonomous systems sucking up less power.

Says Lewis Fulton, who co-directs Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways programme within the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis: “There is every reason to believe that the refinements that come to automated systems will include less energy-intensive systems and the cost is coming down a lot.”

This has to do with both research leading to improvements and economies of scale, he says, similar to what’s happened with other technologies. On the other hand, “If they are energy hogs, that will hurt. It’s unwise to assume that all automated vehicles will be electric.”

It’s the infrastructure, stupid

Improvements in the charging infrastructure could alleviate some issues. Says Shivika Sahdev, an associate partner with McKinsey: “You cannot talk about range and battery without infrastructure. Fast charging infrastructure that has a large and accessible footprint can actually reduce range anxiety because you are no longer worried about your battery running out.” In addition, she says, being able to fast-charge while out and about can limit the need for starting the day’s trips with a full charge.

Udelv delivery trucks will return home to charge and this makes sense for fleets with fairly predictable and circumscribed operating ranges, such as city-based delivery vehicles or municipal bus fleets, says Andrew Slaughter, executive director of the Deloitte centre for energy solutions. One of the ways urban mobility may develop is for ride-hailing and shared-ride vehicles to replace many of the personal-vehicle trips now taken. “It can work to have that fleet owner or operator maintain and run its own charging at certain locations. If you’re talking about autonomous vehicles for ride sharing, with less predictable use patterns, you’ll still need a more publicly available charging infrastructure they can go to,” he says.

“Cities have multiple levers they could pull,” says Sahdev. They can subsidise the installation of EV charters at multi-unit dwellings and workplaces, transition to EVs in municipal fleets and impose fees on gasoline-powered vehicles during periods of congestion or high pollution in order to incentivise EV ownership.

Benefits outweigh costs

Udelv has already found that high use of an electric vehicle reduces the total cost of ownership. When it comes to public transportation, this also holds true, according to Fulton of UC Davis.

Autonomy is the big game changer for cities, Fulton says. “If cities can automate their buses or trains, they’ll cut their costs dramatically”, thanks to eliminating the costs of drivers. He sees rail vehicles of all types as the most obvious first step in automating public transportation. Simply running shorter trains more often would improve service and running on a fixed route would make it easier to create safety systems.

Opportunities for cities and utilities

Autonomy aside, the introduction of EVs into urban mobility– whether public transportation or private– presents the possibility of new revenue sources for cities and utility companies. Charging stations could become a source of revenue for cities, according to McKinsey’s Sahdev, if they were able to forge the right kinds of public/private partnerships. What’s perhaps more important, to the extent that cities have authority over power companies, they could participate in changing rate structures for infrastructure owners.

Electric utilities are well-positioned to take the lead in developing public charging infrastructure according to Deloitte’s Slaughter. “They have the business model and the expertise in building infrastructure already. They have capital base and can work with regulators to get regulatory structure right to do that.”

While a recent survey of US utility companies by Deloitte showed that many of them are considering this, they need to work with regulators on tariff structures and other issues.

Another interesting avenue, he said, is that utility companies could partner with fleets in load-balancing schemes. For example, EVs could act as storage for surplus electricity. Says Slaughter, “There’s a huge bandwidth of uncertainty around the scale, scope and timing of this shift. It is real.”


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