CSP Magazine

Opinion: Who's at the Wheel?

The 1989 movie “Back to the Future Part II” envisioned hoverboards in use by Oct. 21, 2015. Sadly, I am still awaiting that technology. So it is no surprise that when the topic of driverless cars comes up, it is perceived similarly. Then again, 20 years ago my computer sat on a desk, connected to the Internet through dial-up, and I did not foresee in my lifetime that I would carry a smartphone with functionalities that made numerous other devices unnecessary.

So where may driverless cars take us?

Obstacles and Benefıts

Emotionally, most people’s first reaction to a driverless vehicle is a sense of uneasiness caused by not being in control. But if they view the experience apart from their own personal driving, such as taking a train or a taxi, their fears may be lessened.

Autonomous technology is estimated today to add as much as $150,000 to the cost of a vehicle. If driven 12,000 miles per year (the average distance traveled for privately owned cars in the United States), electric vehicles (EVs) are still expected to be more expensive than gasoline-powered cars by the year 2030. But if a vehicle is driven 40,000 to 70,000 miles per year, typical for U.S. taxis, an alternative-fuel vehicle (hydrogen fuel cell or electric battery) becomes the most cost-effective option per mile driven, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found.

They’ve also reported that the per-mile greenhouse-gas emissions of an EV deployed as an autonomous taxi in 2030 would be 63% to 82% lower than a projected 2030 hybrid vehicle driven as a privately owned car, mainly due to “right-sizing” the taxi.

But what about that wary consumer? My mother once felt the same way about trusting the Internet for financial transactions that she does for driverless vehicles, but she has embraced the former. She discovered the value of increased freedom and time surpassed the benefits of control. Many time-starved people have told me they would embrace driverless taxis for work, use the gained time productively and sell their second car.

Rush to Regulation

Driverless vehicles have logged more than 1 million miles so far in the testing phase, and they have done so safely—with statistics not unlike what you would expect for your own vehicle. Google expects these vehicles to become publicly available between 2017 and 2020. According to The New York Times, policymakers and regulators have argued new laws will be required if driverless vehicles are to become a reality because “the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages.” A rush to enact regulations will surely be a harbinger of the dawn of the driverless reality, and the beachhead will surely be in congested urban areas.

Skeptics point out that the retail price of gasoline, expected even by OPEC to remain low for years to come, will dissuade interest in this as well as hydrogen fuel cell or electric battery technology. In an unlegislated free market, this would be true. The game changer will be legislation that is enacted out of concern about climate change.

While many argue that the United States by itself cannot change the planet’s climate, there is growing concern (especially in California) that we need to do something to address recent headlines.

In a Driverless World

My consulting business is no different than that of most of my clients, whose business models are largely supported by vehicles and the fuels that power them. In my last column [CSP—Oct. ’15, p. 178], I questioned if hydrogen fuel cells were merely a short-term solution to the range-anxiety issues of EVs. Advances in battery storage and charging capabilities might make electric vehicles a more attractive solution over time. In a driverless third-party universe, hydrogen refueling becomes efficient.

Picturing a future where there are fewer cars owned, fewer vehicle miles traveled and less retail fuel consumed, where do we see ourselves? The 2016 University Case Competition, sponsored by the Fuels Institute, seeks to answer many of these questions from multi-disciplinary teams. In light of the success of the inaugural 2015 competition, I eagerly look forward to meeting the final three teams at our April gathering, as should the rest of the industry.

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