The Forecourt of the Future

Jackson Lewis, Associate Editor

future road

Your alarm just woke you. It’s 6 a.m. The year is 2097.

After you’re out of bed and ready for work, you walk outside to find an electric, driverless vehicle waiting for you. Very few people own cars these days. Most subscribe to an automated car-sharing service.

The automated vehicle drives you to the Hyperloop train station nearby. Though your workplace is more than 300 miles away, the train makes the trip in less than an hour. Halfway through the trip, you realize you forgot breakfast.

After a few clicks of your watch, you’ve placed an order for coffee and a breakfast sandwich from a c-store near your office. A drone from the store waits at the station to meet you, and it keeps the food warm.

You’re in a hurry, so you take another automated vehicle from the train station to the office. The vehicle provides you with power and internet access, so you work a little while you eat breakfast on your way there.

Sounds cool, right? But is it possible?

“I’m not going to say no,” says John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, Alexandria, Va., when asked if this vision of the future could really come to pass. But the road to an electric, automated future is filled with twists and turns.

Here's how we might get there ...

Disruptor: Electric vehicles

Tesla Model 3

Take electric vehicles (EVs). Eichberger warns that the attention news outlets and pundits will give EVs as they become more popular will lead to inflated consumer opinions of the potential market share. “Even if there is an aggressive uptick in sales [of EVs], and we get to, say, 10% of sales by 2025, we’re only going to be seeing 10% of cars on the road in 2030 being electric,” he says.

Tesla’s Model 3 (pictured above) will be among the first long-range EVs for the mass-market consumer.

Of course, all EV sales projections hinge on the changing price of oil. Recent research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that the price of crude oil will rise back to $70 a barrel or more by 2040. Meanwhile, Bloomberg asserts that the cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by 65% since 2010 to reach $350 per kilowatt hour last year. That number is expected to fall even further, well below $120 per kilowatt hour by 2030. If these predictions hold true, Bloomberg believes EVs could represent 35% of new light-duty-vehicle sales by 2040.

Disruptor: High-octane fuel

gas gauge

Instead, Eichberger is bullish on high-octane fuels. He believes it’s possible—with a good five to 10 years of government approvals—that the widespread use of turbocharged engines, which run on high-octane fuels, could “extend the life of the internal-combustion engine by years, maybe decades, because you can boost the efficiency, reduce emissions and deliver a compliant vehicle to meet the emissions protocols of the world,” he says.

Also, he says, “I think high-octane fuels are a win for the auto industry and, quite frankly, a win for the liquid-fuels market,” in that it delays the manufacturers’ need to shift to electric.

But as with all fuel disruptors, there’s a caveat.

“If the engines have to be designed to tolerate a lower-octane blend stock, then those engines will not have the efficiency the [automakers] are looking for,” says Eichberger. It’s the classic chicken/egg conundrum: High-octane fuel does not boost performance as effectively without a turbocharged engine, but no one will buy a car that runs only off high-octane fuel if that fuel is not readily available.

This is where that five to 10 years of government approvals come in handy (sort of). Eichberger suggests that while the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board are certifying engines to run on high-octane fuel, automakers and fuel suppliers can introduce more high-octane fuel into the market along with hybrid engines that can work with both high-octane and conventional fuel.

The hybrid engines won’t deliver the performance that an engine designed to run on high-octane fuels would, but their release could allow time for high-octane fuels to penetrate the market so the infrastructure is already in place once the engines are approved.

Disruptor: Hydrogen fuel cells

Toyota Mirai

High-octane fuel may slow the rise of EVs, but electric dominance is likely inevitable. Norman Turiano, principal of Turiano Strategic Consulting, Cape Coral, Fla., believes the downturn of the liquid-fuels market in favor of EVs could mean the end of convenience stores as fuel retailers for one simple reason.

The HFC-powered Toyota Mirai (picured above) comes with three years’ worth of free fuel.

“The most logical places that people will recharge is where they’re going to spend some time, and that’s restaurants, malls, etc., and there’s no prohibitive cost of entry for those retailers to get in,” says Turiano.

Eichberger shares a similar opinion, thinking most consumers would want to charge their cars at home. But he believes something else could keep c-stores in the fuel-retail game: hydrogen fuel cells (HFCs).

“Hydrogen will always be bought in market. No one’s going to be producing it at home, so from a business perspective on the retail side, you really want to cheer for hydrogen,” he says.

The idea is plausible. HFCs can go much farther than EVs on a single fill-up, and HFC refuel time is about three to five minutes—far shorter than the current 20- to 30-minute charge time for EVs.

The problem with HFCs is twofold. First, there’s the cost. “Infrastructure’s $10 million a site and the ramp-up has been very slow,” Eichberger says.

Turiano agrees, pointing to dynamics of the California market, home to most of the country’s HFCs and hydrogen fueling stations. “California is mostly paying for [HFC infrastructure] because there’s no viable payback for a retailer except if they’re subsidized, or if they’re looking for something other than monetary gain,” he says.

Despite the high cost of bringing HFCs to market, they still have a competitive advantage over EV: range.

But that difference in performance may not last forever. HFCs currently outlast EVs in fuel range by more than 100 miles, and the fill-up time for HFCs leaves the fastest EV charge time in the dust. That may seem like a large gap, but Eichberger says the longest range for EVs was just 70 miles as recently as five years ago. The gap between the two fuel disruptors is closing quickly, and Eichberger doesn’t see EV innovation slowing down anytime soon.

Disruptor: Autonomous driving

As EV technology transforms, so will autonomous driving and, with it, the very idea of car ownership.

Autonomous driving could take 80 years to perfect, but automakers and tech companies alike are hard at work to bring it to the mass market.

Google has been testing self-driving vehicles (pictured above) since 2009.

“Car ownership will not be as important as it once was,” says Turiano. “Vehicles will be seen as a service—an app on your phone. You contact the autonomous vehicle, and it shows up at your house when you’re ready to leave.”

Eichberger agrees that a world of autonomous cars is possible, but he points out that there’s a long way to go to reach the day when driverless cars are the norm instead of the exception. “What we’re describing in terms of vision is level-six autonomy as defined by SAE,” he says, referring to a global group of engineers and technical experts in the aerospace and automotive industries. The group defines level-six autonomy as an automated driving system that controls all aspects of driving in all environmental conditions while managed by a human driver.

“We’re only sitting at levels two and three in our testing protocols right now. So everybody’s working toward level six, but we are years away from getting to fully autonomous,” says Eichberger.

He predicts that the industry will continue to take incremental steps toward full autonomy as time passes. “We already have it in the market,” says Eichberger. “Lane departure, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot indicators, cars that stop on their own if they see a problem—all these things are already implemented, and they’re different levels of autonomous.”

What's next?

car keys

The next step, he says, once these disparate features start to coalesce into a fully autonomous vehicle, is to deploy autonomous fleets to enclosed neighborhoods, retirement communities or other closed environments where they can navigate with less potential for mishap than any old road or highway.

Then there’s the questions of liability, insurance coverage and making life-or-death decisions on the road. Despite the ethical dilemmas raised by driverless cars, Eichberger says safety could in fact give the market more momentum.

“People will not put down their phones,” he says. “People will not disconnect when they’re driving, so the motivation to take the art of driving out of their hands where they can focus on other things is growing.”

Finally, it’s still unclear how well Americans will take to handing over the steering wheel to a computer. On one hand, Turiano looks forward to the change. As far as he’s concerned, the American love of the open road is a “nostalgic belief that no longer exists. Most of the people you will speak to will tell you how they hate driving,” he says. On the other hand, Eichberger is not giving up his place behind the wheel without a fight.

“No, no, no, no. I’m never giving up my keys,” he says. “I love driving too much and I’m not giving up control to a computer. My computer crashes enough—I don’t need my car to crash.”

To be fair, the future of transportation probably won’t be so black and white. Cars last a long time, and it could be well into the next century before we stop seeing humans driving gasoline-powered cars. After all, we still see horses and buggies every once in a while.