Cars should tune in sooner, plug in later

Plug-in electric vehicles certainly rate well on the AutoEcoRating scale. But does that mean policymakers should promote them with special regulatory or financial advantages beyond what they would earn on a technology neutral basis? This Thinking Green viewpoint thinks not, and argues that pushing electric cars into the market before we have driverless cars is putting the cart before the horse. From a policy perspective, those concerned with sustainable transportation should turn on to the promise of intelligent connectivity and help overcome the regulatory, insurance and institutional barriers that can inhibit the rapid evolution of “tuned in” autonomous mobility. That will be more productive than attempts to mandate or subsidize plug-in cars, which lack a scalable business case in an unconnected transportation world. 

In spite of so much breathless advocacy from electric vehicle (EV) proponents, electrification itself is not a game changer for mobility. Putting a plug-in powertrain into the 19th century machine that had such a profound impact on the 20th century doesn’t make it a 21st century breakthrough. It just makes it a more expensive car.

Certainly the electric car has its passionate believers who are jazzed about the technology. Some consumers very much want to get off of oil or cut their carbon footprints. EVs can do both, no doubt about that, though at very high cost. Individuals who feel strongly about those issues and are willing and able to pay the added price are much to be admired.

But private passion does not justify public subsidy. As long as there are less expensive ways of reducing oil use and cutting carbon, neither taxpayers nor automakers nor consumers at large should be asked to absorb the high costs of electrification. Given the urgency of the climate problem, the focus should be on the most cost-effective options available today, which EVs are not. And given current fiscal constraints, public resources are best reserved for basic research to seek better batteries, advanced materials and other enabling technologies that can be used in a variety of products.

For cars, the real game changer will be intelligent connectivity. The safety benefits of vehicles “tuned in” to each other and their surroundings will be substantial, and it’s that potential that motivates government and industry research on connected transportation. Autonomous capability will liberate consumers from the need to drive, which will then disconnect them from the 20th century cultural expectations that define the high-power, full-function vehicles of today. Once mobility is networked, EVs are much more likely to thrive, especially in urban and suburban regions where most trips are fairly short and well suited to the technology.

What intelligent connectivity offers that mere changes of fuel or powertrain do not is the vast value proposition that will follow from freeing up consumers’ time. Think of the appeal of being able to dispatch robot vehicles for numerous errands both personal and commercial. 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.

A widespread misconception is that getting EVs on the road is necessary for faster progress in reducing CO2 emissions. Such claims are based on numerous, but ultimately flimsy, scenario analyses that work backward from an imaginary future of renewable electricity while assuming that progress cannot be made in counterbalancing the CO2 emissions from liquid hydrocarbon fuels. As far as the car itself is concerned, the most cost-effective path forward is ongoing fuel economy improvement of gasoline and diesel vehicles. Including plugless hybrid drive, new fleet efficiency can be tripled over the next three decades. The costs will be incremental and so well within the realm of affordability for automakers and their customers.

There is indeed an urgent need to limit net CO2 emissions much more than can be done through efficiency alone. However, the next priority is to focus upstream in energy sectors where greenhouse gas emissions are yet to be well controlled. It’s not cost effective, necessary or fair to saddle the car market with ever greater expense as long as the electric power industry, oil and gas industry and other major energy and industrial sectors remain largely unconstrained on carbon. Vehicle electrification can wait until it makes sense for other reasons, which will only happen in a connected transportation world.

Unlike the difficult durability, safety and cost barriers posed to batteries by the challenges of electrochemistry, the obstacles to connected mobility are mainly nontechnical. The necessary communications capability, sensor technology and computing power are all available, and the costs of such systems can drop quickly through competitively driven economies of scale. A great deal of engineering has to happen, but none of it requires scientific breakthroughs.

In this regard, the automation of mobility is at a point 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 rapid progress were commercial innovations, including mass production to slash costs while boosting wages and car loans to close the remaining gap to mass affordability. Once an expansive business case was made, the accompanying institutional and policy changes fell into place, including the financial formula of fuel taxes to support roads. It was such nontechnical breakthroughs that enabled the rapid growth of personal automobility that is still underway around the world today.

Vehicle-to-vehicle (v2v) communications (source: US DOT)

Indeed, electrification isn’t a prerequisite for intelligently networked transportation, and so connected mobility can evolve while piston power still propels plenty of vehicles. The same design freedoms opened up by connectivity will enable engineers to develop far more efficient combustion-based cars, using less material along with compact gasoline and diesel engines and plug-free hybrid drive for energy-efficiency gains across the board. Horsepower can then go the way of the horse (consigned to nostalgic fans of racing) and vehicles can be better matched to their everyday missions, which are as mundane as they are essential.

Like the automobile a century ago, the driverless car must evolve; it cannot be centrally planned, at least not in a western democracy such as the United States. Today’s attempts for a government-led transition to EVs are as ill-considered, and are likely to be as ill-fated, as all the other top-down efforts to deploy alternatively fueled vehicles seen over the past three decades.

In addition to the wasteful subsidies for EVs themselves, another dubious use of public money is financing EV infrastructure. Sadly, that is the case for well-intentioned but poorly grounded programs for community “EV readiness” and investments in recharging corridors (analogs of the similarly questionable hydrogen highways). The advent of wirelessly charged robot cars will render such investments obsolete. It will make the CHAdeMO vs. SAE charger debate look like Betamax vs. VHS in the age of streaming video, except that there won’t have been any profitable period at all. In the form promoted today, EVs are destined to limp along for a decade or two, passionately embraced by a few and desperately subsidized for a few more, until rendered irrelevant by the real value revolution wrought by driverless technology.

As for connected mobility, only market forces can sort through the vast array of possibilities for how it might evolve. At one end of the spectrum are systems based on intensively networked podcars, an approach better described as automated rather than autonomous. This is the vision articulated by Reinventing the Automobile, for example. At the other end of the spectrum are autonomous vehicles having performance capabilities the same as today’s full-function automobiles. That approach is seen in the sport-utility vehicles used in the DARPA challenge and the ordinary vehicles equipped for autonomous driving in the Google car project. In between and beyond these two poles is a broad set of options 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 the driver rather than take away driver control. Lane departure and 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 all early steps that can 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 vision that inspires many plug-in proponents. It is premature to spend money on v2g demonstrations still fundamentally based on the deaf, dumb and blind cars of today, which will become anachronisms in a tuned-in transportation future. A more useful tack will be supporting the development and testing of automated and autonomous vehicle systems, developing open communications standards and protocols that will enable a mobility internet to evolve, and forging a public consensus for the regulatory, financing and insurance reforms needed to accelerate adoption of driverless vehicles. The private sector can then take the lead on exactly when, where and how to make the technology succeed in the market.

The policy emphasis on electrifying transportation sooner rather than later is just the latest act in the long-running, politically scripted circus known as the alternative fuel follies. It’s time to turn on to the promise of truly tuned-in mobility and drop out of the premature promotion of plug-in cars today.


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  • scratch, Los Angeles

    I could care less about eco and tree huggers. I’m just sick of sending the arabs my money so they can buy wepaons against us. My electric car runs on USA made electicty coal, nukes, natgas, and it’s all made in America. That’s why the Bush gave the us the car buying rebates. It’s a national security measure.

  • Paul Scott

    Disclosure, I sell the Nissan LEAF

    The whole premise of your essay seems to spin around the supposed high cost of vehicle electricfication. Nissan is now selling the entry level LEAF for about $20K after the federal rebate. On what planet is that expensive? Prices are falling fast for these cars, so the whole basis of your argument is wrong.

    Further, if you have a problem with public money being used to incentivize these cars, why haven’t you raised your voice against the military costs of oil? According to RAND, we’re spending $80 billion per year protecting access to oil. This is exclusive of the Iraq war, by the way. And please don’t try to make the argument that oil had nothing to do with that war. That just doesn’t fly with anyone. We spent $1.5 trillion fighting the Iraq war, lost thousands of dead soldiers, and we’ll be paying for the care of tens of thousands of wounded soldiers for the rest of their lives.

    None of these costs are in the price of gasoline.

    Other external costs of oil are equally as damaging. According to the World Health Organization and the American Lung Association, tens of thousands of Americans die prematurely each year from the effects of internal combustion pollution. Many of them are children who, through no fault of their own, live near the freeways where cancer, lung and heart disease skyrocket. You seem to have no problem with that, but millions of people do.

    The environmental degradation from the extraction, shipping, refining, distributing and burning of oil is enormous. The Gulf oil spill is but one glaring example.

    When you buy gas, you pay for none of that.

    The economic damage also bears mention. We spend some $400 billion for foreign oil every year. That’s our wealth that leaves our economy never to return. Once we are using electricity for most of our driving, all of that money will be staying here, circulating through our economy instead of going to support some petro dictator in Saudi Arabia.

    On the issue of self-driving cars, I’m in complete agreement. We will see them on the road very soon and it’s a great thing since they will be programmed to drive efficiently and safely, so much more energy will be saved. But mark my words, that energy will be renewable electricity, not oil.

    Lastly, I’m pretty sure you are a paid shill for the oil companies. No one who has looked seriously at personal transporation would take the stand against electrifying transportation as you have. Our grid is becoming cleaner by the day, and oil will only get more expensive. Wind is already cheaper than new coal, and solar will be there within a few years. Either you don’t understand basic physics and economics, or you have been hired by the oil companies to slow the transition to electricity. Which is it?

  • Steve Factor

    You’re kidding, right? I should have waited to abandon my oil addiction until driverless cars are common? I don’t need a computer to drive me around. I needed to stop paying thousands of dollars per year to a greedy group of oil companies who have stated the goal to extract ever more money from their customers each quarter. Their product creates toxic waste streams at every point throughout exploration, extraction, transport, refining and use. I have already stopped buying gas. My electric vehicles have driven me thousands of miles for many years now. Apparently they have worked. There was no good reason to wait. Any money spent on gas vehicles and fuel supports that technology and slows development of any alternative.

    My vehicles use renewable energy. My utility includes many renewable power sources in its power mix. I have selected their “Green Power” option to buy only renewable energy for my home. Solar power works now. I installed solar collectors on my roof to provide for 90% of my needs, including vehicle charging. There was no good reason to wait. While my neighbors’ electric bill increases, mine decreases. While my neighbors continue to create toxic effluent with each mile driven and each hour of electricity used, I use sunlight for both. No pollution required.

    Interconnectivity is neither dependant upon nor critical to the deployment of electric vehicles.

  • Edward Ellyatt

    This piece although well written was written by someone who has never owned an electric car. I just passed two years driving my Chevy Volt. I have logged over 33,000 EV miles. My motivation is not having my fuel dollars leave the United States where they can and will continue to promote the American economy. Using an American fuel (mostly natural gas in my case) helps employ many workers who all pay taxes and spend money in the American Economy.
    Your chosen fuel source gasoline exports $.70 out of every dollar spent for fuel. In what way does that help the U.S. economy? I also hate to see our American Military members forced to fight and die in the middle east to assure the flow of petroleum. I have no green agenda but I respect those who go the extra mile to protect our air and water from the pollution the petroleum provides. As far as the extra cost to drive electric there is none for me. My car costs the same as a BMW-3 series and I prefer the upscale nature of both cars. I have saved $7,000.00 in fuel and maintenance since I have owned my Volt and the savings in my tranportation costs continues to add up. My electric bill has gone up about $28.00 per month and my gasoline costs have gone down several hundred dollars a month. The Volt is worth the price I paid for it even if the tax credit did not exist. As a Republican I really like being able to spend my money (tax credit) any way I want. Thats right a tax credit is your money that you get back by buying an electric car not someone elses. I spent that $7500.00 tax credit and did my part to help the American economy. You are welcome.



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