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Network News • 04-02-2021

Killing emissions using driverless electric cars

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 4th February 2021

Many now see technology firms as being better placed than carmakers to develop and profit from the software that will underpin automated driving

Fully autonomous vehicles are not really here yet, at least not in the ways we’ve envisioned them in the past. They are coming, but in the meantime, autonomous capabilities allow for some pretty powerful and convenient functionality.

As the technology matures, this infotainment in cars will become more immersed allowing virtual-reality (VR) experiences to amuse vehicle occupants. They can leverage their real-world location and surroundings to achieve enhanced productivity and leisure.

Vehicles will become intelligent, and technologies such as driver monitoring will allow autonomous vehicle platforms to know when (and if) vehicle occupants can and should take over driving or perform other duties. Electric buses using this autonomous technology are expected to become more popular in use than the personal car for transport.

Such buses are fairly boxy in shape, yet they transport 25 people and are mostly battery-electric-powered with no manual controls whatsoever. They are designed to operate at low speeds and have a limited range, and they can be summoned and communicated with remotely, generally via mobile apps. For people, who are just becoming acquainted with new mobility technology, the term “autonomous vehicle” may be somewhat confusing.

We are living in a COVID-19 pandemic so one expects industries to be hit by the impacts of the economic downturn and a drastic decrease in commuter mobility.

It is fair to assume that companies developing autonomous vehicles are also slowing down in their research and their ability to test new models.   As a general comment, one may argue that until a global 70% herd immunisation is reached few companies have much inertia to continue testing AV’s. However, there are exceptions.

Neolix, a Chinese driverless delivery startup, declares that orders for its small road-going autonomous vehicles have spiked since the outbreak. The company’s vehicles have been used in several ways: delivering food to healthcare workers infected with the virus, moving medical supplies, and disinfecting public places with its modified vehicles.

In short, it’s too early to say conclusively what the long-term impacts from COVID-19 will be, but in these early stages, it appears as the inoculation drive continues relentlessly in China (and Israel), this initiative will accelerate testing of autonomous vehicle deployments.

With greater public acceptance and demonstrated use cases of autonomous vehicles driven in China, one hopes that by the end of the year more countries open up their streets for more testing opportunities.

Such a prognosis indicates that adoption timelines will accelerate. The global automotive industry is under pressure to reduce emissions, both from government regulations and from consumers who are growing more conscious about the environmental impact of their fossil-fuelled vehicles. With increased popularity, new electrified powertrains are a promising avenue to reduce or eliminate vehicle emissions for automakers. This is also partly due to the need to offset higher emissions of their larger internal combustion engines, which causes more emissions.

The EU is promising an emission-free atmosphere by 2050 and like other sectors, the automotive industry is under extreme pressure to reduce emissions. Obviously, climate-change minded commuters are more conscious of the environmental impacts of their vehicle choices.

In response to this challenge, electrified powertrains (to be followed by hydrogen fuel cells technology) are a promising avenue to reducing or eliminating emissions from vehicles. Thus, imagine a future scene when Robo-taxis become mainstream, then there will be a drastic drop in the number of cars on roads. Driverless cars are the future and firms like Tesla in Silicon Valley are investing heavily in such technology.

Still, there is no denying that conventional car manufacturers, like Mercedes, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and Toyota are keen to join the gravy train. They aggressively invest in auto tech which they hope will enable them to be among the first to produce autonomous cars.

By 2030, Europe should witness a number of fully tried and tested autonomously vehicles. The question is – are we ready in Malta to face this transformation? Will our town planners embrace the challenge of fewer cars on the roads and design new flyovers and superhighways to meet the future demand for more enlightened commuters?

Europeans want to replicate the successful Tesla’s adventure with a dream to develop their own advanced technology and software which leads to the manufacture of safe and efficient electric cars. Tesla is experimenting with autonomously driven vehicles – all fearlessly relying on the use of multiple sensors and advanced computers to transport passengers from A to B in comfort. All this at one-third of the cost of traditional car ownership.

Many now see technology firms as being better placed than carmakers to develop and profit from the software that will underpin automated driving (The Economist, 2016). Is this the death knell for future car ownership in big cities? In the UK, Jaguar Land Rover’s announced its policy to invest more to enhance its expertise in autonomous and electric technology, mainly employing more electronic and software engineers. 

It goes without saying, that autos of a bygone age such as the legendary Ford Model “T” cars, once a superlative feat of mechanics, have gracefully given way to electronic marvels on wheels.  Armed with sensors like Mobileye, AV now has the capability of parallel parking, seeing and heeding oncoming traffic, predicting merge time and gauging accurate speed.

But is this a fantasy land or a true prediction of what may hit our roads in the medium term? Much depends on our attitude towards change and the prowess of our minister responsible for energy. Transport technology based on AI will permit commuters to use cars temporarily charged to their smartphones and drop them off where they want. Car ownership will gradually become merely a status symbol for enthusiasts/collectors but the general public will disown cars and gradually endear itself to cheap rides on shared cars. It is a joy not having to bother where to park or recharge the car.

For many, this article seems to be out of a fantasy movie where autonomous cars, won’t need drivers, and could theoretically be summoned by an App to come to your door. In fact, some predict that Europeans will only buy autonomous, electrical (or fuel cell) powered cars by 2035 and that this in time, turns will label fossil-fuelled vehicles as dinosaurs.

With this encouraging scenario which promises clean air and blue skies, one hopes that the Hon Ms Dalli (our energy minister) will issue a cut-off date – ceasing permits for the importation of fossil fuel cars and improving Government cash incentives for commuters buying an electric vehicle.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 4th February 2021
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