Autonomous and Electric Vehicles: Why They Go Hand in Hand

Following yesterday’s news that the U.S. will pull out of the Paris climate agreement, this post feels particularly timely. As a follow up to last week’s blog regarding the digitization of the rail industry, this week we shift our focus from shipping and freight to mass transit.

Another company we heard from at Collision was Proterra, a leader in the design and manufacture of zero-emission electric buses. During the discussion with CEO Ryan Popple, who was also an early employee at Tesla, the conversation turned toward how electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous vehicles (AVs) go hand in hand.

Electric vehicles alone will reduce energy cost per mile by about 80 percent. While the exact impact that autonomous vehicles will have on cost is hard to pin point right now, the benefit from eliminated accidents, fatalities, and insurance cost is clear and can be estimated at approximately another 50 percent.

Autonomous Might Equal Electric

Electric and autonomous vehicles have an interesting correlation. If it’s autonomous, it’s likely to be electric. For one, AVs have a high electrical load because it’s powering the energy-intensive sensor stack and computing; this also requires high quality energy.

Secondly, the hardware on an AV is more expensive than a non-autonomous vehicle, which means owners will want to use them more often and for a longer period of time to get more ROI out of their asset. Additionally, to reduce downtime, it’s critical that the refueling or recharging process be straightforward and precise, which has been optimized in EV.

AV Out in the Wild

One entre toward autonomous vehicles functioning in the real world starts today and is a three-phase project that plans to get an autonomous bus on the road by 2019. Proterra – in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center, the regional transit agency, and the state Department of Motor Vehicles – is collecting data for the next year in all-weather, all-passenger conditions to identify which parts of the three-mile Virginia Street route can be automated via software and which have to be managed by an operator.

Of course, it’s unlikely that there will be a world with no operators due to the unpredictability of the cargo – children, riders with disabilities, etc. – being carried by mass transit vehicles. The route also plays a role in whether or not a bus will be autonomous. For smaller, commuter buses it’s more likely that they’ll be autonomous because the value of the cargo is less, in other words fewer riders, and they’re likely to drive the same route in a small neighborhood at slower speeds. It’s less risky. For larger vehicles, carrying more passengers, farther, they have to be able to handle anything thrown at them and therefore will need an operator.

There are several other factors that play into where autonomous vehicles will thrive, but there is no doubt that electric vehicles are gaining momentum. EVs, even only hybrid vehicles, allow for less fuel consumption, smaller carbon footprint, and even noise reduction in urban areas. As today’s fleets age out, new lightweighted vehicles will be positioned as electric from inception.