Jun 30, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The case for all-electric self-driving cars

Illustration of black dots between two map points
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Electric cars don't suffer a huge loss in range when equipped with autonomous driving technology, and there's potential to minimize the effects even further, a new peer-reviewed analysis in Nature Energy shows.

Why it matters: It comes as large automakers and startups are placing big bets on autonomous tech and charting different paths on what type of drivetrain to use.

The big picture: Carnegie Mellon University researchers conclude that automation will likely reduce electric vehicles' range by 5%–10% in suburban driving and 10%–15% in city driving.

  • The loss of range stems from added weight, more computing load, and potentially more drag because sensing equipment can make vehicles less aerodynamic.

The intrigue: The paper says the results show that fears of autonomous vehicle equipment sapping the efficacy of electric drivetrains appear unfounded, noting...

"While some commentators have suggested that the power and energy requirements of automation mean that the first automated vehicles will be gas–electric hybrids, our results suggest that this need not be the case if automakers can implement energy-efficient computing and aerodynamic sensor stacks."

The state of play: Deployment of autonomous technology remains in the early stages.

  • As Axios transportation expert Joann Muller reported in August, GM sees all-electric autonomous cars having an advantage over hybrid- and gasoline-powered models.
  • But rival Ford’s first autonomous vehicle will be a hybrid, which it says is the most practical path to start until electric vehicle battery costs come down.

The bottom line: The results suggest there's no inherent tradeoff between the safety and other gains of autonomous vehicles and cutting CO2 through vehicle electrification.

  • “You don’t have to choose between the benefits of automation and the benefits of electrification,” co-author Parth Vaishnav tells me.
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