A test engineer in a driverless taxi in the citty of Innopolis, Russia. Photo: Yegor Aleyev/TASS via Getty Images

The development of autonomous vehicles (AV) continues at a fast pace. Ford and GM, for example, have invested heavily into this technology to launch commercial models as early as 2020, while Japan hopes to showcase AVs at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics manufactured by Toyota and Honda. As remarkable as these advances are, significant business challenges remain.

The big picture: Automation comes at a price, and that price is power. The more autonomous features a vehicle has, the more power it requires from its battery system. As AV technology develops, larger batteries will be required that will, in turn, require longer charger times.

AVs will boast varying levels of automation, from driver assistance to full automation, whereby the vehicle will use onboard cameras, GPS, lidar, radar and other sensing technologies to drive without any human interaction. Enabling these features requires a multitude of computers, sensors and management systems for the vehicle to operate efficiently and safely. Because these features require a substantial amount of power, the estimated equivalent of 50–100 laptops, they are likely to reduce the operating hours and distance of the vehicle.

Larger battery systems also require longer charging times, which will create inefficiencies that could diminish AVs' business appeal, especially for ride-hailing services: Longer charges mean less time on the road generating revenue. Fast charging, wireless charging and battery swapping could provide potential solutions, as might vehicles that rely on hybrid, rather than exclusively electric, power. As some conventional gasoline cars are considered gas guzzlers, so too could AVs prove to be electricity guzzlers because of the size and power needs of their batteries. Fleet and ride-sharing AVs will also be subjected to more frequent charging cycles, which wear on the battery, adding still more costs.

The bottom line: The business case for AVs will depend on a number of factors, not least among them the battery power needed to make the vehicle autonomous. AV manufacturers will need to come up with unique solutions, in addition to battery strategies that include better onboard and remote supercomputing capabilities, to make this a profitable technology. 

Maggie Teliska is a technical specialist at Caldwell Intellectual Property Law, an intellectual property law firm. She is also a member of GLG, a platform connecting businesses with industry experts.

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