The autonomous electric vehicle, Part 1
If you aren't current on the latest automotive trends, here's a quick primer: electric cars are here to stay, with autonomous electric cars not too far behind.
That is, once legislators and carmakers lick the small issue of having a machine take the wheel without any human intervention at any point. Aside from having the human passengers tell the car where it needs to go, of course.
But before we even get there, we're also going to have to take a long, hard look at how the car fits into our lives today.
For instance, will we still even want to own cars, or will we just do the rideshare thing exclusively? It's already happening now, but the only difference is in the future the human behind the wheel might go away.
And what of the manufacturers? Since many will stop selling to private individuals and instead sell most of their wares to fleets, will we start to see car brands the way we see aircraft manufacturers like Airbus or Boeing?
What will the cars these manufacturers make look like? When a car is freed of needing a driver's seat, the entire interior can be dedicated to a living space, which opens up whole new avenues of engineering and indeed, design. Will the self-driving car of tomorrow look anything like the car of today?
There's also the small issue of safety. While it's a certainty autonomous cars of the future will be as safe as houses (if not more so), what isn't is the question of legal liability.
Who picks up the blame if something goes wrong? Will it be the passenger, the manufacturer or other road users? Or if someone would hack into the car's systems and cause it to intentionally hit someone or otherwise malfunction? What then?
All big questions with no easy answer, but if all of that is something you've thought of, you're going to want to join us over the course of the next couple of months where we'll explore the issues surrounding the autonomous electric car.
And we'll begun by talking about the technology underpinning the self-driving electric car, which funnily enough, is the easiest thing for carmakers to solve, and you only have to cast your mind back a decade when the idea of an electric car was a bit of an novelty. An unfinished, not-yet-ready-for-primetime novelty, to be more specific.
Because the early were converted from regular cars that ran on fossilised dinosaur (that is, petrol or diesel), versus being built from the ground up as electric vehicles (EVs), compromises usually had to be made.
Particularly when it came to the batteries. The bulky, low energy density battery packs available at the time meant EVs of the day had compromised interior space, poor handling largely due to the added weight and inadequate thermal management.
Earlier EVs in the form of the Mitsubishi i-Miev had a range of roughly 120km, and there was the famous case of the experimental Mini E cars having dramatically reduced range (a little over 60km) during one bitterly cold winter. The latter issue is down to how batteries need good cooling/heating in order to perform at their best.
Yes, there was the original Tesla Roadster, which had great range, speed and handling, but that's hardly a car suitable for mass adoption, which a similar case with the Mitsubishi and Mini.
Things got a little better a few years later with the BMW ActiveE and Renault Fluence ZE, which gave real-world ranges in the neighbourhood of 150km, which is decent, but since those cars were still based on non-electric cars, they still weren't perfect.
The tiny external dimensions of the 1 Series-based ActiveE belied its 1.8 tonne kerb weight (not too far off a 7 Series of its day) and in the Fluence, its battery pack severely curtailed available boot space.
But the electric cars of today are all engineered with some form of electrification in mind, so this means fewer compromises in the way of handling and boot space. For example, the battery pack is usually mounted underneath the floor, which makes for a lower centre of gravity and won't eat up valuable boot space.
In short, any electric car on sale in Singapore today - the BMW i3, Hyundai Ioniq, Renault Zoe and Tesla - is a worthy buy. The real-world ranges of all those cars will easily exceed 200km (the Zoe has a claimed range of 367km), with suitably short charging times (the Hyundai Ioniq can get a full charge in 30 minutes with a quick charger) and they're all pretty funky looking (the BMW i3 and its Ikea-esque interior is gorgeous).
What all this means is range anxiety is all but a distant memory. Like, say, phones that barely lasted a day on a full charge, or the sense of impending doom you get when you're disconnected from social media for more than an hour.
Well, we say a distant memory for all but the people who drive trans-continental distances on your daily commute. For the vast majority of drivers, especially in Singapore, a full charge on any of the above cars will easily last a week.
Driven to distraction
Remember how amazed everyone was when, in the dying days of the 20th century, the world was presented with adaptive cruise control, with a car that could automatically keep a set distance from the one in front?
Remember how we ooh-ed and aah-ed when we saw videos a car that could guide itself into parking lots in the mid 2000s?
Remember how we marveled at how a vehicle could move without the aid of horses?
But seriously though, the idea of some autonomy in our cars isn't new. In fact, many cars today have some form of autonomy already, it's just a question of how much. Cruise control, emergency braking, collision mitigation and lane-keeping assistants can all be considered forms of autonomy.
The holy grail, however, is level 5 autonomy - the driverless pod that's a standard fixture in science fiction shows. That sounds like a far-flung dream, but in reality, a fully driverless future has already been realised... back in 2013.
A Mercedes-Benz S-Class outfitted with experimental driverless tech undertook the 100km journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim, mirroring the 100km route taken by Karl Benz' wife, Bertha in 1888.
Not on a closed road, mind you. On a regular day with regular traffic, and the car, nicknamed "Bertha" did so perfectly. Albeit with a slightly nervous-looking Mercedes-Benz employee in the driver's seat and another in the passenger seat with a laptop open.
Audi, too, has its own experimental self-driving tech, which it calls "Piloted Driving". Cars equipped with that have tackled numerous race tracks around the world, posting fairly respectable times along the way.
Some will no doubt say autonomous driving is dead easy on a closed circuit where there's no traffic, but Audi has also done the same on public roads. Two years ago, a specially modified A7 zipped down the German autobahn without human intervention, and aside from the car being marked with promotional decals, you'd hardly know it was packing bleeding-edge tech.
No unsightly laptops or instruments, and the nervous-looking employee behind the wheel has been replaced with nervous-looking journalists. Ladies and gentlemen, the future has arrived.
We're still sitting stuck in traffic, dealing with bad drivers, in a car gently burning away the ozone layer and killing a few polar bears in the process.
We already have the technology available to take you around with zero emissions and zero driver, so if the future is already here, why isn't it?
One of the big reasons behind that is regulations, and by golly, there are a lot of them to get around.
But that's all we have time for today. Join us next time where we'll explore the legal, ethical and cultural implications of a self-driving, electric future.
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