Why we need to build the ecosystem for autonomous vehicles


The federal transportation authority is calling for a national set of standards on driverless car safety. Tesla just announced its Autopilot feature for all future models, and meanwhile, the White House recently announced an initiative for a vehicle charging network covering 25,000 miles of US highways.

These recent developments are bringing about the reality of widespread autonomous vehicles – sooner than many had realised. Of course, a number of other pieces must fall into place to get us there.

The regulatory factor

In the short term, a lot more policymaking and standardisation needs to take place amongst a wide array of government bodies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made moves to address driverless car safety, and that’s an important first step.

However, the full picture includes residential streets, runways, warehouses, shipyards – anywhere a personal or commercial autonomous vehicle conceivably operates.

The policy overhaul needs to extend to all the agencies – federal, state and local – tasked with ensuring safety in these environments.

The insurance factor

Insurance will be another extremely active area with many new questions to sort out. Carriers face an entirely new set of considerations around levelised risk once a significant number of self-driving cars hit the road.

It’s all worth it if done correctly, as the societal benefits of safer, cleaner and more efficient transportation speak for themselves

Despite the safety concerns surrounding the earliest versions of this technology, the long-term prospect of cutting back on thousands of driving-related deaths and millions of accidents and injuries is very real.

Once the technology is proven and it gets factored into insurance calculations in a meaningful way, premiums will heavily favor autonomous over human-controlled vehicles.

At the same time, vehicle control will remain a spectrum between full human control and full computer control. For determining liability, insurers will need to have clear ways to establish who or what was in control of the vehicle at the time of an accident.

Improved data exchange with manufacturers, communications network operators and other relevant groups will go a long way.

The energy factor

Untethering electric vehicles from cords and outlets will be another significant step. EV’s are expected to make up a huge portion of autonomous vehicles.

The time consuming process of plug-in charging simply won’t meet demands for vehicle availability, especially with some of the ways in which car ownership will fundamentally change.

Consider, for example, the possibility of loaning your car out for rideshare, grocery delivery and other services any time it isn’t needed for personal transportation.

And range anxiety is still a very real issue that makes EV owners hesitant to take longer trips where charging infrastructure may be scarce.

The Holy Grail here is dynamic in-road wireless charging. This requires a charging infrastructure embedded into the road itself, allowing vehicles to draw power simply by getting from point A to B.

It is the most elegant solution to cutting the cord and making autonomous vehicles available at any time and place.

Reshaping how we generate and store energy will also have a big part to play. Keeping a growing number of electrified autonomous vehicles on the road has many concerned about overtaxing an already fragile grid, but these vehicles actually present an opportunity to create more balance, cleanliness and efficiency in our energy systems.

For now, we’re often faced with the somewhat counterintuitive problem of having more clean power than the grid knows what to do with. This is caused by a mismatch between the times when clean power is generated and when overall energy demand is highest.

Energy storage is, of course, a key solution, and creating clean microgrids that feed directly into autonomous vehicle charging provides another significant outlet for wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy.

This is by no means a complete accounting of the massive efforts required to create a functioning autonomous vehicle ecosystem, but these alone represent a good amount of cooperation, innovation and perspiration.

It’s all worth it if done correctly, as the societal benefits of safer, cleaner and more efficient transportation speak for themselves.

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