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How Will Autonomous Technology Reshape the Electric Vehicle Landscape?

SOURCE: TTI MarketEye

The movement toward electric vehicles (EV) is now an all-out sprint. While the pandemic tried to slow everything down, the EV supply chain and OEMs have continued their product development efforts. Enhanced supercharging, range expansion and horsepower increases exemplify this continued advancement. At the same time, overall public interest for EV purchasing has continued as the effects of climate change intensify.

Given the importance of electrification, it is not surprising that progress has continued to bring EVs to market. Recent announcements by Ford and GM indicate the intensity with which they pursue EVs. Ford is investing $22 billion by the middle of the decade in pursuit of its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. GM has one-upped their Detroit rival by committing to releasing 30 new EVs by 2025, aiming to double revenue by 2030 as they target selling only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

However, a critical (though complicated) feature enabled by EVs – autonomous operation – sometimes gets overlooked during the race to bring electric cars to market. While vehicle autonomy does not capture the press of EV developments, the combination of AV and EV is still powerful and provides numerous advantages.

“Autonomy” is a somewhat cryptic term in the context of vehicles. SAE defines six levels of vehicle autonomy (numbered 0 to 5) that increase in automated control. Many new cars have some level of autonomy, like adaptive cruise control or lane centering. However, the technology needs a step-change forward to get from levels 1-2 to level 3 and above.

Crossing the threshold from primarily active driving to mainly passive driving has been the biggest challenge. Despite the substantial technical challenges, here are three reasons why AV technology will remain central to propelling EVs’ widespread success.

Driver Safety

The most significant benefit of AVs that leads companies to pursue this technology is safety. A recent NHTSA study found that human error caused 94 percent of motor vehicle crashes in 2019. Though ambient or external influences impact this statistic significantly, human behavior remains unpredictable and is a primary cause of crashes. Drivers are more distracted than ever, and letting their guard down on even familiar roads can cause a collision.

Given this risk, there is near-universal support for AV technology from medical communities. Removing or significantly reducing human error will dramatically improve driver safety. This longstanding public health issue creates 32,000 fatalities and 2 million injuries per year, making AVs a crucial tool to reduce these avoidable tragedies.

Because autonomous vehicles could reduce 90 percent of traffic fatalities, legislative momentum has begun in the U.S. House of Representatives with the 2017 “Self Drive Act.” This bill is significant because it demonstrates the bipartisan congressional recognition that the accuracy of AV collision avoidance systems is a limiting factor in reducing automotive deaths. This momentum and desire to improve driver safety fuels AV development.

Exhaust Emissions

With the move to electric vehicles, the primary focus in the public’s eye is the crucial transition from gas-powered cars to electric ones in order to address climate change. A more efficient engine maximizes performance within the conservation of energy.

U.S. drivers spent an average of 99 hours in traffic jams during 2019. While the pandemic reduced this time substantially, 2021 showed a rebound in commuting and travel, two factors that will likely be worse than ever when the public can move about freely without restriction. The good news is that AVs are well suited to reduce traffic congestion significantly. Some of the improvements a connected vehicle can deliver are improved stop-and-go flows, decreased lane spacing required between vehicles, improved parallel parking and entrance/exit strategies onto significant roads, improved traffic diversion and more.

However, to realize the full benefits of carbon emission reduction, all cars on the road must be autonomous to ensure that human error does not impact the computer-defined algorithm.

Equity

One of the most impactful reasons autonomous technology continues through development is that the increased prevalence of AVs will improve mobility for seniors and disabled communities. This advancement is unique to the 21st century, and it could help close the mobility gap.

Another less-obvious advantage that autonomous vehicles provide to the OEMs is that AVs bring in a generation of un-connected users who can participate in Industry 4.0. New market segments make vehicle autonomy an attractive benefit for vehicle companies. AVs allow non-drivers to move around freely, which encourages movement and benefits the economy by providing those individuals the means to shop in person. This ability to reach senior and disabled community members and help them engage in the daily world of commerce is also pulling AV technology forward.

What’s Next?

While automotive OEM giants ramp up investment and race to decarbonize fastest, tech heavyweights like Tesla and Amazon continue to invest, partner and develop solutions for autonomous vehicles. Nearly continuous announcements of new partnerships and joint developments signify that autonomous vehicles and features are still a priority for OEMs.

In addition, EV development will push AV capability development, and the natural overlaps between the two technologies will continue to offer creative options for improving driver safety, exhaust emissions and equity. These benefits make AVs an important part of vehicle development while also propelling EVs forward based on their advantages.

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