Lux Research argues that while it will be possible to make a competent self-driving car using older internal combustion engine (ICE) technology as the power source that drives the wheels, there are six reasons why it is most likely that self-driving cars will be overwhelmingly electric—i.e, six reasons why the two technologies will “merge”.
Technology-focused early adopters want both innovations in the same car. The type of early adopters that can afford EV price premiums often seek out technological differentiation as their reward—i.e., they want the OEM to include both electric and self-driving features in the same car, like in the new Mercedes-Benz S Class. As these innovations eventually trickle down and become more affordable, the initial pairing demanded by early adopters will carry on through to the mass market, as well.
It is easier to implement autonomous features on EVs. Self-driving cars require more from a car’s electrical subsystem. Today, ICE engines still largely use 12 V electrical systems, running off a single lead-acid battery; the higher voltages and energy stored in an EV battery pack allows much more design freedom when it comes to self-driving hardware and software implementations.
Wireless charging integrates seamlessly with autonomy. A self-driving car will have a hard time filling itself with gasoline; wireless charging does away with this issue. An autonomous car can drive to an open parking spot, align itself properly, and self-charge using wireless charging. Wireless charging is also more efficient as a function of alignment—and self-driving cars will be able to park themselves optimally, every time, to ensure the highest possible wireless charging efficiency. Finally, it enables “opportunistic charging”: Rather than waiting until the battery pack is nearly empty, a vehicle can charge itself when it is between driving duties.
More efficient self-driving extends range. All developers of EVs still struggle with range anxiety, and any technology that can extend driving range will be welcomed. Early studies indicate that self-driving technology may improve driving efficiency by 5% to 10%, thanks to smoother braking and acceleration, as well as more logical coasting and regenerative braking thanks to advanced mapping and predictive algorithms (client registration required).
Both technologies will mature at around the same time. Despite Tesla’s high profile, EVs are still not popular, barely making up about 1% of new car sales worldwide. Likewise, despite Google’s showy prototypes, fully self-driving cars are a distant promise. However, both are steadily progressing: Year by year, batteries get less expensive, helping EVs sell better. Year by year, sensors and software improves, allowing driver assist features to improve in their sophistication, making steady progress towards full autonomy. By Lux’s estimate, it will be around 2030 that both technologies will mature.
Both technologies will become mandated by governments. As EVs become more affordable and more mainstream, Lux posits, the idea of governments allowing OEMs to sell ICE-powered cars will be seen as increasingly irresponsible. Similarly, once driver assist features conclusively prove that they are much safer than human drivers, governments will mandate that they become standard equipment, just like they did with airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and other innovations. Essentially, the end game for why self-driving cars will be EVs will be because governments around the world will force OEMs, by law, to implement both technologies. That could be from an outright ban, or a subtler policy shift that makes ICE vehicles become economically unviable, because of higher taxes, penalties, or added-cost components.
Having a single disruptive innovation take over the market, be it the electric drivetrain or autonomy, is impactful enough. Having both happen, at around the same time, is a terrifying prospect for incumbents all across the value chain, from automotive OEMs and suppliers all the way down to oil and gas companies. Those working on either innovation—be it electrification or autonomy—should make every effort to keep up with both areas, and develop meaningful partnerships that bridge the divide, since inevitably the two technologies will merge, resulting in something greater than the sum of the parts.—Cosmin Laslau, Lux Research