The test of any good conference is whether you learn two new things from it and remember them a week later. For me, NAATBatt 2016 passed that test. As is usually the case, what I learn and remember about a conference is not so much an individual presentation or eye-opening chart, but an offhand comment by a speaker that suddenly makes a lightbulb go on in my head.
That happened twice for me (the requisite number for a good conference) at NAATBatt 2016. The first of those lightbulbs (I will discuss the second in a future column) came during the panel discussing the future of electric vehicles. In response to a question, one of the speakers (Ted Miller of Ford Motor Company), noted that the rise of autonomous vehicles is likely to promote vehicle electrification. Ted explained that non-automatous vehicles are necessarily over-engineered to permit a driver to go anywhere at any time and to drive the vehicle however the driver wants to drive it. This is a highly inefficient way to design a vehicle. And the internal combustion engine can accommodate this demand for inefficient, variable power in a way that electric drive, for the moment, cannot.
But autonomous drive will fundamentally alter the power requirements for vehicle drivetrains. The drive cycle of an autonomous vehicle will be far more predictable than that of a non-autonomous vehicle. Engineers will be able to design the drivetrains of autonomous vehicles much more efficiently since they will know in advance exactly how the vehicle will be driven. As a consequence, the power advantage that ICE drivetrains enjoy today over electric drivetrains–which largely contribute potential power, rather than actual power to the vehicle–will become much less important. Adoption of electric drive should accelerate as a consequence.
Ted’s explanation of the relationship between autonomous vehicles and electric drive was an eye-opener to me. Beyond the fact that autonomous drive and electric drive are two interesting new automotive technologies, I had had a difficult time understanding whether there was any real relationship between the two. In one comment at NAATBatt 2016, Ted Miller explained it.
The optimistic outlook for autonomous drive is good news for vehicle electrification and may in time prove to be a major driver of electric vehicle adoption. Multiple automotive companies have stated that fully autonomous vehicles will be ready for sale by 2020, with full regulatory approval probably requiring another three to five years. A panel of experts at the IEEE recently predicted that autonomous vehicles will account for up to 75 percent of all cars on the road by the year 2040—a staggering figure.
If the IEEE is correct, the outlook for vehicle electrification could be far brighter than many imagine. Self-driving cars could turn out to be a more important driver of vehicle electrification than the price of gasoline.