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Our Autonomous Future Will Likely Be an Electric One — Here's Why

Hybrids, plug-ins and electric cars currently account for only a slim share of the U.S. market, but in 10 years the roads could look very different.

(TNS) — DETROIT — As our urban transportation landscape becomes automated over the next decade, it could spark an electric car revolution that for some has been overdue. Spend enough time around these early self-driving vehicles and you notice that nearly all are hybrids or purely electric — Ford’s automated Fusion, the similarly equipped Fusion hybrids that Uber is deploying in Pittsburgh, the Google cars bopping around the peninsula of Northern California, the Chevrolet Bolts being tested in San Francisco and suburban Phoenix.

Today, hybrids, plug-ins and pure electrics are a marginal piece of the U.S. market, accounting for a scant 2.8 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. through the first eight months of 2016, according to

But a decade from now, electric cars will appeal far beyond the granola-eating, tree-hugging, climate-change evangelizing base that has sustained them thus far. You may not own one, but you will have ridden in them. The change won’t be instant, but it will be steady.

So why will our autonomous future likely be an electric one?

First are the regulatory reasons, namely gas mileage requirements. Then there are engineering reasons; electric vehicles are easier for computers to drive. And, of course, ride-hailing services will increasingly make up a higher percentage of daily miles driven, and it will be easier, cheaper and safer to recharge an unmanned car than to gas one up.

“One of the biggest changes will be in the growing difference in cost of ownership between electrified and internal combustion engines,” Ford CEO Mark Fields said this month, repeating his company’s pledge to spend $4.5 billion to introduce 13 new electric vehicle nameplates by 2020.

For the auto industry’s home, Detroit, and surrounding southeast Michigan, it means auto-related job growth will come more in highly skilled areas such as robotics and software development than in traditional manufacturing trades.

A competition, of sorts, between Silicon Valley and Detroit has been ongoing in the past decade for the engineering and computer programming talent needed to create the next generation of smart, connected and ultimately self-driving vehicles.

The two sides will likely have to work together — either through mergers and acquisitions or strategic partnerships — and electric cars will be the platform.

The federal government’s corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards will vary depending on the mix of trucks, SUVs and passenger cars a manufacturer sells, but a substantial portion of electrified vehicles will be needed to achieve the goals.

And then there are the engineering reasons.

“There are a lot fewer moving pieces in an electric vehicle. There are three main components — the battery, the inverter and the electric motor,” said Levi Tillemann-Dick, managing partner at Valence Strategic in Washington, D.C., and author of “The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future.” “An internal combustion engine contains 2,000 tiny pieces that have to be kept lubricated, and they break every once in a while.”

An electric car needs more electrical brainpower to manage the vision, guidance and mapping technology and process the ever-growing volume of software coding.

Most of these vehicles will initially be deployed in dense urban environments — think Uber’s demonstration in Pittsburgh. There almost certainly will be stringent emissions guidelines in place. Electric vehicles have no emissions.

Glen DeVos, Delphi Automotive vice president of engineering, said most hybrids and electric vehicles are configured for drive-by-wire, steering-by-wire and brake-by-wire systems that structurally are compatible with automated driving. The by-wire technology replaces traditional mechanical control systems with electronic control systems. This flexibility expands the number of options for the vehicle’s design. Eliminating mechanical linkages can reduce weight.

Another factor is that automated vehicles for ride-hailing services will be used more intensely — up to about 40 percent of a 24-hour day, Tillemann-Dick estimates, compared with less than 5 percent for privately owned vehicles that spend most of a day in a driveway or parking lot or deck. If ranges of current EVs such as the Chevrolet Bolt are already 238 miles, that likely will improve by the time these vehicles meet safety regulations and are deployed in large numbers.

Delphi is working on a pilot program to introduce a small fleet of fully automated cars that will complement Singapore’s transit system so people can get from the train or subway station to their home, office or other destination.

In the more immediate term, suppliers, including Delphi and Continental, are introducing 48-volt “mild-hybrid” systems in privately owned diesel and gas-fueled cars, initially in Europe and China.

These systems can deliver up to 25 percent better fuel efficiency in internal-combustion cars, without the cost and complexity of full-hybrid powertrains, according to Mary Gustanski, another Delphi engineering vice president.

Beyond fuel economy and emissions, autonomous vehicles will need to be extremely durable.

Delphi’s DeVos estimates that vehicles in on-demand mobility fleets could travel between 70,000 and 80,000 miles per year, four or five times the 12,000 to 15,000 miles most privately owned vehicles cover in an average year. With that intense usage, fleet operators likely will need to replace them every three or four years.

Self-driving vehicles will most likely populate urban areas first, where charging stations are more likely to pop up first because of urban population density.

This won’t happen overnight. Availability of charging stations is still inadequate outside of California and pockets along the East Coast.

According to ChargePoint, which operates the world’s largest EV charging network, there are about 30,600 public charging stations in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center lists 35,825.

For perspective, the National Association of Convenience Stores reports that the number of gas stations in the U.S. has fallen from 202,800 in 1994 to about 150,000 in 2015, but each has between six and 16 pumps.

Fields said this month that autonomous vehicles could account for 20 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2030, and one of every 10 miles traveled by car by 2025.

Assuming sales of 15 million — 2015 sales were 17.5 million — that translates to 3 million units. At that volume, the cost of batteries, currently between $150 and $200 per kilowatt-hour, can drop significantly.

To illustrate, GM’s product development chief Mark Reuss has said each battery cell on the Bolt costs about $145 per kilowatt. The Bolt’s electric capacity is 60 kWh, so the battery alone costs about $8,700, or roughly a quarter of the car’s suggested retail price.

Ford estimates it can deliver a lithium-ion battery system at $120 per kWH by 2020 and drive that down to $85 by 2030. That would be a 40 percent lower cost for a system with capacity equal to the Bolt.

As Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing businesses grow, suddenly the cost of owning, fueling and maintaining these vehicles will be less than the cost of paying drivers and fueling the vehicles with gas. For example, today an average Uber driver earns about $40,000 a year after the company takes its commission from his or her fare revenue, according to

If the company could buy an automated electric vehicle for about $30,000, Tillemann-Dick estimates the cost per mile could be reduced by as much as 80 percent as the cost of the electricity would be about half of where gasoline is today in the $2.20 to $2.40 per gallon range.

Remember, these cars will be driving more hours per day than most human drivers.

“The only caveat I’d offer is that you can do an autonomous car with an internal combustion engine, but what is going to drive the Ubers and Lyfts to opt for EVs is reliability and lower fuel cost,” Tillemann-Dick said.

©2016 Detroit Free Press, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.