A Deep Drive into All Things Autonomous Electric Vehicles
Electrification is one of the greatest accomplishments in automotive history. At the turn of the 21st century, electric cars were rare, expensive, unreliable, and impractical. Today, they’re at the forefront of a revolution as automakers alike release ever more efficient, affordable, and clean EVs to the public.
Only one thing could compare to EVs as a game-changer in the automotive world: autonomous vehicles (AVs). And while all-electric cars and trucks are no longer the stuff of fantasy, it may be some time before you can see autonomous electric vehicles on the road.
Until then, plenty of exciting research is in progress as engineers determine whether and how autonomous cars can succeed. Here’s all the latest on autonomous EVs.
What Is an Autonomous Vehicle?
Autonomous vehicles, also called self-driving, driverless, or robotic cars, are vehicles capable of moving under their own power and sensing and interacting with their surroundings without human input. Many of the features available on today’s cars could be considered a form of automation, particularly when combined with similar features.
For example, adaptive cruise control is not an autonomous feature, but it does make the car with which it’s equipped a Level 1 autonomous car, according to SAE International’s standards. When paired with another feature like lane centering, cruise control can help a car achieve Level 2 autonomy.
Closer to what most people imagine when thinking of autonomous vehicles is Level 4, at which stage drivers don’t always have to direct the car or even keep their hands on the steering wheel or pedals. Level 4 and 5 automation are the most difficult to achieve, and they’re the subject of the heaviest investment in technology today.
How Close Are We to Autonomous Electric Vehicles?
One part of this problem, electrification, has already been achieved. It’s estimated that just 1% of new cars on the road in the United States today are all-electric or hybrids. But compare that to 2000, when only a few thousand such vehicles were sold, and 15 years later, when the number climbed to half a million.
The reality today is that anyone with the money can head to dealerships selling cars like Tesla, Ford, or BMW and pick up an electric vehicle. But we’re still some way off from fully autonomous cars.
In 2015, the year after Tesla achieved Level 2 autonomy, CEO Elon Musk claimed that by 2017, Tesla cars would be fully autonomous. The claim sent shockwaves through the automotive industry, but 2017 came and went without any breakthroughs.
Instead, in 2023, Mercedes-Benz became the first company to achieve Level 3 autonomy and permission to sell Level 3-equipped cars in Nevada and California. In 2017, GM launched the Level 2 Super Cruise technology, tying it for second place with Tesla in the race to automate.
The major challenge with achieving levels 4 and 5 is that cars are inherently designed for humans to use. As such, developing a car that can drive itself requires it to observe and react to its surroundings, including other cars, road features, terrain, pedestrians, and everything else you encounter while traveling. Until the technology to produce such a system exists, autonomous EVs are likely a long way off from reality.
Self-Driving Cars: Pros and Cons
Like any technology, autonomous vehicles offer enough positives to be worth pursuing, but if and when they arrive, they won’t be flawless. Here’s a general overview of their qualities.
You may have heard that 93-98% of car crashes are due to human error. Recent research suggests that common statistic is inaccurate, but distracted, impaired, or just plain poor driving is behind many of the accidents that occur on American roads every day.
Autonomous vehicles, when they’re developed, will feature advanced sensors and detection equipment like Lidar, which could help them detect and avoid many road hazards more quickly and accurately than a human driver can. That could mean fewer accidents, less money spent on repairs and insurance, and most importantly, fewer fatalities on the road.
If AVs are ever developed, they’ll probably come equipped (eventually) with advanced tech like AI and traffic management software. That could make it much easier to avoid traffic jams, shortening journeys and reducing the risk of accidents.
Autonomous EVs, like any EV, would be much better for the environment than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Electric cars give off no tailpipe emissions, and even though the energy infrastructure needed to power them can have a substantial carbon footprint, fewer emissions from the vehicles themselves could drastically reduce pollution.
Early attempts to create autonomous cars have been fraught with problems since computers often react unpredictably to confusing or complex driving situations like unexpected obstacles or severe weather. Until the risk of such errors can be reduced through more advanced technology, fully autonomous vehicles may not be road-safe for some time.
The AI-enabled coordination, which could simplify future traffic conditions, could also leave AVs vulnerable to hacking. If enough autonomous cars share a network protocol, hackers could interfere with potentially thousands of vehicles at a time.
The earliest generations of AVs would likely be much more expensive than conventional cars — according to some estimates, anywhere between $75,000 and $150,000 per unit. While that price tag will probably shrink as the technology becomes more widespread and less costly to produce, the earliest fully autonomous electric vehicles will be available only to those with plenty of cash to spare.
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