Monday, October 1, 2012

The future of automotive transportation

While I spend a lot of time on this blog decrying the current state of our economy (and political environment), I try my best to balance that cynicism with a fair amount of optimism about our future, especially where new technologies are concerned. If we can be courageous enough to allow for the breaking down of old paradigms (and for the failure of outdated and obsolete business models), the future for our nation is indeed incredibly bright.

In that vein, a pair of articles that I read over the weekend have me particularly excited. First up, from US News & World Report:
Last week, California became the third and by far the most important state to legalize driverless cars, joining Nevada and Florida. Google has been getting most of the attention here for its work developing driverless vehicles. But it is hardly alone. Major automakers have their own projects under development. 
Google may want to leapfrog existing technology to point the way toward a driverless future. Existing auto companies will seek incremental changes that protect their franchises while moving toward an automated future. It's not clear what the pace of commercialization will be for driverless cars. 
After all, many of the improvements promised at the 1939 World's Fair in New York still have not come to pass. And there will be no shortage of open-road lovers and skeptics reluctant to cede control of their cars to a bunch of computers—shades of Skynet and The Terminator. 
But as Google, Apple, and other new-tech giants have demonstrated, the pace of change is likely to be much faster when it comes to automated vehicles. Using increasingly sophisticated sensors and software, driverless cars hold out the promise of saving lives, fuel, and time. They react more quickly to accident threats. They don't panic. They can tie into traffic grids and do a much better job of balancing traffic flows. They can optimize fuel consumption. 
We already trust a lot to technology when we drive. We generally believe traffic signals and respond to GPS guidance and traffic congestion reports. We expect speed and fuel flows to respond properly when we use cruise controls. We use digitized cameras and back-up sensors. Newer cars monitor weather conditions and automatically trigger any number of safety responses. Increasingly, we even pay for auto insurance using on-board computers to record where and how we are driving. And many of these functions are voice-activated on newer vehicles.
For more on the Google Car project, check out this video on Bloomberg—you have to admit, it looks pretty awesome. But in case driverless cars don't get you all excited, I've got another car-related article that is equally awesome. From Yahoo Finance:
Tesla Motors today unveiled its highly anticipated Supercharger network. Constructed in secret, Tesla revealed the locations of the first six Supercharger stations, which will allow the Model S to travel long distances with ultra fast charging throughout California, parts of Nevada and Arizona.  
The technology at the heart of the Supercharger was developed internally and leverages the economies of scale of existing charging technology already used by the Model S, enabling Tesla to create the Supercharger device at minimal cost. The electricity used by the Supercharger comes from a solar carport system provided by SolarCity, which results in almost zero marginal energy cost after installation. Combining these two factors, Tesla is able to provide Model S owners1 free long distance travel indefinitely. 
Each solar power system is designed to generate more energy from the sun over the course of a year than is consumed by Tesla vehicles using the Supercharger. This results in a slight net positive transfer of sunlight generated power back to the electricity grid. In addition to lowering the cost of electricity, this addresses a commonly held misunderstanding that charging an electric car simply pushes carbon emissions to the power plant. The Supercharger system will always generate more power from sunlight than Model S customers use for driving. By adding even a small solar system at their home, electric car owners can extend this same principle to local city driving too. 
The six California locations unveiled today are just the beginning. By next year, we plan to install Superchargers in high traffic corridors across the continental United States, enabling fast, purely electric travel from Vancouver to San Diego, Miami to Montreal and Los Angeles to New York. Tesla will also begin installing Superchargers in Europe and Asia in the second half of 2013. 
The Supercharger is substantially more powerful than any charging technology to date, providing almost 100 kilowatts of power to the Model S, with the potential to go as high as 120 kilowatts in the future. This can replenish three hours of driving at 60 mph in about half an hour, which is the convenience inflection point for travelers at a highway rest stop. Most people who begin a road trip at 9:00 a.m. would normally stop by noon to have lunch, refresh and pick up a coffee or soda for the road, all of which takes about 30 minutes. 
"Tesla's Supercharger network is a game changer for electric vehicles, providing long distance travel that has a level of convenience equivalent to gasoline cars for all practical purposes. However, by making electric long distance travel at no cost, an impossibility for gasoline cars, Tesla is demonstrating just how fundamentally better electric transport can be," said Elon Musk, Tesla Motors co-founder and CEO. "We are giving Model S the ability to drive almost anywhere for free on pure sunlight."
Make it through that whole thing? Good. To date, I haven't been particularly excited about electric cars, in large part because previous models have mostly relied upon existing sources of electric energy, the majority of which is generated from the burning of fossil fuels (largely oil and coal). In other words, there's no real fundamental change, just a shifting of where the fuel is burned—in a power plant instead of in your car.

But if we can make a shift to solar, then that's a legitimate game-changer in the automobile world. Of course, as I've mentioned on here once before, what would be even cooler is if we could figure out a way to turn all of our highways into piezo-electric energy generators, with the cars effectively powering themselves, at least in part. Spray some transparent solar film on the outside of all the car's windows, and we could take this whole thing even another step further.

Yes, I know that some of this probably sounds insane, but I also think it's completely possible and plausible. The technology all exists, it's just a matter of harnessing it in a way (and scaling it up to a point) that makes it broadly useful and usable.

Do I think that a future of self-driving cars which use virtually no energy is possible? Absolutely. Do I think that we as humans have the courage to embrace that future, if it means destroying entire companies and industries in the process? That jury's still out. But I certainly hope so.

[US News]
[Yahoo Finance]

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