Hitting the Books: How autonomous EVs could help solve climate change

The world may be on fire right now but the future is looking bright!

Climate change is far and away the greatest threat of the modern human era — a crisis that will only get worse the longer we dither — with American car culture as a major contributor to the nation’s greenhouse emissions. But carbon-neutralizing energy and solutions are already on the horizon and, in some more developed countries like Sweden, are already being deployed. In his latest book, Our Livable World, science and technology analyst Marc Shaus, takes readers on a fascinating tour of the emerging tools — from “smart highways” to jet fuel made from trash — that will not only help curb climate change but perhaps even usher in a new, more sustainable, livable world.

Our Livable World by Marc Shaus
Diversion Books

Copyright ©2020 Marc Shaus All rights reserved. The following excerpt is reprinted from Our Livable World: How Scientists Today Are Creating the Clean Earth of Tomorrow by Marc Shaus. Reprinted with permission of Diversion Books.

In terms of our worst areas for carbon emissions, transportation and electricity production easily top the list. According to the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation alone constitutes roughly 29 percent of the country’s total carbon emissions. That’s nearly a third of American emissions dedicated to moving vehicles around. We find this ratio relatively consistent in many other countries also, given that global figures cite transportation being among the highest sources of emissions. And as developing countries continue to develop, more potential drivers will be purchasing cars. Figuring out our transportation issues sooner than later should therefore be among our top priorities.

There are three ways scientists have been working on saving our transport sector: creating carbon-neutral fuels for our current vehicles; designing vast new improvements for next-gen electric vehicles; and rolling out new infrastructure to reduce the impact of our getting around. Carbon-neutral fuels hold an incredible amount of promise, but will also depend on our ability to scale them up to civilizational levels. Electrification for our vehicles is more immediate, so it isn’t surprising to see immense amounts of capital and innovation starting there. And the good news is that while electric vehicles (EVs) have been slow to grow, we have again made game-changing new developments with tech upgrades.

New EV engineering feats include nanotechnology vehicle specs for increased lightness and durability; autonomous navigation for self-driving cars; the capability to charge our vehicles wirelessly or even while in motion; renewable energy inputs for increased independence for drivers (plus, the potential to monetize vehicles as “virtual power plants”); so-called “smart roads” that can support our drive in various ways; and more—all of which can potentially reduce emissions by making electric vehicles cheaper, more efficient, and ultimately more attractive for prospective drivers.

Depending on where you live, going electric may still be perceived as elitist or unnecessary. But neither of these stigmas can survive much longer. The more states roll out pro-EV regulations, build the necessary charging infrastructure, and offer incentives for buyers, the more these vehicles become a near-term solution for our transport problems. Many countries and individual regions have EV charging stations along major highways already or have those projects in development. Some of these charging stations even have the promise of being renewably powered. If publicly funded, they could also be free to use. Multiple larger global companies have likewise installed free EV charging stations in their parking lots for employees to use. Or, of course, to lure potential customers to parking lots with the promise of free electrons.

The ability to charge wirelessly opens up surprising new opportunities for EV drivers. As such, scientists have been working on developing the tech behind wireless charging for quite some time. Issues with parking misalignment have been a continual problem, as well as housing components capable of protecting drivers from the associated radiation. But the R&D has soldiered on, with major auto manufacturers now partnering with several wireless charging research teams around the world. And fortunately, we now see some companies rolling out this tech for public use.

In Long Beach, California, wireless EV charging company Wave has already provided specialized charging zones for city buses on public transit routes. The pads are designed to charge buses while passengers shuttle in and out, saving the time of routing to a separate charging facility. Scientists have utilized tech that’s similar to how we charge our phones without cords, but with additional features to boost charging signals and correct for imprecise positioning.

A company like Massachusetts’ Watertown-based WiTricity (spun out from scientists at MIT) has promised their pads will charge through snow and cement, and even if parking is slightly misaligned. “Park-and-Charge; it’s that simple” boasts the WiTricity slogan. The company has partnered with manufacturers to scale up garage-ready charging pads for household EVs possibly even by the time you read this (an example image of WiTricity charging pads operating within a parking garage can also be found in the first photo section, on page 60).

The promise of wireless charging tech for electric vehicles is not simply to save homeowners the hardship of plugging in their car at night—the real promise is encouraging public transit operators to transition with increasing ease. Taxi companies may scale up EV fleet ownership if they know that charging pad locations throughout cities will help them avoid re-routing back to the company HQ for power. Any city’s fleet vehicles could also employ this technology. Think, too, of stopping zones by hospitals, schools, and anywhere else people routinely idle. Analyses from experts see the global wireless EV charging market increasing from the $21.8 million it was in 2017 to about $1.4 billion by the year 2025.

Engineers won’t just stop at wireless charging, though. What if we could take out more of the charging guess-work by adding wireless charging pads to select roadways and charge our vehicles as we drive? Yet another tech that seems to always be “just a few years away,” mobile charging has also benefitted from several new advancements.

Engineers in Sweden have trial-tested a slot-car-style rail to be embedded in roads, supplying energy to electric vehicles as they drive overtop. The eRoadArlanda project, now in operation since 2017, outfitted roads with a rail running down the middle of each lane to power vehicles on the go. The rail allows cars and trucks equipped with an extendable charging pad to power up at nearly highway speeds. A contact sensor on the charging arm can detect when the rail below is present, then either lower itself down to draw power or raise itself automatically when the rail is no longer present. Alternating magnetic fields facilitate a power transfer between contactless circuits, utilizing a small band of frequency for an inductive power transfer (IPT). And reportedly, pre-existing EVs without an equipped charging pad could be retrofitted with one.

Sweden’s e-road has been a relative success so far, its results tapered only by the limits of where engineers placed charging strips. Fortunately, electrifying patches of road is apparently not as dangerous as it sounds: strip channels are wide enough for water to cascade off and not so wide for motorcycles to be impacted. To hurt yourself personally, you would need to be flat against the road jamming something into the strips (which, fortunately again, nobody has attempted to do yet).

Multiple wireless charging options for roadways are currently being developed in various labs around the world. So-called “dynamic” charging pads will be capable of pad-to-pad energy transfer for moving vehicles. But engineers are also designing “semi-dynamic” charging pads for use while vehicles are temporarily stopped (at red lights and loading zones, for example). Early business models for e-roads have centered on charging drivers by the watt with a vehicle pad’s unique identifier synced via app, although commercialization has yet to begin.

International tech giant Qualcomm has invested heavily in developing dynamic electric vehicle charging (DEVC) options. Based on the Qualcomm Halo wireless electric vehicle charging technology (WEVC), the company has developed a DEVC system reportedly capable of charging vehicles at up to 20 kilowatts while traveling at highway speeds (courtesy of their FabricEV charging program by Paris).

All new developments increasing the function and appeal of electric vehicles will help to make them a more sustainable alternative to conventional cars. But realistically speaking, next-gen vehicles—whether fully electric, plug-in hybrid, or simply low carbon gas—can all reduce emissions from our transport sector with advancements in other areas. GPS navigation, computer vision, machine-learning, 5G connectivity, and real-time AI-driven analytics, for example, will all contribute to commercializing vehicles that can be autonomous—another feature that will help decarbonize our transport sector.

You have likely heard about driverless cars, but for most auto market analysts, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will eventually dominate the market. In assessing expert analysis, Project Drawdown estimates that AVs will likely capture a market share of approximately 75 percent of cars on the road by the year 2040.

AVs can contribute to decarbonizing our transport sectors in a number of ways. For example, increased data coupled with connected vehicle systems can cut down on collisions, gridlock conditions, and potentially even the number of drivers on the road (more on that soon). Reducing collisions and idling cars can have direct implications for the footprint of remedying either.

With the help of 5G networks, autonomous vehicles will be able to exchange truly incredible amounts of data with each other and third-party sensors in real time. Just think about it—as you drive, baffling amounts of information will be collected by an AV’s sensor systems: where you are from moment to moment, locations for where sensors perceive other cars and objects to be, your speed, your calculated trajectory, the power of speed in braking times, and much more. All of this can be rapidly assessed and analyzed by artificial intelligence— as well as communicated with other units doing the same.

Two cars exchanging the same data points in real time will essentially be able to “see around corners” with the situational awareness of where other cars on the road are. Hence, aside from reducing the number of drivers operating cars under the influence or falling asleep at the wheel, AV applications offer more safety through interconnectivity. We’ll also see gridlock improvement when AVs become connected to a larger, smarter set of citywide driving data for route optimization.

Combining a number of futuristic AEV features will result in some fascinating new possibilities for drivers. These options are a little further out—but consider AV applications mixed with wireless charging, for example. Equipped AEVs capable of wireless charging will realistically be able to utilize GPS-navigation capabilities to locate nearby charging stations. Stations sensing impending AVs may then be able to disseminate order IDs for streamlining of service. It seems increasingly likely that we will see a day in which AEVs can be dispatched from home, locate a wireless charging station, charge wirelessly without a driver present, then navigate home. On-board camera systems could foreseeably offer the ability to view it all happening in real time. The benefit, again, is less about increasing laziness and more about encouraging the use of electric vehicles for individuals and fleet owners.

For these reasons, some industry commentators see the possibility of future AV ride-sharing services actually reducing the number of people who even purchase a car. After all, it may one day be cheaper to simply call an AEV from a shuttle service, which may have a fleet in motion at any moment; purchase a ride somewhere for smaller amounts of money than fuel, insurance, and possible monthly car payments; and then send the AV on its way. AVs equipped with charging commands could know in advance whether a pre-set passenger destination will deplete its energy reserves and signal operators that a trip back to a charging station may be necessary first.

Driverless vehicles obviously took a roll-out hit back in 2018 when an Arizona woman was tragically struck and killed by an autonomous Uber. But the tech shows no signs of investment loss, with yearly upgrades pushing these cars closer to commercial deployment. Tesla, for example, has already provided drivers with an autonomous summoning capability for use in parking lots (or anywhere within 200 feet, that is). It might sound spurious for those of us who don’t mind walking to our car, but these add-ons will all add to the tech’s development over time.

Some cities around the world are already using smaller networks of autonomous fleet shuttle services to get the ball rolling. One such service — driverless and fully electric — operates in Lyon, France, carrying passengers back and forth between set tourist destinations. New York City also features a small AEV network compound within one of the city’s tech hubs.