The dream world of autonomous vehicles offers limitless possibilities. But as manufacturers well know, reality has its limits.
The technology needed to bring electrically powered autonomous vehicles to life exists, but there are many hurdles it needs to clear before society's roads are populated with self-driving cars.
"The adoption of new technologies in transportation through history is interesting, and it's exciting to realize the industry is in another wave of innovation where no one knows exactly how it will play out," Nizar Trigui, chief technology officer of Bridgestone Americas Inc., said in an email. "Just like history saw an overlap of horse and buggies alongside automobiles when they were first introduced, Bridgestone expects to see the public embrace fully electric vehicles more as the world develops to accommodate them."
Longer range, lower price
Autonomous vehicles likely will have to be electric for both regulatory and engineering purposes. EVs currently make up less than 1 percent of the global fleet. The Center for Automotive Research has that figure reaching 8 percent by 2030 thanks to investments by major original equipment manufacturers and government regulations driving fuel economy requirements.
But it will be awhile before EVs take a majority share.
"I think we're at least 20 years away from that shift to where the alternative propulsion methods become the majority," said Larry Williams, president of Henniges, which produces rubber automotive parts like weatherstrips. "We're moving in that direction, but it's a very small piece today. Even the ones who have publicly come out and said they're going to eliminate it are still 15 to 20 years out before they get to that point."
CAR Group CEO Carla Bailo said the main reason consumers aren't buying EVs is that their cost relative to other vehicles is too high, and she said those with longer range are simply not affordable. But range is a close second, and in some ways goes hand-in-hand with price. Bailo said until consumers believe they can use an electric car to get wherever they want to go comfortably, it's a tough sell.
Shashank Modi, research engineer with CAR Group, said battery range is improving, and would take a huge leap if the industry switched to solid state batteries, which are five times more energy dense and charge five times faster than a lithium ion battery.
On the plus side, prices for batteries and driver avoidance systems keep coming down as manufacturers scale up and make chemistry advances. Bailo said in a future economy some parts might become commoditized if they become shared products, which could help drastically bring prices down in one area to allow for further investment elsewhere in the vehicle.
"Whatever the discussions are around E-mobility, the range expectation of the customer is the No. 1 priority we have to solve in order to make an E-mobility industry possible," said Frank Mueller, CEO of Vibracoustic, which produces noise and anti-vibration automotive parts.