I’ve spent the last month living in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco car-free. It’s a bit of a shift to go from the instant mobility of having your own car, especially a sweet little EV like my Fiat 500e, to relying on public transit, walking, cabs and car sharing.
But living without a car is becoming much more normal for people, particularly those living in urban environments.
I knew, more or less, even before I came to San Francisco that the area is the epicenter of much of the innovation in transportation today. Living here for a month, I’ve had the chance to use and witness many of these innovations firsthand.
Is the end of the ICE (internal combustion engine) age coming soon? If San Francisco is an indication of the global future, that answer is “yes.” This article is a follow-up to my article here, taking a broader look at the future of cars, mobility and electric vehicles.
First, another check-in on the state of the global EV market. The big recent news is that China’s EV market is booming, growing 220 percent in 2014, with about 100,000 EVs on the road in China now. This is still less than the number of EVs even in California, which has about one-fiftieth the population of China. But given the potential market in China and the still-booming economy (growing at “only” 7 percent per year), this recent growth trend indicates to me that China is set to quickly become the biggest EV market in the world.
A big hurdle to EV ubiquity is the cost of batteries, but they’re coming down in price rapidly. A recent peer-reviewed study found that vehicle battery costs have declined, on average, 14 percent per year since 2007. Industry leaders like Tesla and Panasonic have seen less significant declines because they started out from a place of higher efficiency.
Average cost declines for Tesla have been 8 percent per year since it began manufacturing. If we see the same declines continue through 2025, today’s estimated $300 per kilowatt-hour cost for Tesla batteries declines to just $130 by 2025 and $37 by 2040.
So what did I learn from my recent experiences in San Francisco? Let me tell you.
Battery swapping is getting closer to reality
Better Place, an Israeli company that pioneered the battery swap idea for electric cars, unfortunately went bankrupt because it couldn’t get buy-in for its ideas soon enough. The idea of battery swaps has not died, and it’s a fundamentally sound idea. The point is that rather than charging the battery in the vehicle, which can take a long time, you just swap out the battery for a fully charged battery. This process can be far faster even than filling up a gas tank.
Tesla is now pilot-testing its battery swap option at a single location in California. Given the relatively plodding place of Tesla’s battery swap program, I’m not particularly optimistic that it will become widespread anytime soon.
A particularly exciting new battery swap model is coming out of Taiwan. Gogoro is now offering polished and stylish electric scooters with swappable batteries that it calls the world’s first “smartscooter.”
It will start selling these scooters in Taiwan this summer. Gogoro’s business model rests on the viability of its GoStations, which are small kiosks distributed widely in urban areas (in cities that have been selected by Gogoro). The smartscooter carries just two of these easily swapped batteries and it takes only moments to pull up, swipe your card, and swap out your scooter batteries. Each swap gives the scooter about 120 kilometers of range, according to the company.
Gogoro’s vision is to use these energy hubs for all kinds of electric vehicles in the future. Greentech Media’s Julia Pyper wrote in a piece about Gogoro last year: “The company, headed by former HTC execs, quietly raised $150 million to build its urban scooter of the future. Over time, Gogoro’s modular battery-swapping infrastructure could serve other types of vehicles and products.”
This seems like a highly viable model to me, at least for smaller vehicles in urban areas. For larger vehicles, however, I’m not sure how practical swapping out a number of batteries will be for the average user.
People want to design their own vehicles
An exciting option that may become real before long is the ability to design your own car. An increasing number of cars allow personalization options for colors and other features. Going much further, we now have options to co-design cars from the ground up working as part of a “crowd.”
Localmotors.com is one of the more viable sites allowing designers and enthusiasts to design all sorts of vehicles collaboratively. The site describes itself as a “global co-creation community…made up of enthusiasts, hobbyist innovators and professionals. We are designers, engineers, and makers. We operate a growing global network of microfactories. Each destination is a place where innovators create amazing products and consumers come to marvel and shop.”
With the widespread availability of home-based 3-D printing and access to creative individuals online, making one’s own car is actually not a pipe dream anymore. Here’s a list of the cars that teams are working on at various stages of completion at Local Motors. One of my favorites at the site: an adult Big Wheel powered by a hub-mounted electric motor.
I learned about crowd-designed cars from Peter Diamandis, entrepreneur and author of the new book Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World. Diamandis writes about crowdsourcing car design here.
Owning your own car is so last year
For most of us, the future of transportation may be having no car at all. Ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar (all of which happen to be based in San Francisco) have taken the transportation world by storm. Uber may be worth over $40 billion now, and it’s just a few years old. It seems that the sky’s the limit for this model, but it is limited to urban areas for now. The large majority of people live in urban areas now (over 80 percent in the U.S.), however, so this isn’t much of a limit.
Uber’s gross revenue is expected to hit $10 billion this year, and smaller competitor Lyft’s revenue about one-eighth that amount, both up from, well, nothing just a few years ago. That’s market transformation for you. Under this current trajectory, Uber and its cousins may take over the taxi market in just a few years.
I’ve used Uber regularly since I’ve been in the city and enjoy their newest low-fare option: UberPool. This option allows you to pay just $7 to go anywhere by splitting a ride with up to two other people. You might wait a bit longer to get to where you’re going but you know the price in advance, and if you’re lucky, you’ll meet some cool people while you ride.
Right now there is no necessary connection between ride-hailing companies and EVs, but as EVs become more pervasive and the fuel-saving and ride-quality benefits of EVs become better known, we can rest assured that ride-hailing services will include more and more EVs.
The next step in ride-hailing and car sharing will be a combination of these new app-based services with self-driving cars. This will be unfortunate for those drivers who want to continue to make money from driving, but users will still benefit from these services.
Rather than rely on human drivers to comb the streets waiting for a fare, self-driving cars can remain parked until needed or simply cruise the streets like drivers do today until required by a fare. The big question with this business model is whether cars will be legally allowed to drive themselves with no human on board as a backup plan at any time in the foreseeable future.
Who needs drivers?
I suggested in my last column that fully automated cars are likely to be here in the next few years. Tesla, for example, is releasing new autopilot features this summer, including self-parking and the ability to summon your car to your front door with an app. These are exciting new capabilities, and we’ll find out soon how robust these features are.
Musk also stated that the cars are “technically capable of going parking lot to parking lot” in self-driving mode, but this ability won’t be enabled because of the dangers inherent in driving in urban areas.
That qualifier in Musk’s statement turns out to be a pretty big deal, and I may have been premature in projecting fully self-driving cars in the next few years, I now realize. There are a ton of hurdles to overcome before fully autonomous driving will become a reality, and it seems that a lot of companies are playing market-positioning games as much as they are working on the underlying technology.
What is clear, however, is that we’ll see incremental additions to the suite of automated driving options in the coming years, a continuation of the already existing trend among various automakers, including Mercedes, Audi, Tesla and others.
The big question is when fully autonomous cars will become reality. One expert I’ve spoken with recently, Steve Casner, a research psychologist at NASA who has done some work on autopilot issues in relation to airplanes and cars, suggests that it will likely be far later than 2020 before fully automated cars are a reality and that many of the companies today suggesting that full automation technology is already here are blowing smoke.
A number of other analysts gathered at a conference last May feel the same way, according to the MIT Technology Review: “The 500 experts in attendance were not optimistic such problems would be solved soon. Asked when they would trust a fully robotic car to take their children to school, more than half said 2030 at the very earliest. A fifth said not until 2040, and roughly one in 10 said ‘never.’”
The essence of the problem is that driving requires the skills acquired by humans to make sense of and navigate their environment over a period of almost 4 billion years (since life originated). What we take for granted as being easy and intuitive is the end process of this eons-long evolutionary process. We are, each of us, the latest in a literally unbroken chain of organisms that were successful in navigating their environment and reproducing. Teaching a computer that same process is a difficult prospect indeed, given the unpredictability of the world around us.
Casner has also explored the difficulties of partial automation and the transformation of drivers into “drivengers” (passenger/drivers). Drivengers may find it difficult to step in when and if required by partially autonomous cars, and we might find this a difficult hurdle in getting to fully autonomous vehicles.
From a big-picture perspective, however, it doesn’t matter very much whether full self-driving cars arrive in 2020 or 2030. The fact that they are very likely coming before too long is what is important. Even though I fully recognize the difficulties in achieving full automation, and the diversity of expert opinion on this issue, my feeling is that we have reached a tipping point in investment, interest and technical ability on this issue, such that it’s just a matter of time before the software, engineering and legal hurdles are resolved.
Last, history has shown that betting against Elon Musk is a bad idea. So even if he’s off by a few years in his projections for fully automated driving, we’d still see such cars sometime sooner than the mid-2020s. Time will tell, as with all things.
From San Francisco, I’m off to Hawaii again, a big shift in pace and lifestyle. My time here has been a lot of fun and educational at the same time. I have seen the future of transportation, and it is bright.
Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer, owner of the renewable energy consulting company Community Renewable Solutions LLC, and author of the upcoming book The Solar Singularity: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright.