Driverless electric vehicles: Implications for India

Recently a Tesla car running on autopilot crashed and killed its driver in California. A few weeks earlier, a self-driving Volvo under test by Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

Driverless, self-driving and autonomous are used interchangeably. Electric vehicles, of course, need not be driverless. And driverless vehicles need not be electric. But the two are converging.

India has announced a big push toward electric cars but Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has announced that he will not allow driverless vehicles in India. But what if all-electric vehicles become driverless? Then what will Gadkari do? Scrap his electric vehicle ambitions?

Electric vehicles have taken off in a big way, especially in California, which already has over 3,00,000 on the road. Despite their success, electric vehicles have failed to confront an 800-pound Godzilla in their room. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries, the same material that powers the batteries of laptops and smartphones.

Proponents of lithium-ion say that it is a field-proven material powering millions of devices. They fail to add that millions of devices powered by the same lithium-ion burst into flames. Imagine a family of four driving blissfully on a California highway in an electric car. Before they realize it, their car is up in flames, and the family gets toasted alive. What will then be the future of lithium-ion electric cars?

Coming out with a safe and reliable material for electric car batteries is one of the hardest problems in science. Nobody, despite what they might claim, is close to solving it. Hence many global car manufacturers are busy powering on lithium-ion. They would like to move to something better, but today, they have little choice.

Governments and regulators, even in India, have turned a blind eye to this battery problem, so lithium-ion electric cars are booming worldwide.

Now enter the disruptive ride-hailing car services, the Ubers, the Lyfts, and the Olas. Some of their market valuations are in the tens of billions of dollars. What is one of the biggest cost items in their business case? Well, it is the drivers themselves. After almost ruining the cab industry, the ride-hailers want to eat their own children. That is why they are so keen on driverless technology.

Ever wonder why wind and solar haven’t taken off in the world? Bill Gates says that’s because they are intermittent. In simple terms, when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, they don’t generate electricity. All electricity consumers need something that is called base-load power. Simply put, this means an assured power supply. Your kids need to study at night. The power must be on.

Wind and solar do not provide that assurance. Power supply companies have thought of delivering base-load power when wind and solar fail. But this power is generated from coal or natural gas power plants, which themselves need time to power up. So your kids could go without light for a couple of hours if you were dependent on wind and solar and the power supply company. That could mean the difference between failing or passing in that dreaded integral calculus exam tomorrow.

Electric car batteries, even lithium-ion, solve this problem. They can be powered up, almost instantaneously. But you need a fleet of batteries for this to be effective at scale. Who has this? The ride-hailers, the Olas, and the Ubers. Once they utilize their cars as sources of power, their business case improves considerably. First, no drivers reduce cost. Then, the sale of power increases the big bucks. No wonder their valuations are in the tens of billions of dollars. The market is betting on the future.

That’s why the convergence of electric vehicles and driverless vehicles. Mr. Gadkari might go wrong in separating the two. While he is solely focused on electric vehicles, almost all electric vehicles may go driverless. Google, Uber, Apple, Tesla, almost every major car company is furiously trying to perfect driverless technology.

Driverless vehicles promise manna. You can text all you want, chat all you want, even make out all you want. GM is running ads on American TV saying you can drive hands-free on the highway.

For years there was the foot-free system, the cruise control. While driving to Savannah in Georgia (USA), up the slope and downslope on the highway, a cop caught me doing 90 mph where the speed limit was 70. I have a lead foot (a heavy foot), and coming down a slope my 80 quickly became a 90. I begged the cop for forgiveness. He said that’s what cruise control is for, to maintain a steady speed. I said cruise control makes me go to sleep. He said, yeah, I know, good luck. And here’s a $400 ticket.

But driverless vehicles, with their sensors and actuators and whatnot, promise a complete intervention-free driving experience. For better or for worse, automation is the future of transportation. Automation has taken over so many aspects of our life, why not driving.

Ride-hailing services ruined the cab industry in India and many other countries, but regulators and governments sat idle. Hey, this was the new global trend, we are going to let it happen. A cab medallion (license) in Chicago used to go for half a million dollars. It can now be had for less than fifty thousand dollars. What about all the hundreds of thousands of Indian cabbies who have bought licenses? Does Mr. Gadkari shed a tear for them?

Electric car batteries are perhaps the only way to make solar and wind viable in India, an energy-starved country. So electric cars will, well not will, because nothing is guaranteed in India, but should come in full force to the country. But these electric cars are coming as driverless cars. Mr. Gadkari feels that driverless cars will render millions of drivers jobless in India. He is right. But you cannot have your cake and eat it too. The pace of technology is relentless.

Source- The Times of India