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As of late, I’ve been wondering if we are thinking about the evolution of automobiles, transportation, commuting, etc., completely backward. I’ve been reading dozens of reports, and research from component and supply chain vendors on electric vehicles and it is clear a big trend to move to electric powertrains is upon up. However, everyone assumes for the moment, the future autonomous vehicles and commuter transportation systems will look similar to the cars we know today. I believe a form factor shift will take place as well at some point.
There is no doubt we will first convert existing cars into electric as the first step in evolving how cars are made, function, and reach full level five autonomy. In case you have never seen the chart explaining the levels of autonomy, and where we are today, here is a useful diagram.
As you can see from the chart, we are only at the level 2 stage of autonomous technology. Looking over how the other levels were defined, it is likely it will take many years still to reach full autonomy where no interaction from the passenger is ever needed.
Before autonomous cars become a reality, we need to transition to electric vehicles. Most reports on the automotive industry indicated electric cars would be cost competitive with gasoline cars around 2020-2021. This is a big first step to get consumers to make a move to electric vehicles and then over time autonomous driving features.
The timeframe from 2020-2030 is what most experts estimate will be the decade where electric cars gain traction and start moving toward true level 5 autonomy. It may take until 2025 or so before we see level 5 reached and approved by regulators.
Massive change in automotive manufacturing is being implemented at the moment as nearly all auto brands are in the process of shifting to electric vehicle production and working on their autonomous driving strategy. But part of me wonders if level 5 autonomy won’t be reached and go mainstream in things that look like cars today but a different form factor.
Through a range of conversations I’ve had with investors, and other experts, it seems there is a chance the technology that will someday scale and become pervasive may evolve more from electric bicycle technology than car technology. If in the future, we simply become passengers and not drivers, then there is no need for these large, cumbersome vehicles on the road. There are already very small single and double passenger “pods” on the road today, and they are a much more efficient use of space to store and on the road. I can imagine our full autonomous future being made up of these much smaller pods transporting passengers than large cars.
The promise of full autonomy has always been that cars will be able to talk to each other and therefore can be packed in much closer together on the road. Nearly all simulations of the future you see simply have a highway packed with full size or compact cars all within a few feet from each other. This is so more people can fit on the road. But flip the equation and imagine we are all in smaller pods where four could fit on the road in the same space a mid-size car fits in today, and you technically can fit four times as many people on the road.
There will no doubt be a mix of sizes since some families will need larger vehicles and we will still have buses and trucks on the road, but I have a strong sense the vast majority of commuter vehicles will be small pods vs. larger cars like we have today.
This scenario makes sense as it requires less battery, smaller drivetrain, fewer sensors, etc. What got me started thinking about this was my own experimentation and testing of a range of electric bicycles. I tested bikes with drivetrains as low as 250 watts and as high as 1000 watts. Even on a 250-watt drivetrain, my 160-pound body could clear 25 MPH. And on bikes with 1000 W drivetrain I could get over 40 mph. The batter is a small canister that charges fast and lasts for 25 miles in full electric mode. While not quite the range of a fully electric car, the point is if the future design of passenger vehicles looks like pods they will be cheaper, need less battery size and capacity, use smaller drivetrains, and overall be more efficient.
The entire industry is moving to a manufacturing process to bring electric cars and add full autonomy to a form factor that I don’t believe will be as common on the road in the future, especially in urban areas. But all that investment and RND in manufacturing infrastructure for big cars will only pave the way for cheaper, more efficient smaller ones once shift from drivers to passengers fully takes place.