Driverless electric vehicles, delivering your shopping and powering your home

Issue 1: Written by Stephen Irish, Commercial Managing Director

It has been just ten short years since the launch of the iPhone, a device that Steve Jobs described as “a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone”.

Jobs was right to say his invention was revolutionary; credited with the rise of social media, tablets and smartphones have changed the way we communicate, game and shop. One online retailer recently stated that over 50% of their sales were via mobile devices, something that would seem hard to predict when the iPhone first came out.

So, what is the world’s next technology game changer? The answer is autonomous, electric vehicles and a step-change might be just around the corner. This will impact not only passenger transport but also how goods are moved around cities and how a more flexible, connected energy network is achieved.

Autonomous vehicles may not, initially at least, be completely driverless as it’s likely that the technology will be introduced in phases, building up to being fully autonomous. The cars are however, most likely to be powered by electricity, rather than petrol or diesel, which has recently and spectacularly lost favour. The health risks associated with diesel fuel are now well publicised and a number of capital cities in Europe such as Madrid, Paris and Athens, have said they will ban diesel vehicles as soon as 2020.

Autonomous cars are on the verge of entering the consumer market. Multinational companies, from Uber to Tesla, are investing heavily in autonomous driving technology. Meanwhile, Japan expects to launch driverless cars at the 2020 Olympics. Indeed, the GATEway driverless car project will soon start public trials of its fully autonomous pods on the streets of Greenwich, operating like the driverless passenger shuttles currently in service at Heathrow Airport.

You may think it utopian to imagine a world in which cars are no longer personally owned, depreciating assets, with high running costs, or you may think that a world in which traffic jams and accidents are a rarity is just wishful thinking. Nonetheless autonomous, electric cars are about as ‘magical’ as smartphones and will completely change the way we view the automobile.

The growth of the sharing economy is already a sea change, with the emergence of Airbnb and automotive equivalents such as Zipcar mean we will start to see people turning their backs on car ownership. Bearing in mind that cars are parked 95% of the time, summoning a car only when needed certainly makes a lot of financial sense, whilst also being space-saving. If diesels are excluded from populated areas, how long will it be before autonomous electric vans are bringing groceries and other online purchases to our door?

Sharing will not stop at just taxis or parcel deliveries. Vehicle to grid connectivity means a smarter, more flexible energy network where the electric vehicle battery can be used to ‘lend’ energy back to the grid at times of peak demand. Where solar panels are installed, home battery energy storage systems will mean the electricity generated during the sunniest part of the day is available whenever it is needed and can help stabilise an ageing grid infrastructure.

According to a recent forecast from BP, the world is likely to have 100 million electric cars on the road within the next two decades. With larger and larger battery packs in these cars, when connected to the grid, will provide substantial energy storage capacity, which could become a critical enabler for de-coupling energy supply and demand, and ultimately de-carbonisation.

As we saw with smartphones, technology has the power to disrupt and change habits on a truly global scale, far faster than people expect. I’m certain that the increasing electrification, automation and connectivity in vehicles will bring about vast and far-reaching changes for all of us.

stephen.irish@hyperdriveinnovation.com