Taken together, these forces have the potential to transform our way of life as much as Ford Motor Co.’s Model T did over a century ago. As the convenience and safety of electric, autonomous ride-hailing services appeals increasingly to the masses, the nature of network optimization means it will probably make sense for the Ubers and Lyfts of the world to cater to our needs with everything from a one-seater to a party barge. It may also mean you’ll use your garage for something other than a car.
That has, of course, been the promise of electric vehicles going back to General Motors Co.’s EV-1 and Toyota Motor Corp.’s original electric RAV4. And before there were “rideables,” vehicles so small they qualify as consumer electronics, there was Dean Kamen’s battery-powered, two-wheeled Segway.
The transformation might not come about this time, either. Enormous problems of both infrastructure and battery technology have yet to be solved.
But makers of electric vehicles, or EVs, are already overcoming big obstacles. Among other things, the rapid expansion of the market has led to demand for parts, making them in turn cheaper and more available, much like what happened with mobile phones.
Those trends were in evidence at this year’s CES tech show in Las Vegas. The avalanche of rideables included models that are lighter and more powerful than ever before. There were electric one-wheelers and skateboards, scooters of every description and a dizzying array of bikes. They are what urban planners call “last mile” transportation—they can be lugged on mass transit and are particularly useful over short distances in dense cities.
They might look like the skateboards, bikes and scooters of old, but between beginner-friendly features, advanced motors and speeds as high as 20 miles per hour, they can eliminate challenges that kept people away from their manual predecessors.
Mobility, as much as fun, is the reason the Swagtron Swagger electric scooter is made from carbon fiber and weighs just 17 pounds, but has a range of 15 miles and a top speed of 15 mph, says a company spokesman. At $400, it costs the same as a decent bicycle, and it doesn’t ask you to break a sweat.
Then there are the car replacements. They include electric scooters such as Mahindra Group’s GenZe 2.0, which has a removable, rechargeable battery, and the Gogoro Smartscooter, which goes from zero to 31 mph in 4.2 seconds and has a top speed of 60 mph.
The three-wheeled Arcimoto SRK rolls off an assembly line in Eugene, Ore. this spring. An enclosed vehicle that qualifies as a motorcycle, it has an $11,900 price tag that is intended to appeal to second-car buyers. Toyota’s three-wheeled i-Road concept vehicle is aimed at the same market, as is Renault’s Twizy, which looks like a souped-up golf cart.
In 2015, cars became a bigger consumer of lithium-ion batteries, by dollar value, than any other device. As a result, “batteries are getting cheaper at 4% to 8% a year, and that compounding over the last 5 years has had a massive impact” on the electric-vehicle industry, says Ryan Popple, chief executive of electric-bus maker Proterra. The company sold more than 200 buses to cities throughout the U.S. in 2016.
The same market forces have made lightweight composite materials—formerly an exotic luxury affordable only to makers of aircraft and wind turbines— accessible now to pretty much any EV maker. Giving an EV good range and acceleration is as much about making it lighter as it is about adding more batteries. Carbon fiber is as vital to a Swagtron scooter as it is to BMW’s $140,000 i8 electric sports car, and even Proterra’s buses. Many new electric vehicles are designed with autonomy in mind.
Proterra’s buses can automatically dock themselves to charging stations. Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at chip maker Nvidia, says shuttle buses and similar transit are likely to be the first fully autonomous electric vehicles, because they operate under a limited range of conditions, on predictable routes and often on private property. Arcimoto’s vehicles will be “autonomous-capable from day one,” says company president Mark Frohnmayer, whose long-term vision is to provide self-driving vehicles for car fleets that complement mass transit.
As Uber, Lyft and their international
competitors push toward their goal of fully autonomous ride-hailing services—the end of car ownership, for many people—EVs take center stage for a number of reasons.
First, there’s a fuel-cost savings as electric cars approach cost parity with conventional ones. Second, electric vehicles are easier to refuel safely in an automated way. And third, car companies
simply aren’t much interested in building their next-generation technology on the internal-combustion engine, a platform that isn’t long for this world in light-duty vehicles. Right now, makers of electric vehicles are taking a huge risk, a build-it-and-hopefully-they-will-come approach.
But in 10 years, the very notion that a car must be a 3,000-pound gas-guzzling beast will seem as quaint as the notion that bike lanes are only for human-powered two-wheelers. What stands in the way are two equally challenging obstacles: consumers’ mind-sets and the existing transportation infrastructure.
Because of this, the EV revolution may have greater impact beyond U.S. borders. Arcimoto’s Mr. Frohnmayer says he anticipates the U.S. will be one of the toughest markets for his company.
China, India, even Europe all have denser cities, lower rates of car ownership, worse problems with pollution and a general need for more small, light, emissions-free transportation at a total cost of ownership lower than the typical car.
And unfortunately, while the resulting transportation system promises to be more environmentally friendly, efficient and yes, even fun, there probably won’t be less traffic. “I almost can’t hold my laughter when people say autonomous vehicles will eliminate traffic,” Proterra’s Mr. Popple says.
Source: The Wall Street Journal