Why Rutt Bridges foresees rapid adoption of self-driving electric cars (and why most of us will benefit)
by Allen Best
In a decade from now, might we be hopping into shared self-driving and electric-powered cars for the daily commute or even a trip to the grocery store?
In a program on March 23 in Golden, Colo., the writer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur Rutt Bridges laid out why he thinks both will have giant impacts that are broad, deep and rapid. He also thinks that most of this will be good.
After selling his company three years ago, said Bridges, he wanted to explore disruptive technologies.One option was 3-D printing, and there were others. Instead, he settled on driverless cars because “they seemed to be coming quicker than I had thought and most people thought.” He then poured himself into research for seven months before publishing an e-book last year called “Driverless Car Revolution: Buy Mobility, Not Metal.”
In in a survey of 800 auto executives by KPMG in 2015, just 12 percent said they expected their businesses would be disrupted. \. Just one year later, 82 percent said a business disruption was “very likely or somewhat likely” within five years.
Meanwhile, the major car companies are pivoting their business models. The chief executive of Ford said Ford must become a mobility company, not just an automaker. The executive chairman , a great-grandson of Henry Ford, William Clay Ford Jr., agrees. A subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility LLC, is investing $1 billion into driverless software.
This isn’t just a decade away, though. Mercedes-Benz created a concept driverless car, described by Bridges as “pretty sweet,” that spent much of the last year traveling around the country. General Motors spent $481 million to acquire Cruise Automation, a driverless technology. By 2018, GM plans to deliver transportation services, Tesla has a start-date of 2018 for driver-less cars, and VW/Audi in 2020. And there are others.
Prices have been trending down sharply. Bridges cited the $75,000 cost of Google’s original LIDAR technology for self-driving cars. That same technology, while smaller in size, has been lowered to $250. Four of them provide 360-degree views out to 200 yards, providing a “level of situational awareness that goes far beyond what we would normally have” in detecting pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycles, not to mention semi-trucks. Some cars also have the infrared technology to see through shrubbery to a deer standing by the side of a road.
Battery prices have been plummeting. The cost per kilowatt-hour in 2010 was $700. Now, it’s $145, and the goal for 2020 is to ratchet the price down to $100 for the same capacity. Battery-making capacity has been rising, with the Panasonic-backed Tesla factory near Reno pushing to produce as many batteries per day in 2018 as were produced in all of 2016.
The upshot of this is lower costs to consumers. Within five to seven years, he said, electric vehicles will cost less than gas-powered vehicles, and they’ll cost less to operate: fuel costs just 1.53 cents per mile for an EV compared to 5.7 cents a mile for gas-powered cars. They’ll be cheaper to maintain, too. Sealed electric motors have 18 moving parts, compared to 2,000 parts in an internal-combustion engine. That will give them the ability to go farther, a million miles. “Can you imagine running an internal combustion vehicle for a million miles?” asked Bridges. Plus, there is less maintenance: no oil changes, no tune-ups, no transmission fluids, no exhaust system to cause problems.
Bridges sees fewer people owning electric-powered, self-driving cars. Instead, he sees them as being shared. He calls them shared autonomous vehicles, or SAVs.
They will be safer, he says. In the United States, 35,092 people died last year as a result of traffic accidents. We take little note of them, because they happen one by one, or perhaps, three or four. But the more gripping statistics is that all of those traffic deaths together were as if there had been 250 crashes of Boeing 737 jets, with no survivors. “We have sort of gotten used to this and accepting of it,” he said.
Then there was the Google self-driving experiment: 2.5 million miles driven and just one injury, and in that case the driver of the other vehicle was at fault, not the driver-less car. There was also a fender-bender, but again, the Google car was not at fault.
Bridges sees all of this transforming how we live. Fewer of us will own these cars, because we don’t need to. We can summon them when needed. That will reduce the amount of space, at home and at work, required for their storage. Instead of big, lumbering, and expensive buses, we can commute in congested areas by carpooling with these autonomous vehicles. Because of their technology, they can operate in packs, taking up less space. The continued expansion of roads won’t be necessarily, soaking up great costs.
There will have to be changes in taxation. Instead of a gas tax, transportation funding will need to be shifted to a per-mile tax. There will be less need for mass transit and the subsidies of mass transit. Just 21 percent of the cost of the average bus ride is recovered by fares. It would be cheaper to replace the buses with mobility on demand through self-driving vehicles.
Downsides? You bet. Less demand for oil, so fewer jobs in the oil patch and at refineries. Fewer people will be needed for repairs of cars. Fewer personal-injury attorneys, because the 3-D movies taken by the self-driving technology will show everything within 200 yards. “Eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate,” said Bridges.
Bridges suggested the self-driving cars should be seen against the broader background of automation and advanced robotics. That’s his next project, diving deep into the future of work.
“Driverless Car Revolution” can be purchased as an e-book for $1.99 on Amazon.