You’ve heard that robots are taking over? It’s true! A lot of people are frightened about a “workless” future, but parts of the Robot Revolution will be useful. Like cars that can drive themselves. Just a couple of years ago, car experts said that they wouldn’t heavily impact the market until 2050. It made sense. Car companies take decades to introduce new features. Yet, just last year, A.I. experts said that 2030 would be the key transition year. Now, Unicorn firms plan to have production vehicles on the road by 2020. It looks like self-driving cars will hit the road, at least in several major cities, by 2018.
In past articles, we’ve discussed how cars that can drive themselves will impact employment. Vehicles with paid drivers will go autonomous far more quickly than consumer cars. The financial incentives are huge for taxis, trucks, the UPS and FedEx. And government vehicles! Critical public and government organizations want to go autonomous, but they have special constraints that make their implementation date a toss up.
The United States Post Office (USPS) has been looking for autonomous vehicles for years. They NEED autonomous vehicles. Why? Because the USPS is losing phenomenal amounts of money. They haven’t seen a break-even year in the last two decades. Since 2001 they have lost over $50 billion, $6 billion just last year. They have planned to close over half of all post offices in the US to close their financial gap.
The USPS needs a game changer, and autonomous vehicles look like their only hope. Small towns have a similar problem. The ups and downs of the economy have left many with big financial problems. Towns operate a lot of vehicles… school buses, garbage trucks, street repair vehicles… that they can barely afford to operate. Town vehicles are usually operated by union drivers or are managed by 3rd parties under inflexible contracts. It can take years, even decades, to work out new agreements. The US military purchases a huge number of vehicles and has begun inquiring about electric and autonomous vehicles, to complement their flying drones.
When will the average consumer buy cars that drive themselves? Not in 2018, but not too far in the future either. Right now quite a few models can drive themselves… in some places, at least some of the time. Cars that park themselves or that can apply the brakes in an emergency have been around for years. Your next car will probably be able to drive under “safe” conditions… slow driving, stuck in a traffic jam, certain roads with little traffic… in a year or two.
By 2022 we can expect to see fully autonomous vehicles from the big manufacturers, starting with Volkswagen. Remember the “Hippy Bus” from the 1960’s? VW has committed to delivering a slick looking, all-electric, self-driving version by 2022. Of course, the production vehicles can look very different from the concept vehicle, but it it is a VERY good looking concept vehicle. It can be a 6 seater van, a camper, or even an “office on wheels”. It has the potential of being a huge success.
Which brings us to an amazing detail that few experts have mentioned. The autonomous car revolution IS the electric car revolution. A gas-powered car can be self-driving, but it is much more efficient to make it an electric vehicle. Here’s why…
- Simplicity: In order to turn the steering wheel or press the brake pedal, you need actuators or electric motors, plus circuitry for the computer that runs the car’s Artificial Intelligence. If the car is all electric, you can skip a variety of mechanical “in-between” parts. That lowers the cost of manufacturing.
- Weight: Fewer parts means lower weight and higher reliability. The engine is removed from under the hood and replaced by 4 smaller electric motors inside of the wheel hubs. This eliminates most of the gear system and the entire powertrain (heavy parts that distribute power to the wheels). Electric motors also provide braking power, eliminating today’s separate braking system. Finally, the 12-volt electrical system is replaced with more lightweight cables. All told, nearly 1,000 lbs can be cut from the car’s weight.
- Reliability: Internal combustion engines (ICE) have a few hundred to a few thousand moving parts. Electrics have just a handful of moving parts. That means less effort to design and build electric vehicles and lower maintenance costs. Imagine… no more oil changes!
- Efficiency: A lot of power in an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is turned into waste heat. Gas powered cars waste 75% to 85% of the energy from their fuel. Electric vehicles waste a more moderate 40% of their power. There’s still a tweak or two for the ICE, but after a century of evolution, it’s just about as efficient as it can get. Alternatively, electric motors have more room for improvement.
The same experts that missed the autonomous/electric connection have missed an even bigger point. They usually tell us that if America moves from petroleum to electricity, it could spell the end of the oil industry. That could be good. That could be bad. It depends on what you think about the oil industry. And if you own any oil funds. But what about electricity? When we plug in our cars, what happens? Won’t we need more power plants? What kind of power plants will we build?
Plug And Pray?: First, we have the simple matter of recharging our vehicles. Our 263 million vehicles! America’s 150,000 gas stations can easily add recharge stations as we transition from petroleum to electric. In fact, they need the business. In the 1990’s America had 200,000 gas stations. Consolidation in the oil industry eliminated 25% of all gas stations. The higher efficiency of electric vehicles will probably mean that a recharge will be less profitable than a fill-up.
As our vehicles transition between power sources, gas stations will have competition. The perfect time for a recharge is when you park. Parking lots and municipal parking meters could easily add rechargers, providing a big boost to municipal revenues and private parking lot profits. Consider the sales of air filters, spark plugs, fan belts and oil changes. Electric cars don’t use these products.
But the big, BIG, change is that you can recharge your car at home. Plug it into the wall and recharge your car overnight. That could be 50% or more of all car recharges. Put all of this together and in 20 years when almost all American cars are electric, there may be as few as 50,000 traditional gas stations.
Astronomical Numbers!: Problem one solved. In fact, more than solved! Replacing petroleum-based vehicles with non-polluting electric cars will take a huge bite out of global warming! Think about it, millions of carbon spewing vehicles retired and replaced by zero pollution cars. Finally, freedom from foreign oil! Well, freedom in around 20 years.
The average new car is sold after 6 years. It then passes down through other hands for another 10 or more years. But 20 years, just about every car is ready to be scrapped. Most cars will be self-driving and electric. Isn’t it great that we can have a win/win with no environmental cost whatsoever? Yep. No cost! None!
Uhhh. Unless. Hmmm. If every gas-powered vehicle in America, all 263 million, become electric… won’t we need to produce more power than we do today? On a typical hot summer day when air conditions are cranked all the way up, cities across America have blackouts. A blackout means that more power is used than is available. If millions of electric vehicles plug in somewhere to recharge, we’re going to need more power. Or we’re going to have a lot more blackouts, all year round.
How much more power will we need? Every year America consumes 170 billion gallons of petroleum (gasoline and diesel). If we convert this into electricity, we get 5.4 million Gigawatt hours (GWh). To meet this demand, we would need to more than DOUBLE the That’s more than all of the electricity… that’s coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, geothermal, wind, solar, everything!… consumed by Americans every year!
Luckily, we won’t need to add quite that many new electric power plants. We already know that electric vehicles are more efficient than petroleum vehicles. At least twice as efficient. Also, our power grid has some excess capacity. Not on those hot summer days, but just about every night, especially very late at night. Just when we will program our cars to recharge themselves. So, lets cut our needs in half again. Now, we need just 1.3 million GWh. Spread that over the next 20 years, we only need to build 67,000 GWh of new power every year. That’s still a lot, but it is far less astronomical than the total power gap.
Power Is A Breeze: Of course, this leads to another question, “What type of power plants will we build?” Let’s start with wind turbines. Wind turbines are rapidly evolving. Every year they are bigger and more efficient. New turbines are averaging 2-3 MegaWatts (1/1000 of a gigawatt). The largest wind turbine (so far) can generate 7 MWh and is a massive 650 feet tall. For now, let’s stick to more modest models. Something in the 2.5 MWh range, and just 300 to 400 feet tall. How many will we need?
The first rule of power generation is, “No power system produces at full capacity all year round.” Even a nuclear power plant needs downtime for maintenance. And then there are low demand times when the plant runs at less than 100% capacity. Since the wind isn’t always blowing and some days are cloudy, wind, tide, and solar power generation all have low utilization.
Rule number two, “Location, location, location!” Some locations are windier (or sunnier) than others. The same turbine in two different locations will generate different amounts of power. Wind and solar are more land intensive than nuclear or petroleum based power. Identical wind turbines, in different locations, could have dramatically different costs per MWh. For example, if the turbine is placed on the coast, just offshore where the wind blows continuously, utilization is high and the land may be given to you by the government. Onshore, most locations will have a much higher cost.
Most turbines are likely to average 30% utilization. That means that America needs 1.8 million wind turbines to power our 263 million cars, or 90,000 installed every year (1,900 every week) for 20 years. That would create quite a very large wind power industry. But, it wouldn’t work quite this way.
That’s our next rule, “Costs are rarely linear.” The first new turbine we added would be in a great spot, where the wind blows often, the land is cheap and we’re near the users (farther away and you lose too much in transmission). The next turbine will be put in a slightly less ideal location. You go from great to good, to barely break-even locations. After 100,000 turbines… maybe 200,000 possibly 500,000… either the wind isn’t reliable or the land costs too much, or something else is wrong. Wind and solar power can be a big part of the solution, but other power sources will also be needed.
Carbon Is Back: Other options? Hydro-electric is out. Rather than building new dams, dams are being torn down across America because of environmental concerns. There’s always nuclear, but its reputation is so far from spotless that it’s a non-starter. Which is a pity. That bad image comes from reactors built to 1950s design specifications. The latest designs, using Thorium instead of Uranium or Plutonium, are simpler, cheaper and far more reliable. Still, it takes such a long time to approve and build a reactor, even without public opposition, that if we planned a new reactor today the first watt of nuclear power won’t appear until well after our 20-year time frame. Let’s move on.
So. Ahhh. Ahem. Coal. A third of our electricity comes from coal. Even if we don’t build a single new coal-fired power plant, we are likely to ramp up the utilization of existing coal plants, especially overnight. We could also close the oldest and dirtiest coal power plants and replace them with newer, cleaner facilities. However, the newer the plant, the more it will be automated. Which is another rule… Newer = Cleaner = Less jobs. Clean coal is technically possible, it’s just not likely to be economically feasible. Of all of the forms of energy we can expand, coal offers the fewest jobs.
Nonetheless, ever since the 2016 Elections, Washington has talked about putting coal miners back to work. But more coal, clean or dirty, isn’t going to create a lot of new jobs. The problem isn’t the power plant, it’s the mine itself. The political ads show coal country miners from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee taking crowded elevators deep underground into claustrophobic tunnels. That’s an accurate picture of the coal industry… a century ago. But not today.
Today, two-thirds of America’s coal comes from open pit mines and draglines. It works like this. Find a mountain with a seam of coal running under it. Now, carefully lift the top off of the mountain and gently put it down in the valley. Sorry… got that wrong. I meant to say, use tons of high explosives and turn the mountain into gravel.
Now put a gigantic crane, weighing as much as 1,000 school buses, on the highest spot overlooking the coal seam. This crane is the dragline. It throws out a massive bucket that is dragged across the floor of the mine, scooping up hundreds of tons of rock and coal. The largest dragline ever built is operated by a crew of five. That’s why the Department of Labor lists a mere 3,150 jobs in “Excavating, Loading Machine, and Dragline Operators”. From cramped mines filled with miners to one machine digging up more coal with a crew of 5, it seems obvious that the next step is fewer, if any, workers.
Likewise, the giant trucks and other vehicles to move coal from the mine to the nearest train are the heavy duty trucks we’ve already said will be the first vehicles to be converted to self-driving. If we use more coal to meet the demand for electricity, it will unquestionably accelerate the use of automation throughout the coal industry.
Natural Gas?: Of all the petroleum products we can use, natural gas seems to be the best option. It’s abundant, inexpensive, and the cleanest petroleum fuel. For all of these reasons, it has been natural gas… more than pollution regulations… that killed coal.
Then, fracking came along. Well, that’s not quite true. Fracking… using hot pressurized water to crush shale deposits deep in the earth… was invented in the 1950’s. This process produces oil and natural gas. Fracking picked up speed when horizontal drilling was developed, allowing the profitable extraction of small pockets of petroleum.
However, the new technology made so much new drilling possible that new problems were created. Oil spills. Petroleum showing up in drinking water. Even earthquakes! We’re not talking about a tiny but statistical number of quakes. Ohio used to have 2 quakes a year. Now it is well over 1,000 every year, with each quake under an active fracking site.
Clearly, fracking has been misused. And environmentalists can point to some pretty bizarre side effects, like drinking water that catches fire. Or pipelines that are being forced onto Native American tribal lands, completely ignoring tribal rights. The 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in US shale deposits could recharge our cars for the next 300 years. If we were just a bit more selective in where we drill, we could greatly reduce these effects. Or we could ignore fracking and just use non-fracked natural gas, which is enough to keep things running for the next 50-100 years.
Getting There: There are tremendous benefits to self-driving cars. It seems inevitable that all developed nations will quickly adopt vehicles that are intelligent enough navigate our streets and highways. However, the transition to intelligent vehicles entails another transition, from petroleum to electricity. THAT transition requires a massive expansion of our national power grid… the biggest expansion ever!
Most of the power grid is nearly a century old. It’s not just the powerplants, it’s the distribution infrastructure. Cables that carry current from the power plant to our homes and offices are still made of copper. Using copper cables means that we lose between 8% and 15% of all the power we generate in the transmission and distribution process. Newer alloys and even some early superconductors can greatly reduce lost power, saving billions of dollars every year.
And then… A lot of change is on the way! Self-driving electric cars are all but inevitable. But the changes that these cars will bring could take a number of different directions. With these cars, we will build new industries, change how we work, and perhaps… just perhaps… save our environment.
But before we reap all of the benefits that electric vehicles will bring, we have to make decisions. How will we grow our power grid? Should we utilize the unused capacity of our coal power plants or should we focus on building the next generation of power generators? Should we even consider what we will do after our 20-year timetable? Time for a bit of fusion power?