Why Canada’s autonomous vehicles may not be all-electric
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Oct 31, 2019
Brian BanksJean-François Venne

Electric vehicles are cheaper to run than hybrids and create zero emissions. Will policymakers start mandating their use in autonomous vehicles?

Electric vehicles are cheaper to run than hybrids and create zero emissions. Will policymakers start mandating their use in autonomous vehicles?

In August, interviews in The Telegraph and TechCrunch with John Rich, chief operating officer at Ford Autonomous Vehicles, caught the attention of a large and diverse audience — transportation planners, automotive companies, fleet managers, ride-hailing and ride-sharing companies and new mobility advocates alike.

The primary talking point? According to Rich, Ford’s first autonomous fleet vehicles, now in development, will be heading for the scrapyard just four years after they hit the road.

The second news hook? Ford’s first AVs will be hybrids rather than battery electrics.

Cheaper and more efficient

Rich’s first point is not that big of a stretch, and stems from his belief that Ford’s autonomous fleet vehicles will be so popular that they’ll be heavily used and wear out quickly as a result. The reason for that demand, he argues, is simple economics — self-driving cars will be cheaper and more efficient to operate than today’s privately-operated vehicles.

On the other hand, Ford’s plan to fill the market with large quantities of autonomous vehicles burning fossil fuel is far more contentious. It runs counter to the widespread view that autonomous driving and emissions-free electric propulsion go hand-in-hand.

Not only that, but it raises a big red flag at a time when a growing number of provincial, state and national governments are establishing zero-emission mandates that, in some jurisdictions, will prohibit the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles after 2025 or 2030. Given their expected heavy use, shouldn’t autonomous fleets be on the leading edge of emissions-reductions efforts?

The answer, it turns out, is less about disagreeing on the direction we’re headed and more about disputing the time it will take to get there.

Costs prohibitive

For the moment, says Rich, hybrids are the only way Ford can develop a viable business model for its autonomous fleets. Current barriers to all-electric fleets, he says, include the capital-intensive nature of building charging infrastructure and the depletion of range from on-board tech, including the computing power of an AV system that will drain the battery. He also stresses the loss of profits due to the time an electric AV would spend charging instead of being on the road and the wearing down of the battery from frequent fast-charging.

It turns out he’s not alone. Other companies in the AV market, such as Alphabet’s Waymo and Uber, are also leaning towards hybrid electric.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, General Motors links AVs to the reduction of emissions and seems focused on developing electric AVs. Tesla, too, is a big promoter of all-electric AVs. And some leading experts touting the move to AVs, such as thinker and entrepreneur Tony Seba, basically treat electric and autonomous as two aspects of the same disruptive transition.

“Automakers and mobility companies will develop the technologies that best appeal to customers”

Raed Kadri, Director, Director, Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN)

Customer demands will be key

“In the end, automakers and mobility companies will develop the technologies that best appeal to customers,” says Raed Kadri, director of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network. “Customer demands will be the key driver.”

Kadri says that AV technologies are already being integrated in gasoline-powered and hybrid vehicles, so it would be hard to make a case for electricity being the only way to go from a strictly technological or business standpoint.

In a position paper on the subject published earlier this year, analysts George Kamiya and Jacob Teter examine the arguments for and against linking autonomous and electric, as well as policies and strategies governments can adopt to expand EV use.

On the plus side, they write, “well-coordinated fleets of electric AVs may be able to manage challenges around range, access to charging infrastructure, and charging time management. Automated driving technologies may also be easier to implement in EVs due to the greater number of drive-by-wire components.”

But on the downside, “higher utilisation rates of commercial AVs will also mean greater travel distances per day, requiring larger and more expensive battery packs or more frequent recharging [and downtime]. AVs may also require significant power consumption to power on-board electronics.”

“Regulations don’t necessarily always stifle progress, sometimes they point it in the right direction”

Catherine Kargas, Vice President, MARCON

Reducing emissions

Of course, the elephant in the room is emissions. AVs are often cited as a way to reduce them, and developing plug-in electric fleets seems like the best way to achieve this goal.

It’s here, then, where a case can be made for greater intervention by governments and other policymakers to mandate deadlines and targets for making AVs electric.

“How can one imagine that very intensively used shared fleets of AVs could be anything other than fully electric?” asks Catherine Kargas, vice-president at Montreal-based consulting firm Marcon and chair of the Laval Smart Mobility Incubator and Accelerator.

To Kargas, the current drive towards transportation electrification presents an opportunity to make of AVs a new, more sustainable mobility and transportation technology.

Regulations provide a framework

Kargas, who is also a director at Electric Mobility Canada, hopes that governments will intervene with regulations that favour the development of all-electric AVs.

“Regulations don’t necessarily always stifle progress, sometimes they point it in the right direction,” she says. “I believe we should develop a regulatory framework that would make sure the development of AVs contributes to a more sustainable mobility.”

To date, no jurisdiction in Canada has stepped forward with a clear set of rules on this subject. When Electric Autonomy Canada put the question to Transport Canada, as well as ministries of transportation in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, all confirmed that their AV policies do not differentiate between electric or internal combustion engine vehicles and are more concerned by questions of safety.

Looking elsewhere for comparisons, it’s interesting to note that the global Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index, compiled annually by consulting firm KPMG, assigns higher scores to countries where EVs have greater market share and where there is a higher density of EV charging stations.

“EVs are a precursor for AVs, which are expected to be mostly electric,” says the report.

Will Quebec lead the way?

Within Canada, based on those metrics, Quebec is the most AV-ready province. Given that it is now working on a new plan on electrification and climate change scheduled for release in early 2020, might it be the first Canadian jurisdiction to mandate that AVs be EVs?

Mila Roy, a spokesperson for the province’s transportation ministry, says it’s too early in the process to say. But if there’s a will to go there, provincial rules already provide the way.

“In accordance with our laws and regulations on the quality of air, Quebec could eventually regulate the propulsion of autonomous vehicles,” she says.

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