A beam of light traveling through space covers 186,282 miles in one second. In a year, it travels about 5.88 trillion miles, which is one light-year, and it’s a long distance by anyone’s measure. Now though, the Federal Highway Administration reports that U.S. motorists drove a collective 3.2 trillion miles in 2016—more than half a light-year. Human beings did almost all of that driving; autonomous cars accounted for only a small percentage in 2016. However, that’s all about to change.
What “Autonomous” Really Means
The news media covers Tesla, Google, Uber, Lyft and others that have put autonomous vehicles (AVs) on the street for testing. However, the definition of “autonomous” has been carefully defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and adopted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). In fact, they’ve defined autonomy in six levels, labeled zero through five.
0. No automation. These vehicles rely entirely on the driver, probably like the car you’re driving today.
1. Driver Assistance. Technology helps out, such as with adaptive cruise control. The driver handles other aspects of the driving task not controlled by technology.
2. Partial Automation. The vehicle helps you drive. It handles acceleration/deceleration, steering and perhaps some other functions such as keeping the vehicle in its proper lane. The driver keeps her/his hands on the wheel and remains alert. No car maker today (October 2017) sells vehicles to the public at greater than Level 2 autonomy.
3. Conditional Automation. The vehicle monitors the environment, does the driving and makes decisions. When the vehicle needs help, it alerts the driver.
4. High Automation. Essentially the same as Level 3, except that the vehicle takes charge if the driver does not respond to an alert. Now, at last, you can watch a movie or read a book, leaving it all up to technology.
5. Full Automation. You don’t need to stay alert because you probably can’t control the vehicle anyway. The vehicle does everything and, therefore, may have no steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedals.
Most experts predict AVs—passenger cars, delivery vehicles and 18-wheelers—will begin taking over the highways between 2020 and 2030. However, most of them, initially, will probably not exceed Level 2 autonomy and, therefore, will need “safety drivers” who can take control when needed. On the other hand, Google’s spin-off company, Waymo, and Ford Motors are both focused on Level 5 AVs. Ford has announced plans to roll out driverless cars by 2021, although only in carefully geo-fenced metropolitan areas for ride-hailing or ride-sharing.
Electric Vehicles, Too
According to Bloomberg, “EVs are on track to accelerate to 54% of new car sales by 2040. Tumbling battery prices mean that EVs will have lower lifetime costs, and will be cheaper to buy, than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars in most countries by 2025-29.”
In the wake of the Paris Climate Accords, seven countries have announced plans to ban fossil fuel vehicles beginning as early as 2025 in Norway and as late as 2040 in Britain and France. China, India, The Netherlands and Germany have also established dates in the 2030’s.
Non-renewable energy will eventually run out. According to Elon Musk, electricity is the best form of sustainable energy because it can be produced by renewable sources, stored in batteries, and leaves no carbon footprint. AVs of the future will move to electric power.
What You Can Expect
Just as the Internet has affected almost uncountable aspects of life in the last few decades, the surge of AVs on roads and highways will have massive effects on people, society and cultures around the world. For starters, consider these ideas…
- Safety. Traffic crash rates will drop as AVs achieve Level 3, 4 and 5 and as human drivers are taken out of the equation. Without distracted driving, impaired driving and speeding, the crash rate will plummet. According to the World Health Organization, 1.25 million people die in traffic crashes worldwide each year, and between 20 and 50 million suffer injuries, many causing life-long disability. The reduced crash rate brought on by AVs will not only save lives, it will measurably reduce the demand for healthcare, ranging from emergency rooms and trauma centers to rehabilitative therapies to makers of prosthetic and assistive devices.
- Law Enforcement. Police in the U.S. spend 42 percent of their time dealing with vehicle crashes. As AVs reduce the crash rate, fewer officers will be needed and police departments may shrink. Municipalities will find themselves in serious budget shortfalls because traffic citation revenue, reported to average $300,000 per officer per year in the U.S., will fall dramatically.
- Insurance. Vehicle insurance companies will redefine their mission, or wither away. Rather than rating each driver based on driving history, age and geographic location, insurance companies will, in the most optimistic view, insure vehicle manufacturers of Level 5 AVs rather than the people who ride in the vehicles. In the meantime, Tesla is already partnering with insurance companies in Hong Kong and Australia, providing insurance that reflects the lower risk its AutoPilot technology (Level 2 autonomy) delivers.
- Land Use. As on-call AVs—essentially, unmanned taxis—become commonplace, parking lots and garages can be re-purposed. The U.S. has 5.7 billion square feet of parking (105 million spots). Municipalities can redefine them as they see fit, perhaps converting them to parks or converting parking garages to affordable in-town housing.
- Job Loss. Truck, taxi and delivery drivers have been largely immune to job loss until now. As AVs progress to Levels 4 and 5 and no longer need “safety drivers,” millions of drivers will find themselves out of work. In a similar fashion, if car makers put gigantic fleets of Level 5 cars on the road as widely predicted, the need to buy and own a car will fade for many people. In turn, car dealers, independent auto repair shops, driver education schools, and even car washes could dwindle away.
- In-Car Entertainment. With each worker enjoying an extra 50 minutes of “free time” each day during the commute to and from work, some pundits estimate that in-car entertainment will become a $5 billion market replete with movies, news, games and other attractions. Others suggest overall Internet use during a daily commute could tally $100 billion per year.
Engineers Take Note: Plenty of Work Lies Ahead
Someday in the next half-century it’s reasonable to predict that Level 0, 1, 2 and 3 vehicles will be banned from roadways of the world, only making appearances when collectors bring them to antique car shows. However, engineers have lots of work to do to bring Level 4 and 5 technology to the masses.
A key issue engineers are working on today involves wireless charging of batteries. Wireless charging eliminates the need to wrestle with heavy duty charging cables or the expense of devices like Tesla’s “snake charger.” Wireless chargers can achieve efficiencies in the range of 95 percent when the charging device uses resonant LC circuits. However, efficiency falls off quickly if (a) sending and receiving coils are physically misaligned, even by as little as a couple of centimeters; (b) the air gap between send and receive coils is too great; or, (c) the impedances of sending and receiving circuits are mismatched.
Charging pads placed on the garage floor are available today. Litz wire is the preferred material to use in designing and building copper coils that have low resistance, high Q-factors and deliver high efficiency. New England Wire has been manufacturing Litz wire since 1898 and has deep expertise in its design, fabrication and applications. Litz is made of individually insulated copper strands twisted together in designs best suited to each application. Litz wire overcomes the two major losses found in any copper coil design—the skin effect and proximity effect, both of which compromise wireless charger efficiency.
Learn more about the role Litz plays in wireless charging here.
Stationary charging pads, as convenient as they may be, still require the vehicle to spend time out of service while waiting for a full recharge. To maximize efficiency, electric AVs need to recharge while they’re in motion. Doing so effectively gives an electric vehicle an unlimited range. It also reduces the size, weight, and cost of batteries needed.
Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) placed an electric passenger bus and roadway recharging system into service in the city of Gumi, South Korea. The bus draws power from the chargers installed in the roadway and has been in service since 2013. Swedish bus and truck maker Scania is currently testing hybrid city buses using wireless chargers at each bus stop, hoping to prove their viability in harsh near-Arctic conditions.
There is much to be done across the AV industry and it will keep engineers busy for decades. No matter the segment of AV engineering in which you work, your role will be nothing less than helping unleash one of the world’s most disruptive and beneficial advances ever recorded. New England Wire is already taking part in the AV market. We will be proud to work with you, and we invite you to consult with our experts on your next project.
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