From 1902 until 1924, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company produced new automobiles that ran on steam. They were efficient and nonpolluting and held various speed records even at only 10 horsepower. In fact, the speed record for steam-powered cars set by one of Stanley’s models wasn’t broken until 2009. However, Stanley eventually lost out to Ford and the internal combustion engine as the public preferred the cheaper and more inefficient choice. In the 21st century, with fossil fuels not only running out but also contributing to environmental issues, new methods are being developed for the next wave of the future — electric autonomous cars.
By 2030, the internal combustion engine will be outlawed for use on German roads. Currently, Germany is working toward convincing the European Union to do the same thing. In the United States, car companies are working on new electric technologies to take advantage of this “new world.”
When it comes to autonomous cars, hybrids and purely electric motors seem to be the power plants of choice. There are many reasons why, including:
- Fuel economy regulations
- Fewer moving parts
- Components that lend themselves to electronic, “by-wire” controls
- Longer operational life
Most of the pilot projects regarding self-driving cars and other vehicles have been in the commercial side of the industry, which includes ride-sharing and trucking. These are the areas where intensely durable vehicles are needed. A ride-sharing vehicle might be driven 80,000 miles a year whereas a long-haul truck could rack up more than double that mileage annually. Even if one considers the diesel trucks of today, platooning saves on fuel, emissions, and overall cost. When trucks are electric and autonomous, this energy-saving convoy technique could be even more effective.
The ultimate in energy efficiency would be a wholly self-recharging car that would never need to stop at a fuel or electric station. Some fanciful minds foresee a world where electric cars could potentially recharge themselves by harnessing the wind or wheel revolutions. Because of the laws of physics, however, any energy generated by fast motion would then be leached out of the car’s speed.
The only way for an electric car to recharge itself at all is to harness the energy created by slowing down as this is the only situation when such leeching of speed is desired. This so-called regenerative braking adds a small amount of energy back to the battery, but it is far from the “closed loop” of balancing the amount spent with the amount generated.
Researchers at Stanford University have another idea. Their plan would be to install electrical coils into the construction materials of the road itself and generate a large current through them. Using a new technique of wireless charging, the current in the coils embedded in the road would refill the batteries in the cars driving over it without a wire and without the pesky laws of physics.
The self-driving vehicles of the future would then, theoretically, have unlimited range. Their onboard electronics, such as navigational lidar and GPS positioning, would also have an unlimited power supply. When Heinlein wrote “The Roads Must Roll” in 1940, he thought up moving sidewalks that had an unlimited power supply and provided all transport in his fictional society. With the advent of Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous cars and trucks, present-day society seems to be moving in the same direction, which is away from private car ownership and toward shared mass transportation.
What the Future Holds
With all of the advances in electric power plant technology, computer-controlled circuits, software design, and navigational hardware, the move toward electrically powered self-driving cars and trucks seems inexorable. Many of the disadvantages of previous electric cars, such as low range, a lack of recharging stations, and extended recharge times have been overcome by the newest models.
In fact, many people in large cities, which have extensive public transport, have eschewed driver’s licenses for years. The Atlantic reported in 2016 that the population in general is already making the move. More people than ever before are not getting their driver’s licenses. If the researchers in Stanford are correct in their assessment of the viability of their idea, then 16-year-olds might get annual passes for public transport instead of their own cars.
As society presses ever further into the 21st century, and green efforts continue to build momentum, researchers and carmakers will continue to develop the technology for self-driving cars and their associated power plants. While self-driving cars may now require a lot of power, that won’t always be the case.