“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”~Arthur C. Clarke .
A car that can drive itself around using Artificial Intelligence, powered by the movement of ions and electrons, certainly sounds nothing short of magical. This is the case with most technological breakthroughs; we marvel at their ability to solve problems we didn’t even know we had, and solve them in ways that we didn’t even think were possible.
A Traditional Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle (ICEV) gets its energy from burning petrol or diesel. According to the Energy Future Coalition, each gallon of hydrogen-rich petroleum fuel that’s used to power traditional ICEVs produces nearly 20 pounds of CO2, (which results in an annual emission of over 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2). But let’s go beyond numbers; climatic disasters have studded the length of the past few years. Climate change has historically been something that’s lingered in the back of our minds like some ambiguous foe, warranting a modicum of concern but always easy to push away. And up until recently, the truth of the matter has been relatively easy to ignore; we need to find more sustainable and efficient ways of existing on this planet.
Autonomous and Electric Vehicles are poised to disrupt the automotive industry precisely for this reason. Autonomous Electric Vehicles (A-EVs) use AI, next-generation batteries and other technologies from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These vehicles can make transportation more efficient (quicker and cleaner), revoking the need for drivers and fossil-fuel-driven internal combustion engines. A-EVs will be critical in reducing GHG emissions from the transportation sector.
One of the most effective ways of reducing pollution levels in the Earth’s atmosphere is electrifying human activity. Electric Vehicles (EVs) replace the traditional combustion engine with hybrid or fully electric motors powered through a collector system by electricity from off-vehicle sources, or self-contained with a battery, solar panels, fuel cells or an electric generator to convert fuel to electricity. EVs include road and rail vehicles, surface and underwater vessels, electric aircraft and electric spacecraft. EVs have various advantages over Traditional Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs), including cheaper fuel, lower maintenance costs, and reduced air pollution. This shift towards EVs is palpable with many large countries incentivizing their adoption. For instance, the current US federal tax credit for fully Electric Vehicles are listed as $7,500 per vehicle. There are also other incentives like lower vehicle registration fees, preferred parking spots, and access to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.
Recognizing its importance, Bhutan has also taken steps towards adopting EV technology. The “Bhutan Sustainable Low Emission Urban Transport System” is a three-year project that was initiated in 2019 with the goal of replacing 300 ICE taxis in the country with EVs, with a particular focus on Thimphu and other districts in close proximity. The project planned to provide a 20% subsidy on the cost of an EV with a maximum ceiling of USD 5,500 (Nu 407,660) and a 70% loan facility from a financial institution. Furthermore, it was acknowledged that one of the most important factors for the successful adoption and integration of EVs in Bhutan would be charging stations. As such, under the aforementioned project, twenty five public EV charging stations were launched on June 24th 2021, in fifteen different locations in Haa, Paro, Punakha, Phuentsholing, Thimphu, and Wangdue Phodrang.
Although EVs are currently more expensive than ICEs, many analysts believe that within the next 10 years, this should no longer be the case with battery costs rapidly declining through process improvements and scale effects.
Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) or self-driving cars are capable of driving around with little or no human intervention. These vehicles use sensors, actuators, complex algorithms, machine learning systems, and powerful processors to execute software. They create and maintain a map of their surroundings based on a combination of sensors located in different parts of the vehicle. AVs are able to ‘see’ the road and respond to changing conditions and navigate obstacles by computing billions of data points every second from a range of sensors, cameras, and radar systems. AVs are predicted to reduce accidents, traffic congestion, increase lane capacity and improve transportation accessibility.
An AV’s ability to operate without human input depends on its level of sophistication:
|Level 1: Driver Assistance||The driver controls most driving functions, but under certain conditions, the vehicle may be able to adjust cruise control speed or stay in a lane.|
|Level 2: Partial Automation||The car can both accelerate/decelerate and perform basis steering functions. Driver is still responsible for directing navigation like exiting a highway, changing lanes, or turning on a new street.|
|Level 3: Conditional Automation||The car can monitor the driving environment and accelerate, turn, or brake, but still expects human intervention when alerted.|
|Level 4: High Automation||The car can control all driving aspects and operate without intervention from a human, but only under certain condition.|
|Level 5: Full Automation||The car is fully autonomous and requires no human input to operate in all driving conditions|
Although there are still substantial flaws to AVs that aim for full automation, the strides being taken towards that goal are commendable. Alphabet’s Waymo, Argo AI, Ford Motor C, Volkswagen AG, Zoox and Cruise, General Motors, Honda and Softbank and some of the big names who are exploring the landscape of this incredible field. The dream is to eventually create efficient autonomous vehicle technology that achieves level 5 automation without any need for human drivers.
Ultimately, the transition toward Autonomous Electric Vehicles (AEVs) will provide a slew of benefits; many of which will spill beyond the quantifiable. Like so many technological breakthroughs, the trickle-down of the beneficial impacts of AEVs will affect even the simplest facets of our lives in unimaginable ways. In our efforts to balance technological advancement with sustainability, AEV technology holds an exciting and promising position; it is a wonderful example of how we can power our innovations with ethics and a deep consideration for the world around us.