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Electric Cars Make Excellent Autonomous Vehicles—So Why Are Most AVs Gas-Powered?

These engineering students are making an autonomous electric car.

Tracey Lindeman

Tracey Lindeman

Keenan Burnett and Mona Gridseth of the University of Toronto's aUToronto autodrive team adjust sensors in the trunk of the all-electric Bolt. Image: Laura Pedersen/Engineering Strategic Communications

Right now eight teams of university students are out in the middle of the desert near Yuma, Arizona, using computers to try and make their electric Chevy Bolts make tight turns without involuntarily changing lanes.

It’s the first step in the three-year AutoDrive Challenge, co-presented by the Society of Automotive Engineers and General Motors, the latter of which donated Bolt EVs to each team. The challenge is to transform an electric, non-autonomous car into a Level 4 autonomous one—that is, the “mind off” level that would allow a passenger to sleep, text, or watch TV safely while the car drives itself—by the end of the third year.

As these students are learning, it’s easier and cheaper to autonomize an electric car than a gas-powered one. That’s because EVs are already computer controlled and have more powerful batteries. Given those advantages, it may appear strange we aren’t seeing more electric AVs being developed—until you remember the realities of energy lobbies and proprietary technology. Still, we desperately need to solve the electric-car conundrum, because our planet is dying.

Two of the eight teams competing in Yuma are Canadian; one is from the University of Waterloo and the other is from the University of Toronto. Keenan Burnett, a member of the U of T team, told me by email that so far the first challenge—which began April 30 and continues to May 5—has been going well. “Today [May 1] we had a technical inspection which went off without a hitch. We performed perfectly on the static mapping challenge,” he wrote. “Our first dynamic challenges begin tomorrow.”

Mona Gridseth and Keenan Burnett take their all-electric Bolt for an autonomous test run in Toronto. Image: Laura Pedersen/Engineering Strategic Communications

Unlike gas cars, most EVs come with “drive-by-wire” functionality, which allows people to run a car from a laptop using a USB cable. This, combined with the fact that EVs have bigger and more powerful batteries to help run power-sucking advanced driver-assistance systems, makes them ideal bedfellows for autonomous technology.

“Powering sensors and computers is much easier when you have access to a high-current power source, which is readily available in electric cars. In a gasoline car, you would try to power everything off of the battery/alternator, but this just isn't enough power,” Burnett explained.

Because most gasoline cars aren’t drive-by-wire, autonomizing them involves expensive, bulky, and heavy upgrades that can cost upwards of $100,000, Steven Waslander, an associate professor at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies (which also does autonomous-car research), told me on the phone. “Electric cars would be easier and less expensive to upgrade,” he said. “It’s literally just exposing the interface to allow control over [acceleration], steering, and braking.”

If it’s so much easier to autonomize EVs, it’s curious to note that so many autonomous cars currently in development are gas-powered. It’d be easy to assume the oil and gas lobby are behind it—and in fact, energy-sector lobbyists’ efforts to kill electric cars has been well-documented. The infamous Koch brothers, as well as ethanol (biofuel) producers and Big Oil, are all working to undermine the electric car. “[We] think we should be working to promote the longevity of the internal combustion engine,” American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers president Chet Thompson said last year.

Read More: The US Energy Grid Is Making Electric Cars Dirtier Than They Should Be

Sure enough, in 2017 oil and gas lobbyists spent $126 million to woo members of the US government to their side; of that, Koch Industries and AFPM spent a combined $14 million last year.

In spite of production troubles, Elon Musk has helped build new interest in electric cars anyway. Tesla is actively recruiting tech bros and high-middle-class earners to the electric side, but we mustn’t forget: it took an eccentric billionaire with a grand master plan to compete against powerful government influencers and force other automakers to become competitive.

Lobbyists aside, Waslander of U of T pointed out that many automakers don’t actually want to expose their interfaces. For instance, Tesla has routinely chosen to develop its technology in-house, save for a few select partnerships including one with Jeff Dahn, a professor at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, to develop lithium-ion batteries.

“There’s a lot of proprietary knowledge in the actual interfacing system for controlling a car,” said Waslander. “When you expose that interface the OEMs get worried about exposing trade secrets.”

Video: U of T Engineering/YouTube

Ford’s Lincoln MKZ—which comes as both a gas-only and gas/electric hybrid—is one of a very small handful of combustion-engine cars with a drive-by-wire system that can be easily tapped into. That’s why it’s the model of choice for so many autonomous test drives.

If automakers want to put their electric models at the forefront of the autonomous generation, they should consider allowing research teams to readily interface with its steering, accelerator, brakes, and other wired components. The AutoDrive Challenge is a good first step.

“Autonomous cars and electric cars are solving two very different problems,” said Waslander, citing safety and environmental reasons, respectively. “There’s no reason you can’t do both at the same time.”

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