Driverless = Powerless?

J.C. Howard

J.C. Howard | Oct 27, 2017

An all-electric, self-driving car. Coming soon? 

The subject of autonomous cars tend to make some uneasy because it conjures ideas of the driverless car going haywire and driving it’s presumably sleeping or otherwise incapacitated human occupants off of a cliff or into a lake. If you DIDN’T have that uneasy feeling before, you’re welcome.

The point is, people tend to be afraid of the forthcoming onslaught of robot cars, because in their presence we may feel powerless. But what if it’s actually the cars that should be worried about being rendered powerless?

Zero-emission, fully electric cars are already on the road and are thought to be the future of cars; similarly, driverless cars are a not so distant inevitability. Put ‘em together and what do you have? An all-electric autonomous car. Or at least you would if it weren’t for the fact that self-driving technology is a huge power drain!

A self-pushing car has yet to be invented. (Hugo Clément/Flickr)

A fully autonomous car is one that requires no human intervention. It steers, accelerates/decelerates, monitors the road, and has an internal fallback; all things currently done by our hands, feet, eyes, and brains. Accomplishing this task however consumes somewhere between 2-4 kilowatts of electricity; not quite as intense as the 1.21 gigawatts Doc Brown needed for his DeLorean, but a lot of electricity nonetheless.

According to Bloomberg, 2-4 kilowatts is something like 50-100 laptop computers running continuously and simultaneously in the trunk of the car, leading experts to believe that the first fully autonomous cars may instead be hybrid. Jim Farley, President of global markets for Ford Motor Co. said recently that Ford believes that gasoline-electric hybrids are “the right tech to start with.” Founder of Cairn Energy Research advisors Sam Jaffe agreed and expanded on the idea saying that these hybrid-electric autonomous cars may be the first robo-taxis.

So, if you were worried about your fully electric driverless car becoming self-aware, don’t worry, the experts are listening and responding. If your car goes all SkyNet, it will likely be a hybrid and  able to drive for miles and miles before it runs out of power. (For those of you who've been fretting since the first paragraph, don't worry--this won't make these cars any more likely to drive you off a cliff. But it does mean they'll have the range to get pretty far into the middle of nowhere before running out of gas, leaving you stranded, vultures circling overhead.) 

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