Our Man at the UN: The Car Blogger Talks About Self-Driving Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 06, 2017

NEW YORK—The last time I was invited to the United Nations was in 1996 to interview the late Jacques Cousteau, an advocate for oceans who needs no introduction. He told me, “There is no death possible in the oceans—there will always be life—but they’re getting sicker every year.”

The UN is an iconic building in New York, and it's also our best hope for solving vexing international problems. (JasonParis/Flickr)

Cousteau would be heartsick to see the coral bleaching that is currently happening around the world because of warming seas. It’s just the kind of global environmental problem that the UN addresses, and in that it has something in common with our automotive challenges. Transportation is 27 percent of U.S. global warming emissions. That’s why I was very happy to speak at a UN event entitled “Electric Transportation for Sustainable Development: Public-Private Initiatives” on December 1.

The speakers were a mix of diplomats, journalists and environmental activists. H.E. Frantisek Ruzicka of the Slovakian mission pointed out that Florida—comfortably in the industrialized West—will rebuild from Hurricane Irma much faster than the Caribbean island of Barbuda, now evacuated and uninhabited. Minister Reinhard Krapp of Germany pointed out that electric cars are great, but don’t solve the congestion problem.

Minister Reinhard Krapp of Germany said that EVs won't solve all our problems--they still take up space! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was astounded to learn, from Ambassador to the UN Garcia Mendoza, that Costa Rica gets all its electricity from renewable sources. The country, hugely popular as a tourist destination, pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 2012 levels by 2030, and eventually go carbon neutral. The first electric bus arrived last year, and the first electric cars are coming now. He pointed out that his country’s 75-degree Fahrenheit average temperature is “optimal for electric cars.”

Talk of sustainability brought out the diplomats. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Scott Thompson, an environmental engineer and a member of the same Fairfield Clean Energy Task Force that I serve, said he’d driven an electric car since 2012, progressing from a Nissan Leaf to a Volkswagen e-Golf and, soon, a Tesla Model 3. “I hate tailpipes,” he said. “And electric cars are exciting to drive.” Thompson said range limitations haven’t been a problem, and it sure won’t be with the Model 3—which can travel 220 to 310 miles (depending on the model) per charge.

Scott Thompson--a serial EV driver says Tesla is "the spark for the whole industry." He has a Model 3 on order. (courtesy of Scott Thompson)

Thompson called Tesla “the spark for the whole industry,” and Bruce Becker, a Connecticut-based architect and member of the Westport Electric Car Club whose big projects often generate their own green energy, would certainly agree with him. Becker drives a Model S, and has no less than two Model 3s on order. In fact, he’ll get one of the first ones released, because he ordered it on the first day.

Bruce Becker: His apartment buildings get 95% of their power from their own hydrogen fuel cell. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Becker’s apartment building in New Haven, Connecticut that serves Yale students has its own hydrogen fuel cell, supplying 95 percent of its electricity, which means that the project’s EV chargers are fossil-fuel free.

I batted last. My point to the diplomatic community was that autonomous cars are very likely to also be electric cars, and that it’s important that they also be shared. If we transition to private self-driving vehicles, congestion will actually get worse. Cars are parked 95 percent of the time now, but they’ll be used much more often if it’s painless—and disenfranchised communities, including 12-year-olds, the disabled, and late-period seniors, will be able to take trips.

The author offering his two cents. (courtesy of Scott Thompson)

The electric part is assured. “The convergence of the electric propulsion systems and AVs are, in many ways, perfectly aligned,” reports Govtech.com. Lyft says that the “vast majority of the vehicles on our [self-driving] platform will be electric,” and they’ll be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

Most hybrids and EVs are already set up with drive-by-wire, steering-by-wire, and brake-by-wire systems that are compatible with autonomy. EVs also have the advantage of being able to put themselves away (Teslas can already do it)—and then immediately begin charging wirelessly.

Shared cars are the mobility of the future. Otherwise, congestion is going to stink big time. (Zipcar photo)

“Tomorrow’s cars will be safe, green and connected,” said Mary Gustanski, Delphi’s vice president of engineering. “We’re going to see more electrification, and the electric car will merge with automated driving and the connected car.”

“There are a lot fewer moving pieces in an electric vehicle,” said Levi Tillemann-Dick, author of The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future. “An internal-combustion engine contains 2,000 tiny pieces that have to be kept lubricated, and they break every once in a while.”

There’s one caveat about this: High-electric demand from the computers that run self-driving cars’ vision, guidance and mapping technology, and process software coding. According to Borg Warner, some autonomous concept cars use two to four kilowatts of electricity while in operation—the equivalent of 50 to 100 laptops running in the trunk. That power has to come from the onboard batteries, and could seriously reduce range.

Tesla's electric cars already have Auto Pilot technology built in. (Andy Durst/Flickr)

I expect this problem will be addressed rather simply—by ensuring that early autonomous EVs are plug-in hybrids, with both 50 or more miles of electric range, then 300 or more from the onboard gas engine.

“They’re going to favor plug-in hybrid EVs, and they're going to require that extra gasoline engine, both to extend the range to be able to do a taxi type of duty cycle, but also to help mitigate the proportion of the autonomous systems on the battery pack itself,” Sam Jaffe, founder of Cairn Energy Research Advisors, told Bloomberg.

The Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid is an excellent candidate for combining electric power and autonomy. (Marlordo59/Flickr)

The challenge of ensuring that self-driving cars will be shared, not privately owned, is a bigger one and of UN proportions. Several diplomats, in fact, approached me after the talk to say they were interested in working on that particular issue. I hope so.

There’s a very positive possible future here. If we shift to mobility as a service, we can cut our need for vehicles globally by two thirds, and the huge amount of urban space now devoted to parking could be shifted to other uses. Read more about it here, in an essay by Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar.

Our talk was sponsored by NGO Sustainability Inc., and co-sponsored by the missions of Costa Rica and Germany to the UN.

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