Tag: autonomous vehicle

Connected Cars, Autonomous Vehicles, and the Internet of Things (IoT)

Part 2 of 3 on the Future of Transportation and the Internet of Things

In my last blog, I talked about the simplicity of the electric engine compared to the internal combustion engine – and how this changes everything. From climate to the structure of the auto industry to the way we store, manage, and distribute energy – electric cars are having tremendous impact.

But what I left out of that discussion was the Internet of Things.

Predictive

The fact is, most electric cars are connected cars – connected through the Internet of Things. This means that sensors in the car constantly communicate with mission control (the manufacturer), sending data on the status of components in real time.

By analysing this data, especially in context of historical data, mission control can predict component failure before it happens. For electric vehicles – with engines that already need far less repair than traditional internal combustion engines – this only increases reliability further.

But what’s more, IoT-connected cars also increase convenience. For example, after realising component failure is imminent, your car could also trigger a work order at the dealership to resolve the issue – while ensuring the needed replacement part is in stock when you roll in. And if the car is autonomous, it could drive itself to be repaired while you are at work, and return ready to drive you home once the repair is completed. Speaking of autonomous…. 

Autonomous and safe

Connectedness is also what makes autonomous vehicles possible. And while some people may distrust driverless cars; the data shows that they’re safer than the self-driven sort – at least according to a report of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Back in May 2016, a Tesla Model S sedan in Autopilot collided with a semi-truck in Florida, killing the driver (or passenger in this case?) – 40-year-old Joshua Brown. The car, apparently, crashed into the truck, passed under the trailer, and kept driving for some distance – only coming to a stop after crashing through two fences and into a pole.

As a result of this incident, the NHTSA conducted an investigation resulting in a report that largely exonerated Tesla. In fact, the report says that after the introduction of Autosteer – a component of the Autopilot system – Tesla’s crash rate dropped by 40%.

Self-learning

The accident in question happened when the semi-truck took a left-hand turn into oncoming traffic. The reason the Tesla did not detect such a large object in its path is because it could not distinguish the white color of the trailer from the bright white Florida sky in background.

Reportedly, Tesla has since analyzed the crash data from this accident, identified the problem, and made fixes to the operating system on which its fleet operates. Perhaps it’s premature to declare the problem solved – but the idea at play here is an interesting one indeed when considering the potential for connected cars and the IoT.

What this scenario shows is a learning platform in action. Because all of its cars are connected on a single platform, Tesla has access to a tremendous amount of driver data that it can analyze to continuously improve product safety. I don’t know exactly how the analysis proceeded in this particular case, but one can certainly envision the use of machine learning technology to continuously analyze patterns and introduce safety improvements on the fly – making the self-learning driving platform a reality.

Disruptive

A future in which autonomous vehicles are not only viable but safer than self-driven cars will result in disruptions beyond those I’ve indicated for electric engines.

Take the insurance industry, for example. With fewer accidents comes lower risk – leading to lower insurance premiums. And in a future where most cars on the road are autonomous – connected and controlled via IoT – the insurable entity itself will likely shift from the driver (who is now a passenger) to the operator of the network (presumably the manufacturer). Certainly, if you decide you wish to drive your car yourself, your insurance will be significantly more expensive than the insurance for an autonomous vehicle.

Of course, if autonomous cars can get where they’re going without a driver, why even bother owning a car? Why not just call up the ride when you need it – Uber style?

One result would be optimal asset utilization – where cars that are far less likely to breakdown can be used on an almost 24×7 basis by spreading usage across individuals. This would mean we’d need far less cars on the road – which would alleviate congestion. It would also hit the auto industry with dramatically lower sales volume.

And with fewer cars on the road – cars that are in use almost all the time – we’d have less use for parking. This would have tremendous impact on the global parking industry. An industry which generates approximately $20 billion annually.

Beyond industry disruption, less need for parking would open up tremendous urban space in the form of unused lots and garages. Maybe this would mean more populous cities with room to build for more people to live more comfortably without traffic congestion or pollution. Or how about using some of the space for indoor vertical farming using hydroponics technology and LED lights to grow more food and feed more people? Of course, this is already happening. But that’s a blog for another time.

 

Photo credit Nicole Galpern

Elon Musk has two more Secret Master Plans

In August 2006 Elon Musk first published his Secret Master Plan for Tesla:

Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

And with the launch (for pre-order) of the Tesla Model 3 last month, the Secret Master Plan is now well under way (if a little behind schedule!).

However, I’ve long suspected that Elon Musk has even greater ambitions than moving the world to electric transportation. I think he has two more Secret Master Plans, and I’m going to lay them out below. See if you agree with me.

The first is the more obvious of the two – to disrupt Uber, public transportation, and other ride sharing operators, by allowing owners of fully autonomous Tesla vehicles to participate in a Tesla operated ride sharing scheme.

How would it work – well, when I drive to work in the morning in my Tesla. I park the my car, and engage the Ride Share mode. The car then broadcasts its location and availability to the network, which assigns it rides as and when they are needed. At the end of my work day, my car knows to meet me back at my place of work to take me home, and I can choose once more to set it to Ride Share mode, or have it charge (or both if I have the Tesla robotic charging arm).

DrivingATeslaThe trips would be undertaken on a revenue sharing basis, so money made could well be put towards the car loan/lease costs. In this way, the car could go a long way towards paying for itself, while also reducing traffic congestion, reducing global emissions, and making the roads safer.

And in case you think this is just the voices in my head (!), Elon Musk himself strongly hinted that he was planning something along these very lines last week.

The second Secret Master Plan is less obvious – it involves disrupting the utility industry. How?

By using the batteries in the electric vehicles to buy and sell energy. I know this may sound totally outlandish, but bear with me.

Most home energy storage systems store somewhere between 4-8kWh of electricity (with Tesla’s PowerWall coming in at 6.4kWh). But if you own a Tesla car, your battery is 70-90kWh (for the Model S, it may be as low as 50kWh for the Model 3). That’s still a lot more than a home energy system.

Now consider, Elon Musk’s stated aim is to sell 500,000 cars a year by 2020. That may sound very ambitious given Tesla are currently selling a little over 50,000 cars per annum. However, Elon Musk is nothing, if not ambitious, and orders for the new Model 3 are approaching 400,000 according to Tesla Vice-President of Business Development, Diarmuid O’Connell.

But let’s be conservative and say that Tesla manages to deliver 200,000 cars in 2020 with an average battery of 60kWh. A quick bit of maths tells us

60KWh x 200,000 = 12,000,000KWh

12,000,000kWh = 12,000MWh

12,000MWh = 12GWh

12GWh is a lot of storage. For context, that’s the ability to store an hour’s output from 12 typical modern nuclear reactors.

Indian Point nuclear power plant
Indian Point nuclear power plant – Photo Tony Fischer

Now, add to this the fact that every Tesla sold has an always-on data connection.

Suddenly you realise Tesla has the ability to control dozens of virtual nuclear power plants worth of storage, and Tesla will be selling at least 12 more nuclear power plants worth of storage, every year. Conservatively.

So the business case – Tesla can sell usage of this distributed storage to utility companies to use as backup, or for frequency regulation, to help smooth the demand curve on the grid, and remove the instability introduced by the addition of variable generators (wind and solar). If utilities can buy energy from Tesla at times of peak demand, it can mean they avoid having to build a power plant (or 12), which is a huge cost saving for them, and also reduces their emissions because peaker plants are invariably powered by burning fossil fuels.

For Tesla car owners, they get paid on a revenue share basis for use of the battery in their car, and the increased grid stability allows for more variable generators (wind and solar) to be added to the grid, making the world a better place for everyone. And that sounds just like something Elon Musk would want.

After all, Musk is the guy who said, when he published his Master Plan back in 2006:

the overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution

So what do you think, will Tesla be the next ride-sharing platform, while also becoming the Uber of electricity?