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Driverless Cars Before Electric Ones

Pushing electric cars into the market before we have driverless cars is putting the cart before the horse. Those concerned with sustainable transportation should turn on to the promise of intelligent connectivity and help overcome the regulatory, insurance and institutional barriers that can inhibit the rapid evolution of “tuned in” autonomous mobility. That will be more productive than attempts to mandate or subsidize plug-in cars, which lack a scalable business case in an unconnected transportation world.

In spite of so much breathless advocacy from electric vehicle (EV) proponents, electrification itself is not a game changer for mobility. Putting a plug-in powertrain into the 19th century machine that had such a profound impact on the 20th century doesn’t make it a 21st century breakthrough. It just makes it a more expensive car.

Certainly the electric car has its passionate believers who are jazzed about the technology. Some consumers very much want to get off of oil or cut their carbon footprints. EVs can do both, no doubt about that, though at very high cost. Individuals who feel strongly about those issues and are willing and able to pay the added price are much to be admired.

But private passion does not justify public subsidy. As long as there are less expensive ways of reducing oil use and cutting carbon, neither taxpayers nor automakers nor consumers at large should be asked to absorb the high costs of electrification. Given the urgency of the climate problem, the focus should be on the most cost-effective options available today, which EVs are not. And given current fiscal constraints, public resources are best reserved for basic research to seek better batteries, advanced materials and other enabling technologies that can be used in a variety of products.

For cars, the real game changer will be intelligent connectivity. The safety benefits of vehicles “tuned in” to each other and their surroundings will be substantial, and it’s that potential that motivates government and industry research on connected transportation. Autonomous capability will liberate consumers from the need to drive, which will then disconnect them from the 20th century cultural expectations that define the high-power, full-function vehicles of today. Once mobility is networked, EVs are much more likely to thrive, especially in urban and suburban regions where most trips are fairly short and well suited to the technology.


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