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Guest column: The Electrics Are Here, the ‘Autonomobiles’ Are Coming

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Electric cars have established a beachhead and though glacial be the pace, they are here to stay.

There are over 50,000 Nissan Leafs worldwide. The much anticipated Tesla sedan has an 18,000-car order backlog; the factory operates at top speed, yet they cannot keep up with demand.

Europe is far more enthusiastic about electrics than we are. Tiny Norway, with about the same population as greater Miami, is home to more than 5,000 Leafs, more than reside in the entire USA. They’ve done it with generous incentives, although one might argue that our $7,500 federal tax credit per Leaf purchase is comparable.

American car companies seem more interested in hybrids, and to some extent, plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt. Ford, although bedeviled by accusations that it can’t achieve its federal miles per gallon goals, has a hybrid which challenges market leader Prius. Ford also has a plug-in with somewhat shorter range than the Volt, and purportedly a full electric, that might prove to be a “compliance” car — that is, to meet California’s insistence that auto companies wishing to do business in the Golden State must achieve 7 percent of its sales therein (by 2025) with cars producing zero emissions (e.g., electrics are ideal).

Some car companies will presumably offer an electric model until their quota is met. Their “compliance” electric car would then quietly fade away, but most companies are making a serious effort to produce a winner.

The California edict and President Barack Obama’s rule that car companies’ average MPG must double by 2025, are the drivers in the auto makers’ sudden interest in nontraditional means of propulsion. Everyone is trotting out hybrids; this should help them soon reach a 40 MPG average. Getting to 55 is a much tougher task. Plug-in hybrids will likely be the weapon of choice to meet that plateau.

The American automobile with its internal combustion engine hasn’t fundamentally changed over the past 100 years. Sure it is better, faster, safer, etc., but it’s likely to change more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 100 — not just because of the move to non-fossil fuel propulsion, but to the advent of the autonomous automobile (which we choose to call the “autonomobile”).

There is a story going around, likely apocryphal, about a lady who bought a Winnebago, and set out on a cross country trip. Deciding she was hungry, she put the RV in cruise control and went back to make a sandwich. Unfortunately, she was a few years ahead of her time. But cars that drive themselves will soon appear. You may be aware that the Google Prius (equipped with its multitude of sensors), is the autonomous car and has traveled more than 200,000 miles around southern California, untouched by human hands. Thus far, without incident.

Of course it is not a production vehicle, but its millions of lines of computer code that allow it to anticipate most any highway event are adaptable to any vehicle equipped with proper sensors. Other manufacturers are rushing to emulate Googl
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