back to article Batteries on wheels are about to reshape our cities and lives

In the lobby of the hotel hosting a recent (and somewhat panicked) summit of the leaders of Australia’s automobile industry, someone had parked a vast, black Volvo SUV. Why give a car that’s not manufactured in Australia (and never will be) such star billing? On the first weekend in November, that car - Volvo’s XC90 - will be …

  1. Sureo
    Coffee/keyboard

    Inquiring minds

    Have they tested any of those vehicles in a Canadian winter with 15CM of snow on the road?

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: Inquiring minds

      If it is a Volvo then the answer is probably Yes.

      how well it did is another matter entirely.

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Inquiring minds

      @Sureo

      "Those vehicles"

      Probably not in canada, but it's likely that Volvo have some experience of snow.

      Of course it makes a good deal of sense to solve the main problems first, before fitting skis ;) One the roads can be navigated well without adverse weather then you add that in, gradually, and see what you need to tweak for the new conditions.

      Similarly when we teach a person to drive we start off on quiet roads, or better still off road entirely, before introducing different challenges up until the point when they are tested.

      In the UK any concept of training then goes out of the window and we throw people at motorways without any consideration of how to handle them...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Facepalm

      Re: Inquiring minds

      "<ding ding ding> Human assistance required. Please exit the vehicle and push it out of the ditch while I apply full throttle..."

    4. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Inquiring minds

      Even just enough fresh snow to cover the road and make the actual location of the road something you can only infer from tire tracks of others (if you're lucky) or (if you're the first out on that road) something you can only infer from the location of curbs/ditches/signs/etc. is likely to flummox self driving cars for a long time. Even humans have trouble with this at times despite giving the problem their full attention.

      I suppose its possible the temperature of the road surface underneath the snow will be different than the temperature of vegetation, so maybe between all the different sorts of sensors these cars will use it isn't as difficult as it is for us meatbags who only see in a limited spectrum.

  2. LaeMing Silver badge

    Also could present savings in aged care.

    By keeping people like my mother who is still independent but fast approaching the point where she won't be able to hold a licence to drive to the shops, out of expensive nursing facilities longer.

    1. Michael Thibault
      Angel

      Re: Also could present savings in aged care.

      Autonomous mobile homes! Take your space to a new place any time you want. The world in your oyster. Fine idea.

      1. Graham Marsden
        Happy

        Re: Also could present savings in aged care.

        > Autonomous mobile homes!

        Prior art (quite literally!): The Mopads in Mega City One, as featured in the Judge Dredd strips in 2000 AD

      2. Rick Brasche

        Re: Also could present savings in aged care.

        holy hell, this is an idea that needs to be monetized! seriously, I hate the concept of auto cars, but move a large diesel pusher automatically from one lot to another, parking it and lining it up automatically to utilities, at the press of a button? I'll be all over it when I retire!

    2. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Also could present savings in aged care.

      Not unless they get a lot bigger and easier to get into and out of they won't. Old people don't "do" the Honda Speck or Ford Iota very well. They need at a minimum the height of a typical SUV to manage getting into the seats comfortably

      It ain't about the IT, it's about the arthritis.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Also could present savings in aged care.

        " They need at a minimum the height of a typical SUV "

        No, they just need the height.

        The Suzuki Wagon-R being a good example of a Kei car with a high seating position that suits a lot of people.

        SUVs tend to be "step up" to get into and that comes with its own sets of problems. To be user-friendly you need a low door sill.

  3. dmazed

    Ha. my son says my grandson will only drive a car to race it.

    The current crop is only 2 SW updates away from being autonomous.

  4. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

    Lemmings

    "21st century energy companies will own fleets of self-driving ‘batteries-on-wheels’ that will literally follow heatwaves ... the same way sunflowers follow the sun"

    I'm imagining a Norwegian power company getting very annoyed when their entire fleet, fully charged from the midnight sun, "goes lemming" and drives en-mass into the North Sea at the start of winter.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Lemmings

      Anyone who suggests that the world's energy consuming peaks will be smoothed out by batteries, wheeled or not, is blowing powdered sugar up our collective arses.

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        Re: Lemmings

        Batteries help, to make some-of-the-time energy generation useful the rest of the time, and batteries that can drive themselves to where electricity is needed, also will help. It is rather awkward though if you want to be driven somewhere else, does that mean you have to shutdown your house?

        If not "traditional" batteries then scary-big capacitors or fuel cells with sustainable or bio fuel generation.

        Maybe lighter-than-air hydrogen bag drones - although you'd have to legislate to let them be autonomous. Or invent a new sport (if not already done), para-droning. (Apparently what does exist is "para-gliding in the company of a drone".) And an Uber for where to take it to.

        Currently, rural home heating is liable to be oil burning, and quite expensive to keep supplied. The delivery service is a big part of the cost. So...

  5. Chemist

    "Already, you can buy a Ford that parallel parks"

    Well we've owned two by VW for 6/3 years that will do auto-parking. No doubt other manufacturers vehicles are available.

    Never used the auto-parking though !

  6. Rupert Fiennes Bronze badge

    Insurance costs

    "When an insurer looks at the liability profile of an autonomous vehicle - versus a human who can be tired, distracted, drunk, or just plain angry - it’s looking quite likely that autonomous vehicles will cost next to nothing to insure, while the cost of insuring human drivers will skyrocket."

    Have you tried buying car insurance lately? Third party insurance is basically the same cost as fully comp, which says to me until the entire world goes autonomous, the insurance for a Google car will be basically the same as any other.

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: Insurance costs

      I think you might be right but only for a short period.

      Once the Insurance Companies start to understand the risks of selfie cars and just now hackable they probably are then the rates for any bit of auto-driving will skyrocket.

      No company would want to insure the vehicle that caused the first multi vehicle pile-up on the M4 in the morning "rush".

      1. dotdavid

        Re: Insurance costs

        Hacking a car would surely invalidate your insurance claim...

        *Edit:* Sorry just realised it's third party hackers you're worried about. I guess it would depend on how widespread that ends up being.

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          @dotdavid

          I guess it would depend on how widespread that ends up being.

          Given the current insistence of grafting wifi and online entertainment to the same bus on which travel system commands, I'd say that it's likely to become pretty widespread before it gets corrected.

          And I don't like the idea.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: @dotdavid

            Carmakers are having a rude awakening thrust upon them by the insurance industry.

            All it takes is the insurers to push up premiums on XYZ model because it's not secureable (eg: those rangerovers going walkies in North London) and consumers will kick back _hard_

            It's one thing when it's a luxury vehicle and people don't notice the cost much, but once you come downmarket people are very sensitive to insurance ratings on cars.

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Insurance costs

      @ Rupert Fiennes

      Surely the point of the autonomous vehicle is top reduce thrid party claims, so it's going to vastly reduce the third party component of insurance, which is the majority of any insurance policy (after all yuou're insuring millions of public liability, not a few k of metal).

      You also have a perfect record of any event, so can accurately determine who was responsible - win win. They will be MUCH cheaper to insure.

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Insurance costs

      "Third party insurance is basically the same cost as fully comp"

      The single biggest cost to a claim is the medical side. Actual car repairs are cheap for the most part vs what happens when a chancer claims whiplash.

  7. Timbo

    Typical...

    "Those 21st century energy companies will own fleets of self-driving ‘batteries-on-wheels’ that will literally follow heatwaves and cold snaps and other power-consuming events the same way sunflowers follow the sun."

    I'm in my own car and have a meeting to go to somewhere "oop north" and I get held up by a traffic jam, caused by lots of "autonomous self-driving vehicles" heading the same way, because a few northerners got up late and just put the kettle on !!

    (However, I also thought that the whole point of a "national grid" was they could divert power to the places where it was needed, without needing to send some place a truck full of coal, for the local carbon-burning generating station).

    1. The Axe

      Re: Typical...

      Or there is a sudden demand for kettles after Corrie finishes and the mobile batteries having sought out some nice sun and charged up now supply their saved power to the grid. What happens to all the people who want to use these mobile batteries on wheels which now don't have much charge left because they gave it to the grid. Its one or the other, not both.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Typical...

      I get held up by a traffic jam

      Theoretically, autonomous cars should eliminate traffic jams because they should be able to drive at speeds that bring them to their destination smoothly. Any ability for those vehicles to talk to each other, tell each other which way they're turning etc, will only be a bonus in removing slow downs.

      We have traffic jams today mainly because everybody rushes forword, often in disregard of speed limits, to try to get ahead of everyone else, then they all come to the next choke point and brake wildly, sometimes causing accidents.

      Autonomous cars will be more measured, won't change lanes for nothing, won't "think" the other lane goes faster, and thus things will move along more leisurely, but more regularly.

      At least, I hope so.

  8. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    Why?

    Take us out of the driver’s seat, and a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

    Yes, it's called "a bus".

    1. dotdavid

      Re: Why?

      Buses don't go exactly where you want to go when you want to go. Autonomous cars might, if there are enough of them.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Why?

        "Buses don't go exactly where you want to go when you want to go"

        There are smaller versions which do something like this on call, and even mini versions with room for 2-3 passengers.

        We call them "taxis"

        Hellooooo Johnnycab.

        Automakers are panicking, but perhaps about the wrong thing. With ready access to fleets of autonomous vehicles which don't have high user costs, people will mostly give up buying cars and hail a cab. That's going to put a _huge_ dent in sales volumes over the next 20 years.

  9. Chris Miller

    Batteries?

    And you were doing so well until the last bit. If you imagine the world's fleet of autonomous cabs is going to be powered by pure electrics, you're going to need some breakthrough in energy storage density, of which there's currently no sign (and is unlikely to be electrochemical in nature, since that's already close to the limits imposed by materials science).

    A typical London 'black cab' does 200 miles a day (private hire vehicles do rather more). Your Tesla may have a quoted range of 200 miles, but that's at highway cruising speeds, not in start-stop city traffic.

    1. dotdavid

      Re: Batteries?

      The range is kinda irrelevant for an autonomous taxi to some extent - freed of having to worry about drivers getting tired you could have more taxis providing 24 hour service in shifts, returning to charge points when range is getting too low to service the current booked job and return trip to the depot plus a margin. With Tesla's supercharger-style charging points dotted around the autonomous taxis might be happy just topping up to 80% or so during brief charging breaks.

      If a punter wanted a longer journey the despatch software would send a car with sufficient range. Longer journeys might need to be in some kind of relay where you swap taxis.

      1. Chemist

        Re: Batteries?

        "Longer journeys might need to be in some kind of relay where you swap taxis."

        Ah, the return of the coaching inn

    2. James Hughes 1

      Re: Batteries?@CHris Miller

      Surely the 'mpg' equivalent will be much higher in stop start due to much (much) lower aerodynamic loses, and regenerative braking? And of course not using energy (unless heater or AC) when stationary saves a lot.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: not using energy (unless heater or AC) when stationary saves a lot

        You're probably correct where the engine is concerned, but you've overlooked one point : the people, who will be wanting to view their cat videos during the trip, or play their games or whatever.

        If autonomous cars become a reality, I'm convinced that they will be viewed and sold as mobile entertainment rooms. After all, you're not driving, and you know the road on most of the trips, so why not play ?

        Or work, if you're that kind of person ?

        And that entertainment is going to drain some portion of power, to be sure. Less than the engine, obviously, but not insignificant, I think.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: not using energy (unless heater or AC) when stationary saves a lot

          "And that entertainment is going to drain some portion of power, to be sure. Less than the engine, obviously, but not insignificant, I think."

          Trivial. Heating or AC will dominate

        2. wdmot

          Re: not using energy (unless heater or AC) when stationary saves a lot

          The amount of power used by the entertainment system would be quite small, if not insignificant. A typical consumer laptop has a 60W power brick, which is enough to charge the battery and power the laptop. (That's with integrated graphics which is fine for most entertainment; laptops with discrete graphics chips may use much more; my laptop has a 90W brick.) It would take on the order of 1000-1500 hours to drain a Tesla Model S 85kWh battery with moderate laptop usage. Compare that to the motor draining the battery in 5 hours at 100km/h (using NEDC's range rating of 500km rather than EPA's 426km) and you can see the laptop's usage is rather insignificant (less than 1% of the motor). An in-car entertainment system would be comparable, although probably use double or quadruple the power (a nice speaker system, bigger screen, etc.), but it's still very small amount compared to the motor.

  10. The Axe

    Solar on every roof

    Even if we had solar panels on every roof (and not every roof faces the right direction for the sun), we would still not be able to power our modern life. We'd be back in the middle ages.

  11. theOtherJT

    Lingering sense of sadness.

    So, I own 2 vehicles: a small sports car, and a motorbike. If I had somewhere to keep it I'd have a large estate car too - and that one, I'd really like it if that could drive for me, that would be very handy, because large estates are not as a rule interesting to drive, and you go places in them that don't involve a lot of exciting roads. To the super market perhaps. Or IKEA.

    I get the appeal of a self driving car, really, I do. I'm just afraid with all the safety legislation, emissions regulations, sky high insurance prices and every other horrible thing that seems to come with motor vehicle ownership in the 21st century I'm going to get forced to have one eventually, whether I want one or not, and in very short order the motorbike and the pretty little drop-top are going to get taken away.

    Everyone wants the world to be safe, so I can't even really blame all the people involved in whatever collective decisions ultimately lead to the demise of the vehicle you drive yourself, but it feels like should that day ever come we'll have taken a little bit of joy out of the world. One more tiny step along the road to a world where everyone's perfectly safe but no one is having any fun.

  12. Sykobee

    If a manufacturer is willing to stand by their autonomous driving technology, they will be providing free insurance as part of the car sale price.

    And these cars have a substantial audit trail for recreating what happened in an accident, so human interpretations and lies will not be an option. It's likely the car's data will be fed into an insurance computer to simulate the scene and assign blame.

    The big losers will be taxi drivers. They will not be required. And this is where Uber wins in the future as a transport provider with autonomous cars parked ready to go in the areas statistically likely to have demand in the next hour. Google and Apple will surely also enter this market. As costs plummet for providing taxi service (cheap power, no drivers, centralised online ordering, simpler vehicles), many people who don't drive daily will simply stop bothering to own a car.

    I will watch France's taxi drivers go totally batty over this development. Their mortgaged permits will be worthless in ten years time, and they will be out of work.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
      Trollface

      France's taxi drivers will totally ignore this development and go right on offering you the elite sensation of being unwanted baggage just like they always have and like an autonomous car never will be able to.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "The big losers will be taxi drivers. They will not be required"

      And bus drivers. And HGV drivers.

      There are upwards of 80 million people directly employed across the western world in the transportation sector (ie: drivers). They'll be as relevant to travel in 2-3 decades are horses are today.

      Not to mention that increasing EV proliferation coupled with a probable reduction in the size of fleets and much longer service intervals(*) means that motor mechanics will have less work to do and knowing the internals of a ICE may become a niche market.

      (*) Do the math on your car: How much servicing is on the engine/gearbox vs any other part?

  13. GrumpyWorld
    FAIL

    more tech...

    ...that nobody wants.

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: more tech...

      I'd suggest that alot more people want it than you recognise.

      Freedom to do what you like whilst you travel, still in your personal pod, without having to actually walk (heaven forbid you should have to walk 30 yards to get to the gym door)...

  14. GrumpyWorld

    I'm waiting for the Apple car(t)

    ...designed without a steering wheel cos' if it needs a steering wheel you have failed right?

    1. dotdavid

      Re: I'm waiting for the Apple car(t)

      It'll have a steering wheel with rounded corners which changes everything.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Holmes

        Re: I'm waiting for the Apple car(t)

        but will give you a nasty rash, probably on your butt

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: I'm waiting for the Apple car(t)

      Why wait for Apple - the Google mini pod already is completely autonomous - as are the greenwich vehicles...

  15. LucreLout Silver badge

    Think the author got carried away with the hype.

    When an insurer looks at the liability profile of an autonomous vehicle - versus a human who can be tired, distracted, drunk, or just plain angry - it’s looking quite likely that autonomous vehicles will cost next to nothing to insure, while the cost of insuring human drivers will skyrocket.

    Why is that then?

    Some of the premium is theft risk, which will remain as much a risk with these cars as any other.

    Some of the premium is fire risk - repairing and cleaning up the roads, which will remain.

    Some of the premium covers accidents due to mechanical defect, which will remain a risk - probably more so as people relax about being in them and start treating it as an office/bedroom/lounge rather than car.

    My premium is about £250 per year, which reflects my lack of at fault accidents for the past 20 years. There's simply not a lot of that money they can cut. I'll be even less likely to have an accident if the morons are in Johnny cabs which will make them significantly more predictable on the roads, and since the premium is risk based, I should end up paying less too.

    Already, you can buy a Ford that parallel parks.

    Yes, you can... the question is why would you? Parallel parking is one of the easiest tasks on the driving test and consists of a very short sequence of simple steps. I've tried these Fords a number of times in the past and while they do a good job of parking, they're very slow about doing it.

    Sure, autonomous vehicles will be fantastic for us, freeing up leisure time as they make traveling safer, more comfortable and convenient

    That is certainly my hope for them. I'd love to be able to 'drive' into work while actually doing some work/training/CoD/Sleeping. I'm about 20 years away from retirement, and I simply don't see these things getting off the ground substantially during my working lifetime. I do hope to be wrong though!

  16. Alister Silver badge

    When an insurer looks at the liability profile of an autonomous vehicle - versus a human who can be tired, distracted, drunk, or just plain angry - it’s looking quite likely that autonomous vehicles will cost next to nothing to insure, while the cost of insuring human drivers will skyrocket.

    I think that's a rather naive view of the insurance industry. What will actually happen is that insurance for autonomous cars will remain at current rates, and insurance for human drivers will skyrocket.

    Insurance companies are not altruists, they are in it to make large profits, and they certainly won't lose their core revenue by lowering rates unless they absolutely have to. I think it will take government legislation to force them to lower their rates for autonomous vehicles.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "Insurance companies are not altruists, they are in it to make large profits"

      They're in the business to make profits.

      As long as there isn't illegal collusion or the number of market players isn't restricted by government or monopolistic behaviour (ie: an unfree market) then competition will keep those profits down to "reasonable"

  17. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    The last problem solved unambiguously by IT was the payroll, and I'd be willing to bet that went over budget. Traffic flow is not going to be sorted by the same codergeeks that give you routes from London to Sheffield that involve a small diversion through Norway or insist that any trip off Long Island pass through Manhattan even if waypoints explicitly denying such a route are laboriously punched into the bloody GPS/Satnav.

    While I can see the many advantages of a mass transit solution that is deployable in small packets and extremely flexible when it comes to destination choices I have some serious reservations about the technology, chiefly the one where a Google car with a Realdoll crew is barreling down I-95/the M1 with a trunk/boot full of fertilizer and diesel fuel bound for somewhere about to have some of its people and infrastructure thrown about with scant regard for life and limb.

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      I have some serious reservations about the technology, chiefly the one where a Google car with a Realdoll crew is barreling down I-95/the M1 with a trunk/boot full of fertilizer and diesel fuel bound for somewhere about to have some of its people and infrastructure thrown about with scant regard for life and limb.

      Fascinating. I'd never considered it, and I bet no-one pushing for early adoption of the technology has either, but the use of an autonomous vehicle for criminal / terrorist acts raises some interesting possibilities. You obviously have a paranoid mind :)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Bah!

        I recall that Peter Hamilton in Great North Road had an entire plot line involving tracking semi-autonomous vehicles and how criminals dealt with tracking by blinding areas and spoofing is codes

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    in other words, "our new thing will fix old thing, give us the money they were getting".

    meet the new boss, same as the old boss. the only thing "fixed" is the money goes to someone else who wasn't getting it before. Then the next guy wants to sell his/her paradigm and become the government-chosen Top Dog.

    Any better, or worse, for everyone when all is said and done? or just for those who profit from the change?

  19. GrumpyWorld

    Lazy...

    It's not like the olden days, now all you do is push a few buttons and the car goes off and robs the bank for you. Least it would if there were any banks near here...

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