You might think that the engine has little to do with the future of self-driving cars, but that might not be the case. Many have argued that traditional combustion engines simply won’t cut it.
Mary Gustanski, senior VP and chief technology officer for Delphi Technologies, believes that electric motors will be needed to handle the power requirements of autonomous vehicles.
“You need more power in the system to be able to provide all the features and functionalities that consumers are demanding,” said Gustanski. “The other alternative would be to go back to eight-cylinder engines, and I don’t think anyone is going to do that given what the regulatory space is. Short of making all the engines much larger with a lot of horsepower, you’re going to need another source of power, and moving to electrified is the quickest and easiest way to do that.”
Hydrogen is another alternative, but it’s not yet ready for primetime – and it may not be for a while. “Its infrastructure is a long ways away,” Gustanski explained. “Fuel cells, the cost, the technology to make and use them, it’s just a big hurdle. Electric vehicles, let’s face it – although we haven’t had them at great numbers in mainstream production, electric vehicles have been in development for many, many years. The technology is ready for the mainstream and I think it comes out first.” Before hydrogen, Gustanski anticipates another energy source will emerge as a significant alternative.
“I think in the commercial vehicle space it would be natural gas,” she said. “We’ve seen really great results with natural gas and even combined technologies that use diesel to light off and then natural gas to move the vehicle down the road. For long-haul vehicles [you’ll see] great improvements. So I think that comes out first.”
But then the question becomes: will autonomous vehicles advance faster than the EV infrastructure? Could they theoretically arrive before there are enough charging stations to sustain them?
Noting the relatively early rollout of both technologies, Gustanski isn’t too concerned about AVs arriving before there are plenty of EV stations. She said that while there are a lot of Level 2 automated features hitting hybrids and other cars, Level 5 is nowhere near deployment.
“I think we’re a long ways away from that just because of all the legal hurdles that have to happen,” she said. “Is the regulatory [environment] becoming too stringent, too fast that you can’t keep up with all the infrastructure necessary to support all the electric vehicles that are required to meet those targets? In Europe, not only are they being very aggressive, but now they’re trying to pull ahead the years as to when they’re going to need to hit those regulatory targets.”
Instead of aiming to improve the combustion engine or add more hybrid features, Gustanski said that automakers are going straight to high-voltage vehicles. “And then it’s just going to be, ‘Okay, vehicles are now are equipped and you can put all those automated and connected features on it because you have the power,’” she added. “I think it’s going to be the regulatory pulling everything along. You’ve got to hit your fleet average, and in Europe there’s stiff penalties if you don’t hit your fleet average. And when I say stiff, it could be over a billion dollars a year for a major automaker if they don’t do something different to their fleets. That’s a big penalty.”
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