The Future of Cars

One thing that’s been mentioned here in the past, and that’s sort of come up again in the utility/transit discussion is that things like auto electrification might be difficult to do on a grand, economy-wide scale. Running electrical capacity to every parking spot in the land would be feasible, but not particularly easy.

Which isn’t to say it won’t happen. But what might more reasonably happen first is the electrification of car-sharing services, particularly those focused on short trips. Then the plugs need only be put in the service lots, and consumers are spared the need to constantly fret about handling the charging. You’d probably want to contract with a tow company for the occasional dead battery, but that’s no big deal.

But what car-sharing services have in common with the cell-phone model of auto-ownership is that they both focus on cars as a means rather than an end. Some drivers have always had a personal connection with their cars, and in the age of the monster SUV, cars became living rooms on wheels, but fundamentally cars are just about getting from place to place. As cool as owning your own flashy set of wheels can be, it’s very convenient to outsource most of the hassles of ownership to a car-sharing service–the maintenance, the cleaning, the parking, and so on.

A number of futurists have suggested that the trend toward impersonal autos is likely to continue. Drivers already have less control over their cars than ever before, and as technology and on-board navigation improve we’ll have less and less to do with the actual operation of our vehicles. At some point, if you’re not actually driving, and if it’s pretty easy to outsource the unpleasant stuff via flexible car-sharing, and if you don’t need the bells and whistles in a car because you have your own personal onboard computer iDevice, having a personal automobile doesn’t really make a lot of sense. And “automobile” ceases to be all that different from “transit.”

In other words, technology is likely to blur the lines between transit and driving, and make both greener and more flexible.


  1. Tom says:

    I’m skeptical that car sharing services will be able to go electric. The reason’s simple: charge time. These cars are much more heavily utilized than private autos throughout the course of a day. What time they do spent parked is probably in places like the lot at Home Depot, which of course won’t be electrified. So long as we’re using batteries to hold the car’s energy this is going to remain a problem.

  2. ryan says:

    What about at night?

  3. Tom says:

    That’s fine for the first couple of users, but I don’t think it would last through the day. The Chevy Volt’s targeting 40 miles on a charge in 2010. Even if you ditched the gas engine entirely in favor of batteries, I doubt you’d be able to go far enough on a charge to keep the car in continuous use throughout the day.

  4. ryan says:

    I wonder how far the average zipcar travels during the day. It seems like some rotation –two cars out, one charging–could be devised to make the economics work given current battery technology. But maybe not.

  5. Cavan says:

    I don’t see a blurring of the lines between auto and transit in the near future. To put it simply, we still need all the new metros and light rail and streetcars that were previously discussed on this blog. We need to get going and working for the near future rather than waiting and hoping that the far future will just magically pan out. After all, weren’t we supposed to have flying cars and cities in the sky by now, according to the futures depicted in the mid 20th century? But instead, we got the internet, cell phones, satellite communications, iPods, and the negative externalities of global warming and oil addiction.

    For practical concerns, it might be a good idea to gradually phase in the electric cars while having a fleet of internal combustion cars (gradually decreasing) while the practical engineering kinks and economies of scale get worked out.

  6. Tom says:

    4: Maybe. It seems unlikely that you’d be able to recoup the cost of gas-related externalities by doubling the capital investment per hour of usable driving time. Plus you’re then consuming twice as much parking, paying for twice as much maintenance, twice as much licensing (and probably insurance)…

    It sucks, but hydrocarbons are a really, really good way to store energy for transportation — way better than a chemical cell. I think that carsharing, like air travel, is an area where that advantage will continue to hold sway until some amazing energy storage breakthrough is achieved. At this point there isn’t anything like that, not even on the horizon.

    None of this is to say that those hydrocarbons can’t be made in a carbon-neutral way, of course (although they won’t be until the pricing surrounding them changes in a huge way). I can imagine Zipcar users paying a premium to use algae biodiesel or something, for instance.

  7. ryan says:

    In practice, this could be achieved incrementally. Tweak business models over a ten year period through which you slowly switch from gas engines to plug-in hybrids to all electric, over which period, presumably, battery technology slowly improves. Needn’t be done all at once.

  8. jack lecou says:

    Given that Zipcar is already rigidly scheduled, I would think they could definitely come up with some scheme to either block out, e.g., 30 minutes for every 2 hours of use, (while increasing fleet size slightly to compensate), or–slightly more complicated but more precise–require users to give a mileage estimate with their reservation so that enough charge time can be blocked out to leave the car fully charged (or charged enough) for the next user.

    Plus, while it obviously differs depending on the battery technology, it’s generally possible to charge a battery VERY quickly if you’re willing to lose some charge cycles off the life of the battery. More frequent battery replacement in exchange for rapid charge times might be a tradeoff Zipcar would be very willing to make.

    (FWIW, it seems like it would be pretty cheap/easy for large retailers and shopping centers to equip at least a few parking rows with plugs–assuming we are talking about rows of plugs rather than something more exotic like buried induction coils. Certainly the cost would be pretty minimal compared to the cost of the parking lot itself.)

  9. jack lecou says:

    Also, while we’re speculating, I would think a key advance would be fully robotic cars, blurring the lines between car sharing and taxis. Cars could park and charge themselves in a nearby lot when idle, then drive themselves to your door when needed.

    Unlike taxis, there’s no labor cost, and unlike car sharing, the cars could be put to use (or return to a charging station) during the two hours you’re in Ikea or whatever. They’d probably even be viable in low-density exurbs.

  10. monkeyrotica says:

    Running electrical capacity to every parking spot in the land would be feasible, but not particularly easy.

    I dunno. Every parking lot has to have lights. How difficult would it be to put a plug in them?

    As for your fancy-schmancy “on-board navigation,” I’ve been getting by with my monkey chauffeur for years, thank you very much. And I pay him with bananas and liquor.

    The majority of commutes are within a 5-mile radius and involve 1.2 passengers. And this is why we must have monkey-navigated jetpacks before al Quaida. We cannot have a monkey-navigated jetpack gap!

  11. ryan says:

    I have an on-board navigation system–in my mind.

  12. Alex B. says:

    Robotic taxis, eh?

    Thanks for taking Johnny Cab!

  13. Tom says:

    I decided to respond over at my own site — I hope that’s not too unforgivably gauche. But in short: saying “presumably battery technology slowly improves” involves a VERY large presumption. 150 years of history says it’s unlikely to happen.

    jack lecou: you’re right that a lot of chemistries can be charged quickly at the expense of lifetime. But given the cost of an EV battery pack, I doubt that tradeoff would make sense in many circumstances. You generally only hit 80% or so of the battery’s theoretical capacity when you do that, too — the last bit, where the battery is “topped off”, is the slowest part of the charge. Fast charging may also not scale well to the size of an EV, given that it produces a lot of heat.

    But, not to be a complete downer: modular batteries might be a possibility here. We’re talking hundreds of pounds, of course, but it’s not *that* difficult to imagine a robotic system that swaps battery packs in and out of a carshare EV — or maybe a carshare lot where the staff takes care of that in between each reservation.

  14. jack lecou says:

    But, not to be a complete downer: modular batteries might be a possibility here. We’re talking hundreds of pounds, of course, but it’s not *that* difficult to imagine a robotic system that swaps battery packs in and out of a carshare EV — or maybe a carshare lot where the staff takes care of that in between each reservation.

    How about some kind of in-lot cooling system? Plug in a hose that circulates refrigerated fluid through the battery packs while (fast) charging?

  15. Tom says:

    It’s possible. But I think you’re probably underestimating charge time. The Volt’s 40 mile range assumes a charge time of about 6 hours. Maybe that can be pared down somewhat, but I’m not sure by how much.

  16. jack lecou says:

    Why 6 hours? I admittedly don’t know much about the chemistry, but Wikipedia says current Li-ion cells can be charged in about 45 minutes, and next-gen super-duper-nano cells in maybe as little as 10.

  17. jack lecou says:

    Possibly in answer to my own question, it looks like the use-case Chevy is engineering for with the Volt is a ~20-mile commute each way, followed by an overnight charge. The long charge might be necessary because they are using cheaper cells, and/or because they are attempting to squeeze out as much usable life as possible to keep up resale on a consumer vehicle (WP says 10 years useful battery life).

    It’s not clear that either restriction necessarily applies to a car-sharing service, the whole point of which is obviously to maximize usage and take advantage of economies of scale. The economics of Zipcar might well work out fine using more expensive 45-minute cells and/or replacing them 3 times as often.

  18. Tom says:

    The Volt isn’t going cheap on the battery, actually — according to the Atlantic article about it, they’re shooting for the moon and betting on lithium-ion (all hybrids current on the market use NiMH, I believe, largely due to cost and Li-ion’s tendency to lose half its capacity after 18-24 months). I’m sure some lithium cells can charge as quickly as the 45 minutes quoted by wikipedia, but I’m also sure that Chevy’s engineers aren’t idiots.

    It’s true that the Volt’s charge time may be partly bounded by the electrical infrastructure — consider this post, which points out that typical home wiring simply can’t deliver juice fast enough to meet the Tesla roadster’s demands.

    But Tesla quotes a charge time of 3-3.5 hours using a 220V, 80A circuit. Given its luxury status, that seems likely to be about as far as you can push this sort of thing, even when money is no object (the Tesla is also a Li-ion-powered device).

    That 10 minute figure is pure science fiction at this point. Not only can no electrochemical battery store that much energy that quickly (and no ultracapacitor system can store that much at all), if you were going to charge, say, the Tesla in ten minutes you’d need 318 killowatts of peak power available. That’s equivalent to running about a hundred central AC units simultaneously (and assumes that charging is 100% efficient, which of course it isn’t — your car would be melting).

  19. Liz says:

    Having some electric Zipcars reserved for short trips is a great idea. My husband and I have been using Zipcar for years, primarily for grocery shopping – we reserve it for 2.5 hours, and travel about 5 miles to go to our two favorite supermarkets and back home. (And we always see two or three other Zipcars in the Trader Joe’s parking garage.)

    It’d be easy enough to have a few battery-powered cars that can be reserved for no more than, say, three hours and 15 miles at a time, with a set number of charging periods blocked off during the day. (There’s already a daily mileage maximum, so they’ve clearly figured out how to track mileage.) If the electric-car hourly rate is lower, people who just want cars for local errands will seek them out.

  20. jack lecou says:

    The Volt isn’t going cheap on the battery, actually — according to the Atlantic article about it, they’re shooting for the moon and betting on lithium-ion (all hybrids current on the market use NiMH, I believe, largely due to cost and Li-ion’s tendency to lose half its capacity after 18-24 months). I’m sure some lithium cells can charge as quickly as the 45 minutes quoted by wikipedia, but I’m also sure that Chevy’s engineers aren’t idiots.

    I’m sure they’re not. My thought was only that there’s Li-ion, and then there’s Li-ion. There seem to be about half a dozen different variations offering different combinations of cost, durability, power density and charge time. The battery pack that makes sense for a vehicle used by a single commuter charging overnight may not be the same as what makes sense for a shared car used multiple times a day. And the existence of the former doesn’t really say anything about the latter.

    The fact that home wiring probably just isn’t capable of putting out much juice kind of reinforces that point. If you’re engineering a car for a home user, a charge time of a few hours may be the best you can do no matter what batteries you use. A car sharing lot with specialized charging equipment doesn’t necessarily have the same limitation.

    Assuming the grid can handle the load, it sounds like the big problem is really heat dissipation.

  21. Tom says:

    Well, now we’re really getting into the weeds. I still think it’s pretty unlikely that fast-charging li-ion technology is viable. Surely we’d see it in some other contexts — laptop charging, for instance. Instead there are a few very specialized, low-power applications like remote control helicopter toys that use fast-charging li-polymer batteries, and almost nothing else. Maybe that’ll change — I hope it will — but I suspect the engineering challenges will be considerable, and that we’ll be looking at multi-hour EV recharge times for the foreseeable future.

    Liz: you paint an attractive picture, but I’m still dubious. You’ve still got to account for the costs of building and maintaining the extra cars necessary to make EV vehicles as utilizable as a single gas car. Given that your electricity is still probably made by coal, I doubt it’s worthwhile — it’s the carsharing program’s very efficiency that argues against it.

    But, as I said at Yglesias’s, this is okay! We shouldn’t twist ourselves into knots trying to eliminate all uses of hydrocarbons — that’s just not realistic. Instead we should make sure we use them in appropriately efficient ways, and toward ends for which the alternatives aren’t as well-suited. Carsharing programs qualify on both counts.

  22. BruceMcF says:

    Note that with a personal vehicle used for park and ride transit, the charge time goes away … while it may not be viable to have plugs at every parking space around a city, having a plug with some form of credit/debit card reader at all parking spaces in a park and ride lot is straightforward … and there’s no concern there with fast charge systems, because by definition the car is going to be parked until the return leg of their round trip.

    There is a firm who claims to be delivering prototypes of 10 minute recharge batteries, and yes, pieces in IEEE note that this is a substation-level demand for electricity during those ten minutes.

    And if I recall one of their financial notification press releases correctly, the battery packs at the moment would cost more than the rest of the vehicle … “high surface area nano-patterned electrodes”, it seems, don’t yet come in a cheap variety.

    So in terms of ready-for-prime-time, electrified public transport … from mass transit and regional stopping trains, through varieties of light rail like aerobus and streetcars, down to trolleybuses … combined with park-and-ride recharge lots for 25mile – 120mile electric vehicles … that’s existing technology.

    Those fast charge batteries are still in the development stage, and there’s no telling whether they will ever get the price down low enough to be commercially viable. A network of fastcharge station seems an easier roll-out than a network of hydrogen filling stations, but that is not a very high hurdle to get over.

  23. Mixner says:

    Car-sharing services do indeed point the way to the future of transit. Conventional large-vehicle, fixed-route, fixed-schedule mass transit (that is, buses and trains) will simply never be able to match the convenience, comfort and flexibility of car travel. Car-sharing services provide some of the benefits of private car ownership without its large fixed costs.

    But car-sharing services are still much less convenient and flexible than having your own car. You still need to reserve the car ahead of time and go somewhere to pick it up and drop it off. The solution to those problems would be an automated taxi service. Mass transit circa 2050 may consist mostly of municipal automated taxi services. When you need to go somewhere, you will simply call for a taxi, which will arrive within minutes or seconds, take you to your destination, and then drive off to find its next customer. Transit buses may disappear almost entirely, and transit rail will likely be limited to very high volume routes in very dense areas (e.g. Manhattan). Everything else will be private cars and automated taxis.

  24. ryan says:

    That’s funny, Mixner. I don’t live in Manhattan, and yet I find the fixed-route, heavy rail transit system near my house to be incredibly convenient. Weird.

    I don’t understand why you don’t get that driving is not a universally convenient experience. It’s often a huge pain in the ass. The idea that everyone really wants to have to own a car and live in a place where constant driving is necessary just isn’t justified.

    What’s more, car-sharing services in cities serve as a complement to transit, not a substitute. They make a carless life easier and likely increase overall transit demand.

    Saying that cars are likely to become more like transit, which they will, doesn’t mean that transit is going to cease to have significant benefits, which is won’t.

  25. BruceMcF says:

    ryan Says:
    August 21st, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    That’s funny, Mixner. I don’t live in Manhattan, and yet I find the fixed-route, heavy rail transit system near my house to be incredibly convenient. Weird.

    When I had access to one to travel from an urban area of half a million to the urban core of an urban area of 5 million, I found it handy … I wouldn’t liked to have driven around central Sydney. I also liked it for the commute to the branch campus half-way between, since I could grade papers on the way to work and read and unwind on the way home.

    But that was Australia, so obviously my preferences flipped from “American” to “Australian” the minute I arrived in Australia. Maybe when I returned to the US, they didn’t realize that I had been overseas to live, and forget to hit the “reset” button.

  26. Mixner says:

    I didn’t say everyone wants to own a car. As I said, car-sharing services provide some of the benefits of car ownership without the large fixed costs. To the extent that car-sharing services are used as a substitute for transit, they obviously decrease transit demand. To the extent that they induce people who would otherwise own a car to substitute transit for trips they would otherwise have taken by car, they increase transit demand. I don’t know which effect is larger.

    But an automated municipal taxi system of the near-term future (say, 30 or 40 years from now) could substitute for buses and trains almost entirely. It would provide most or all of the benefits of having your own car (fast, comfortable, on-demand, point-to-point transportation) at much lower cost than car ownership.

  27. ajw_93 says:

    Hm, if I start saving now, I could get a Chevy Volt when they come out and make up for my Camaro- and Blazer-driving youth. Howevah, I would drive it 40 miles and then what? I can’t charge it at home, cos I live in a rental apartment (with submetered electric bills). Charging up my e-bike is one thing, but a Volt won’t fit in the elevator.


  28. Foxhunter says:

    Slightly OT, but check out this plan for the electric car future.

    Wired Mag Article

    A bit optomistic to be sure, but he’s garnerned the capital necessary to make something like this work. His plan may even involve ‘Quick Change’ locations that swap batteries (batteries that the company will always have ownership of). Interesting concept, remote charge stations, etc.