Google’s Car is Not About Cars – Progress in Autonomous Driving

Two interesting articles caught my eye today, the first posted by Roger Atkins was about Google’s Car project, and the efforts to adopt wireless charging. Now apart from the snappy headline this IEE piece is in itself not an interesting story to me. Wireless charging has been around for some time. Conductix-Wampfler has been involved in this for many years in industrial applications and there are several companies specialising in this technology for automotive, including a spin-out from Conductix.

What caught my eye was the quote from the program leader, Chris Urmson, referring to some really interesting potential applications. These were focused on providing mobility to groups such as those with health conditions and the elderly who would not be able to deal with plugging in a conventional EV.

This is interesting as making an ICE vehicle so easy to operate in this way would be very difficult although not impossible, it is certainly easier to do with an EV. The journeys involved in moving these groups around are typically short, and there are many that would not even involve the public highway, such as on a hospital or sheltered housing campus, sidestepping some of the regulatory issues. There is no desire for impressive 0-60 acceleration times or high top speeds, in fact, a gentler pace of driving would actually be a positive.

There is a significant industry involved in the provision of transport for these groups and as we have an aging society and also move more to home-based care and independent living for many conditions, it is a huge growth area. A further extension to this could be the School run, where at least in the UK thousands of ICE taxi’s are used to transport children to school where a bus service is not available or the needs of the child dictate it not suitable. In these school runs there is always a driver for the vehicle and a chaperone for the child.

A lot of talk of autonomous cars to replace taxi’s, buses and trucks have been made, where the business case is to do with the cost-saving of eliminating the driver. There is probably a good internal business case for this just at Google to automate their fleets of mapping vehicles, however, I believe there is also a wider angle. The niche that Google seems to be identifying here is significant, growing and would lend itself very well to an autonomous vehicle. Carrying patients from their homes to hospital and treatment centres and providing mobility for both the elderly and the young who are not able to operate a conventional vehicle. This is very sound thinking and a much more sensible approach than trying to break into the conventional car market with a mass-market product.

Googles car is a light vehicle in Europe it would be classified as an L Category quadricycle rather than a “car”. Its powertrain and body is very simple based on very conventional technologies none of which represent any significant technological leaps forward. The interesting part is its autonomous driving capabilities. The sensors and software embedded into the vehicle to enable it to operate without a driver. I believe that their foray into the automotive space is not because they are trying to enter the traditional car market. But rather develop technology and applications for autonomous driving.

In a final thought on this, I read another article on the back page of the FT by Jonathan Margolis, where he talks about the hassle of car ownership in modern city living. I know this view is echoed by many, in a recent discussion over dinner a friend, who lives and works in central London pointed out that she would rather spend her money on foreign travel than learning to drive and buying a car. Not that many years ago cars used to mean freedom and increased mobility. The ability to buy and operate a car was a status symbol as was the rush to obtain ones driving licence. However now for many, cars represent hassle, traffic jams, pollution and congestion, cars are now so accessible and affordable that there is no status attached to them and the whole concept of car ownership has been commoditised. Many of the reasons people preferred their own vehicle rather than a shared ownership model are gone a Bluetooth interface means your car club vehicle immediately has all your favourite songs available.

Creating an electric car for the mass market is not without its challenges as can be seen in the recent negative press and stock devaluations of Tesla. The current huge investments in developing battery technologies that give acceptable range to replace conventional cars and drivetrain architectures that can compete with the ICE are exciting and showing some huge promise, but are not where Google is placing its “bets”. Google is not developing a car to replace cars as they are today, they are looking to the future of mobility and society and they seem to have found the application’s where current EV powertrain technology is acceptable and are developing their autonomous driving, machine learning & robotics platform to serve these areas.

About the author; Ryan Maughan is the Managing Director of the AVID Technology Group Ltd. AVID is based in the North East of England and is a leader in the design and manufacture of electrified ancillary and thermal management systems for electric, hybrid and conventional vehicles and machinery. The companies high-performance pump and fan systems provide thermal management for many leading high-performance and heavy-duty electric and hybrid vehicles.