Can smart cars pull out of the slow lane?

Can smart cars pull out of the slow lane?

Chevy Volt image via Flickr user DrivingNortheast

Rapid advances in consumer technology have led some observers to expect a similar pace of improvement in other areas of industry. But for car manufacturers, many barriers stand between today's business reality and a smarter, more sustainable future.

The car is often a family's second largest expense after the home, and the resulting cautious buying behavior has forced carmakers to become risk averse. Complex legislation stretches development cycles and keeps engineering costs high, and to complicate matters further, requirements vary considerably from market to market. Once a car is sold, it may be expected to stay on the road for decades. All of this makes clear that there will be few quick fixes in the car market.

"In the long term, business models will have to adapt," admitted Mike Bell, global director for connected cars at Jaguar Land Rover, the U.K.-based maker of luxury sedans and SUVs. "I recently saw a survey of 21-year-old U.S. adults, who, given the choice, would rather own a smartphone than a car. That creates a challenge for companies like ours. Carmakers will be dragged forward whether we like it or not, as behaviors change over the next 10 to 15 years."

Bell spoke at VERGE London, a conference organized by GreenBiz to examine the convergence of new sustainability technologies in energy, transportation, the built environment and information technology.

Bell shared a platform at the conference with Ian Allen, manager for environmental strategy and the Ampera electric car at Vauxhall Motors. The Ampera is a European version of the Chevrolet Volt, and Vauxhall is a U.K. brand owned by General Motors.

Allen noted that progress in sustainability often runs counter to a carmaker's core business. "Car clubs and car sharing go against what some people might consider the grain," he said. "We have to sell cars and sharing means fewer people buy them."

The lithium-ion batteries that underpin electric cars like the Ampera and Volt provide another example. "We get asked, why should I buy an EV now, why not wait a few years until the batteries are better and cheaper? And that's a barrier to sale for us," Allen said.

The wait-for-version-2.0 tendency is frustrating and naive, Allen argued. "What is the timescale for improvement?" he asked. "Everyone understands the smartphone lifecycle, but we won't see big improvements in battery chemistry overnight." 

Misguided or not, the anticipation of better products tomorrow, coupled with the high cost of batteries today, has translated into slow sales for pioneering vehicles like the Volt.

Despite the many difficulties, carmakers have dramatically improved their products in recent years, most notably in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) output. But it is governments and their higher taxes on gas guzzlers that have fostered progress in energy efficiency, not business response to consumer demand. "Let's not kid ourselves, people are not choosing low-CO2 cars for green reasons but because of the pound or dollar in their pocket," Allen said.

Both Allen and Bell are keen to see further positive intervention through policy, particularly in the promising area of connected cars. Here, one of the barriers to progress is the paucity of cellular coverage outside urban areas, which hampers efforts to use real-time data to improve efficiency. Left to their own business models, the cellular providers are unlikely to oblige with blanket coverage.

"We have a lot of data we could push anonymously to intelligent transport systems," explained Bell. The data he described could reveal not simply how many cars are where, but if tied into satellite navigation (satnav) systems, could determine where they are heading. Instructions could then be fed back to the satnavs to control routing in real time, reducing the congestion that wastes both time and fuel.

International standardization would help, but today there is nothing but a "patchwork quilt" of initiatives in this direction, according to Bell. For example, cell phone operators can gauge urban traffic levels from the patterns of handset movements between cells, data they currently sell to the navigation companies. But Bell argued that more inclusive cooperation and collaboration in this vein would be a good thing, and that governments could play a major role.

In the U.K., for example, the centrally funded Technology Strategy Board has been successful in pulling together carmakers, energy companies, universities and start-ups to work on electric vehicles.

On the other side of the coin, increasing legislation curtailing the use of personal data could make it harder to exploit real-time information about who is driving where, particularly since cars can cross borders between jurisdictions. "Geolocation data, personal data, and where it is held actually matters," said Bell. "Storing data in the cloud means that cloud could hover over Bonn or Shanghai, and that makes a difference to what we can actually do."

Bell also noted that car companies are wary of "creeping people out" through excessive monitoring that might start to feel like stalking. 

Nonetheless, governments are likely to be keen to encourage more intelligent cars, Allen predicted, if only so they can contemplate road pricing -- taxing vehicles on the basis of where they drive and when.

Whether fueled by policy or industrial progress, much smarter and more efficient vehicles will arrive eventually -- and many will probably drive themselves, Allen said. Today, we worry that our cell phones create a distraction while driving.

In the future, it is likely that driving will offer only a minor distraction from other tasks while getting from A to B.

Chevy Volt image via Flickr user DrivingNortheast.

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