Autonomous vehicles: another step forward on the electric vehicle pathway

By Jonathan Fortner, director of government relations, Lignite Energy Council

An interesting future market for electric utilities could be found in the rise of autonomous vehicles. If and when this technology reaches a critical mass, autonomous vehicles will be a big opportunity for the lignite industry.

The use of autonomous vehicles will be a reality soon and it promises to bring major changes to our roadways across the nation and in North Dakota. Researchers believe that fully autonomous vehicles, which operate without a driver, will hit the market by 2025 and that the technology could be required in new cars within 10-12 years. Many researchers and financial investors believe that the auto industry will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 50 years. General Motors has announced they are working toward an all-electric future with 18 EV models by 2023.

Proponents of the technology say road fatalities could be reduced drastically nationwide and fewer accidents means less traffic congestion. Major automobile manufacturers are currently investing billions in response to projections of a rise in global consumer demand and they are also focusing on fleet services to become a major player in ride sharing in the future. The use of autonomous vehicles for fleet ride sharing services could be beneficial to mobility services and would greatly reduce the need to invest billions of dollars in mass transit. However, before this technology becomes more widespread, there is a lot more research and development — and policymaking — that needs to be done.

Some researchers predict that autonomous vehicles could be on the roads within the next 10 years but it is hard to predict how many there will be. Currently, several states allow public road testing such as Arizona, California, Nevada and many others. The public road testing is providing data for how the technology works and highlights areas for improvement.  Auto engineers and industry analysts predict that the roadways will become safer as thousands more miles of testing are performed which will provide a reliable standard by which to measure the technological progress of self-driving cars.

Since large automakers are investing in electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles are seemingly only a few years away, it seems likely that most of the autonomous vehicles will be electric in the future. Electric vehicles require daily charging and the lignite industry has proven for decades that it is able to provide reliable baseload power at an affordable price. Note that two electric vehicles would require almost the same amount of power that it takes to power one home. The lignite industry needs to be able to provide sufficient electricity along with extra capacity available on demand.

Currently, peak demands for power are during the hottest days in the summer and the coldest days in the winter. Since peak driving periods are often in the summer when families take road trips to visit national parks or take vacations, electric vehicles will need a lot of power on demand which could mean more tons of lignite mined and energy produced.

In North Dakota, the state legislature has been proactive regarding autonomous vehicles. Legislation was signed into law in 2017 directing the North Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) to review current laws dealing with licensing, registration, insurance, data ownership and use and inspection to determine how they should apply to autonomous vehicles. The bill requires the DOT to report its findings to the legislature in 2019.

In addition, Bismarck city officials are currently working on a plan to test a driverless bus this year and add one to the Capital Area Transit fleet as part of a pilot program to test the technology on the city streets in 2019.

So when it comes to driverless vehicles, the future maybe closer than we think.