Lawmakers, start your batteries: public policy for the car of the future
By Eric Tanenblatt
The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered, but you wouldn’t know it standing in the shadow of the Gold Dome, where the constant tension of balancing budgets with policy priorities may inadvertently delay the most significant evolutionary leap in mobility in more than a century: electrified, autonomous ride-sharing.
Cars–the way we pay for them, use them and how they operate–are changing, but our automotive and mobility laws are stuck in neutral.
Across the country, even here in our own backyard, car makers and technology companies are piloting futuristic driverless car experiments. There’s disagreement among them about which technology is best suited to perceive the environment around them, but they all agree that internal combustion engines are too frail and inefficient to power the massive data and analytical requirements of these rolling super computers.
But the technology that’s underpinning the driverless revolution–the electric engine–is being constrained in our state by public policy.
Some background is required: In 2015, Georgia made a record-breaking $1 billion-a-year investment in the state’s transportation system. But as part of that important deal, the state did away with its pioneering $5,000 tax credit on the purchase of electric vehicles.
Tax credits like Georgia’s old model were helping to make it possible for middle-class families to own cleaner, more efficient cars, so the elimination of the credit was devastating for sales of electric vehicles.
In fact, just two months after compromise took effect, the number of electric vehicles sold in the state had fallen from more than 1,200-per-month to fewer than 100. That the decline in ownership was so sharp after the tax credit expires is proof that cost, not interest, remains the singular limiting consideration in the growth of electric vehicles.
Recently, though, costs have recently begun to decline. Between 1995 and 2010, the manufacturing cost of a lithium ion battery, for which the bill was somewhere in the range of $1,000 per kilowatt hour, was declining by about 14 percent each year. At that price point, just the battery of the Tesla Model S would cost $85,000. Today, after costs have continued to fall, that battery costs just $8,500.
At the same time, the price tag associated with advanced computing, like those required to power a vehicle capable of autonomously navigating Atlanta’s fraught interstates, has plummeted. Taken together and you begin to see why these two technologies are so closely linked.
But coming disruption of the transportation sector isn’t limited to how a car drives or whether it steers itself.
By the numbers, personal car ownership is wildly inefficient and costly. The average American family spends $10,000 annually on a car it uses just four percent of the time. And because of that idleness, shared use is, on average, 10 times cheaper per mile than personal ownership.
It’s inevitable, then, that the invisible hand of the market will pivot away from personal ownership and towards shared-use of electric fleet vehicles because money moves markets.
Under this “transportation-as-a-service” (TAAS) model, vehicles would log somewhere in the realm of 100,000 miles per year, a rate that inefficient internal combustion engines couldn’t sustain for more than two years. Electric vehicle powertrains meanwhile can last anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million miles. (Just imagine your minivan at 1 million miles.)
Competition to engineer the car (and car service) of the future is fierce, and firms are on the hunt for states and cities whose regulatory environments could give them a leg-up. Public policy and technology have never been so interwoven and the responsibility for lawmakers to thoughtfully approach mobility has never been greater.
The global race for electrified autonomy is on, and Georgia can either be in the running or in the stands.