Last month, the Motor Trades Association of Australia (MTAA) published its Directions in Australia’s Automotive Industry: An Industry Report 2021. The report aims to provide a comprehensive insight into the state of the nation’s automotive industry, including ‘key trends and their likely impacts on the industry over the next few years.’ It is an interesting read, and well worth a look (you can find it on the MTAA’s website HERE).
Amongst the many areas highlighted in the report – which includes sections on business expectations, skill shortages and demands, and industry challenges, amongst many others – is technology trends, and it mentions that automakers have invested heavily in new technologies around five ‘key pillars’ – electric mobility, hydrogen technology, connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and shared mobility.
Electric vehicles (EVs) often seem to dominate mobility technology news, but that is hardly surprising given many governments are making demands for more environmentally friendly transport options, and automakers are racing to meet those demands and stake a claim to a juicy slice of what is going to be a massive market.
So there is a race going on, and it may see EVs become a dominant mobility option earlier than expected.
Justin Rowlatt, Chief environment correspondent for the BBC, makes that argument in a recent article entitled Why electric car will take over sooner than you think. It makes for interesting reading, and in part of it he talks about the technology S-curve – the theory that technological advances start off slow, then go through rapid growth before levelling out as it matures and becomes the norm.
Rowlatt says that EVs might be at the start of that rapid growth curve and notes the development of EV batteries – a very expensive component – is now nearing the $100 per kilowatt hour mark, the price point at which, most would argue, it needs to be for EVs to be competitive with petrol-powered vehicles.
Of course, it’s not just the batteries that matter, although anything that brings down the price of EVs is a plus. What also must be considered for EVs to follow that S-curve is charging infrastructure, charging speed and range.
But those are coming into view too.
Solid-state batteries – which offer higher energy density, offer longer range and charge more quickly than currently popular lithium-ion batteries – are on there way with companies such US-based Quantumscape (which is backed by Volkswagen) claiming a breakthrough in their development of the technology.
And just a couple of weeks ago, Tritium, the Brisbane-based developer and manufacturer of direct current fast chargers for EVs, announced an agreement with Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation II – a special purpose acquisition company in the US – that will see it become a publicly listed company valued at somewhere around $AU1.8 billion. These types of deals surely don’t get made unless the technology not only works brilliantly but can be developed further and is going to be much in demand.
The development of autonomous vehicle technology – another ‘pillar’ mentioned in the MTAA report, is not, it seems, as far along as that of EVs. The prized Level 5 of autonomy – in which no human interaction is required – is still, one would think, some way off. A car with no person in control but still able to be truly safe while navigating the chaotic environment of a city centre would indeed be a wondrous achievement.
There is plenty of testing and trialling of self-driving technology going on, but it seems unlikely that true driverless cars (we’ll discount robotaxis and shuttles that work designated routes) will be available soon. What is more likely is that a lower level of autonomous capability will become the norm, and vehicles that can, without input from a driver, safely navigate well-marked, relatively orderly environments such as highways are already available.
Having said that, who knows what breakthrough is around the corner. A decade ago, who would have imagined the automotive industry talking seriously about the prospect of self-driving cars at all? That was just the stuff of science-fiction movies and comic books. And yet here we are.
The truth is that technology development moves quickly when the pieces fall into place. For example, the pieces of the EV puzzle (including renewable energy and battery/EV recycling) are coming together nicely, and with the combined weight of manufacturers determined to build them, governments demanding them, and consumers wanting to give them a go, that S-curve of growth should soon become obvious.
For those of you with some knowledge of computers, this reminds me of Moore’s Law – the observation that posits that the number of transistors on a microchip (or, put more simply, a computers ‘power’) doubles every two years. Gordon Moore, the person behind this observation, made it in 1965. He’s a smart chap and went on to establish Intel, one of the world’s largest computer chipmakers.
To put Moore’s Law into perspective, it has been noted that the computing power of an iPhone is about 100,000 times greater than that of the computer on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft – a computer that landed two men safely on the moon and brought them home again. 50 years between that and an iPhone with 100,000 times more grunt. That’s how quickly things move once things get going.
You get the point. Technology ideas become concepts, become prototypes, become products and, once they catch fire, improve exponentially.
It has happened throughout history– indeed with the very idea of a motorised vehicle itself – and it will this time too.
9 June 2021