At the Intersection of Mobility Trends

The transportation sector is in the midst of a massive shift, driven primarily by innovation in three areas: autonomous driving, vehicle electrification, and car sharing. We appear to be heading toward a future combining all three, and are already seeing pieces today:

  • Uber clearly has the ride sharing/hailing platform, and has rolled out an autonomous vehicle program in Pittsburgh. The vehicles are Volvo XC90s, which are hybrids rather than full electric vehicles.
  • Tesla clearly has the electric car, and has its Autopilot self-driving technology. Elon Musk, in his Master Plan, Part Deux, outlined a vision for Tesla ride sharing, but details and timing of such a feature are not available.
  • Ford has announced a goal of having a fleet of autonomous cars, available for ride sharing, on the road by 2021. While Ford has its Fusion that is fully electric, Ford did not link electrification with its autonomous vehicle goal.
  • Google has been a pioneer in autonomous vehicle technology, and recently launched Waze Carpool, a ride sharing program, in San Francisco.



Mapping and sensing are critical capabilities for the autonomous driving capabilities, with deals such as Uber’s acquisition of Otto and Ford’s investments in Velodyne and Civil Maps, illustrating the major protagonists’ urgency to solve these challenges. In addition to the challenges with autonomy, if and when electric cars are used for ride sharing purposes, today’s batteries will likely need significant improvement in either energy density and/or charging. Today, only 4 models have a range over 110 miles – the Tesla S, X, and 3, and the Chevy Bolt – and range anxiety is a major hurdle facing many manufacturers. Charging is also somewhat rudimentary for most models, with few cars having level 4 charging capabilities, reaching an 80% charge in 20-30 minutes. Level 2 charging generally provides enough electricity in one hour to drive 11 miles; level 3 provides a charge for 22 miles in the same amount of time. With today’s usage patterns of 5-10% car utilization, overnight charging is acceptable.

However, today’s EVs would be severely challenged to meet the demands of autonomous ride sharing. Data from Uber shows that on average, an Uber driver partner spends only 20 minutes per hour idling, which is down by almost 50% from 3 years earlier. Though average idle time between trips is unavailable, it is almost certainly less than 10 minutes. While this data is from New York City, where population density is nearly unmatched, Uber’s quest for efficiency is likely to keep pushing the average idle time lower, creating even bigger challenges for EVs. Among current EVs, Tesla (Model S, X, 3) and Chevy (Bolt) would enjoy a healthy economic advantage over other vehicles in car sharing duties, as their range and charging capabilities would enable higher utilization.

Source: Uber

This is not to say that the solution relies solely on improvements in battery density or charging speed. Developments such as ABB’s flash charging for buses, charging buses for 15-20 seconds at 600 kW, suggest that a fleet of electric ride sharing vehicles is likely to be technologically possible – it just may take many flash charging stations for cars. Though a trivial point, this highlights the inherent relationship between storage capabilities and charging infrastructure needs – generally, the better the storage technology, the lesser need for charging infrastructure.

Another relationship to watch is that between autonomous driving capabilities and storage technology. When the autonomous vehicle becomes a reality, it will simultaneously enable the high-utilization (>80%) ride sharing vehicle business model. However, there is no guarantee that such a vehicle would have to be electric (Tesla being an obvious exception). Depending on how storage technology has improved up until that point, the challenges of building the requisite charging infrastructure to enable high utilization may be too large, or the economics of a gas-powered vehicle may simply be better. Ford will be a company to watch, with its goal of autonomous car sharing fleets by 2021, but without a leading EV on the market and no mention of electric cars with its autonomous car sharing fleet announcement.

The future seems to be rapidly approaching and mobility and storage will continue to be key topics we track at CTG.

For more on both energy storage and mobility, come to Cleantech Forum San Francisco, Jan 23-25, 2017. CTG Monitor subscribers should keep an eye out for further coverage on this topic, including logistics challenges, electric buses, and alternative technologies for enabling EVs.