Where will electric vehicles take us?

ARENA’s latest bet on the future of Australian energy is a pivot to transport. Australia’s national renewable energy R&D funding agency has taken a punt on a Melbourne-based start-up, Applied Electric Vehicles (AEV) that is developing a modular, driverless vehicle powered by solar cells on the car’s roof and a back-up battery. It’s an interesting choice in a country that has been slow to take up EVs and has no obvious edge for autonomous vehicle development. there are numerous trials underway and regulatory guidelines under development but these kinds of initiatives are taking place in many other countries. Tellingly, AEV is not listed as a participant in any of the trials taking place in its home state of Victoria.

Whether AEV’s “secret sauce” of rooftop solar and a modular vehicle chassis will be enough to keep it one step ahead of bigger and bolder EV plays such as Tesla or autonomous driving pioneers such as Waymo and Google remains to be seen. But whether or not this one business makes it through the turmoil of new technological development and dispersion is less interesting than the changes that could be wrought across many aspects of our daily life by the twin prongs of electrification and autonomy.

Most technology ends up creating at least as many jobs as it destroys, but its always easier to think of the latter. Anyone who drives for a living, whether a taxi, an Uber, or a delivery van may have to dust down their CV. EVs have far fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine, so we’ll need fewer mechanics and the aftermarket that is a major revenue source for dealerships. This business model will face many their headwinds – Tesla has famously bypassed the car dealerships and markets direct to the public, and autonomous vehicles makes individual car ownership much less relevant. Service stations will have to reinvent themselves to survive, but they may be able to leverage off their existing role as convenience stores – we are creatures of habit and may find ourselves going to the same locations even when we no longer need to fill the tank.

Electrical engineers and electricians will do well out of transport electrification. The doomsday scenario of everyone charging in the evening peak would require us to supersize our networks and peaking capacity, but even if we manage this better, and at best use vehicle-to-grid technology to turn our collective cars into the country’s biggest demand response provider, there will be a lot of work installing home and commercial charging points as well as the hardware and software to manage aggregation.

The expected decline in car ownership from autonomy will change patterns of home and commercial building construction, as garages and car parks become increasingly redundant. This would free up a whole lot of real estate. Who knows what we will do with it – add more rooms to our homes, go for increased density or enjoy bigger back yards?

It’s not clear if we will need more or less road space in this brave new world, but the opportunity for smaller passenger vehicles and clearing the streets of parked cars – along with the reduced requirement for braking distances – should allow more cars per kilometre of road. Nor is the future of big box retail obvious – maybe in the future Bunnings will come to you.

None of this is a given of course – human psychology may preclude us ceding control of our cars to a computer – and hydrogen may manage to trump batteries as our fuel source of choice, but it’s an interesting future ahead.