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The first driverless cars will be electric, thanks to Google & Tesla, and that’s important

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Mentioned very briefly, and with far less emphasis than the many descriptions of the tiny size of Google’s(s goog) new driverless car, is that Google’s new experimental fleet of robotic cars are electric. That’s important because as one of the leaders of developing the software and artificial intelligence that will move autonomous cars through the streets, Google is now also helping set the path for the hardware of the future industry, and it’s skewing that path toward electric vehicles.

Google has a long history of tinkering with electric cars. They built up a large fleet of plug-in cars for Google employees to use years ago. The program was called the RechargeIT Initiative and was funded with $10 million. I met one of the leaders of that group at an event over six years ago. Today if you go walk around Google’s campus it’s got one of the largest employee fleets of plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars out there.

Google self-driving car

We already knew that Google was interested in exploring pairing autonomous cars with electric cars. I had heard that Google and Tesla were collaborating on some kind of tech around EVs and robotic cars awhile  back, and both Google and Tesla have confirmed that they’d had discussions, though there were no concrete plans here. The leaders of both companies have big-picture end games to make transportation more sustainable in general. I asked Tesla if they had contributed any work to Google’s recently announced robotic car fleet, and I’ll update this when I hear back.

Electric car company Tesla has also maintained that it wants to do its own autonomous car technology for its cars perhaps by 2016. The first driverless tech in a Tesla car will likely be a mode that is like a very good cruise control — picture auto pilot in a plane. But Tesla’s entire goal is to make its cars cheaper, so likely it would need to build its own system that is much less expensive than the current Google one.

Tesla's Garden State Plaza store in New Jersey

That the two most important companies building autonomous car tech will implement their products in electric cars is a big step for the future of personal transportation and an early important market for getting the next generation of cars off of using oil for a fuel. Will robot cars help push electric cars out there, or vice a versa? I can envision both.

It also just makes sense from a technology perspective. Internal-combustion cars, which have a lot of moving parts and create a lot of heat waste, are far more complex than electric cars. Electric cars are like large gadgets, that (obviously) run on electricity, making them a more natural fit with an all-computer powered car. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even called the internal combustion engine a ridiculous way to make a car at an event recently.


11 Responses to “The first driverless cars will be electric, thanks to Google & Tesla, and that’s important”

  1. I am a tech geek so of course self driving cars are “COOL”. I also drive more than the average person and sometimes would LOVE to have it take over for me …

    BUT … there is a big danger the way it is moving now but we can prevent trouble IF we complain now! Here is what it will take for me to get one …

    1) PRIVACY – Processing power of on board systems can be more than enough to do all functions WITHOUT HAVING GOOGLE TRACK ME… I should need zero internet connectivity except for an occasional software update.

    2) FREEDOM – I want the freedom to decide when and where *I* take over control. I don’t want Google or ANY other entity to decide to shut my car off or alert the cops if I am near a certain area that I “shouldn’t” be…The DANGER comes where the ignorant fools / politicians looking for votes are just so enamored with the idea that “human lives will be saved” that they will start FORCING you to have a computer drive you… then Google and the govt get to decide IF they will LET YOU go somewhere. Maybe it will start reporting you as non-green compliant if you go and visit your girlfriend every day. Or report you to cops if you are parked too long at the local bar. It can be a true nightmare if stupid people buy into this without protections…

  2. Actually the highway is probably where it works the best. In the city cars are pretty close to each other and predicting where they are going is probably hard to do even for a computer.
    On the highway it’s very easy to tell where cars are going, and in case of an accident the car will probably react better than a real driver.

    • quiviran

      You are correct about the unpredictability of human driven cars in close quarters. The issue goes away as soon as all cars are autonomously driven. I can see a future in densely populated cities where you parked your self-driven car on the outskirts of the urban core, then entered the autonomous electric car fleet for transport within the core. Short trips, works for electric propulsion. Autonomous guidance, works for safety and convenience.

      I do worry about Google setting the route planning algorithm. I can see passing through lots of drive-throughs if they ever found out you once ate a Big Mac.

  3. Alicia Ranch-Traille

    The human cost of car collisions – the thousands of annual deaths – is just the beginning of the costs that these driverless cars could save us. Think of the legal and insurance costs – untold dollars are spent on stuff like this: This new technology will save lives AND money.

  4. Paul Scott

    EVs are poised to have a major boost as the gen 2 LEAF, Volt, and especially Tesla’s Model E hit the market by 2017. That’s when the longer range affordable EVs compel all car buyers to consider switching. We recently passed 200,000 plug in cars in the U.S. By 2017, we’ll be well past 500,000. The growth rate will accelerate like a Model S after that.

    The autonomous cars will gradually evolve from self-parking and adaptive crusie control to fully autonomous models being offered on the market within ten years. As more people become comfortable with this technology, we’ll see Uber type services supplanting the private ownership of cars. It will be more convenient and less costly to just call for a car to take you someplace and bring you home than owning a car. Think of it as a form of mass transit that can go door to door for less than it costs to own your own car.

  5. C Miles

    Looking at one of the promotional videos for the new Google car (the promo that has folks in the car, and after, providing testimonials) One can see glimpses of the factory where the car is manufactured/assembled.

    The red robotic assembly arms – and the factory itself – bear similarities to the interior shots of Tesla Fremont factory. That particular factory (former NUMMI) is huge and has enough square feet to accommodate Model S, X pre-production as well as a small test line for Google.

    Given that the car is electric (and quite small)- it would seem to need about the same power as the Mercedes/Toyota efforts with Tesla (which are winding down).

    I think there is some sort of NDA on this- as Google perhaps wants its self-drive cachet not to be tied to the BiPolar view of Tesla /Musk that this country seems to have.

    Then again- maybe Google is making these in its mystery barges.

    • C Miles

      Updating my previous comments. Late this afternoon (5/28) rumors/reports circulated that it was in fact Roush making/engineering the prototype(s) with Google. Cars will be assembled at a facility in Allen Park, MI.

      So much for the mystery barge theory.