Better Batteries or Autonomy: Which One Do Carmakers Want More?

It would appear as though the automotive sector is gearing up for substantial changes. Ford’s recent announcement of plans to invest $29 billion in electric and autonomous vehicles through 2025 indicates just how serious they are about getting in on what’s coming. Other companies are investing significant amounts of money as well. But which one do they want more: better batteries or autonomy?

Ford plans to spend upwards of $29 billion on improving their electric vehicle (EV) technology. They “only” plan to invest $7 billion in autonomous technology. This seems to indicate they want better batteries more than they want autonomy. If that’s the case, why?

1. EVs Are What Everyone Wants

Automakers have been tinkering around the edges of both alternative power sources and self-driving cars for decades. They can no longer tinker when it comes to EVs. It is clear that hydrogen cells and natural gas fuel engines are not going to cut it. Electric is what everybody wants.

EVs may not necessarily be better than cars powered by hydrogen cells or natural gas. But they became the de facto alternative to the internal combustion engine when Tesla enter the fray. Elon Musk’s company threw down the gauntlet and forced the competition to focus its energies on EVs.

Years later, most automakers (Tesla included) are still having trouble penetrating the consumer market. Only the wealthiest customers can truly afford to own EVs. If they want a larger audience, they have to bring the cost down. But in order to do that, they also have to build better batteries.

Batteries not only have to cost less, but they also need to offer better range and more reasonable charging times. Consumers are used to getting 300-400 miles from a tank of gas and refueling in under five minutes. If carmakers want them to be excited about EVs, they have to offer something similar.

Energy Density and DC Charging

Pale Blue Earth, a Utah company that manufactures USB rechargeable batteries for consumer electronics, says the two keys to building better EV batteries are energy density and DC charging. Energy density is the amount of power a battery can hold. Increase energy density without increasing battery size and you boost range.

As for DC charging, it is that which makes it possible to recharge Pale Blue Earth lithium-ion batteries in under an hour. Ultra-rapid chargers for EVs can do the job at about 20 minutes, so that’s a start. Cut that time in half and consumers will be more apt to embrace EVs.

2. Autonomous Cars Are for the Future

Autonomy is still important to carmakers in the sense that autonomous cars are likely to be part of the future. But it will be decades before they are viable. Between now and then, we have to completely overhaul both network and road infrastructure to make them capable of accommodating autonomous vehicles safely. It is going to take a tremendous financial investment and new technology we haven’t even developed yet.

Carmakers are willing to invest in autonomy for the same reason they started investing in EVs more than a decade ago. They know they will never reach the future if they do not start moving in that direction. If they want to make autonomous vehicles a reality, they have to spend the money to develop them.

In the meantime, better batteries are commanding most of the investment money because they are the key to eliminating internal combustion engines. Carmakers want better batteries more than autonomy. Better batteries will help generate the revenues they need to eventually develop autonomous cars.

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