The Transformative Forces of Electrification and Autonomous Driving

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Part of The Mobility (R)Evolution series


By Jim Witham, CEO at 氮化镓系统 (GaN Systems), and Uwe Higgen, Managing Partner at BMW i Ventures

Few businesses can rival the global auto industry for the way that it has both shaped and reflected important social, cultural and economic trends. And at no time in the industry’s history has that dynamic been more pronounced than today.

Over the past decade, the increasing pace of technology integration in vehicles, along with the advent of the new mobility ecosystem that surrounds them, has irrevocably changed the playing field and the associated rules of the game for both historic brand leaders and their challengers. Two technology trends that are inextricably intertwined and play a dominant role in this evolution are electrification and autonomous driving.

Understanding these two trends as they affect the individual vehicle, charging station networks, the energy grid, or data center growth must be expanded to an understanding of how a decision to act (or not act) on one element ripples through the entire mobility ecosystem. This understanding must be coupled with a more holistic approach to business decision-making that includes not only a continued commitment to the historic metrics of competitiveness and product excellence, but also equally integrates and acts on deeply held beliefs of global energy sustainability, a clean environment, and individual mobility as a basic human right for all.

If we are not open to a new technology and socially interconnected view of the industry, then the glowing promise of the near-utopian opportunity that EVs and AVs are painted with today- just might end up driving us off the road and into a ‘dystopian ditch’- tomorrow.

Linking Electrification and Autonomous Driving to the Human Needs of Sustainability, Productivity, Accessibility and Safety

While focusing on technology trends, it’s important not to lose sight of the conditions- both human and market- that make them not only viable but potent agents of change. In examining the powerful forces of electrification and autonomous driving technologies, we need to consider a conversation that sets sustainability, personal productivity, individual accessibility and safety at center stage.

(1) Electrification and Sustainability

Government legislation concerning CO2 emissions and the human demand for a cleaner and healthier global environment has clearly shown companies that sustainability must be more than a footnote in an annual report. For vehicle OEMs, the clear winner for addressing sustainability is the mass-market electrification of vehicles. Energy production and energy efficiency represent the two sides of the greater mobility electrification discussion that accompany this strategy. While they can be decoupled for deep technology or policy discussions, ORMs must address them in parallel and with great speed if EVs are going to be the world’s de facto sustainable mobility savior.

– Electric Energy Production: Electric energy production can be created from either dirty (e.g. coal) or clean renewable sources. An increasing demand for electricity as fuel must be met with cleaner sources of production if the initial reason for EVs is to be addressed. Otherwise, we may merely end up creating new sources of pollution in the form of increased ‘dirty’ energy production. The greater mobility ecosystem must invest in grid infrastructure and focus on the development and deployment of new technologies of production, transport and storage for renewable energy with its less ‘predictable’ window of availability (e.g. the sun is not always out and the wind is not always blowing).

– Power Conversion Efficiency: Power conversion efficiency is the needed partner for renewable energy production in the transition to mass-market sustainable mobility. If electric power conversion efficiency remains at today’s levels, a greater demand for EVs would simply increase electricity demand regardless of source. This demand could easily rise to a level that cannot be met by sustainable sources. Power technologies, and in particular power semiconductors, exist today that can significantly increase electricity conversion efficiency in both vehicles and in the power grid- to deliver additional capability from the same amount of resource.

(2) Autonomous Driving Links Human Saftey, Productivity and Accessibility

The different levels of driving autonomy are best described by both technical capability and the accompanying human need. The evolution from ADAS to a fully autonomous vehicle is often first described in terms of the increased safety levels that result from a highly connected and intelligent mobility system of sensors, data, AI and machine learning. Saftey is the first major payoff of autonomy in the form of a ‘common social good’, and it sets the baseline upon which other technologies will be added to next evolve the system to address human ‘convenience needs’. These convenience needs relate to consumer demand around immediate fulfillment, as well as addressing individual ‘productivity angst’, the modern compulsion for constant engagement and doing that is found both in work and professional life.

At the highest level of full autonomy, the ‘social integration’ becomes part of the story. Building on the technologies of the prior phases that delivered safety and convenience, the mobility industry can be the champion by finally delivering on the promise of the basic right of ‘individual independent mobility’ to everyone- including the elderly and disabled. Moving to this phase of autonomy will require additional technology development beyond driving capabilities that will enable the delivery of autonomous boarding and entry systems.

Defined within the interaction between technology, individual needs, and social conditions- autonomous vehicles can fundamentally change what it means to ‘be human’ within a sustainable mobility ecosystem.

The Sustainable Mobility Ecosystem 

With electrification and autonomous driving technologies at the core of a successful mass evolution to a world of sustainable mobility, the important conversation for the mobility industry is about both the individual vehicle, as well as the entire ecosystem surrounding it. If we don’t consider mobility from a fully integrated systems perspective, what looks sustainable for the vehicle, if not properly addressed by the supporting infrastructure, can actually make the entire mobility ecosystem less sustainable than it is today.

Electrification means increased pressure for an evolution and growth in charging station networks and the renewable energy grid. Autonomous vehicles that generate multiple petabytes of data a day and must interact in real-time with their data-driven surroundings, place pressure for growth in globally-distributed high-speed computer data centers that are nearly as energy-hungry as the vehicles they support. And if we look back to where mobility begins- in the design and manufacturing process of these vehicles- we see the role that new materials, production processes, and autonomous robotics technologies need to play.


The three articles that follow in this series examine each of the elements of the sustainable mobility ecosystem, as well as the important relationship they have to each other that is forged through mutual dependence on electricity and data.

Continue to the next article in this series, “The Impending Mass Market Adoption of Electric and Autonomous Vehicles”>>