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Lutz on the future: Reality test

by Bill Cawthon on

Bob Lutz’s vision of the future, which Allpar presented yesterday, is shared by others, including Jim Holland, vice president of vehicle and systems component engineering for Ford, who spoke about the future of mobility at the Center for Automotive Research’s recent Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Michigan.

However, just because it’s shared doesn’t mean it will happen.

Lutz-GM-Firebird-IV-Web

Autonomous driving isn’t nearly as advanced as Mr. Lutz believes. Current autonomous vehicles, including those approved for road use, still require constant vigilance from the driver, even on the highway.

There are also non-technological issues including legal and even some philosophical problems.

Still, assume that these issues will be addressed by 2050 and that autonomy without driver input will be practical.

There are still limitations on battery capacity and no way of knowing whether, or when, improvements might occur that would dramatically improve storage and reduce charging times. But, as with the autonomous vehicle, it’s fair to assume advances in batteries and charging systems by 2050.

But perfecting the vehicle is far less than half the challenge.

There is a limit to a reduction in charge times. In April, Toyota engineer Yoshikazu Tanaka said, “If you were to charge a car in 12 minutes for a range of 500 km (310 miles), for example, you’re probably using up electricity required to power 1,000 houses. That totally goes against the need to stabilize electricity use on the grid.”

The grid is one of the issues that works against Lutz’s vision. BMW is already offering San Francisco Bay-area owners of its i3 electric vehicle one thousand dollars to only recharge overnight.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the U.S. population will be 398 million by the year 2050. The number of vehicles needed to enable Lutz’s vision of mobility and the need to be able to charge them at any time would require huge investments in new power generation and distribution. It could easily take decades to get the required new plants approved, built, and networked.

Lutz-Ford-Evo-Web

Then Mr. Lutz basically tossed off: “(O)n the freeway they’ll be on inductive rails so that it’s not using its own battery…”

There are about 161,000 miles of road in the U.S. National Highway System. Costs per mile for maintenance on an existing road can run anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million or more per mile. That figure doesn’t include the cost of the inductive rail itself or the required support systems, including even more power generation. Lutz might compare it to a railroad, but the costs and complexity are in a totally different league.

Given everything involved with its realization, it’s easy to envision the price tag for Lutz’s vision of the future adding up to a half-trillion dollars — or more.

Then there are the legacy vehicles. IHS Automotive says the average age of vehicles in use on American roads is 11.5 years. This means that there still will be a fair number of non-autonomous vehicles in use. What does one do about them?

The vision of autonomous, battery-powered electric vehicles on electric highways will probably be much like the flying cars that some  in the ’50s was certain we would have in the year 2000. Neither one passes the reality test.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for just-auto.com, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.


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