Debate: Huge investments are required for autonomous electric mobility of the future

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Sweden and Europe are currently experiencing a major shortage of electricity with sharp price increases as a result. At the same time, the EU is preparing for a large-scale introduction of electric vehicles, many are waiting for the development of a hydrogen economy, and there are also expectations that autonomous vehicles will make a breakthrough on a broad front in the coming decades. For example, the EU has decided to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035. These three developments will require very large investments in infrastructure. For electric vehicles and hydrogen, large investments in electricity production and infrastructure are required, for hydrogen, the construction of large-scale infrastructure for hydrogen production is also required. For autonomous vehicles, breakthroughs in semiconductors and the build-up of very large resources for computer processing in data centers and in vehicles are required.1. Electric vehicles require a lot of electricityThe development towards an increasing number of electric vehicles will require a lot of electricity. On the one hand, large amounts of electricity are needed to charge large numbers of cars, buses and trucks on a daily basis, and on the other hand, large amounts of electricity are needed to produce batteries. A large part of battery production must be built up in Europe, because European countries must keep as large a share of the added value as possible within the borders of the EU. Elon Musk said in an interview at the Codecon 2021 conference that a doubling of electricity production is required to cover the needs created by the introduction of electric vehicles. It is a benchmark that is probably relevant not only for the USA. Within the EU, approx. 2,700 TWh of electricity is generated annually, a considerable volume. If everything were to be produced in upgraded nuclear power plants, 300 reactors would be required to generate this volume. There are roughly 240 million cars in the EU. With an average mileage of 1,100 miles per year, approx. 500 TWh is required to charge these, which corresponds to 55 reactors. During the coldest weeks of cold winters, twice as much electricity is required in countries with a cold climate, because the mileage is halved when the thermometer drops down to -10 degrees. In the coldest weeks, perhaps 80 reactors are needed to cover the need. For transport vehicles and buses, an additional 50 percent of the capacity needed for cars is required. This means on average about 250 TWh of electricity, but 50 percent more in cold countries during cold winters – 40 reactors. In order to charge Europe’s vehicles, approximately 750 TWh of electricity is required, but cold winter weeks require 50 percent more capacity, i.e. approx. 120 nuclear reactors in total. In Europe, close to 10 million cars and 2 million commercial vehicles are manufactured. Currently, only a small part of these are made up of electric vehicles and a large part of the electric vehicles are hybrids with relatively small batteries. Some of the batteries are imported from China. A large-scale conversion to electric vehicles requires a major expansion of battery production. According to a research study, 2,000 kWh of electricity is required to manufacture a 50 kW battery. To manufacture 50 kW batteries for 10 million cars, 1000 TWh of electricity is then required. If 2 million electric commercial vehicles require 100 kW batteries each, an additional 400 TWh is required. Large additional battery capacity may be required if electricity produced by wind power is to be stored in stationary batteries. We are now not far from the doubling of electricity production that Elon Musk predicted at Codecon 2021. The need for vehicle batteries may decrease if electric roads are introduced on a large scale, but then more will probably be required instead capacity for charging, as electric roads would increase the proportion of charging carried out at times when the demand for electricity is high, as it is also at these times that the largest number of vehicles are in traffic.2. Hydrogen production also requires large amounts of electricityMany people think that hydrogen is a competitive alternative to battery-equipped vehicles. However, to drive one kilometer on hydrogen requires more than twice as much electricity for hydrogen production as it does to drive a battery vehicle on electricity. For Europe, it is about more than 1,500 TWh of electricity for hydrogen production. All countries have electricity grids and all the installations that go with it. However, there is no infrastructure for large-scale production and distribution of hydrogen, which would then be added. It requires large resources and a number of decades to expand electricity infrastructure to the required extent. No one knows how much it would cost or how many decades it would take to build the resources to produce hydrogen for 240 million cars and a large number of commercial vehicles. In addition to the electricity needs, both electric cars and fuel cells for hydrogen require large amounts of earth metals that are only found in small amounts .3. Autonomous vehicles require several technological leapsMany think that the introduction of autonomous vehicles will be the savior, because then not as many cars will be required. Several people can then use the same cars, because the vehicles can circulate and be used where they are needed throughout the day, instead of being parked most of the time as is the situation today. However, technological breakthroughs are required to enable data processing at the level that will be required to drive large numbers of self-driving vehicles. According to Siemens, in a 2021 article, 1,000 self-driving vehicles with high-level autonomous capabilities generate 19,000 terabytes of data per hour. It takes all users of Facebook close to 5 days to generate the same amount of information. For the storage and communication of user data, Facebook has 85 buildings with servers in 18 locations around the world. These represent an investment of 20 billion dollars. All information generated by autonomous vehicles should not be stored, but it remains for developers to decide what should be stored and what information can be discarded. A large part of the data processing must be carried out in the vehicles, as the requirements for short response times for instructions to the vehicles make delays unacceptable. This means that significantly more information than today must be compressed on each chip. The development of the capacity of processors and memories is fast. Every 24 months, according to Moore’s law, the number of transistors on a chip doubles. Today, 100,000 transistors fit on a surface corresponding to a cross-section of a strand of hair. Multiple layers of transistors are built on top of each other on each chip. This is the reason why we have access to all the functions that are now found in mobile phones and computers. In order to enable self-driving vehicles on a large scale, the amount of data that can be processed on a chip must increase several thousand times. The amount of information that is currently handled in the 85 buildings with servers that Facebook operates must be able to be compressed onto a few chips that can fit in every vehicle.Conclusions – Large investments and extensive development are requiredMajor investments will be required in the expansion of electricity generation, grid and charging infrastructure and other infrastructure investments to enable large-scale transition to electric vehicles, hydrogen and autonomous vehicles. In order to enable a ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2035, rapid and large expansion is required. It will also require many years, probably decades of development to provide the computing power required for sufficiently extensive information processing to take place in vehicles and sufficiently extensive communication must be established between millions of vehicles and cloud-based computers to enable autonomous vehicles on a large scale. Nevertheless, some companies developing self-driving vehicles are very highly valued. It appears to be a low probability that these investments will generate profit for the investors in the short term. In the plans for the future, the focus has been on vehicles and charging infrastructure, while the infrastructure needs have hardly been noticed. Now that we have a shortage of electricity and prices are skyrocketing, it is high time to pay attention to what investments are required, both to secure our current technical level and to build the future.Mats Larsson is the founder of the Global Energy Transformation Institute and is the author of several books on large-scale conversion to electromobility. The opinions expressed in the article are the writer’s own.

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