Electric Robotaxis — The Future Is Coming … Fast!

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My idea for an answer for the Masdar 2017 Engage Global Social Media Competition came to mind quite quickly after I saw the prompt, which is: “what will be the most important technological development over the next 10 years that will have the greatest impact in reducing climate change risks?”

James basically wrote about my answer before I got to it, and added more useful complementary points & policies than I would have added, but I’ll still chime in on the topic in my own words.

Before that, however, I have to say that I also loved Kyle’s, Jacek’s, and Jake’s pieces arguing that greater human awareness and action are the main keys. I think they are. But I figured I would stick to a specific technological development for this competition rather than play “outside the box.”

I also think it’s important to note why I’m not choosing anything related to solar, wind, or energy storage costs. I don’t see falling solar power costs, wind power costs, and energy storage costs as the most important technological development of the next 10 years because, as we wrote last week, that hat trick has already been logged — solar power and wind power now beat polluting energy options purely on cost (not even including externalities), and we’re actually hitting grid parity for solar + storage or wind + storage as well. Despite all of the above, though, I admit that I love Matthew’s argument that RE<<C (rather than RE<C) is the big cleantech story of the next decade — he makes a good case for that.

In addition to renewables beating dirty energy on cost, we’re also almost there for electric car competitiveness — well, maybe we already are, even if you discount most of the extra benefits of electric cars. The Tesla Model S has taken the gold medallion in the large luxury/premium car category and is basically the most loved car in history. The Tesla Model 3 crushed any sales records (in any industry) for “opening weekend” or “opening week” sales … if you add up what those sales will be once Tesla can deliver the goods. And the earlier-to-market Chevy Bolt is already winning distinguished auto award after distinguished auto award.

There’s basically every indication that the hard work on electric car competitiveness is over — the battle is won. It’s like a movie where the ending is super obvious but you’re eager to watch it through the end nonetheless.

The cleantech breakthrough that’s still in the works, in my opinion, is whatever it will take for electric robotaxis (self-driving taxis) to storm the market.

When a Tesla Model 3 (or Model Y, Model X, or Model S), a Volkswagen MOIA, or a Waymo Whatever can pick you up and take you to your destination for half the price of an Uber, yikes, the world is going to change fast!

When electric minibuses are doing this as a supplement to mass transit, walking, and biking, emissions are going to plummet.

This is the future, and it may seem far off, but I think it’s just around the corner.

This is a great threat to automakers, since it could drastically reduce auto sales. However, it’s also a great opportunity for the companies that come out on top — that is, for the companies that don’t just produce the cars but also control the biggest robotaxi networks. Automakers may lose sales, but if they lead the way into this future, they’ll also gain customers in a whole new — giant — market. It’s why every major automaker is seemingly focused on this technology and spending billions of dollars on it. No matter who survives and “wins,” though, the point is clear: fewer cars = fewer emissions from automobile production. Additionally, since these cars are almost guaranteed to be electric*, robotaxis = much lower emissions per vehicle mile/kilometer.

I think a rapid shift to electric robotaxis is a shooting star that could turn the world around in a quick enough way to stop society-crushing runaway global warming … if we really can latch onto it in time. (And move away from meat as well.)

At this point, it’s sort of hard to say what “in time” actually means, but super-cheap electric robotaxis — which, just a handful of years ago, I wouldn’t have considered would be realistic in my lifetime — look like one of our best hopes. I think they will be the biggest cleantech development of the coming 10 years.

As James noted, the electric robotaxi breakthrough can come sooner with strong political leadership, and the fruits of that transition can be much greater with enough foresight, planning, and human interest, but all of these complementary points still revolve around the development of good electric robotaxis.

When I started writing on CleanTechnica (7½ years ago), the hot cleantech story was the falling costs of solar, and solar’s promising growth. Nearly 10,000 articles later, as the stories linked in the 3rd paragraph of this article show, solar’s now essentially a mature industry that crushes coal, crushes nuclear, and beats natural gas on market prices alone.

Approximately 6½ years ago, when Susan started writing about electric cars on CleanTechnica, I had practically no interest in EVs and didn’t expect they would become a major topic of interest on our site. However, I quite quickly became EV obsessed, EVs are now our primary topic, and even my mom has a Nissan LEAF.

Just a few years ago, energy storage was a super niche topic that we seldom covered, and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger and is already hitting its own breakthrough moment. We’ve gone from covering an energy storage story once in a blue moon to covering one practically every day. It’s still a nascent and fascinating market, but let’s be honest, the ball is already in the net.

It seems we’ve just started writing obsessively about self-driving vehicles. The topic may seem a little out of place on CleanTechnica. Widespread consumer adoption may seem far off. But watch out, electric robotaxis are coming strong and coming fast. Thank goodness!

(Note: If I really wanted to get futuristic, I’d probably write that AI in general is going to be the real tech gamechanger of the next decade — but where that goes sort of freaks me out, so I’m not touching it for now.)

*The threat to the oil industry is more dramatic than the threat to the auto industry. It may be easy to cheer — we clearly need to move beyond oil very, very fast — but disruption has a negative connotation for a reason. Much of the world economy revolves around the extraction, shipment, and use of oil. When that industry collapses, it’s going to take down individuals, communities, companies, cities, and even countries. Robotaxis will improve many people’s lives, but they will also disrupt people’s lives. This is something to keep in mind and try to plan for.

Images by 1) Kyle Field | CleanTechnica | EV Obsession, 2) Lazard (slightly modified), and 3) blitzzcar

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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