Autonomous Vehicles

Published on January 12th, 2017 | by Zachary Shahan


2016 Laid Huge Cleantech Foundations — In 2017, We’ll Start Seeing The Beautiful Results

January 12th, 2017 by  

2016 was a pretty huge year for cleantech, but I think it was largely a foundation-laying year, whereas 2017 and 2018 will be the breakout years in which we start seeing the walls of this beautiful cleantech transition rise. (Building-integrated solar PV walls with EV charging plugs, of course.)

8 (or 1 Million) Electric Vehicle Foundations Built In 2016 For 2017, 2018, 2019 …

There were several huge foundations laid in the electric vehicle world in 2016 — more than I’m going to list, I’m sure. However, a few stories hogged the public eye so much that I think they concealed some of these other breakthrough moments.

1. Chevy Bolt

The Chevy Bolt is a big deal. The poor thing has repeatedly gotten scapegoated and ridiculed because the chosen one (the Tesla Model 3) is just around the corner — well, the Model 3 is seemingly much better on a few key fronts, but that doesn’t make the Bolt any less of a breakthrough model. The Bolt is not the long-term star of the EV story, and it is suffering from fairytale step-sister syndrome, but it is genuinely a huge deal and deserves more love.

The Bolt is indeed the first affordable + long-range electric car in the US. It’s a fully electric offering from a major automaker that does theoretically put its gasoline siblings to shame. There’s a bit of skepticism and concern that GM isn’t really going for the gold, has totally missed the target on styling and its overall EV approach, has priced the Bolt too high, and is still doing things to delay the EV transition in secret. However, the modest and common-looking Bolt has already won some of the most distinguished awards in the auto industry — Motor Trend Car of the YearDetroit Free Press Car of the Year, and CleanTechnica Car of the Year (ahem), to name a few.

Additionally, GM is planning to produce fully autonomous Bolts for use by Lyft drivers and others — a potentially giant market — and the company seems to already be targeting fleet buyers, which is another tremendous market the Bolt could dominate. The potential is there for the Chevy Bolt to be one of the defining monuments of the EV transition.

Heck, even Woz bought a Bolt to be his daily driver.

2016 was a foundation year for the Bolt since it was the last year of prep before the Bolt was genuinely mass produced and unleashed on the public. Get ready for a fun ride in 2017 (and presumably onward).

2. Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid & Toyota Prius Prime — The Silent PHEV Rise?

If you’ve read CleanTechnica for long, you probably know that I’m not a huge fan of plug-in hybridsquite the opposite. However, they do serve a purpose in the EV revolution, and perhaps more importantly, I think plug-in hybrids are a canary in the coal mine for coming EV competitiveness.

Two breakout plug-in hybrids that got their final development ribbons tied in 2016 and are set to make a mark in 2017 and beyond are the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid & the Toyota Prius Prime — funny that both of these break from tradition and don’t include “Plug-In Hybrid” or “PHEV” in the title.

These models are not quite the same price as their handicapped conventional hybrids and gasoline siblings at the cash register (though, the Prime is close), but the fuel savings & time savings that follow from cheap & convenient home or workplace charging quickly nail the deal for any thoughtful buyer.

It’s not surprising that the Prius Prime is already seeing fairly strong sales in the US, and I’m super eager to see how it and the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid do in the months and years to come.

Also, it’s worth highlighting that the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid has been chosen by Waymo (Google/Alphabet) for its first round of robotaxi vehicles, which is surely a good sign! That could be big business for Chrysler.

3. Waymo & Competitors

Speaking of Waymo (Google/Alphabet), the ready-for-market stage of Google’s long-running self-driving vehicle work finally showed itself (in December). It also finished its first 100 autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids — which will be hitting the road and shuttling customers around beginning this month. Not willing to leave December/2016 without more of a bang, it then announced what seems like the same kind of partnership with Honda. Why do I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing and hearing a lot more from Waymo in 2017?

But Waymo isn’t the only game in town. The autonomous vehicle market seems to be the hottest market in the tech world. It’s now hard to think of a major tech brand (or auto company) that isn’t somehow tied into this market.

4. Renault & Nissan (Self-Driving) EVs

Nissan appears to be near the front of the self-driving pack — or it just puts on a good show. Either way, though, it’s clear Renault-Nissan is at the forefront of the electric car transition. Renault shocked the world (er, the EV world) by beating GM & Tesla to market (in Europe) with the first affordable + long-range electric car (an updated Renault Zoe).

Nissan and Renault are both good at holding their secrets & upcoming plans close to their chests, but Nissan’s Senior VP of R&D has indicated that a 200+ mile LEAF will also be an option following a coming refresh — presumably, sometime in 2017, or early 2018 at the latest, but details are still a bit scarce.

A long-range LEAF (especially with a visual refresh) could theoretically put the LEAF in close competition with the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 — theoretically. Furthermore, if the kind of deep discounts we’ve been seeing on the lower-range LEAF trims become the norm (see here, here, and here), Nissan could keep gobbling up the biggest portion of the EV pie. It may no longer be #1 in the EV market in the US, but it’s holding on despite being in a transition period and it is the fastest-growing small family car in the UK. I’m expecting big things from Nissan (and sister Renault) in 2017

5. Tesla Model 3 & Model Y

Tesla’s massive, insane, wonderful battery Gigafactory is basically ready to start pumping out batteries for the Tesla Model 3. This is huge. The Model 3 — the main end product for Giga 1’s revolutionary product — is supposed to arrive in the second half of 2017, and that could even mean breaking into the top 20 of US auto sales. At the very least, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than the beginning of a new auto era, and much of the foundation for that era was laid in 2016.

Worth remembering is that a CUV built on the Model 3 platform is in the works as well (reportedly with something like the Model X’s signature falcon-wing doors). Dubbed the Model Y (filling out Tesla’s S-3-X-Y lineup), this electric CUV could likely become a bigger seller than the Model 3. I expect we’ll hear and see more about the Model Y in 2017 as more of its foundational work is completed.

Also worth remembering is that the Model 3 will hit the market with hardware allowing for fully autonomous driving, and Tesla has plans in place to let you cash in on the self-driving service yourself. Tesla is also planning a big 2017 public awareness event around this tech — a fully self-driven trip from LA to NYC. Again, with all of this in the works, it appears that the Model 3 and Model Y are going to propel us into a very different automotive era.

6. Tesla Transit, Pickup Trucks, & Semi Trucks (Lorries)

Tesla’s not stopping with those passenger vehicles (the S-3-X-Y lineup). Tesla Transit, Tesla semi-trucks, Tesla pickup trucks, and surely plenty more fun are in the plans as well. How much of this we’ll get a glimpse of in 2017, who knows, but I expect we will see more exciting teasers from the presumptuous cleantech king of the world.

7. EV Revolution At BYD, BAIC, & The Red Giant

In the West, it’s Tesla, Tesla, Tesla, but China’s electric car market is apparently now bigger than Europe’s and the USA’s combined … and Tesla doesn’t reign in China. BYD and BAIC are the top dogs there in the EV world, and BYD is also dominating the electric bus market outside of China. There’s a strong argument to be made that BYD is the actual cleantech king of the world, and that is probably the broad assumption in China. However, auto giant BAIC is making a strong move to challenge BYD in the EV space.

All of this may be niche news in the US & Europe — even to cleantech fanatics — but to ignore the faster cleantech revolution in China and the companies leading it would be a bit absurd.

8. Superfast Charging … Finally

One more giant foundational piece for EVs in 2016 was superfast charging. This has been the ginormous weak link in conventional automakers’ EV initiatives, with only Tesla offering superfast charging, but 2016 saw several automakers partner in Europe to plan a superfast charging network, and also saw the first non-Tesla superfast charging station break ground in the USA, via US fast-charging leader EVgo. Such networks — combined with cost-competitive batteries & upfront EV prices — are the straws that will break the back of the gasmobile/pollution era in transport.

Solar Breaking Through The Ground

Solar power isn’t about tantalizing humans with insane 0–60 (mph) times. It isn’t about thrilling our emotions and spiking our adrenalin. It’s basically about two things: 1) cost and 2) saving humanity from total societal collapse (and perhaps even genuine livability).

Unfortunately, it’s a rather small minority that cares about #2. The good news, though, is that practically everyone cares about #1, and solar had an insane 0–60 time breaking through the cost-competitiveness barrier, which it did on a massive scale by the end of 2016.

Lazard recently reported that utility-scale solar power has become cheaper than every other source of electricity (new power plants) other than wind. In 2017, we’ll see the fruits of that breakthrough a lot more.

The dramatically lower price of utility-scale solar power and wind power compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power should be evident to everyone today. Click to embiggen.

Energy Storage Is Robin — And Batman (Solar) Is Ready For The Boost

Technically, storage isn’t that needed at the moment for solar to grow, and it’s not an urgent need on the horizon, but having solar + storage break through the cost-competitiveness barrier is such a strong symbolic achievement — as well as a practical one for several projects — that it would also be a standout cleantech story of the year if it could have been achieved. Well, apparently, it was.

Are fossil fuels in the coffin yet? No, not really — some people are convinced the walking dead are alive and well just because they’re walking. [Edit: As “delphi23” points out, people are still pumping money into the walking dead — building new pollution plants (mostly natural gas).] Additionally, there are a lot of existing power plants blasting out pollution like there’s no tomorrow since their initial capital costs are long paid off or close to paid off.

We should do all we can to stop installing pollution plants and help existing pollution plants to reach an early retirement, but it’s unclear what the future holds in that regard in the US and elsewhere.

Efficiency — The Invisible Giant

Solar, electric vehicles, and batteries get all the glory, but efficiency is still the invisible giant that supports, complements, and is actually within all of those sexier industries.

There are giant leaps forward being made routinely in the energy efficiency sector — a sector that is, frankly, so broad in essence that it isn’t really one industry but many, many.

Homes, cars, heating and cooling systems, computers, TVs, phones, factories, power plants, lighting, water heaters, and plenty of other things will become more efficient in 2017, and 2018, and 2019. This won’t attract eyeballs like the latest adventures of Kanye West & Taylor Swift, but I think it’ll have a bit of a bigger dent on the future of humanity.

Thanks to Freddy D for the nudge on this piece.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

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