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California’s Proposed Deadline for AVs to Electrify

Self-driving cars are meant to be the future, but many AV fleets are still using fossil fuel cars. This could be about to change if some lawmakers in California get their way.

A proposed bill has been introduced to California’s State Legislature that would require all autonomous vehicles to also be zero emission by 2025. While this proposal is still in its infancy stages, it is in line with many of California’s existing goals to reduce emissions and extend Governor Gavin Newsom’s goal for all new passenger vehicle sales to be zero emission by 2035 to commercial fleets too.

The bill named SB 500 was proposed by Senator Dave Min and sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “California has set important standards to aggressively address our climate crisis,” Senator Dave Min told TechCrunch. “My SB 500 aligns with these ambitions and takes a critical first step in requiring autonomous vehicles to be zero emission before they are put to widespread use.”

Elizabeth Irvin, senior transportation analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, points out that ensuring the electrification of AV fleets is particularly paramount due to how widely and intensively they may be used. “The average person drives their car 11,000 to 13,000 miles per year, but a full-time Uber or Lyft driver drives 30,000 or more.”

Another concern is that the convenience and lower prices for passengers enabled by AVs will lead to an increase in the amount of driving. One study, which examined the potential effects of AVs on the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region transportation system in 2040, found that AVs would cause the total amount of driving to increase by as much as 66% relative to the 2040 baseline year.

According to Irvin, discussions between the Union of Concerned Scientists and key players in the AV industry such as Nuro and Cruise about such a proposal have been positive.  “Because this industry is so new, everyone has a choice to be an EV or not,” Rob Grant, SVP government affairs at Cruise, told TechCrunch. “It’s not like you have to transform an existing fleet. You have a choice to do this in the beginning rather than going down this path and being forced to change it at some later date.”

Waymo has also expressed support for the bill. However, Ford (which is working on a self-driving platform with Argo AI) is more resistant, preferring to hedge their bets on hybrid vehicles. “Testing shows that upwards of 50% of BEV range will be used up due to the computing power of an AV system, plus the A/C and entertainment systems that are likely required during a ride-hailing service (for passenger comfort),” John Davis, chief engineer at Ford Autonomous Vehicles said.

Another possible challenge the bill faces could be from AI developers working on self-driving technology focused on heavy trucks. Currently, the wording of the bill does not distinguish between light and heavy vehicles.

Personal comment:

It is always harder to regulate a business sector once the business models have been already established and eye-watering investments have been sunk into it. That’s why this proposal to ensure that all AVs will be electrified by 2025 is so prescient and significant – because it puts the sector on notice. Even if the bill doesn’t succeed this time, the fact that it has been proposed will now mean that this will be considered as a serious regulatory risk in the decision making of all AV developers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also raised a very important point in highlighting the potential for AVs (if they become as convenient, affordable and widespread as their proponents and investors claim they will be) to not only replace personal vehicles, but to further increase transport demand even more. This of course would have incredibly negative consequences for air quality and the climate unless AVs become fully electrified, but even electric AVs still contribute to congestion. To date, very few AV proponents have come up with viable answers to how we can avoid an AV congestion dystopia. Perhaps along with having the foresight to ensure that all AV taxis in the future will be electrified, we need to consider whether we should be mandating that they need to be more like minibus services rather than single-occupant taxis too?

Written by Bobby Chen,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Elektromobilitet)