Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / September 8, 2016

What if cars became crucial for the energy grid? [Science and Technology Podcast]

Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Brian Kelly, Smart transportation is widely seen as creating a world in which the…


Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Brian Kelly,

Electric car

Smart transportation is widely seen as creating a world in which the vehicles of the future have the ability to make decisions without human input. But in addition, car batteries can serve as an electricity storage mechanism, supporting stabilisation of the electricity grid through vehicle-to-grid technology.

Smart transportation, including transport that uses cyber-physical systems (CPS), will provide for autonomous decision-making abilities inside the vehicles of tomorrow and will revolutionise the way people and goods move around. For example, smart cars, combined with smart roads, will be able to move passengers to their destination autonomously, while simultaneously avoiding road congestion, thus reducing both the time spent travelling and the emissions created in the process.

These new methods of transport will take many forms and be used in different ways, helping us to create sustainable urban environments.

In the future, transport will be characterised by the ubiquitous deployment of autonomous vehicles, along with the use of ‘smart roads’. These developments will also greatly overlap with advances in the energy and manufacturing sectors. Not only will we see both vehicles and the infrastructure underpinning these new technologies begin to communicate with each other, we will also see the transportation and manufacturing sectors deriving mutual benefits from the movement towards additive manufacturing and individual customisation. In addition, the introduction and deployment of widespread battery systems will help the energy sector to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Listen to podcast: What if cars became crucial for the energy grid? [Science & Technology Podcast]

Potential impacts and developments

In the immediate future, vehicles will increasingly use smart technologies. We already have smart sensors monitoring a car’s blind spots, as well as automated parking systems. Smart sensors combined with increasing levels of artificial intelligence (AI) ability will allow for fully autonomous vehicles on our roads. In fact, several companies are already road-testing such vehicles, and the United Kingdom (UK) has proposed allowing such vehicles full coverage under traditional road insurance policies by the year 2020.

Progress in information and communications technologies (ICT) will allow for vehicles to operate more safely, as increased data collection will provide autonomous vehicles with the ability to make timely decisions, helping to avoid accidents, but potentially also leading to privacy concerns. Cars will also communicate with one another about the location of pedestrians in the immediate area, allowing vehicles to anticipate the possibility of a pedestrian on the road, even when the pedestrian would not otherwise be visible.

In addition to the advances in transportation technologies, we will see an overlap with the current progress in the manufacturing and energy sector. These developments will not be limited to the industries themselves, but will have a major impact on the way we approach both production and consumption of components, in addition to affecting the roll-out of renewable energy, including in the use of electric car batteries as an energy storage mechanism in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology.

Technological advances in the transportation area will bring about profound environmental changes, mainly for the better. The increasing use of ‘additive manufacturing’ will result in lightweight construction of vehicles, thus decreasing the amount of material and energy needed to build and power vehicles. Automated systems in vehicles will allow for ‘eco-efficient’ driving, allowing vehicles to choose a route to the intended destination that minimises emissions. These ideas are already being implemented in the logistics sector, where vehicles at large distribution centres move around logistic hubs autonomously, and in some forms of public transport.

Other eco-friendly outcomes will be the increasing availability of car-sharing programmes, enabled through increasing ICT capabilities. This new development will see the deployment of fleets of eco-friendly vehicles, while contributing to solving the ‘problem of the last mile’, which will help to improve public transport services and remove the logistical hurdles for industry.

Improvements in technologies will lead to major changes in logistics. The advances in ICT will allow smaller and more efficiently managed warehouses. Along with the advances in additive manufacturing, they will shorten supply chains and encourage ‘on-shoring’ of jobs.

The increasing use of electric vehicles will stimulate new advances in energy systems. As a charging unit powers electric vehicles, their energy consumption can be regulated based on peak demand. Along with the increasing use of renewable forms of energy generation, this will contribute to solving the problem of intermittent electrical supply due to an under- or over-producing grid.

These developments lead to debate on the impacts they will have on our society. We must consider the question of privacy (who has access to what and under what circumstances), while factoring in the benefits of increased safety. Responsibility will be the subject of critical discussion to unlock the great potential of these technologies for society. If car sharing becomes popular, this will have an impact on levels of personal autonomy, leading to greater restrictions, particularly if electric vehicle charging is regulated. Some will welcome increased sharing, while others will resent the loss of individual autonomy.

Anticipatory law-making

Advances in transport technologies, along with corresponding developments in manufacturing and energy, raise many issues of potential concern. Challenging legal issues regarding safety and liability, autonomy, infrastructure, privacy and data, and the harmonisation of laws, are likely to ensue. As these developments are multifaceted, an approach that allows for case-by-case adjustment is needed.

The use of autonomous vehicles raises questions concerning the safety and liability of these systems, requiring a legal approach that clearly distinguishes areas of liability. In the case of an accident, outlining who bears liability (the driver, the manufacturer or the programmer) will be key, and insurance policies will have to adapt. The safety of these systems will also need to be examined, such as in the case where an autonomous machine has to make a choice between the lives of the occupants of the vehicle and the lives of others.

As the technological progress in sensors continues, data collection will need to be addressed from a legal perspective, especially concerning privacy. Lawmakers need to ensure that the methods used to collect and share data are safe and secure. Data transmission also needs to be secure, as the potential for hackers to utilise data, to reprogram a vehicle or to make it crash, is a possibility to be addressed.

The increasing availability of these technologies will affect individual autonomy. The use of ‘ride sharing’ or of energy supply management with electric vehicles will decrease individual autonomy and requires a legal framework to preserve an appropriate level of autonomy and make these new technologies more acceptable to the public.

Finally, infrastructure, especially roads, will have to be upgraded to incorporate the high-tech sensors needed to achieve the potential benefits of the new transport technologies. Addressing this, along with harmonising laws across the EU, especially those dealing with liability, road standards and the use of sensors or tracking technology across Member States, will be a challenge for legislators for some years to come.

Read this at a glance note on ‘What if the energy grid needed cars?‘ in PDF.

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