More power to the People

If you own an iPod, tablet, mobile phone or laptop computer, you also own a lithium-ion battery.

They are even going to power the electric vehicle you probably will be driving within a couple of decades.

Be in no doubt that the tide of electric cars is real, even tsunami-like; analysis revealed at the Detroit Motor Show in January 2018 showed world carmakers were investing $US 90 billion in batteries and electric motors. The vehicles are coming. The names behind them are some of the famous global makers – GM, Ford, Daimler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen, and their brands – as well as new players Tesla and China’s Changan, SAIC and AC.

The only question is whether the driving public will buy them. In some countries they may not have a choice, with plans announced to phase out the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles – and their polluting emissions – within 20 years.

The key to electric power will be the lithium battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are popular because they’re much lighter than other types of rechargeable batteries, a lithium-ion battery pack loses only about 5 % of its charge per month, compared to a 20 % loss per month for NiMH batteries, they have no memory effect (they do not have to be completely discharged before recharging) and they can withstand hundreds of charge/discharge cycles.

They do have disadvantages: they will only last two or three years from the date of manufacture whether you use them or not; they are extremely sensitive to high temperatures and degrade faster in heat; if completely discharged they may be inoperative; and in some cases (fairly rare) they have been known to catch fire.

That aside however, lithium-ion batteries are big business.

In January 2017, Elon Musk switched on his Tesla company’s $US 5 billion Gigafactory 1 in the Nevada desert (below)


Panasonic is a partner in Tesla’s first two Gigafactories; Gigafactory 1 in Nevada produces batteries and Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, New York, handles solar panel and tile production.

Tesla says that it has several other Gigafactories planned and Panasonic is considering partnering again with Tesla for a new Gigafactory in China.

Covering the same area as 107 football fields, Gigafactory 1 will produce millions of batteries for Tesla products; batteries that all will contain lithium.

And that’s good news for the major lithium-producing countries. The United States isn’t one of them, but Australia is.

The Gigafactories are being built in phases so that Tesla can begin manufacturing immediately inside the finished sections and continue to expand. It is envisaged that the Nevada site will produce more batteries than all the production in the rest of the world at the moment.

Gigafactory 1 started battery cell production for Powerwall and Powerpack (used in the giant South Australian battery complex) in January, and in June 2017 started battery cell production for the Model 3 Tesla car.

 Lithium metal

Lithium, a soft silvery-white alkali  metal which is highly reactive, is the lightest known metal. It does not occur as the metal in nature and is found combined in small amounts in nearly all igneous rocks and in the waters of many mineral springs (salt brines). Spodumene, petalite, lepidolite, and amblygonite are the more important minerals containing lithium.

Lithium can be cut with a kitchen knife and floats on water. It’s also solid at a wide range of temperatures, with one of the lowest melting points of all metals and a high boiling point. It flares bright crimson when thrown into a fire.

The name, lithium, is from “lithos,” the Greek for “stone.”

Lithium has many uses in its various compound forms.

Lithium cobalt oxide or LiCoO2 is used for the positive electrode for the lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium metal is made into alloys with aluminium and magnesium, improving their strength and making them lighter. A magnesium-lithium alloy is used for armour plating. Aluminium-lithium alloys are used in aircraft, bicycle frames and high-speed trains.

Lithium oxide is used in special glasses and glass ceramics. Lithium chloride is one of the most hygroscopic (absorbing moisture from the air) materials known, and is used in air conditioning and industrial drying systems, as is lithium bromide. Lithium stearate is used as an all-purpose and high-temperature lubricant. Lithium carbonate is used in drugs to treat manic depression and bipolar disorder, helping to stabilise wild mood swings. Lithium hydride is used for storing hydrogen for use as a fuel.

It is toxic, except in very small doses.

Lithium makes up just 0.0007 % of the Earth’s crust, according to the Jefferson Lab. Even if the market triples, there are 185 years’ worth of reserves in the ground, Deutsche Bank estimates.

                Lithium mining in Argentina and Western Australia

Lithium is mined on six continents. The largest producers of minerals containing lithium are Australia, China, Zimbabwe and Canada. Most lithium is produced in South America (Chile, Argentina and Bolivia) from brines that yield lithium carbonate.

About half the world’s lithium reserves are in Chile, mainly in the arid Atacama Plateau, which straddles the border with Argentina.

 Where the lithium is

The metal is produced by the electrolysis of molten lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

Demand for lithium is surging, particularly with the rush to replace fossil fuels with electricity as the power source for the world’s vehicles.

Lithium-ion battery-powered cars have generated attention on the Australian stock market. Not the cars themselves, necessarily, but certainly the miners who find the lithium. Australia has at least 14 ASX listed companies with lithium deposits.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, stocks in Orocobre and Galaxy Resources more than doubled their price in just a few months. Both companies have market capitalisations of more than $1.4 billion.

 A lithium mine in WA

Almost all the major West Australian lithium miners intend to be involved in converting spodumene concentrate from their mines into one of the lithium chemicals used in lithium-ion batteries.

In Queensland, plans are under way to establish a $2 billion battery manufacturing plant. Associated infrastructure for the site is expected to cost $100 million. The consortium has sought $3.1 million of State Government help to fund a feasibility study into building a plant in Townsville. The consortium is led by Boston Energy and Innovation which is developing new battery technology.

Resources company Core Exploration said in October 2018 it had struck high-grade lithium just 88 km by road from the Port of Darwin, and expected to start mining  in 2019.

Resources company Glencore commissioned research to establish what 30 million sales of electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030 would mean for metal demand “across the supply chain, from generation and grid infrastructure through to storage, charging and vehicles”.

The report found that the metal required to support 30 million electric vehicles (EV) sales in 2030 was about 4.1 million tonnes of copper (equal to 18 % of 2016 supply), about 1.1 million tonnes of nickel (or 56 % of 2016 supply) and 314,000 tonnes of cobalt (about 314 % of 2016 supply).

“As early as 2020, forecast EV related metal demand is becoming material, requiring an additional circa 390,000 tonnes of copper, circa 85,000 tonnes of nickel and 24,000 tonnes of cobalt,’’ a Glencore investor presentation said.

Companies producing lithium in Australia include Kidman Resources, which has one of the biggest lithium projects in the world at Mount Holland in Western Australia. China is among the biggest buyers of Australian lithium minerals. China also leads the way in production of electric vehicles (EVs).

Perth-based Pilbara Minerals has attracted supply deals and investments, including from Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium and Great Wall Motor, China’s biggest maker of sport utility vehicles, while Jiangxi Special Electric Motor this month agreed to invest in Australian developer Tawana Resources.

More big lithium mines are due to open in coming years, in an area about 120 km from Port Hedland, the gateway to markets in China.

In 2016, fears of a lithium shortage almost tripled prices for the metal, to more than $20,000 a tonne, in just 10 months. There are fears that prices may fall as more mines are established.


 The SA battery

Elon Musk’s Tesla company installed a giant lithium-ion battery, described as the world’s most powerful, in South Australia under a deal with the State Government to boost the supply of electricity.

The battery complex is known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve. It sits beside the Hornsdale Wind Farm and has been constructed in partnership with the SA Government and Neoen, the French renewable energy company that owns the wind farm.

The array of Tesla Powerpack batteries takes up less than 10,000 sq ms of land.

The SA Government will pay up to $A50 million in subsidies to Tesla and Neoen over the next 10 years. In return, the State Government will have access to 70 per cent of the energy stored within the 100 megawatt battery.

The battery produces enough energy to power about 30,000 homes for a little over an hour.

The system includes inverters to convert the DC power stored in the batteries to AC, which is used in the electrical grid.

Each Tesla Powerpack has 16 layers of batteries inside, and those battery pods contain cells.

The battery was quick to prove its worth when it came on line in December 2017; when the coal-fired Loy Yang power plant in Victoria tripped and went offline the battery delivered 100 megawatts into the national electricity grid in 140 milliseconds.

A smaller battery project is planned in Victoria. That 20 MW battery system will be designed to support the proposed Bulgana Green Power Hub, a 204-MW wind farm in Western Victoria, and won’t come online until mid-2019.

Battery technology

The first non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries became commercially available in the early 1970s.

They were used in calculators, pacemakers, remote car locks and watches.

Rechargeable versions were developed in the 1980s, but many had to be recalled in 1991 after the pack in a mobile phone released hot gases and burnt a user’s face.

Sony introduced the first lithium-ion battery in 1991 removing the risks of the lithium metal melting when over-heated.

A lithium-ion battery (secondary) is rechargeable, does not contain metallic lithium and features high energy density. A lithium polymer battery is considered a type of lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion batteries are used in consumer products such as cell phones, electric vehicles, laptop computers, power tools and tablets.

Principle of the lithium-ion battery

A typical lithium-ion battery has two electrodes and a liquid electrolyte within it that allows the electricity to flow.

The battery uses charged lithium particles (ions) to move electricity from one end of the battery to another. As energy leaves the battery, the lithium ions move from the negative side of the battery to the positive side, forming a conductive lithium layer that releases electricity. When all the ions are on the positive side of the battery, the battery is spent and no longer releases electricity. When the battery is put in a charger, the sides flip temporarily, and the addition of electrical energy to the lithium causes the ions to move back to the negative side of the battery, making the battery ready for use again.

To maintain safe operation, a thin and porous slip of polypropylene keeps the electrodes from touching. If the separator is breached, the electrodes come in contact and become hot quickly. The electrolyte is flammable, so damaged lithium-ion batteries should be disposed of.

According to batteryuniversity.com, lithium-ion is one of the most successful and safe battery chemistries available today. Two billion cells are produced every year.

Lithium-ion cells with cobalt cathodes hold twice the energy of a nickel-based battery and four-times that of lead acid.

To maximise runtime, mobile phones (cell phones), digital cameras and laptops use cobalt-based lithium-ion.

Manganese is the latest chemistry development for lithium-ion battery cathodes, offering greater thermal stability. It can sustain temperatures of up to 250°C (482°F) before becoming unstable. Manganese also has a low internal resistance and can deliver high current on demand. These batteries are at the forefront of power choices for electric vehicles. The downside is a lower runtime.

Manufacturers therefore have opted for a combination of cathode materials – typically cobalt, nickel, manganese and iron phosphate.

Modern batteries include several protection layers. Latest technology causes the battery to automatically shut down when it gets too hot. When the device has cooled it will restart.

UK consortium Nexeon aims to develop new silicon materials for Li-ion batteries to increase the range of vehicles to more than 400 mi (660 km), around double what has been possible with more conventional forms of energy storage devices.

The focus is to use silicon as a replacement for carbon in a battery cell anode. Silicon is being considered as a replacement for carbon in battery anodes to increase the energy storage potential.

The recycling question

EVs generate half the emissions of a conventional car. But what about when the battery “lifetime” is over?

The electric vehicle boom could produce tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries to be recycled – some estimates put the amount at 11 million tonnes by 2030.

Current recycling rates are low – something less than 5% apparently, but that’s put down to most lithium-ion batteries being used in consumer electronic products that are not subject to a recycling mentality.

It could be different for car batteries. In this area, new companies are emerging in the recycling market.

Marc Grynberg, chief executive of Belgian battery and recycling giant Umicore says: “Car producers will be accountable for the collection and recycling of spent lithium-ion batteries.”

The size and number of EV batteries means they are unlikely to be cast aside in someone’s garage or dumped in landfill.

European Union Regulations, which require the makers of batteries to pay for collecting, treating and recycling all collected batteries, are already encouraging tie-ups between carmakers and recyclers.

Umicore, which has invested 25 million euros in an industrial pilot plant in Antwerp to recycle lithium-ion batteries, has deals in Europe with both Tesla and Toyota to use smelting to recover precious metals such as cobalt and nickel. It doesn’t as yet recover lithium and further investment will be needed to upgrade processes for that to happen.

Nissan has partnered with power management firm Eaton for its car batteries to be re-used for home energy storage, rather than be recycled. Recovery of the lithium for recycling does not appear to be economic yet. Until it does, re-use of the battery is likely to be preferred over recycling the lithium.

Amrit Chandan, a chemical engineer leading business development at Aceleron, a hi-tech British start-up looking to transform end-of-life batteries, told The Guardian newspaper: “It takes so much energy to extract these materials from the ground. If we don’t re-use them we could be making our environmental problems worse.”

He said car batteries can still have up to 70% of their capacity when they stop being good enough to power electric vehicles, making them perfect – when broken down, tested and re-packaged – for functions such as home energy storage.

Safety first

The airline industry classifies lithium batteries as dangerous goods. That’s because they have been known to cause fires. Some airlines refuse to carry them at all.

If handled and packed carefully, the risk is negligible, but damage to the batteries can make them a major risk.

One case directly attributable to lithium batteries was in Melbourne, Australia, in 2014, aboard a flight preparing to leave for Fiji.

A fire started in the cargo hold of a 737 just before passengers boarded.

 The fire-damaged batteries

An Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report on the incident said that as the captain of the flight was making an external inspection of the aircraft, a ground engineer alerted him to white smoke coming from the cargo hold. The captain told the first officer, who was in the cockpit doing pre-flight checks, to activate the fire suppression system, evacuate the aircraft and declare Mayday.

The fire was confined to one case, which contained more than eight lithium batteries. The fire is believed to have ignited when one of the batteries short-circuited as the case was being loaded on to the plane.

The ATSB report said the “passenger stated during check-in that there were no batteries in the checked bags, but declared eight lithium batteries being carried as hand luggage”.

Further inspection of the passenger’s checked luggage by the Australian Federal Police revealed “19 batteries intact and additional 6-8 batteries that had been destroyed by fire”.

Some aviation experts and commercial pilots believe Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 was flying on Autopilot after the likelihood that the crew and passengers all suffered hypoxia following a decompression when it disappeared from a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March 2014.

 The route taken by MH370

What could have caused a sudden decompression however is by no means clear.

But cargo on the plane could be a prime suspect. A Malaysia Airlines Report said the flight was carrying 221Kg of lithium batteries in the cargo hold.

The Professional Pilots Rumour Network (PPRuNe) cites other incidents: Asiana Boeing 747 Jumbo over the Straits of Korea in July 2011 and a UPS Boeing 747 that crashed and burnt while desperately trying to return Dubai in September 2010 while carrying 81,000 Lithium batteries that exploded and burnt.

 The load manifesto for MH370

Lithium batteries fitted to aircraft equipment also have been suspects in incidents: PPRuNE says that in July 2013 an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 parked at Heathrow Airport had a fire on board caused by a lithium battery powered ELT i the tail of the aircraft. At the time of the Heathrow fire, there were an estimated 3,650 identical RESCU 406AFN ELT batteries in service, fitted to numerous aircraft types.

Now, airlines everywhere are particular about checking whether checked baggage contains lithium batteries. Regulations now stipulate how batteries must be handled and they are not permitted in checked baggage.

Batteries that power phones, laptops and cameras usually are under a 100 watt-hour (Wh) rating and must only be in carry-on baggage. Spare batteries, regardless of their size are not to be carried in checked luggage.

For the more powerful lithium-ion batteries with 100-160Wh rating that are found in such things as power tools and mobility aids, approval to carry them must be obtained from the airline.

There is a limit of two spare batteries per person. These batteries must only be packed in carry-on luggage and should have their terminals individually protected to minimise the risk of contact other metal objects in your luggage.

To prevent short-circuiting, it is recommended that:
batteries be kept in their original retail packaging; or
the battery terminals be insulated by taping over exposed terminals; or
each battery be placed in a separate plastic bag or protective pouch.

Lithium batteries above 160Wh cannot be carried on planes unless they are for wheelchairs and other mobility aids and they must be transported as declared dangerous goods cargo.

Care of batteries

Authorities strongly recommend against buying lithium batteries online as counterfeit versions are usually not compliant with regulations. A sign that the battery could be counterfeit usually will be the price – cheap ones are unlikely to be genuine.

Batteries show clear signs of being unhealthy. Such signs include: Bulging, discolouration, squashed/deformed, split case, leaking fluid.

If a battery shows any of these signs, it should be replaced. It’s also a good idea not to travel with your batteries fully charged. Keeping charge levels at 40-70% will keep the particles that store energy in their most stable state during travel, minimising the risk of thermal runaway.

Batteries don’t last forever and it’s important to monitor them. Continual discharges, over-charges and quick-charges will eventually reduce the battery’s overall capacity and health.

Source: Civil Aviation Safety Authority


The big names are powering up

“General Motors believes in an
all-electric future”

Lest anyone be sceptical that the age of the electric motor car is with us, those words from GM executive Mark Reuss tells us what is coming.

Reuss is GM executive vice president of product development, purchasing and supply chain. “Although that future won’t happen overnight, GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles through no-compromise solutions that meet our customers’ needs,” he said.

Yes, it probably won’t happen overnight. But don’t blink or it will have happened before you know it.

Electric cars seems to be all most people were talking about at CES 2018, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

It is statements such as that from GM that says where the world is going, or more relevantly, how it is going.

Charging stations also will be a critical point – some manufacturers will build their own – and they’ll need to offer high speed. GM, it appears, will rely on others to build charging stations.

GM delivers more than 10 million vehicles around the world each year, with dealers in 125 countries. It is those dealers for whom there are challenges – electric motors will require much less servicing which is an important part of a dealership’s business with conventional vehicles.

No doubt there could be some aggregation in dealerships as more electric cars hit the road.

Chief Executive Mary Barra has promised investors the Detroit-based company will make money selling electric cars by 2021.

It has promised to add 20 new battery electric and fuel cell models to its global line-up by 2023.


GM brands include Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac and Holden. The Chevrolet Volt, the first commercially available plug-in hybrid, was released in late 2010.

The company’s global business is growing; there will be five new manufacturing plants in China by 2019.

For GM, and the rest of the world’s big-name vehicle manufacturers as well as some newcomers, such as Tesla, electric power is the way forward.

Ford won’t be left behind.

Ford Motor Company will increase its planned investments in electric vehicles to $US 11 billion by 2022 and have 40 hybrid and fully electric vehicles in its model lineup, according to company chairman Bill Ford. Sixteen will be fully electric and the rest will be plug-in hybrids.

“We’re all in on this and we’re taking our mainstream vehicles, our most iconic vehicles, and we’re electrifying them,” Ford said. “If we want to be successful with electrification, we have to do it with vehicles that are already popular.”

Volkswagen plans to spend more than $US 40 billion through to 2023 developing its vehicle technology, including electric vehicles and autonomous driving. Ford Motor Co. plans to introduce 13 new electric and hybrid vehicles over the same period.

Two thirds of electric vehicles can be found in just three countries: the US, Japan and China, which has the greatest number at over 650,000.

Japanese manufacturer Toyota is the pacesetter when it comes to electric, hybrid and driverless technology.


The company’s new hybrid Camry was released in Australia in 2017 and its hydrogen fuelled car – the Mirai – went on trial early in 2018.

The latter is a significant development – Toyota’s Mirai is a zero-emission vehicle.


Mirai stores hydrogen in its fuel tank. This is combined with oxygen from the atmosphere in the fuel cell stack. The resulting chemical reaction produces electricity and water. The electricity powers the vehicle, delivering 151 peak hp. And the water leaves through the tailpipe as Mirai’s only emission.

The Mirrai is on the road in the US, costing about $US 57,500. The hydrogen supply is good for around 310 mi (500 km).

It’s built on a similar platform to any other car, but has a number of batteries and a hydrogen fuel cell underneath.

This development is significant because it does not require an electricity-powered charging station.


Toyota also showed off at Las Vegas its e-pallete, an electric self-driving pod that can be used for ride sharing or food delivery. It can also be used as a mobile retail store or office space.

Another Japanese manufacturer, Nissan, produced the affordable mass-market electric vehicle – the Leaf, which is probably the most popular electric car on the world market.

One prominent manufacturer stands out in not enthusiastically embracing the concept of electric power.

Mazda Motor Corp., says rapid improvements in conventional-engine technology mean non-gasoline cars won’t be needed on a mass scale to solve pollution woes.

Mazda says electric cars may be more polluting than vehicles with internal combustion engines if the electric power isn’t from a clean source. It estimates the level of carbon dioxide emitted by a gasoline-engine Mazda2 at about 9% less than the 162 grams-per-km attributed to an electric version of the car whose power comes from a coal-fired plant.

The age of the internal combustion engine began when Bertha Benz took her husband’s newly-built car without permission to visit her mother in August 1888.

Bertha Benz was the wife of Karl, developer of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.

Now, the world is talking about the internal combustion engine being in its last years.

James Langton’s commentary on www.thenational.se in January 2018 observed: “The obituaries are finally being written for the internal combustion engine. It has had a good run. Henry Ford made the car available to the common man with the Model T in 1908 and his company has since produced over 350 million vehicles. Annual car production worldwide is now around 60 million.

If the car is still as popular as ever, the same cannot be said of its engine. It is blamed for polluting the air of our cities and contributing significantly to climate change. It consumes vast quantities of finite hydrocarbons and kills an estimated 1.3 million people a year – that’s the equivalent of four A380 superjumbo jets crashing every day. The internal combustion engine cannot be blamed for those deaths – and the estimated 20 to 50 million injured in road accidents annually – but the electric future that will replace petrol and diesel is bound closely to driverless vehicles and the expectation that our roads will be safer, as well as cleaner.”

Worldwide sales of electric vehicles in 2017 reached 2 million for the first time. Sales of electric and hybrid cars in Norway in 2017 surpassed those running on fossil fuels, making the country the global leader in the push to restrict vehicle emissions.

The electric revolution also involves big trucks and buses, but it will be electric cars that will have the biggest impact on day-to-day life.

Swiss global financial services company UBS predicts that in 2025, there will be16.5 million electric vehicles sold – equal to almost one in every six new cars.

The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 140 million electric cars globally by 2030 if countries meet Paris climate agreement targets.

China is the largest vehicle market with 25 million annual vehicle sales. It is forecast that electric vehicles will make up 10 % of new sales by 2025 and 30 % by 2030.

China’s target is one in five cars sold to run on alternative fuels by 2025; that means around 6 million electric vehicles (EVs). In fact, China leads the world in both supply of and demand for electric vehicles.

And one Chinese manufacturer, GAC, has its eyes fixed on the US market.

GAC is planning to launch its Enverge in the US in 2019. The Enverge is an unusual machine if the concept version shown in Detroit in 2018 is any guide.

It has gull-wing doors, “floating” digital dash-screen, and a claimed range of 370 mi (595 km) on a single charge. Whether all this translates to the version that goes on sale remains to be seen.


 Launch of the GAC Enverge

GAC also showcased its GA4 midsize sedan that’s on sale in China – the headlights slide out and detach to be used as flood lights. The two-door SUV also has virtual reality screens embedded in the side windows. The 71kWh battery can be recharged wirelessly; 10 minutes is good for 240 mi (386 km).

A subsidiary of the Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group, GAC is the fifth largest producer of passenger cars among Chinese automakers.

The company has been negotiating with partner Fiat Chrysler about distribution of vehicles in the US.

Chinese manufacturers turned out 375,000 electric vehicles in 2016, 43 % of worldwide production.

British and French governments have committed to outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel-powered cars by 2040. Norway and the Netherlands intend to lead the way by 2025. In the US, California is aiming at 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025..

Volvo has said that it will only build hybrid and electric vehicles from 2019. Jaguar and Land Rover say all their new model lines from 2020 will be electric and Volkswagen, the world’s biggest car maker, has set a target of 3 million electric vehicle sales per year by 2025.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese market is in everyone’s sights.

China’s push to ditch fossil fuels has led to a stampede of leading car makers into developing a raft of electric vehicles.

A Chinese start up is taking its plans to the next level – electric and driverless cars.

 BYTON electric SUV

The new Byton electric SUV, with improved self-driving capabilities, is expected to launch in 2019.

With a 49-inch (1.24 m) screen spanning the dash from one door to the other, the Byton made its debut to the world at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2018) in Las Vegas.

Motor industry observers noted it was “a rather reasonable” electric vehicle, which, if the company manages to sell for the quoted $US 45,000 price, would interest people who can’t wait for a Tesla Model 3, or who want an SUV, and don’t want to drop the extra cash on a Model X or Jaguar I-Pace.

Byton says it has discarded the unnecessary history of old-fashioned human-driven cars (hidden door handles, no side mirrors!) but it still looks conventional enough to be acceptable in a suburban driveway.

Inside, the front seats swivel 12 degrees towards the centre of the car, to help passengers chat when the vehicle is in autonomous mode and high speed 5G connectivity to stream movies or video chat on the giant screen. The steering wheel has its own 10-inch screen embedded into it for the driver.

The SUV should be good for over 300 mi (480 km) range from a 71- or 95-kwh battery back, quite similar to what Tesla offers. The battery can be fast charged to 80 % in 30 minutes. It will come with single, or dual motors, just like Tesla cars.

Byton plans to build its cars in Nanjing, China, and to launch at home in 2019, then internationally in 2020

But executives from car companies Toyota and Hyundai, equipment supplier Robert Bosch and ride-hailing service Lyft have agreed at CES 2018 that fully driverless vehicles are still a long way off.

While each of those companies were showing off their progress in concept models, they concede there were still many hurdles.

Electric bike

China already has a well-established electric vehicle industry, starting with the two-wheelers – bicycles propelled by human pedalling supplemented by electrical power from a storage battery and low-speed scooters propelled almost entirely by electricity (scooter style).

China’s two-wheeled electric vehicle industry started under the planned economy of the 1960s but faltered until the 1990s which saw a spectacular growth in two-wheeled electric vehicles. Annual sales of bicycles and scooters grew from 56,000 in 1998 to more than 21 million a decade later.

In the year that the Chinese bought 21 million electric-bikes, they bought only 9.4 million motor cars.

According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, China passed the US to become the world’s largest automobile market in 2009 with a record 13.9 million vehicles sold, compared to 10.43 million cars and light trucks sold in the US.

Oil supply has been a major concern for authorities in China – not just sourcing it but dealing with the resultant pollution from engines powered by oil products.

The BYD Company builds rechargeable batteries using a new technology that it claims makes them safer than other lithium-ion models. In 2005, BYD became the world’s leading small battery company and is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of rechargeable batteries.

In 2016 BYD Auto was the world’s top selling plug-in car manufacturer with 101,183 sales.

The take-up of electric vehicles in Australia has been somewhat slower than elsewhere.

According to the Department of Environment and Energy, around 4,000 electric vehicles were registered at the end of 2017. Of those, around 1,100 were sold by electric vehicle specialist Tesla.

Can Australia get a piece of the action?

The motor car manufacturing industry in Australia began shutting down in 2017.

Ford, Holden and Toyota were the last remaining manufacturers. When they turned off their production lines for the last time, thousands of people had to find new jobs.

The first Australian-designed mass production car was manufactured by Holden in 1948. Holden became General Motors until the last vehicle – a ute – rolled out of the Adelaide plant in October 2017.

Death came quickly and precisely. All that was left was an empty factory.

But in 2018 came word that resurrection might be possible. At the centre of new optimism is the electric car industry.

Just after Holden shut its doors, a UK billionaire who saved South Australia’s Whyalla steelworks talked about returning car manufacturing to Adelaide.

Sanjeev Gupta’s company, GFG Alliance, approached General Motors-Holdens and the State Government with a plan to buy some of the former Holden factory’s assets to use the equipment to begin manufacturing electric vehicles.

The GFG Alliance is an international grouping of businesses, founded by the Gupta Family. The Alliance’s integrated business model encompasses mining, energy generation, metals and engineering.

Executive chairman Sanjeev Gupta (above) is a 46-year-old British billionaire, often referred to as the “man of steel” for rescuing 25 steel mills, car plants and engineering workshops in Britain from closure.

He bought Whyalla steelworks from administrators for a reported $A 700 million in August with plans to upgrade and took a majority stake in Adelaide renewables company ZEN Energy in September committing to a $A 700 million SA investment program in solar, battery storage and pumped hydro.

There are two basic types of electric vehicles, known as EVs or all-electric vehicles (AEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).

AEVs, which include battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles, run only on electricity. The ranges of most of these vehicles are 80 to 100 mi  (130-160 km) but technological advancements will no doubt increase these numbers. AEVs can take 30 minutes to nearly a full day to recharge, depending on the type of charger and battery. Technological advancements, too, will improve charging times.

PHEVs run on electricity for shorter ranges (six to 40 mi – up to 64 km) then switch over to an internal combustion engine running on fossil-fuel when the battery is depleted. That allows drivers to use electricity as often as possible while also being able to fuel up with liquid fuel if needed.



There are three major types of charges: level 1, level 2 and DC Fast Charge.

The US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy explains them this way:

“Level 1 charges supply energy through a 120-volt AC plug and do not need additional charging equipment. These charges are most often used in homes as well as some workplaces and can deliver two to five miles of range per hour of charging.

“Level 2 charges provide charging through a 240-volt (residential) or 208-volt (commercial) plug and require the installation of additional charging equipment. They can be found in homes, workplaces and public charging and provide 10 to 20 miles of range per hour of charging.

“DC Fast Charge supplies charging through 480-volt AC input and requires highly specialized, high-powered equipment as well as specialized equipment in the vehicle itself. These charges can provide 60 to 80 miles of range after 20 minutes of charging and are used most often in public charging stations, especially along heavy traffic corridors.”

The fuel efficiency of an all-electric vehicle is sometimes measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh) per 100 miles rather than miles per gallon.

To find the cost per mile of an all-electric vehicle, the cost of electricity (in dollars per kWh) and the efficiency of the vehicle (how much electricity is used to travel 100 miles) must be determined. For example, if electricity costs 11 cents per kWh and the vehicle consumes 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, the cost per mile is about four cents.

Tesla vehicles

 Tesla S

 Tesla X

 Tesla Roadster

Tesla produces three basic models- the 3, S, X and a roadster.

In 2008, Tesla unveiled its first all-electric electric car, the Roadster. A high-performance sports vehicle, the Roadster helped changed the perception of what electric cars could be.

In 2012, Tesla launched the Model S, a lower-priced electric car that in 2017 set recorded acceleration from 0 to 60 mph (100 km/h) in 2.28 seconds. The company’s designs showed that an electric car could have the same performance as petrol-powered sports cars such as Porsche and Lamborghini.

The car could travel almost 265 mi (425 km) between charges of its lithium-ion battery.

The Model S was chosen 2013 Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine.

The Model S had global sales of more than 197,600 units between June 2012 and September 2017, followed by the Model X with almost 59,000 units sold between September 2015 and September 2017.

Tesla does not use individual large battery cells, but thousands of small, cylindrical, lithium-ion commodity cells like those used in consumer electronics.

The Model S is Tesla’s flagship, the most advanced car from the company. It is a premium sedan with more range, acceleration, displays and customisation options.

Model 3 is a smaller, simpler, more affordable electric car. The operating functions are basic – the Tesla Model 3 has a bare minimum of manually operated knobs, dials, buttons and switches.

 Tesla Model 3

Model 3 was unveiled in March 2016. A week later, worldwide orders reached 325,000 units. As a result of the demand for Model 3, in May 2016 Tesla advanced its 500,000 annual unit build plan (for all models) by two years to 2018.

Tesla – now Tesla Inc – today specialises in electric cars as well as lithium-ion battery energy storage, and residential photovoltaic panels.

Elon Musk is the driving force behind Tesla’s advances in all kinds of technology – from electric cars to space rockets.


In late March 2017, Tesla Inc. announced that Tencent Holdings Ltd, at the time China’s “most valuable company,” had bought a 5% stake in Tesla for $1.8 billion.

Tesla makes two kinds of electric motors: an induction motor with three phase, four pole AC and copper rotor; and permanent magnet motors used in the Model 3 and Semi.

In November 2017, Elon Musk revealed the new Tesla Semi and Roadster at the company’s design studio. The semi-truck, which enters into production in 2019, boasts a range of 500 mi (800 km) as well as a battery and motors built to last 1 million mi (1.6 million km). The new Roadster, set to follow in 2020, will become the fastest production car ever made with its 0 to 100 km time of 1.9 seconds.

“The point of doing this is to just give a hardcore smack-down to gasoline cars,” Musk said. “Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like a steam engine with a side of quiche.”

As well as car manufacturing plants in the US, Tesla also has a major assembly plant in Tilburg, The Netherlands.


Cost effective

Retired Queensland farmer Sylvia Wilson, 70, proved the economic benefits of a Tesla electric car in 2018.

She drove her Tesla S75 right around Australia – in 110 days and 20,396 km door to door – at a cost she put at just $150.90.

In a petrol or diesel car at a cost of 1.50 cents per litre in, say Melbourne (more in country towns) and an economy of 9 litres per 100 km, the fuel cost would have come to a little more than $2,750.


 The Tesla semi

 The command centre of the semi

Powering the prime mover of a semi-trailer (known as a semi truck in some parts) with electricity would have huge benefits, turning one of the world’s biggest causes of pollution into a much greener industry. But there are great challenges; the weight of the truck, weight of the load, long-distances, and aerodynamics.

But Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc believes it has the answer.

Most big prime movers have 10-gear transmissions, much of the gearing needed to get the truck off the mark and up to highway speeds. The Tesla Semi project revealed in 2017 has one gear and no transmission.

Most of the electrical power draw-down will go towards getting the wheels rolling, but once moving, the truck can start producing regenerative power to prolong its range.

Some of the claims by Tesla for its semi: 4 independent motors and independent suspension; 1 Gear – No transmission; Center driver position like a race car; 400 mi (640 km) range with 30 minute charge (aka MEGA CHARGE); Auto braking; Auto lane keeping; Regenerative braking (brake pads last forever); $US 1.26 per mile Tesla Semi vs. $US1.51 per mile diesel truck running costs.

US giant retailer Walmart and Canadian grocery chain Loblaw are launch customers for the Tesla truck.

Volvo Trucks plans to begin selling electric medium-duty trucks in Europe in 2019 with sales in North America to follow.

 Navistar prototype

Companies such as Daimler, Cummins and Navistar are also working on their own electric trucks.

China’s truck manufacturers, on the other hand, appear to be focussing on liquefied natural gas (LNG) power.

Electric power is already being used in the massive dump trucks that work the world’s mines, in conjunction with diesel engines that drive the generators that power the electric motors on the wheels.

The Belaz 75710 made in Belarus is the biggest dumper in the world, with the ability to transport loads of up to 500,00kg. The monster truck  has a diesel-electric transmission system. Two 16-cylinder diesel engines drive generators which produce electricity to power four electric motors that power the wheels.

At 20.6m long, 8.16m high and 9.87m wide, it weighs 360 tons and wears eight super-sized tyres. Operating speed is 64 km/h.

Who is Elon Musk?

Billionaire businessman, inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk was a co-founder of Tesla Motors in 2003 with a group of engineers who named their company after Nikola Tesla.

They sought to build the first fully electric-powered car.

Elon Reeve Musk (born 28 June 1971) is a South African-born American entrepreneur who founded X.com in 1999 (which later became PayPal), SpaceX in 2002 then Tesla Motors which is now known as Tesla, Inc. an American carmaker, energy storage company and solar panel manufacturer based in Palo Alto, California

Musk became a multimillionaire in his late 20s when he sold his start-up company, Zip2 which he began with his brother Kimbal, to a division of Compaq Computers. Zip2 produced an internet guide for the newspaper publishing industry.

In May 2012, SpaceX launched the first privately-funded liquid fuel rocket to send the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station. SpaceX has developed a number of ground-breaking technologies, including a seven-seater manned spacecraft and a reusable rocket.

His goal for SpaceX is to reduce space transportation costs and eventually enable the colonisation of Mars.

In August 2013, Elon Musk released a concept for a new form of transportation called the “Hyperloop,” an invention that would foster commuting between major cities while severely cutting travel time. Ideally resistant to weather and powered by renewable energy, the Hyperloop would propel riders in pods through a network of low-pressure tubes at speeds reaching more than 700 mph (1126 km/h) . Musk noted that the Hyperloop could take from seven to 10 years to be built and ready for use.

In April 2015, the company unveiled its Powerwall home and industrial battery packs, and quickly received orders worth $US 800 million. The two models included a 7 kilowatt-hour (kWh) wall-mounted unit and 10 kWh unit. The company announced larger-scale configurations for industrial users in units of 100 kWh.

In August 2016, Tesla agreed to acquire SolarCity Corp – the largest installer of rooftop solar systems in the US – for $US 2.6 billion in stock.

In late November 2017, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked for proposals to build and operate a high-speed rail line that would transport passengers from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago in 20 minutes or less.

Elon Musk confirmed his The Boring Co. would bid on the transit project. He suggested he wanted to use some aspects of hyperloop technology — which involves propelling people in pods via an underground vacuum-type tube — to build the line. “Electric pods for sure. Rails maybe, maybe not,” he said.

As well as CEO, Musk is also the product architect at Tesla Motors, overseeing all product development, engineering and design of the company’s products.

As of December 2017, Elon Musk’s net worth was $US 20.2 billion, according to Forbes. SpaceX is valued at more than $US 20 billion.

Nikola Tesla

Inventor Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) was an engineer known for designing the alternating-current (AC) electric system, which is still the predominant electrical system used across the world today.

He also created the “Tesla coil,” still used in radio technology. Born in what is now Croatia, Tesla went to the US in 1884 and briefly worked with Thomas Edison. He sold several patent rights to George Westinghouse.

Tesla discovered, designed and developed ideas for several significant inventions — many of which were patented by others — including the induction motor. He was also a pioneer in radar and X-ray technology, remote control and the rotating magnetic field — the basis of most AC machinery.

In 1895, Tesla designed what was among the first AC hydroelectric power plants in the US, at Niagara Falls. The following year, it was used to power the city of Buffalo, New York. The system is the basis for electric power transmission to this day.


Driving onwards and upwards

Shenzhen in China is the first city to electrify its fleet of buses. The city, with a population of more than 12 million now has more than 16,300 electric buses.

 The Shenzen electric bus fleet

The city installed 510 bus charging stations and 8,000 charging poles. Buses take around 2 hours to charge, before being able to resume duties.

The electric buses use 72.9% less energy than diesel busesIn a year, the buses are estimated to save the energy equivalent of 366,000 tons of standard coal, replacing 345,000 tons of fuel, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1.35 million tons.

The mayors from 12 other major cities of the world big cities around the world have pledged that starting in 2025, they’ll add only all-electric buses to their fleets.

The promise is an extension of the 2015 C40 Clean Bus Declaration Act agreed by C40, an international coalition of cities formed to reduce harmful emissions and combat climate change.

 An Iveco electric bus concept

The resolution was adopted by the mayors of London, Paris, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Quito, Vancouver, Cape Town, Mexico City, Seattle, Milan, and Auckland. The leaders also promised to take steps to create a significant zero emission zone within their cities by 2030.

Shenzen’s taxis are also getting a makeover and by 2018 more than 62 % of the fleet was electric-powered.

The e-taxis will save the energy equivalent of 119,000 tons of standard coal, replacing 116,000 tons of fuel per year.


It’s not clear who invented the electric car, or when, but it most likely was either American inventor Thomas Davenport, or his Scottish counterpart Robert Anderson; both of whom had operational EVs in the mid-1830s.

In 1900, electricity was a more common form of motor vehicle power in the US than internal combustion, though second in terms of popularity, to steam power. Around the turn of the century, an EV driven by Frenchman Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat held the world land speed record.

Electric power failed to maintain its foothold into the 20th Century, even though many manufacturers continued experimenting.

But the 21st Century saw electric power return in spectacular style, first with hybrids and then all-electric.

Seeing what the future most likely held for engines that polluted, large car-makers began turning out cars powered by electricity. Mitsubishi introduced the i-MiEV in 2010. Nissan’s LEAF EVcame on the scene in 2012, Renault rolled out its Fluence Z.E. and other car-makers including BMW, Volvo, Ford and Smart also unveiled EVs.

There was a brand new player in the car market: Tesla, whose founders were influenced to start the company after GM recalled and destroyed its EV1 electric cars in 2003.


What challenges are ahead for electric vehicles to gain widespread acceptance on a scale that can combat climate change?

Recent research by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that driving and charging an electric vehicle anywhere in the US produced fewer global warming emissions than driving an average new fossil fuel-powered vehicle. The research also showed that more than two-thirds of Americans live in areas where driving an average electric vehicle is better for the planet than even the most efficient hybrid vehicle on the market

UCS analysts examined all global warming emissions created during an electric car’s lifetime – from its production and years of driving to its eventual retirement.

They found that, although the production of lithium-ion batteries leads to more global warming emissions from the manufacturing of an electric car than a fossil fuel-powered car, manufacturing emissions were offset by reduced emissions.

In summary the researchers concluded:

  • Driving the average electric vehicle in any region of the US produced lower global warming emissions than the average new fossil fuel-powered car getting 29 miles per gallon (10 litres per 100km).
  • More than 66 percent of Americans now live in regions where powering an electric car on the regional electricity grid produces lower global warming emissions than a fossil fuel–powered or hybrid car getting 50 miles per gallon. (23 litres per 100 km).


 The Pipistrel Alpha Electro

A Western Australian start-up operation has launched its first electric-powered airplane.

The two-seater single-engine Pipistrel Alpha Electro has two batteries that can keep the plane in the air for an hour, with an extra 30 minutes in reserve.

Electro.Aero founder Joshua Portlock told the ABC: “Electric propulsion is a lot simpler than a petrol engine. Inside a petrol engine you have hundreds of moving parts. In this aircraft you have one switch to turn the aircraft on and one throttle lever to fly.”

The engine is powered by two lithium-ion batteries, similar to those used in the Tesla electric car.

There is no gear box or multiple moving engine parts; the motor attaches directly to the propeller.

A monitor tells the pilot the amount of power left in the battery, and estimated minutes of flight time.

The batteries are re-energised in about an hour by a supercharger at the airfield.

It is planned to use the plane on flights from Perth’s Jandakot Airport to Rottnest Island.

The push for electric flying machines is growing.

Airspace Experience Technologies, a subsidiary of Detroit Aircraft Corp, unveiled a sub-scale model of its autonomous, electric VTOL aircraft, “MOBi-ONE,” at the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit.

MOBi-ONE (above) is designed to autonomously takeoff like a helicopter, fly like a plane, and transport passengers or cargo between urban centres, suburbs, and airports within 60 mi (100 km). MOBi-ONE will fly at a top speed of 250 mph (about 400 km/h) operating on Electric Vehicle (EV) architecture and autonomous technologies.

The company’s goal is to deploy 2,500 aircraft at America’s 50 largest cities by 2026

Electric power is also on the agenda for NASA as it studies future flight.

A team of engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is researching high-pressure-ratio compact gas turbine engines, low-emission combustors, electric-enhanced propulsion and boundary-layer ingesting (BLI) engines.

The STARC-ABL concept, developed by NASA’s Jim Felder and Jason Welstead, is under consideration as one of NASA’s future X-planes. It looks similar to conventional planes but a significant amount of electrical power, about 3 MW, is used for turboelectric propulsion, in addition to the electrical operation of subsystems such as flight controls, avionics and de-icing.

A “T-tail” horizontal stabilizer configuration with a BLI ducted fan on the tail, which is driven purely by electric power derived from generators mounted to the underwing engines


  The new Formula-e car

The FIA Formula E Championship is the world’s first fully-electric international single-seater street racing series.

The Formula E series consists of 10 teams and 20 drivers, with races in 11 cities over five continents, throughout the seven-month championship season. Names behind the racing venture include Dallara, McLaren, Williams, Renault and Michelin.

Venues include New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Rome.

The cars resemble F1 racing cars, but without the noise and fuel loads.

An average Formula E car has a power of at least 250 hp (190 kW). The car is able to accelerate from 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph) in 3 seconds, with a maximum speed of 225 km/h (140 mph).

Formula E cars were given a make-over for the 2018-19 season – each team will have only one car instead of two where drivers changed cars mid-race as battery power diminished.

FI cars are more powerful and faster – Juan Pablo Montoya of the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team recorded a record top speed of 372.6 km/h (231.5 mph), in 2005, still officially recognised by the FIA as the fastest speed ever achieved by an F1 car, even though it was not set during an officially sanctioned session during a race weekend.

In 2016, most of the F1 cars were able to reach 370 km/h (the fastest were Bottas 372.5 km/h and Massa 371.7 km/h). New regulations including wider tyres meant the cars were a little slower in 2017.



Asleep at the wheel

The world has always turned on its wheels. And we’ve come a long way in 250 years.

The powered vehicles of today trace their origins directly back to the 18th Century and the age of steam.

French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot is credited with building the first working self-propelled mechanical vehicle. He was able to convert the reciprocating motion of a steam piston into rotary motion in miniature machines.

The Cugnot vehicle

In 1769 Cugnot’s steam-powered fardier à vapeur (steam dray) tricycle ran for about 20 minutes at a speed of 2.4 mph (3.6 km/h).

Though the steam age didn’t last a century it set the wheels in motion for the expansion of industry and transportation.

The diesel engine revolutionised land transport with its reliability and efficiency and whether a vehicle is moving people, minerals or heavy machinery, the power source more often than not will be a diesel engine.

The first practical pneumatic tyre (for a bicycle) was made by Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop in 1887, a development that was to be pivotal for the growth of moving vehicles, particularly when the Michelin brothers added inner tubes in 1895.

Further innovations of suspension, power steering, gearing and drive systems, braking and even asphalt roads made the powered vehicle probably the most significant development in world history. Add automatic transmission, air-conditioning and cruise control, and modern-day driving can be a pleasurable experience.

Developments in the 21st Century are taking transport to levels only envisaged decades ago by science fiction writers.

Steps to the driverless future

The next five to 10 years will see rapid development in driverless car technology.

There are five steps on the way to full autonomous vehicle movement, developed from proposals in 2014 by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

The “normal” car – level 0 – has full driver control; acceleration, steering and braking is all down to the driver; even if the car has emergency braking it is still considered a Level 0 vehicle.


Adding cruise control and parking assist creates Level 1. But the driver still controls acceleration, steering and braking and the driver must be ready at all times to take full control.

Level 2 is where the car can take over acceleration, steering and braking in certain conditions. But the driver must monitor the vehicle’s systems and be prepared to take over at any time.

At Level 3, the car itself can take over driving responsibilities such as emergency braking and changing lanes. Drivers are expected to take over within time limits set by the manufacturer. Self-driving is not a continuous process.

A Level 4 car can ask for human help but should be able to park itself and put its passengers in no danger if the help is not forthcoming.


Google self-driving car (left) and the Waymo offering

Google’s self-driving car is at this level and in November 2017 Waymo revealed it had been running Level 4 autonomous cars in Arizona, US, since mid-October.

At the top of the ladder is Level 5. No human attention, or indeed a human driver, is required with Level 5 autonomy, and a steering wheel is optional. This is where taxi and ride-share companies such as Uber are looking for their ultimate prize.

People, who needs people?

Almost every vehicle company is working on machines that can drive themselves – without a driver in charge of the wheel.

Many countries already have started grappling with the rules and regulations that will be needed. Australia is one country that appears to be lagging.

The lack of local car manufacturing and appropriate infrastructure has dropped Australia to 14th of 20 countries for autonomous vehicle readiness, according to a report by consulting group KPMG. The report says the key issues for Australia are “improvements to roads and electric charging infrastructure”.

Though well behind in readiness for driverless cars travelling the highways, driverless technology is not unknown in Australia – the country’s mining industry pioneered massive driverless trucks in 2008.

The survey of the 20 most AV-ready countries was based on four criteria: policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure and consumer acceptance. In terms of  policy and legislation, Australian made it to 11th.

The experts seem to agree – self-driving technology – eventually will save lives, make commutes more productive and ease congestion in cities. But they also expect there will be millions of people around the world who will still prefer to get behind the wheel for the “real” driving experience even if that means repairing, building and restoring conventional vehicles.

Nevertheless, cars, trucks and buses are all in line for hands-off operation.

Bob Lutz, former vice chairman and head of product development at General Motors, told a forum in Arizona early in 2018 he expected that in 10 years people-piloted cars will be banned in major cities in favour of standardised self-driving modules that won’t be individually owned.

So far, most attention has been on cars where partial automated systems have been tested over many years; there are cars that can park themselves, cars that can brake and steer themselves. Cars that don’t need a driver are about to hit the road.

Like the rush to electric cars, traditional automobile companies are active in driverless technology, along with some brash start-ups.

Driverless vehicles are not new, particularly in the heavy transport industry.

In the Pilbara mining region of Western Australia, heavy-duty trucks are already hauling loads along the dirt tracks with no driver at the wheel.

Mining company BHP started using driverless trucks at Jimblebar in the Pilbara in 2013. It now has more than 50 units.

They are big units, weighing more than 500 tonnes and stretching more than 53 ft (16m) long. The idea is to reduce the risk of human error – often caused by fatigue – while also improving the efficiency of mines.

Mining seems to be an industry where driverless vehicles have a significant impact and future.

In 2015 Rio introduced 57 driverless trucks from Japanese company Komatsu across four sites in its Australian Hope Downs 4 joint-ventures with Hancock Prospecting and tested its first autonomous train in the Pilbara.

Rio needed 60 drivers for 15 trucks, but with autonomous trucks this would be reduced to eight operators and larger maintenance crews.

In 2018, Rio Tinto’s massive trucks reached a milestone; the driverless fleet moved its one-billionth tonne of material in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Rio is the world’s largest operator of autonomous trucks and plans to operate up to 150 driverless dump trucks in Australia.

The trucks are fitted with GPS antennas, communications, laser and radar systems. They are fed data about the location, speed and direction of all manned and unmanned vehicles in the pit and can adjust speed and direction based on that information.

The massive driverless dumpers are steered from 745 mi (1,200 km) away in Perth by computer operators. Shifts run 24/7 throughout the year, hauling about 20 million tonnes of ore and saving a reported 500 work hours annually.

The company also is investing a billion dollars on driverless, high-tech trains to be controlled from a base in Perth and displace as many as 500 train drivers.

Other Australian mining companies are making truck drivers redundant, too.

Fortescue Metals Group signed with Caterpillar in 2011 and introduced a fleet of 12 driverless trucks on its Solomon Mine sites.

The autonomous units have in-built safety features which prevent them from colliding with other trucks and allow them to operate alongside manned vehicles.

Safety is another reason for the push to automation – 52 mine deaths in 12 years is a cause for concern.

Autonomous trucks have applications in general road freight. In Australia, although trucks are only 5% of the national vehicle population, they are represented in more than 18% of crashes, deaths and injuries.

Managing director of the ARRB road industry group, Gerard Waldron, says the potential cost savings to the Australian freight industry could be enormous.

He said: “The cost of trucking in Australia is in thirds: one-third wages, one-third fuel and one-third the standing cost of the truck. If you can take a driver out altogether, you’ve just saved one-third of your costs.”

 One leads three in a platooning trial

Autonomous trucks appear to have great potential in Australia where freight is hauled long distances. It is hard to imagine, however, that big rigs will operate without anyone aboard. Even with platooning, where several autonomous big trucks travel in line, a human probably will still be on board somewhere.

Japan trialled a three-truck one-driver run along the Shin-Tomei Expressway in  January 2018. The driver behind the wheel of the lead truck in a three-vehicle convoy controlled the brakes and accelerators of all three vehicles from his seat in the experiment using wireless transmission.

People transport is where the driverless revolution will have the biggest impact and will face the biggest challenges.

Telecommunications company Ericsson has joined Swedish public transport and technology providers in a trial of two electric self-driving shuttle buses on Stockholm roads. The project will tests how the autonomous vehicles perform under real-word conditions for an extended period alongside cars, cyclists and pedestrians.

 Stockholm’s trial

The fully-electric buses can carry 11 passengers (free of charge) at speeds of up to 24 km/h (15 mph) in non-ideal weather conditions. Their autonomous driving capabilities are supplied by Ericsson’s open API Connected Urban Transport (CUT) platform, which allows the buses to communicate with sensor-enabled bus stops, traffic lights and road-signs.

As reports appear daily on the advances being made in the driverless vehicle industry, a significant question will be the impact on employment.

Will jobs be created, or will jobs be lost? The scale of jobs involved in either scenario could be massive.

There can also be economic developments and lives saved. But it is the potential of jobs losses that worry some transport experts.

A report by Goldman Sachs in the US says the trucking industry could see driver job losses at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year. The report notes that in 2014, there were 4 million driver jobs in the US, 3.1 million of which were truck drivers, accounting for 2 % of total employment.

Add to the truckies other professional drivers, such as cabbies, chauffers and delivery people, and the total figure is put at 5 million by some industry analysts.

The Goldman Sachs report estimates that sales of semi and fully autonomous cars will have about a 20 % share of car sales sometime from 2025 to 2030.

On the upside for road users, some studies say that the driverless revolution around the world will save 600,000 lives by 2045.

 No driver at all

The transition to fully driverless cars will take time, maybe a long time. There will be accidents when roads are shared by drivers and the driverless cars but accident aversion technology should mean they will become fewer and less severe.

There are other side issues.

Imagine a world where a driverless electric car picks you up from your home and drops you at your workplace door then heads off on its next task. If owned privately it may even head off back home and wait until it is called to come and collect you after work.

The driverless car will not exceed speed limits and will not require day-long parking at someone’s expense.

What will happen to parking and traffic infringement revenue? There probably won’t be much sympathy for those losses, but again there will be an impact on revenue for various authorities – and more job losses. The electric motor revolution also has revenue implications for countries that impose excise on fossil-fuels. It is usually argued that much of this revenue is returned to the upkeep of the roads themselves.

Automotive innovation will be world-changing. We have survived the robotics revolution that has changed many industries (including vehicle manufacture) so why won’t we survive the driverless vehicle revolution?

History tells us that the world has not always embraced great change that impacts on employment.

 You didn’t want one of these in the mail

The so-called “swing riots” in England in 1830, though an agricultural phenomenon highlighted what can happen when the lives of people are affected by technological advances.

Threatening letters sent to land-owners and farmers were signed ‘Swing‘ — the probably fictitious leader of the protests.

At the root of the dissent was the introduction of automated threshing machines. Thousands of men were no longer need to harvest the crops. With fewer jobs, lower wages and little prospect of improvement, the laborers took matters into their own hands as they found themselves and their families on the brink of starvation. The Swing Rioters smashed threshing machines and threatened farmers who had them.

The riots were dealt with very harshly. Records show nine of the rioters were hanged and a further 450 transported to Australia.

Perhaps the 21st Century will treat innovation more kindly than did the 19th Century. Perhaps society is more sophisticated these days and good will come from what looms as one of the biggest changes in technology since the first motor-powered vehicle moved 250 years ago.

After all, research company Strategy Analytics is expecting the driverless revolution to unleash a $US 7 trillion boost to the world’s economy ($US 2 trillion in American alone). A lot of that will come from the data collection and information technology industries.

So how is the world preparing for the motoring revolution that is under way?

Infrastructure is a key issue for electric vehicles. There are issues too for roads carrying driverless vehicles.

The obvious problem to be faced is that roads will be shared by conventional vehicles and the new-breed driverless ones.

In the UK, the Government has a lot of work to do before the autonomous vehicles begin operating in 2021.

Motorways and roads will need to be upgraded so they can be shared. The possibility of human error in conventional vehicles needs to be kept apart from the computerised vehicle that should not make mistakes.

There are also legal issues about liability if something goes wrong with a car that’s not being driven by anybody. No doubt there are lawyers eagerly looking at possible scenarios in this area.

Accidents will be inevitable where there is a mix of driverless and conventional vehicles sharing the same road; crash-avoidance technology that works will be a serious challenge.

And as computers will be a driving force, the possibility also arises of hacking and the damage that could be done.

Progress report

 Tesla trials its Autopilot

Tesla boasts that all the vehicles it produces, including Model 3, have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.

Central to this is Tesla Autopilot, which is an advanced driver-assistance system that features lane-centering, adaptive cruise control, self-parking, and enables the car to be summoned to and from a garage or parking spot.

Improvements in Enhanced Autopilot include automatically changing lanes without driver input, transitioning from one freeway to another, and leaving a freeway when the destination is near.

Further innovation will be subject to regulation and technical hurdles, but the aim is for cars to have full self-driving by the end of 2019.

 Audi’s self-driving A8

Audi claims its A8 is the first to reach level 3 (conditional automation) on the five-stage development of driverless vehicles (level 5 is full automation). One of its features is its Traffic Jam Pilot, which allows it to accelerate, brake and steer itself at speeds of up to 35 mph (60 km/h).

Many cars are already driving themselves on roads in some parts of the world, still mostly in test phase, however.

In the US, for example they can be found in California, Texas, Arizona, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Michigan; they are still restricted to specific test areas and driving conditions.

It is likely that in the start-up phase laws will require a person to be in the car, able to wrest controls back to a manual operation in an emergency. The car with no steering wheel may still be a long way off.

But the would-be players are hard at work and the level of automation that will be available is not clear.

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, began operating its autonomous minivans on public roads in Arizona without a safety driver — or any human at all — behind the wheel in October 2017. Next step was to add passengers.

The cars didn’t have unlimited use of Arizona’s roads. They were “geofenced” within a 100-square-mile (120 sq km) area of the town of Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix .

Waymo has also announced partnerships with Lyft, an on-demand transportation company based in San Francisco that develops, that markets and operates the Lyft car transportation mobile app and challenges the growing Uber operation.

Waymo also has partnerships with Avis, and Intel.

 A Baidu self driving version

Baidu, a Chinese internet company, has been testing its self-driving-car technology since 2015.

The Beijing-based manufacturer already has a small number of autonomous vehicles for a shared shuttle service and plans to mass-produce self-driving cars in 2021.

In August 2016, nuTonomy, a Boston-based startup, became the first company to launch a fleet of self-driving taxis under a pilot program in Singapore. It has also joined with Lyft to launch a pilot trial in Boston.

Lyft, a smaller rival to Uber, is teaming team up with Ford to develop self-driving cars that are expected to be road-ready in 2021. It also has an arrangement with GM to create a network of ride-hailing, self-driving vehicles.

Uber, which has shaken up the taxi industry, has a partnership with Daimler and plans to buy up to 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo, expected to be the XC90 SUVs, which are equipped with autonomous technology.

Uber says its self-driving cars (with human drivers on standby) have logged over two million test miles (3.2 million km) with 50,000-plus rides since 2016.

According to a Business Insider report, Honda appears to be focussing on expanding its assisted-driving features in its current vehicles rather than pushing for full autonomy but is apparently is interested in supplying vehicles for Waymo’s test fleet.

Obviously, new technology is needed for driverless cars. One company heavily investing in developing the computer platforms that are needed is NVIDIA, also renowned for high-end gaming technology.

NVIDIA’s Drive PX2 is a liquid cooled super-computer to enable self-driving.

Nvidia has linked with Uber to develop self-driving cars and freight trucks via its PX2 processing platform.

Toyota, like Honda, is taking a conservative approach to development, but has invested heavily in research – $US 1 billion over five years. The main project brief is to come up with a car that’s incapable of causing a crash.

Tesla plans to add Autopilot to its electric vehicles, claiming it will have a self-driving car on the road from Los Angeles to New York by 2019 to demonstrate the technology.

Group PSA of France (formerly PSA Peugeot Citroen) is the second-largest car manufacturer in Europe and is planning to have fully driverless cars on the road in 2020. Four of the automaker’s self-driving cars drove 360 miles (580 km) between Paris and Bordeaux in France in October 2015.

Volkswagen, the world’s biggest carmaker, has formed a partnership with Aurora Innovation with the aim of introducing autonomous driving technology to its brands that include Audi, Skoda, Seat, Porsche and Lamborghini. Volkswagen produces about 10 million cars each year.

Hyundai plans to have a suite of self-driving features in production vehicles by 2021.

Volvo says it plans to make its cars “death-proof” by 2020 by rolling out semi-autonomous features over time. Its self-driving cars have been tested in Gothenburg and London and a trial is also being planned for China.

BMW plans to release a fully driverless car in 2021 and has teamed up with Intel and Mobileye.

Daimler has installed semi-autonomous features in brands such as the Mercedes S-Class and E-Class cars.

Mercedes driverless truck

A Mercedes big-rig truck made history in 2015 when it drove itself on a public highway. Daimler aims to have driverless trucks road-ready in 2020.

Daimler has released its ProPILOT self-driving feature in its production vehicles in Japan.

Renault-Nissan also plans to roll out ProPILOT in Europe, the US, and China with fully self-driving models available in 2020.

GM filed a Safety Petition with the US Department of Transportation early in 2018 for its fourth-generation self-driving Cruise AV, the first production-ready vehicle built from the start to operate safely on its own, with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls

Timeline graphic  from The Medical Futurist

  • References for this series of articles include company websites, media releases and media and industry reports, including analysis done by Navigant. These articles were prepared in early 2018 and rapid technological advances may overtake some references.