The future of cars may come through driving hybrids

By Yuval Levin , CNN

Technology is disassembling the world. Cars are the logical next vehicle for this transformation. Almost every car of the future will already be self-driving, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, but it will be a modern owner’s car. Many currently are unlikely to ever achieve the set of demands Americans like. They will have a limited range of between 200 and 300 miles and, unlike most other cars, are not designed to accommodate extended-range or fast-charging technologies.

We have now reached a point where this problem can be solved. For example, hybrid drives are beginning to catch on with buyers. These drives use a small internal combustion engine that kicks in to provide an electric boost when the driver switches from car to zero. We are now beginning to see hybrid drives like this that are achieving the range promised by many of the predictions. On Friday, the California-based startup Faraday Future showed off a prototype hybrid called FFZERO1 that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in under two seconds. It has a claimed range of 300 miles.

There are a number of factors that need to go into the mix to guarantee that a car like this can be commercialized. We need the drive’s battery to be charged within eight hours. We also need a driver’s assistance system that recognizes when the driver’s foot is stepping on the brake and can first brake at its own will and then grab the wheel when the driver’s foot is shifting back onto the accelerator. If we don’t have these features, we will just be swapping out one of the electric drive’s electric motors with a conventional internal combustion one, no different from taking the battery off a run-of-the-mill truck or SUV.

But these are the main steps necessary. There are a number of other elements that can be added. Connectivity will require a new, more robust network (while connectivity for devices has been fundamental for smartphones, for example, it hasn’t been essential to the safety of cars). Cross-platform vehicles will also need to have software and hardware developed that works across a number of different platforms. Software will need to know to take full advantage of augmented reality displays or other technology that will be invisible to the driver.

And finally, for the new plug-in hybrid technology to be successful in the vast majority of different types of cars, there must be an economic incentive for consumers to buy it. Policy must take a closer look at the types of vehicles that get the highest-cost batteries for each model year. They should consider in the bigger picture the aggregate cost of energy, which is why electric cars may become more affordable. Under its current policy approach, the federal government encourages manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient cars because this is good for the environment. But should all the companies in the market have incentives to build low-cost electric cars? No, it makes more sense for Congress to consider and adapt this approach to hybrid drives, which are already much more efficient than their gasoline cousins, but which may soon become the most efficient type of car we all drive.

The research, engineering and policy efforts in all these areas are already underway and are likely to provide a range of innovation. Three years from now, if the right technology is available, hybrid drives could be the basis for an electric car that does not drain much of its power supply just when it’s moving. A breakthrough on batteries will mean a wider range on a standard battery pack, or it could reduce the price of batteries to the point where everyone will be able to afford them. The technological innovations of the next few years may take us from owning just one electric car, as is currently the case, to owning several across multiple platforms.

Ultimately, the goal should be no more cars that need to have their battery charge siphoned off to run at inefficient performance. That is especially true as more of us become comfortable with riding in a hybrid. The best way to reduce the number of cars that need a charge is through an overwhelming market incentive for what would otherwise seem like an arcane technology. If there is a widespread public demand for a new sort of efficient car, then other manufacturers and technology companies will jump into it.

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