NEWS: I, Driverless Vehicle! Plus: YieldCos Go Bump

Posted by Lexie Briggs on May 20, 2016 11:11:53 AM


We were promised flying cars. Those Jetsons-mobiles careening through the air sure seemed like the way of the future… until we actually considered traffic logistics in a three-dimensional airspace. The future of transportation is closer at hand than ever before, though, and it just might be Rosie the Robot at the wheel rather than George Jetson. Driverless vehicles are fast becoming a reality, and companies are preparing for a new automotive frontier – and potential blowback. 

TechCrunch recently published a story pointing out that the first automotive industry to go automated would undoubtedly be long-haul trucking, and that it would lead to millions of lost jobs for drivers. Shipping a full truckload cross-country costs approximately $4,500, with labor representing three-quarters of the cost. This month we heard about some companies making it happen. 

Otto, a startup working to automate long haul trucking – not the Portland, Maine-based pizza shop – has brought together together talent from Google, Apple, Tesla, and other tech and automotive juggernauts. Instead of building an all-new kind of truck, though, Otto is looking to build a kit for existing trucks that could be installed on trucks already on the road today, or in a factory setting for trucks hitting the road in the next few years. Unlike some driverless technology, it doesn’t take the human factor totally out of the equation. Otto is focusing on automating highway driving, preferring to let humans handle in-town and city streets. The company is testing the kits on Volvo’s VNL 780, which the Volvo website touts as “the ultimate truck.”

Even though driverless technology could be described as a slightly smarter cruise control, Otto and others building out driverless trucks (Daimler and Volvo both have teams developing their own systems) still need to contend with current policy – specifically, that it was written with a human driver in mind. Chris Ziegler, writing for Verge, points out that, though the automated truck “might be able to safely operate for many more hours than a human who is always in full control,” it’s still up to the regulators to decide if the limits on human drivers will extend to human/robot teams

Meanwhile, German automakers are making waves in electric vehicles. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Audi’s CEO pledged to bring to market one new electric (or hybrid-electric) car every year, starting in 2018. The company plans to launch its electric SUV, likely called a Q6 E-tron, which is expected to have a range of more than 300 miles (though, the CSMonitor points out, this figure is based on European standards and will probably be lower in the statesEPA might rate it lower after tests). Beyond that, Audi expects that, by 2025, a full quarter of all its cars would plug in to recharge.

Audi’s parent company, VW, has been facing some harsh criticism in the American market for its emissions data. The company’s “clean diesel” vehicles proved to be decidedly less clean than VW promised. But clean diesel vehicles dominate the advanced vehicle market in Europe in a way they do not in the United States. And, as VW has struggled to update more than 11 million diesel-powered vehicles globally in response to revelation of its emissions cheating, the company has begun to advocate more and more for electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, BMW is tearing up the electric vehicle sales, with BMW Blog (technically unaffiliated with the company) reporting that electric vehicles make up a full 10% of BMW sales. 

Electric vehicles continue their rapid growth outside of Germany as well. In fact, companies lacking electric vehicle options are finding themselves facing investors scared of being left behind – just check out SeekingAlpha’s take on Fiat Chrysler’s lack of EVs and what that means for the company.

Enough about cars. What about buses? AEE member Proterra unveiled a “massive” new 330 kWh battery pack for electrified buses this week. The new battery pack stores 28% more energy than the last model (imagine just growing another quarter of a gas tank!) and all 63 buses currently on the road will receive a complimentary upgrade.

“Our goal is to enable a complete replacement of fossil-fueled transit vehicles,” said Ryan Popple, Proterra's CEO. “By steadily improving the range and charging capability of our purpose-built EV transit vehicles, we’re broadening the market for EV transit very quickly, enabling more cities and more routes to go zero emission sooner.” 

Looking to the skies, Solar Impulse 2, the plane powered entirely by AEE member SunPower’s solar panels, landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier this week, as it continued its journey across the U.S. The plane ended its nine-month layover in Hawaii late last month and made it to San Francisco, continuing on to Phoenix. This week it landed in Tulsa due to some severe weather, and the team is looking to continue on to New York as soon as possible. In the meantime, Oklahomans were able to stop by and see the plane for themselves during a two-day exhibition (originally the team had planned for just one day for public viewing, but tickets proved too popular!). It’s impressive, to be sure, though the plane, which has 17,000 solar cells spread over wings the size of a jumbo jet in order to lift about the weight of a car, is not exactly ready for cargo shipping or long passenger flights.

Our final word this week comes from the world of yieldcos. Back in February, Dan Scripps identified yieldcos as one of the Four Trends to Watch in Energy Finance… but not necessarily because it would be a stunning success. As he wrote then, 2016 was shaping up as “A Tale of Two Yieldco Markets.” Yieldcos with a strong sponsor could take advantage of the new extensions of the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit, but, Dan predicted, for yieldcos without strong sponsors, 2016 might prove to be tough times.

This week we saw that born out, as UtilityDive published “Yieldco problems: systemic or a speed bump?” Overall, UtilityDive reports, yieldcos have raised $3.8 billion, but investors stopped chomping at the bit in mid-2015, when oil prices started to fall, and which somehow impacted wind and solar investments, when they weren’t oil-dependent at all. What does the future hold for yieldcos? We’ll let you know on Advanced Energy Perspectives.

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Topics: News Update