UNSW forum tackles big questions from shift to electric and self-driving cars

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Industry and academia can work together to address the challenges in an industry excited by the opportunties offered by EVs and autonomous vehicles.

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The electrification of the transport sector is likely to be one of the most fundamental developments of the 21st century, that will reshape the way we use energy, the way we plan transport systems throughout our cities and require the creation of new skills and industries.

Attendees at the UNSW’s Electrifying Transportation forum this week made clear that they understand the issues and are already working quickly to tackle the challenges head on, and are keen to share their findings and seek out opportunities to collaborate on crucial solutions.

The forum, an initiative of the University’s Digital Grid Futures Institute, was designed to stimulate greater cooperation between researchers and emerging technology companies to solve challenges to the electrification of transport systems, at the same time as there is an accelerating shift towards transport automation.

The forum heard from high profile academics at the UNSW, as well as representatives of Tesla, AGL Energy, NRMA, Tritium, and consultancy Aurecon.

There was common consensus among speakers on the three core barriers to current uptake of electric vehicles: the availability of public charging infrastructure; prices compared to petrol vehicles, and; ongoing concerns about range.

Thankfully, one of the key takeaways from the forum is that both the industry and academia are deeply aware of these issues, and we are well on the way to solving each of these problems.

UNSW has been a leader in global renewable energy research, following decades of record breaking research that has taken solar energy out of the lab, having developed and pioneered solar cell designs that are set to dominate the global solar PV market.

The leader of that research, professor Martin Green, told the forum that solar energy technologies also had a role to play in the transport sector, with the potential for solar technologies to directly solve the concerns about vehicle range and access to charging facilities.

The integration of solar modules into vehicle design could provide the means for to source enough of their own power for most people’s day to day needs.

“Those of you that have seen solar cars are going to say ‘well, that’s not going to work’. You’ve seen these little light cars covered with solar cells with enough space for one person and no room for luggage. But those cars are designed to travel 1,000 kilometres in a day, and the average Australian commuter travels less than 30 kilometres in a day.”

“Dutch solar car manufacturer Lightyear recently unveiled a solar car prototype, that it intends to develop into a production vehicle, that would allow many commuters to travel as much as 10,000 km in a year, while only requiring the car to be plugged in to recharge twice in the year,” Green told the forum.

“What we want to do is developing something that looks like solar paint, something that’s also very aesthetically pleasing. Using a few technology tricks, we believe you’ll be able to turn the body of a car into one big solar cell and collect the electricity from all the body panels.”

Hyundai also recently released a version of its Sonata hybrid car with integrated solar modules, which is predominantly used to maintain the level of charge and health of the vehicle’s battery.

AGL Energy’s Electric Vehicles lead Kristian Handberg said that electricity retailers and network companies need to begin planning for a surge in electric vehicle uptake to ensure the energy system was ready to handle an increase in electricity demand and a shift in the peak demand periods.

“It always comes back to how you can incentivise a better outcome. If you’re talking about a commercial entity, or just a normal human, you’ve got to provide them with a benefit somehow for them to change their behaviour,” Handberg said.

AGL has been examining approaches to the coordination of electric vehicle charging that avoids the creation of new demand peaks, resulting in increased strain on the electricity system and eventual cost increases for consumers.

AGL hopes that it will be able to develop and deploy a system that would allow the charging system to adapt to consumer needs, and allow consumers to indicate their preferences around cost, the urgency of charging and the management of network constraints.

“We can create a pricing schedule that reflects when excess generation will be available, when power is going to be expensive, and we can use that as an effective control signal that the cars themselves can respond to,” Handberg said.

“We will provide information that will allow the cars to respond to it according to customer preference. As long as we’re sharing a financial incentive, and we’ve set this control signal in the right way, this gets around the problems of surveillance, privacy, the individual actors can set what they want to happen.”

The NRMA’s Nell Payne highlighted that up to 40 per cent of their customers are considering the purchase of a new electric vehicle within the next few years and expects that adoption of EVs will accelerate in much the same way as the adoption of televisions, mobile phone and the internet have transformed the way people communicate with each other.

The NRMA has also found that there’s a need for new industries to emerge as part of a shift from petrol powered to electric driven vehicles, including an increasing focus on the role of vehicle software.

“The average car in Australia today has ten million lines of code in it. If you know how an alternator works, or how a fuel pump works, that’s excellent, but you’re driving a computer.”

“People who are qualified mechanics, who go to TAFE for three years to get an apprenticeship, they’re actually solving some really complex problems with some really unsophisticated tools”.

The NRMA has committed to invest $10 million in the roll out of fast-charging infrastructure across the Australian east-coast, including the recently installed fast-charger system in Byron Bay using the platform developed by Tritium.

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