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Rethinking the Sustainable Electric Automobile

By Rob Enderle
Feb 1, 2021 4:00 AM PT
electronic vehicle charging station

Qualcomm last week announced several products that will be used to enhance next-generation automobiles. These future cars will most certainly be electric and increasingly autonomous.

The underlying technology has applications in emerging markets like robotics, automated businesses, and even smart cities; because when you develop an automated control that can handle the complexities of driving on a public street, you have a foundation to automate pretty much anything.

This opportunity is why other companies like Intel and Nvidia are chasing this as well; it isn't just the car market. We're talking about an industrial revolution of epic scale. Let's discuss that this week, and we'll close with my product of the week, the coming Cadillac that could be more of a technology showcase than anything Tesla has.

Today's Cars Are a Mess

I grew up working on cars. My father had a shop when I was young, and I worked for a very short time as an apprentice mechanic in a Jaguar shop.

There was a time -- must have been in the 1980s -- when I was sitting on the curb in front of a hamburger place drinking a soda. Two kids came up driving what looked like a late 60's Chevy and proceeded to showcase their ignorance. They said they knew a lot about cars -- and didn't want a lecture from me -- but wondered what the round thing on top of their engine was. It was the air filter, and it was all I could do not to be kind of snide about their "automotive expertise."

These days, finding that damned air cleaner is a heck of a lot harder than it once was. At one time I could pretty much rebuild one. Now, I open up the hood, turn white, and then make an appointment with a mechanic. Just pulling off some of the cosmetic engine covers can be an exercise in advanced problem solving. You can have multiple networks and sensors all over the car. Thankfully we don't have many electrical shorts like we did when I was young because it would take divine intervention to find one today.

Electric cars are better in some ways and worse in others. They tend to be simpler, but few are trained to work with high-voltage DC. Lithium-Ion burns hot enough to melt aluminum.

I had an extended battery go up a few years back on an electric bike and nearly lost my house. The problem was that even though the battery was in a steel firebox, the company hadn't specified the screws correctly, and the fire melted them, causing containment to fail, and the bike tires caught on fire. Fortunately, I trained to fight fires, and I got it out, but it still cost me nearly $10K to repair the smoke and fire damage.

While gas is arguably worse, more people know how to work with it, so if you have a car fire, chances are the folks that show up will know how to deal with it. Odds are still, given how rare electric cars still are, that most first responders are not yet fully trained to work on electrics.

For instance, you can't smother an electric car fire. Instead, focus on cooling the battery until the cascading failure of the cells stops. But even if the fire is out, it can ignite again if there is a short that heats the battery to combustion levels. I've seen many electric cars that had earlier caught fire catch fire again hours later where they are stored. I've often thought it would be handy to have an "eject battery button," much like Star Trek can eject the warp core, so you can save the rest of the car if the battery goes up.

Here is a link to how to deal with an electric vehicle fire. If you encounter one, you should know this because there is still a good chance that some first responders do not.

But the reason cars are a mess is they rarely are designed from the ground up. They are a hot mess of technologies that range from current to going back decades -- that mostly weren't designed to work together. These technologies are all smooshed into a body done by designers who are more focused on aesthetics than ease of use, with one goal: to survive the warranty period.

Oh, and car companies make money by selling cars, and their sales channel makes money on servicing them, so the economics don't lead to sustainable models or even, apparently, a focus on loyalty.

Tesla

Tesla messed around with fixing this. It did many things right and a few things wrong.

First, Tesla cars tend to be ground-up designs. They have heavily armored battery packs placed low in the car, which are safer and create a better cornering experience than car designs that started with gas motors and were reimagined as electric cars. They are designed to make upgrades, and Tesla, unlike other carmakers, refurbishes and updates its used cars for resale. It's even had programs (I'm not sure they still exist) that allowed you to update your car rather than replace it, which arguably makes Tesla the best sustainable car maker.

On the downside, Tesla's quality control sucks; and they weld their car bodies together. These problems result in them getting totaled after accidents that would only result in bodywork in more traditional cars. Tesla does brain-dead-stupid things like calling its cruise control "Autopilot," which leads to behavior that has killed a number of Tesla owners -- and their Autopilot is far from the best, falling well back of Cadillac in testing.

What slays me in Autopilot is that when Musk and I were much younger, a story was floating around about a guy who rented a motorhome and asked about the cruise control. He was told it worked like an autopilot. So he set the cruise control and went back to make himself a cup of coffee. It didn't end well.

You'd think that anyone with Musk's intellect would fricken know not to call cruise control Autopilot -- because people would do something like the guy in that motorhome did -- and, they have -- and people continue to do crazy things like this dangerous use of Tesla Autopilot:

This makes me think Musk should be charged with negligent homicide for effectively promoting this behavior with his feature-naming scheme. I mean, if you know calling cruise control Autopilot will kill people, and you do it anyway, shouldn't there be repercussions?

You might wonder why I'm concerned. It is because Tesla's are built like tanks, and my and your car likely aren't, which means if one hits you, you probably aren't going to survive, but the driver asleep in the Tesla probably will.

Consumer reports has been trying to get Tesla to rename this function for years. Still, Musk says 'no' because he prioritizes looking right past keeping Tesla drivers, and folks that drive on the roads with Teslas, alive.

Qualcomm's Game-Changing Approach

Qualcomm, which last week represented that it is the increasingly smart automobile space leader, has a far more integrated approach.

Working with BlackBerry (QNX) and Google (Android), they propose to rethink car design with a single integrated approach to operational parts of the car and the entertainment segments. Android's entertainment components will have access to that platform's deep application base for security and safety. The car's operational part will use QNX, arguably the most secure operating system in total production (used in nuclear power plants), assuring the car can't easily be hacked.

Also, Qualcomm is advocating for modularity and an upgrade path, which, if implemented, would result in far more sustainable cars that would more often be upgraded than replaced. This approach should significantly reduce the amount cars ending up in junkyards and landfills.

Finally, Qualcomm showcased viable Level 4 autonomous capability that should solve Tesla's problem by turning their Autopilot into something that made roads safer for Tesla drivers and those driving around them.

It is well past time we started a process to do ground-up redesigns of these upcoming cars. Hence, these cars' mechanical components were as easily replaceable as electronics, but Qualcomm has done its part -- and were it me, starting next year, I'd look at cars using its technology as safer, greener, and far more user friendly. GM seems to have the inside track. I have my eye on the coming Cadillac Lyriq, which should work and look better than a Tesla -- and be far less likely to kill you. I tend to think that not killing you should be a required feature of every automobile.

Wrapping Up

We are about to go through some significant personal transportation changes, with personal flying vehicles advancing faster than regulations, electric cars moving from niche vehicles to the general market, and car building materials moving from metals to composites.

If existing car companies don't get their acts together, they could lose the market much like the cell phone companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Palm, and Microsoft got slam dunked by Apple. (By the way, Apple is working on a car line.)

GM is clearly on the right path, and companies like Volvo, Audi, and Mercedes are in the hunt -- and don't forget the impressive Mustang Mach-E from Ford, or my own Jaguar I-Pace. I sense that many of the existing car firms won't be around in a decade, and we'll have many new companies as we move from car ownership to car services, and our cars start driving us.

The future of the car is coming, and it will change the relative status of every automobile company on the planet. I expect, as it is with the most massive disruptions, most won't survive. Those that understand that they need to shift to more electronics and adopt sustainability and service models will come out just fine. We'll see...

Rob Enderle's Technology Product of the Week

The Cadillac Celestiq

My heart is now set on the coming Cadillac Lyriq, but GM's real showcase electric car will be the Cadillac Celestiq. The Celestiq is a sister car to the Lyriq and isn't due until 2024. But it has some impressive, unique technology that should make it a showcase.

However, given we have around three years until it shows up, many things can change in the market before the Celestiq arrives. Along with the Lyriq, it should showcase what Qualcomm presented last week at its event -- which is why I'm covering it early.

It won't be a cheap date. Showcase cars rarely are. While the Lyriq's base price is $60K, the Celestiq starts at $90K. Still, it should be competitively priced against German and Tesla alternatives in the same class, if not a tad cheaper.

The Celestiq will have both four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, and if it has, as is rumored, one motor per wheel, it will be one of the first cars that can regulate the power to each wheel independently. Today's electric cars typically have two motors and, by regulating them, can generally outperform their internal combustion engine (ICE) alternatives in the snow, ice, and even sand. Performance is expected to be in line with the Tesla S, and if so, we could see some remarkable sub-3 second 0-60 times from this car once it arrives.

Cadillac Celestiq
Cadillac Celestiq
It will be the first car I know of that has smart glass (once again, three years until it shows up, so it may not be alone by then). Smart glass can be darkened electronically.

The range is expected to be between 300 and 400 miles, but they did speak about new battery technology at CES, which could push top-end versions of this car to the critical 500-mile range. That'd be a game changer for electrics because 500 miles should cover high-speed charger placement across the country by the time it shows up -- and it would be better than adequate for most of us today.

Currently, Cadillac has the best Level 2+ autonomous driving technology on the road (Tesla is a distant second), and it should get a lot better by 2024 when this car is likely to first appear as a 2025 model.

Fast charging continues to improve, and this car is expected to have a revolutionary new battery that can safely charge faster. That will be critical because Tesla has new batteries coming, and they look impressive on paper.

Like the Mercedes MBUX Hyperscreen dash developed with Nvidia, and showcased at CES, the Celestiq will have a similar display, but I expect it will come from Qualcomm. Comparing the two should best showcase how the Qualcomm and Nvidia approach to in-car displays competitively hold up.

If you want to see what is coming in electric cars, check out the Celestiq. I think it is less like a better Tesla S and more like an inexpensive Mercedes Maybach, making 2024 rather interesting at the high end of the car market.

This Cadillac may be worth waiting for -- and because it is a model of where high-end electric cars will likely be by mid-decade, the Celestiq is my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.


Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.


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