Why self-driving cars should be all-electric cars

Want more great analysis of electric and sustainable transport? Sign up for Transport Weekly, our free email newsletter.

One of the largest electric vehicle charging stations planned in North America — with 25 fast chargers and 50 ports — could start operating in a waterfront San Francisco neighborhood sometime next year. 

In recent weeks, the self-driving car company Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, filed a project application to build the huge fast-charging hub in the city’s Bayview district. Cruise’s planned robotaxi service, which would provide Uber-style ride-hailing but in self-driving electric cars, would use the chargers to power up throughout the day and night.

The project will need to be approved by the city and will face hurdles along the way, including the not-so-minor detail that the self-driving technology isn’t currently operating commercially. But the plan represents the future of electric, autonomous and shared transportation. It also signals an important tenet for the infant autonomous vehicle industry: Self-driving cars should be electric.

The planned charging project is “at the heart of our urgent action,” said Robert Grant, senior vice president of governmental affairs and social impact at Cruise, in an interview. “Fifteen years from now we can’t transform autonomous vehicles into electric vehicles. We need to be all-electric now.”

Fifteen years from now we can’t transform autonomous vehicles into electric vehicles. We need to be all-electric now.

Every planned vehicle in the Cruise network will be electric. The company’s majority owner and carmaker partner GM is providing the vehicles, including the Origin, an electric vehicle designed for shared ride-hailing. 

Google’s self-driving car company, Waymo, is also using all-electric cars for its vehicles. Waymo started operating its robotaxi service to the general public in Phoenix late last year.

Lyft and Uber are in the process of trying to convert parts of their human-driver ride-hailing networks over to EVs in the next decade. Both companies have invested in self-driving tech over the years, but Uber sold off its autonomous division last year. 

Cruise is urging the emerging robotaxi industry to opt for electric from the very start. “We’ve issued a challenge for the rest of the industry,” Grant said.

Cruise isn’t the only one. Last month, California Sen. Dave Min (D-Orange County) introduced SB 500, which would require all autonomous vehicles to be zero-emission by 2025. The bill is backed by the Union of Concerned Scientists and would affect not just self-driving ride-hailing services, but also autonomous delivery and trucking strategies. 

We’ll see if the bill progresses. But the sentiment seems to be popular enough, and it aligns with California’s variety of zero-emission vehicle regulations such as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s gasoline-car ban and the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which applies to truck manufacturers and eventually truck fleet buyers. 

Electrification of robotaxis also makes sense economically. One problem with the deployment of fast chargers in the early stage of the EV market is that they’re expensive to build and are only profitable if they see heavy use. However, with the small number of EVs on the roads today, it can be difficult to find locations and applications that generate a lot of use.

Heavily-used ride-hailing vehicles represent a good fit with a large fast-charging station such as the one Cruise hopes to build.