REPRINT: Canadian Automotive Fleet magazine

In an interview in London, John Rich, who is the operations chief of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, revealed that the “thing that worries me least in this world is decreasing demand for cars,” because “we will exhaust and crush a car every four years in this business.”

Currently, the average U.S car owner hangs on to their vehicle for 12 years. Americans have been maintaining their cars longer in part due to the increase in technology in the vehicles. In 2002, IHS Markit said the average age of a vehicle in operation was 9.6 years.

Rich elaborated on his four year lifespan estimate. “Today’s vehicles spend most of the day parked. To develop a profitable, viable business model for AV, they need to be running almost the entire day.” Ford won’t be selling these cars to individuals any time soon. Instead, it plans to use the cars in autonomous fleets that will be used as a service by other companies. Including as delivery vehicles. Ford sees the “initial commercialization of AVs to be fleet-centric,” said Rich.

It is most likely that these autonomous vehicles will be at first, internal combustion vehicles. Rich says Ford will transition to battery-electric vehicles (BEV) eventually, but that the company also needs to “find the right balance that will help develop a profitable, viable business model. This means launching with hybrids first.”

In his words, the challenges with BEVs as autonomous vehicles right now includes a “lack of charging infrastructure where we need to operate an AV fleet. Charging stations and infrastructure needs to be built that will add to the already capital-intensive nature of developing the AV technology and operations.”

Another challenge is the “depletion of range from on-board tech. Testing shows that upwards of 50 percent of BEV range will be used up due to the computing power of an AV system, plus the A/C and entertainment systems that are likely required during a ride hailing service or passenger comfort.”

Rich also says that Ford also worries about utilization, “The whole key to running a profitable AV business is utilization – if cars are sitting on chargers, they aren’t making money.”

And it’s worried about battery degradation, given that while “fast charging is needed daily to run an AV fleet, it degrades the battery if used often,” he said.

Four year’s for a vehicle isn’t a long time. One positive note is that while Ford’s cars may not last long, between 80 and 86% of a cars material can be recycled and reused.