Navigant Research Blog

Why There Are No Self-Driving Commercial Buildings, Part 1

Noah Goldstein — September 4, 2015

Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles are being developed, researched, and taxed with vigor. In a recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, Navigant Research described how this technological landscape will evolve. From a distance—and with perfect 20/20 hindsight—cars are a perfect match for incorporating intelligence. Autonomous vehicles are going to succeed in removing the human in the loop—delivering the key services and value we desire: getting from place to place in a comfortable climate with the right music mix. But what about the other technological systems our society relies on? The concept of the self-healing grid is helping to make the U.S. electrical system more resilient. Driverless transit systems, or people movers, are now a common sight, especially in airports. This is the first of two blogs that explore why the self-driving paradigm has not been fully present in commercial buildings, even with the vast recent technological advances.

Building automation, which we’ve reported on in our Commercial Building Automation Systems report, focuses on feedback systems for individual systems, like heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) or lighting. The goal of the system is to perform according to a specification, providing key services (lighting, heating, and safety) to commercial building inhabitants. Yet, regardless of the advances in building automation, there are few examples of large commercial buildings operating without a human in the loop. In most commercial buildings, facility managers play a key role in problem solving, installing new equipment, and ongoing maintenance. But why is there still a human needed for the system to run? If they can put a man on the moon or have a car drive at 65 miles an hour without a driver, why can’t buildings be operated and maintained without a person involved? In what ways are buildings so different from other automated systems? There are three major factors: the nature of the building life cycle, the lack of fully integrated systems in buildings, and the complex needs of commercial buildings.

Strike One

First, it is important to look at the life cycle of buildings. Over 94% of U.S. commercial buildings are more than 4 years old, and more than 81% are more than 12 years old, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from the 2012 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). At the same time, the average age of a car on the road today is 11.4 years. That means that every 11 years or so, there can be a complete turnover in the automotive stock. In contrast, few new commercial buildings are being built every year, with fewer opportunities to incorporate advanced technology. While many more buildings are being retrofit, most buildings retrofit only one system at a time based on capital investment schedules. It is also likely that most large buildings have at least one low priority maintenance issue that is continuously put off into the future. So, compared to cars, we are not going to see the commercial building stock turn over in a decade or two, short a major disaster. Strike one.

In the next blog post, we’ll continue to explore the lack of fully integrated systems in buildings, how buildings have to address so much more complexity compared to cars, and some changes that are coming in building automation technology that will move the ball.

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