Cleantech Market Intelligence
Why There Are No Self-Driving Commercial Buildings, Part 2
In the previous post, we asked a simple question: If self-driving cars are now just on the horizon for adoption, why are commercial buildings still managed by people? In that post, we addressed the first of three major factors—that buildings age and are not replaced with new technology as rapidly as cars. In this part two, we explore two other factors: the lack of fully integrated systems in buildings and the complex needs of commercial buildings.
A self-driving car is (most simply) an intelligent operator running a single integrated system. While cars, and the related physics, are not simple, the equipment is engineered, designed, and built to operate perfectly from day 1. And the user (the driver) never has to open the hood or have any knowledge of how a car works in order to operate it. Commercial buildings are a different story. A new commercial building may contain over a dozen HVAC, lighting, fire, safety, water, and conveyance (e.g., elevators) systems by a dozen manufacturers. Ideally, the controls of these systems are easy to integrate. Ideally, the connection to the control system is standardized. Ideally, the installers programmed the building correctly. Ideally, the instruction manual for the building is easy to understand. But the ideal is not the norm, as evidenced by the existence of building commissioners. The skilled building whisperers are trained in tuning new and existing buildings, which are notorious for drifting back to undesirable behaviors. In order to be self-driving, a building would have to have all systems ready to run in concert from day 1. This is not going to happen in the near future. Strike two.
The complexity of a building’s performance is not to be overlooked. While an autonomous car has the challenge of navigating and managing a lot of unknowns, such as environmental conditions and traffic on the road, a building has far more daunting challenges. A small office building with 50 offices may have over 100 zones it needs to control, with different usage patterns and tenant needs. In most commercial buildings, people can come in on weekends for an hour; some like their offices bright or hot, others like it dark or cold. There is also no standard limit to how many control points or sensors are needed in a building, and with sensors dropping in price, the data volume associated with buildings is set to rise. Cars can be viewed as one controlled zone moving through a rapidly changing environment; buildings can consist of more than 100 zones, changing consistently over the day, but inconsistently with personal needs. Strike three.
Self-Driving Buildings in Sight
Yet, there are approaches currently in practice that are inching toward a self-driving building. Building automation and building energy management systems are learning to incorporate more data points and better algorithms for improvement through initiatives like Project Haystack. While true building optimization is a goal for the industry, the near-term achievement is more realistic. Commissioned buildings with analytics and automated solutions will lead to improvements in individual systems and result in fewer truck rolls. At the extreme, zero net energy buildings are the pinnacle of high-performance buildings, as they are designed to minimize energy—all systems must work in harmony from day 1. As these advanced buildings and intelligent systems grow in number, the concept of a self-driving building, with no human in the loop, is in sight. However, these advances will be adopted incrementally as building technology ages out. Buildings of the future may indeed be self-driving. But it will take some time, expense, and the coordination of the many stakeholders involved.