Navigant Research Blog

Autonomous Trucks Make Progress

— August 3, 2015

Autonomous vehicle technology continues to advance steadily, with new testing facilities opening to great fanfare at the University of Michigan being a recent highlight. Around the world, plans are being put into action to test self-driving cars in many different localities, and work continues within all the major automotive manufacturers and large suppliers. The first freeway cruising and traffic jam applications are going into production in a few 2016 models, and many more are promised by 2017.

The focus from large OEMs is still on incremental improvements to existing advanced driver assistance systems, with more capable software and sensor fusion. The marketing appeal to car buyers is based on convenience and comfort with the added benefit of greater safety. Prevailing wisdom says that the personal vehicle market will continue as it has done for the past century, but there is the potential for significant change if the technology delivers and legislation is updated to allow it. This topic is discussed in the latest version of the Navigant Research Autonomous Vehicles report.

Under the Radar

What is flying a little under the radar is the work going on to launch autonomous commercial vehicles. Daimler caused a stir in May when it gave a demonstration of its Freightliner Inspiration Truck at the Hoover Dam.  In July, the company announced that it expected to be able to begin testing on public roads in Germany before the end of 2015.

Another option that is an incremental step toward autonomous driving is offered by U.S. company Peloton, which offers a platooning feature that can be added to existing vehicles. Peloton’s technology connects two trucks wirelessly and allows the following truck to close the gap safely, with speed and braking controlled by the lead vehicle while the driver remains responsible for steering. The company claims that fuel savings on a long drive are approximately 4.5% for the front vehicle and 10% for the follower.

Deciding Whether to Invest

Fuel saving are the first step toward justifying new technology for fleet managers who must decide whether to invest. The ultimate potential of autonomous vehicles is to reduce or eliminate the cost of the driver, which produces the inevitable result of lost jobs, a topic beginning to stimulate some debate in the media.

New technology almost always brings societal change, but the rate of change has increased in the computer age, and a serious commitment to retraining programs needs to be made by governments as they make changes to legislation to support the emergence of autonomous driving capability and other forms of robotics. It isn’t all bad news though. The new truck pilot jobs will need new skills on top of the conventional driving ones, and so should command higher pay.


Turbocharger Suppliers Have a New Market to Pursue

— June 25, 2015

The recent Navigant Research report, Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies, concluded that one of the main approaches to delivering better fuel economy for cars is to downsize existing engines but coax more power out of them. The principle of increasing air pressure at an internal combustion engine intake to produce extra power is well-established and is known generically as forced induction. The two main mechanical types of forced induction are usually defined as:

• Turbocharging, where the compressor is driven by exhaust gases
• Supercharging, where the compressor is driven directly off the engine crankshaft

Turbochargers are well known for being a relatively simple way to get more power from a small engine, but also have the disadvantage of lag because the maximum boost is not available until the engine speed is high. Superchargers can be set up to provide boost at low engine speeds, but they also use power when they are not needed, and so they can adversely affect fuel economy under normal driving conditions.

A third variant, electric turbochargers, now looks set to hit the market. An electric turbocharger offers an engine boost on demand without the lag of an exhaust-driven component or the physical drag that a supercharger places on the engine. The technology operates from electrical energy that is recovered by regenerative braking and takes advantage of the fact that electric motors develop their maximum torque immediately from a stationary position.

The concept has been under development for some years, and the biggest challenge so far is to get enough usable power from a 12V electric motor. However, with the imminent rollout of 48V electrical subsystems for advanced stop-start systems (as discussed in detail in the Navigant Research report, 48-Volt Systems for Automotive Applications), it will become practical to implement an electric turbocharger for the first time. Audi is the only manufacturer to announce a planned launch so far, but most other manufacturers are thought to be working on similar concepts.

Other Suppliers

French Tier One supplier Valeo is one of the first to offer a production-ready electric turbocharger. The company acquired the switched reluctance motor technology from U.K.-based Controlled Power Technologies in 2011. The motor is liquid-cooled and the 48V system needs additional power electronics and a bigger battery than normal, so there are additional costs to consider. Benefits include improved performance as well as better fuel economy, so manufacturers are expected to be able to charge a premium.

Conventional turbocharger suppliers are also developing electric products. BorgWarner offers electric turbocharging in its eBOOSTER system, which has been tested on both gasoline and diesel engines. Honeywell is another well-established supplier of conventional turbochargers, and it is thought to be developing an electric version for introduction in a couple of years’ time. As is often the case, emerging technology stimulates innovation from brand new companies as well as established suppliers; one example is U.K.-based Aeristech.

Fuel efficiency is a key focus for automotive manufacturers that want to avoid financial penalties for missing emissions targets in the coming years in many countries around the world. Incremental improvements of 1%–2% may not be enough, so investing in technology that has the potential to deliver significant fuel economy increases without sacrificing performance or drivability may be money well spent. Electric turbocharging looks likely to be the first application that will launch 48V systems into series production. And this shift brings many other benefits of electrification that will challenge hybrid technology at a much lower price point.


Uber-CMU Deal Highlights Transition of Autonomous Technology

— June 16, 2015

FT_Advisory_webIn February 2015, Uber and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) announced a strategic partnership to develop autonomous driving technology. It caused a bit of a stir in the auto industry because until that time Google was the only non-automotive company that had put serious effort into advancing automotive technology. Uber, however, identified a technology that could make a big difference to its bottom line in the long term and had decided to become an active participant in the engineering.

Then, in May, an article in The Verge claimed that Uber had gutted CMU’s robotics lab. Within a week or two, more articles were published about how Uber had “poached” staff and that CMU was “in a crisis”—all very dramatic. It turns out that Uber had indeed opened its own engineering center in Pittsburgh, just up the road from CMU, and that a good number of engineers and scientists had been given lucrative offers to work there.

CMU, however, seemed somewhat less excited about the situation than the journalists. Gradually, more reasoned articles made it into print, pointing out that there are many other more positive aspects to this story. Yes, Uber had diverted a large chuck of the CMU staff to work full-time on its autonomous vehicle project, but CMU enhanced its reputation as the source of advanced robotic development work. Additionally, the City of Pittsburgh has the potential to challenge Silicon Valley as an alternative site for automotive innovation. (It probably doesn’t hurt that SAE International is also based nearby.)

Universities have always been at the forefront of the latest technology development, and their role is usually to then spin off and partner with commercial companies that can take concepts into production. This is precisely what is happening now in Pittsburgh—another indication that autonomous driving is close to entering production and becoming a reality. There are plenty of new challenges for CMU to explore, and the establishment of an advanced automotive engineering center in Pittsburgh can only be good for the future because it will attract talented researchers who eventually want to end up in high-paying jobs.


Supercar Launches Reveal Advanced Automaker Thinking

— February 2, 2015

Ford and Honda both announced supercars at this year’s Detroit Auto Show.  It’s worth taking a look at some of the key features in each of these vehicles to gauge where automotive technology is headed.

Ford GT

Originally developed in the mid-1960s, the Ford GT won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race for 4 consecutive years from 1966 through 1969.  At the 2002 Detroit Auto Show, a concept car was shown that captured the look of the original racing car but made it practical to own and drive on regular roads.  Slightly more than 4,000 Ford GTs were produced in model years 2005 and 2006.

Now a new version has been unveiled.  Beginning production in late 2016, the GT will be available in select global markets to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford GT race cars placing 1-2-3 at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race.  Although its predecessors all featured V8 engines, the newest version will be fitted with a twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6, producing more than 600 hp.  Ford is keen to show that its chosen path of downsizing engines for fuel economy still offers plenty of power.

Low weight is an important factor for production vehicles as well as race cars, and the new GT has a carbon fiber passenger cell with integrated seats and aluminum front and rear chassis sub-frames encapsulated in structural carbon fiber body panels.  The exterior shape minimizes drag and optimizes downward forces.  An active rear spoiler is used for control of braking, handling, and stability at speed.  Carbon fiber is a very important material for light vehicle structures, and the new GT will give Ford some practical experience in production.  Ford also announced at the show that it has formed a joint venture with DowAksa (itself a 50:50 joint venture between Dow Chemical and acrylic fiber supplier Aksa) to develop carbon fiber for mass-market vehicle applications.

Acura NSX

The original NSX, developed by Honda (though badged as an Acura in North America) from 1989 through 2005, sold more than 18,000 vehicles over 15 years.  The model has always been a showcase for the latest Honda technology, and the company is now relaunching the NSX as a reminder of its latest technology developments.  Production is slated for summer 2015, with first deliveries before the end of the year.

Like the Ford GT, the NSX features advanced V6 engine technology (Honda has never offered a V8 engine in its consumer vehicles despite developing one for racing use in Indy cars and Formula One).  The new NSX will feature a twin-turbocharged V6 engine with a 9-speed dual clutch transmission and Honda’s Sport Hybrid system, which uses three electric motors to boost power and enhance handling – one at the rear and one at each front wheel.

Managing airflow is again a priority, and Honda engineers have carefully tuned the vents and air intakes for maximum efficiency.  The first-generation vehicle used all-aluminum construction for light weight, but the new model has a space frame design consisting of an internal aluminum frame reinforced by ultra-high strength steel, all anchored by a carbon fiber floor.  Body panels are made of a combination of aluminum and sheet molding composite.  Suspension members are all cast aluminum.

Both of these supercars come from mass-market manufacturers that want to showcase their advanced technology. As my colleague Sam Abuelsamid observes, they manage to demonstrate a combination of high performance and fuel efficiency.  When the time is right, some of the processes, design concepts, components, and materials will make their way into high-volume production.


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