Navigant Research Blog

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.

 

Schaeffler Shows One Path to Better Fuel Economy

— January 30, 2015

January in Detroit heralds the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), where many manufacturers launch new models and technology.  It’s less well known as a supplier event, but many of the Tier One companies hold press and industry events to showcase their developments, primarily during the media and industry days that are held before the show opens to the general public.

This year, German supplier Schaeffler chose to highlight its project on fuel economy, with a view to meeting the upcoming more stringent American CAFE requirements.  As well as developing specific components and products, the company has incorporated them into an existing vehicle to demonstrate the integration potential.  Phase 1 of the implementation shows one way to meet the 2020 CAFE target on an existing vehicle by making a series of small, low-cost changes; Phase 2 will add additional features to meet the 2025 fuel economy goal.

Hunker Down

The target vehicle chosen was a model year 2013 Ford Escape AWD (all-wheel drive), which features a 2.0-liter engine and Ford’s 6-speed automatic transmission.  For phase 1, Schaeffler engineers implemented an AWD disconnect feature to eliminate additional friction when only two-wheel drive is necessary, a new torque converter damper to allow a lower lockup speed, and an automatic engine stop-start system.  A new thermal management module enabled faster engine warming from cold.  Other detail changes included coated tappets, new balance shaft bearings, and low rolling-resistance tires.

To reach the 2025 target fuel economy, phase 2 houses two main features: ride height adjustment and disconnecting vehicle accessory drives from the engine.  Automatically reducing the ride height as speed increases is a straightforward way to reduce aerodynamic drag, a topic that I discussed in a previous blog.  The idea of disconnecting accessory drives has been around for some time, and is key to extending the value of stop-start systems, but replacing a traditional crankshaft belt drive with individual electric motors is a very expensive solution.

Clutch Move

Schaeffler solves this dilemma by setting up a separate 48V motor generator to power the accessories when the engine is switched off.  The system is controlled by a pair of clutches that can connect the electric motor to either the engine or the transmission.  Using a 48V subsystem allows more powerful regenerative braking than a 12V system, and therefore greater energy recovery, and the motor can also be used to supplement the drive.

Navigant Research has recently released a detailed report on this topic: Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies.  The Schaeffler approach nicely illustrates our conclusion that there is no single solution for meeting future fuel economy targets, and future vehicles will have to incorporate many small changes that will combine to deliver measurable results.  Schaeffler’s concept of creating a separate 48V accessory drive subsystem can keep costs manageable while allowing the industry to transition from 12V to 48V.

 

Quest for Aerodynamic Vehicles Faces Headwinds

— January 8, 2015

Although recent reductions in oil prices have slightly eased demand for more efficient vehicles, national governments are still pushing the rollout of more stringent emissions standards.  Because electric vehicles remain saddled with heavy, bulky, costly batteries,  the automotive industry is now investing in other technologies that improve the fuel economy of vehicles powered by conventional internal combustion engines that run on gasoline or diesel fuel.  Navigant Research has recently released a detailed report on this topic: Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies.

The report concludes that there is no single solution, and future improvements will be accomplished via many small changes that will combine to deliver measurable results.  Downsizing engines, adding turbocharging, reducing losses in transmissions, lowering mass, and improving aerodynamics will all make contributions.  The features that offer the largest benefit for the lowest cost will be implemented first.  What makes sense for a luxury vehicle may not be right for an entry-level car.  One of the primary avenues for fuel economy improvements is likely to be making cars more aerodynamically efficient.

Drag Reduction

Manufacturers must balance many factors, such as the customers who want better fuel economy but will not necessarily be willing to sacrifice performance to get it.  Less dense materials are more expensive than steel, and lighter vehicles must still meet all the relevant structural standards.  Ideal shapes for the best aerodynamic performance may be impractical to manufacture and difficult for people to get in and out of.

At an investor day hosted by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in May 2014, the company outlined its new approach to global vehicle architectures.  In the presentation, engineers outlined their analysis of the relative importance of different factors affecting the amount of energy required to propel the vehicle.  The biggest factor in city driving was the vehicle weight, followed closely by tire drag and then aerodynamic drag.  On the highway, aerodynamics was the biggest factor, followed again by tire drag.

Lose the Mirrors

So it’s likely that aerodynamic performance will be getting plenty of attention for vehicles coming to market in the coming years.  Some features being looked at include active components, such as grill shutters that only open when cooling is needed, a feature that is already available on certain Ford Focus models in Europe.  Smoother airflow over and under the body and reducing the drag coefficient of the vehicle are options under development in both computer-aided analysis software and wind tunnels.

One of the easiest ways to reduce aerodynamic drag by 3% to 6% would be to eliminate external mirrors.  Tesla has been campaigning with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to try to get the U.S.  law changed to allow an external camera with an internal video screen as an alternative to an external mirror (as featured on its Model X design) and probably has support from many other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).  Volkswagen is also pushing for change in Europe to expand the market for its ultra efficient XL1 vehicle that also has this feature.  If governments are serious about fuel efficiency, this would be an easy change to make by modifying the wording to require a rear view rather than specifying a mirror.

 

How Will Self-Driving Vehicles Find Their Way?

— January 8, 2015

Google continues to push the technology for its autonomous vehicle, but some recent articles in the media have been more about the detailed mapping required than any of the other technologies that may be necessary for bringing such vehicles into production.  Google is not the only company interested in this angle.  Nokia’s HERE subsidiary is also putting a lot of effort into making high-definition maps that combine detail about roadways with information about traffic flow.

Google has decided that its vehicle must have a detailed map of the roads it will travel on, accurate to a few centimeters, with detailed knowledge of the exact location and height of the curbs, not just the lane markings.  Recognizing that these vehicles must also cope with construction and temporary obstacles, HERE is exploring the idea of using the cloud to store the digital map data and having it updated on a continual basis.

A Perfect Map

The concept relies on huge amounts of data being constantly uploaded and downloaded to the cloud so that all vehicles always have a highly accurate digital map of their surroundings to rely on.  While this is clearly one potential solution for the future of autonomous vehicles, it’s a concept thought up by two large companies that have already invested heavily in scanning and mapping technology.  It’s natural to find solutions that match the tools already available, and all the better if the solution requires a tool upgrade.

In a previous blog, I wrote about self-driving vehicle developments in China.  It seems to me that putting more intelligence into each vehicle, to deal with real-time traffic issues, is a more practical option than requiring a highly accurate database of all the world’s roads that is updated minute by minute.  Existing digital maps can be used to provide direction just as they do for human drivers today, and powerful, intelligent sensors can monitor the local traffic and obstacles in real time.  I suspect this is how the major automakers are moving forward with autonomous vehicle technology – and why nobody has yet jumped on Google’s offer of a partnership.

 

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