Navigant Research Blog

Government Accelerates Autonomous Vehicle R&D in the United Kingdom

— August 14, 2014

At the end of July, the British government made a commitment to support the development of self-driving vehicles in the United Kingdom.  Up to three cities will be selected to host trial projects beginning in 2015, and they can apply for a share of a £10 million ($16.8 million) fund established to kick-start new investment in automotive technology.  The press release said that “Ministers have also launched a review to look at current road regulations to establish how the UK can remain at the forefront of driverless car technology and ensure there is an appropriate regime for testing driverless cars in the UK.”

The United Kingdom already has one of the world’s first autonomous vehicle shuttle services, which went into operation in 2011 serving Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5.  A pilot scheme for fully autonomous pods in Milton Keynes was announced in November 2013.  And the Mobile Robotics Group at Oxford University is building its reputation as an advanced research organization in driverless vehicle technology.   Having the government working on legislation and helping to fund pilot programs is an important step forward in promoting the technology and attracting business to the country.

Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, though, the majority of engineering development work at the major European automakers takes place in Germany and France.  Ford still has an engineering center in Essex, but it’s much smaller than its sibling near Cologne, Germany.  Revised legislation and multiple testing areas in the United Kingdom may well inspire some companies to establish new satellite development centers in the country in the same way that they did in California when Google’s pioneering work began to get headlines a few years ago.  On the other hand, it may also spur governments on the European continent to introduce similar efforts in their countries.

Multiple Routes

One thing to bear in mind with this technology is that there are multiple streams of applications.  In the short term, there is the task of developing a more integrated approach to the individual advanced driver assistance systems functions that are already in production to be able to offer drivers help in well-defined situations such as cruising on a motorway or shuffling along in congested traffic jams.  Mercedes has already begun offering its Intelligent Drive on the new S-Class, and its competitors are not far behind.  Most promise something similar in the next couple of model years.  More fully automated systems that can follow instructions from a navigation system under limited circumstances are expected from about 2020 on, with full automation coming to market after 2025.  The United Kingdom could become a popular place for manufacturers to test such vehicle systems.

The other route is to go directly to small self-driving vehicles that operate at low speed (<25 mph) and with a limited range.  In the early days, these will only operate on roads or paths where conventional vehicles are prohibited.  These projects will have to be initiated by local governments rather than the automakers, and they will provide valuable practical experience of the benefits and challenges that autonomous vehicles can bring to a city or community.

 

In China, Cars Learn the Roads

— August 5, 2014

Navigant Research’s recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, focused on the activities of large global automakers, Tier One suppliers, and universities and research organizations (including, of course, Google) in Western Europe and North America.  Extensive work is also happening in Japan, and the Japanese automakers are among the companies providing a steady stream of interesting automotive engineering news.

Not so much is heard about what’s going on in China.  The rapid growth in vehicle sales in that country gets most of the headlines, along with the accompanying congestion and air pollution.  But, like Northern California, China also has a tech company that has built its fortune from an Internet search engine and has branched into R&D on self-driving vehicles.  Sometimes referred to as China’s Google, Baidu revealed in July that it’s working on what it calls a highly autonomous car.

Unlike the Google car that famously has no steering wheel or foot pedals, the Baidu concept will be a conventional vehicle with a driver when the first prototypes are shown in 2015, but it will have plenty of intelligence and awareness built in.  The best way to think about it is to consider an earlier form of personal transportation: the horse.  The rider gives instructions about when to start and stop and turn, but the horse knows to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations and can learn familiar routes and navigate itself through traffic.  This is a very different approach to the Google model, which requires highly detailed digital maps of every road before it can venture out.

Affordable Autonomy

The only other developer I have heard contemplating this approach is the Australian startup Zoox, which I mentioned in a previous blog.  Baidu is also reportedly working on a driverless bicycle that will be able to deliver packages as well as provide mobility to those unable to drive.  A prototype is slated for demonstration by the end of this year.

The Chinese approach is an interesting alternative to the high-tech and likely high-cost options for self-driving being developed in the rest of the world.  One of the keys to success in the mass market is affordability.  Another obstacle to the rollout of autonomous driving, in the West, is legislation.  In China, the government can act very quickly to support the modification of laws to allow driverless vehicles to operate on public roads if it deems the technology ready and the benefits are clear.

Chinese car makers have struggled to break into Western markets, typically finding it difficult to meet the extensive crash safety specifications required in the European Union and the United States.  They’ve had more success exporting to other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In all these regions, getting permission to offer semi-autonomous vehicles could prove relatively easy, and the potential benefits for safety and traffic flow are even bigger than they are in the high-profile Western countries.

 

Hyundai Steps Up to Autonomous Driving

— July 31, 2014

First established in 1967 to build cars under license from Ford, South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Company is a relative newcomer to the automotive world.  In 1976, it began producing its first internally designed car, and in 1986, it began exporting cars to America.  In 1990, the company established a design center in California, and in 2005, it began production of vehicles and engines in Alabama.  In 2012, the Hyundai Motor Group (including Kia Motors, which is one-third owned by Hyundai Motor) was ranked fourth in the world in terms of overall vehicle production behind Toyota, General Motors, and Volkswagen.

Today Hyundai is well-established in Brazil, China, India, and Europe.  The only remaining major market it has not tapped is Japan, where it competes only with its small commercial vehicles.  Now, Hyundai is looking to become a leader in autonomous driving.

Assisted Driving Drama

Hyundai’s early sales success came from building simple, low-cost vehicles and then establishing a reputation for reliability by offering warranties of 10 years or 100,000 miles.  Once it had acquired the status of a quality vehicle manufacturer, it then shifted focus to safety.  Never among the new technology leaders, it was one of the first manufacturers to make antilock braking systems standard on practically all its models.  As advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) have been introduced to the market, Hyundai has quietly kept its flagship vehicles updated with key features such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

The last 12 months or so have seen a flurry of media coverage of autonomous vehicles, with various manufacturers and suppliers (and non-automotive companies such as Google) making announcements about their efforts developing and testing self-driving cars.  In July, Hyundai released a dramatic video to demonstrate that it will not be left behind in this new technology arena.  Click here to watch.

No Vertical Exits

Hyundai wants to showcase the driver assistance technology features that have been added to its new Genesis model.  The technologies include smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and a lane-keeping assist system.  The only adaptation Hyundai had to make to the technology for this demo was to modify the lane-keeping assist system not to turn off when it sensed there was no longer a driver holding the steering wheel.

What this video demonstrates rather theatrically is the capability of today’s technology to perform simple driving tasks efficiently and reliably.  All the major manufacturers, along with their Tier One supplier partners, have this capability today, and freeways would be just as safe and potentially less prone to traffic jams if such features were widely used.  All that’s needed is legislation permitting the use of automatic lane-keeping systems to assume full control of the steering, rather than just assisting the driver as they do today.  And possibly a warning sticker advising drivers not to exit via the sunroof when the vehicle is in motion – unless there is a truck fitted with an airbed alongside.

 

Automakers Go for MPG Records

— July 10, 2014

Automakers have had some poor publicity recently, with safety recalls and financial penalties imposed for exaggerating fuel efficiency performance.  In the United States, Ford was forced to apologize and offer customers compensation when its vehicles did not deliver the promised number of miles per gallon.  Honda and Hyundai suffered a similar fate in 2012 in the United States, and Hyundai and Ssangyong have also recently incurred the wrath of legislators in their home country of South Korea.

Fuel economy has risen to the top of the list of factors that influence new car purchases, even in North America, where historically cheaper fuel has made miles per gallon a low priority for consumers, until recently.  Thus, many manufacturers have shifted their marketing emphasis from 0-to-60 miles per hour (mph) times to average miles per gallon (mpg) under standardized testing.

Taking the Long Way

The big problem with standardized tests is they don’t represent anyone’s actual driving, so the prospect of achieving the stated figures is unlikely.   Most people have bad driving habits (from a fuel economy perspective), such as hard acceleration and braking, driving with under-inflated tires, and carrying excess weight around without realizing that all of these factors affect how much fuel is used.   Others make it their life’s work to squeeze the most miles from a gallon of fuel, and there are competitions for those who want to be the best.

Mercedes periodically attempts long-distance driving feats with its production cars.  In July 2005, three standard Mercedes-Benz E 320 CDI cars drove from Laredo, Texas on the Mexican border to Tallahassee, Florida, covering 1,039 miles on a single tank (80 liters/21.1 gallons) of fuel.  This was part of Daimler’s introduction of diesel vehicles to the U.S. market.  In 2012, a Volkswagen Passat TDI made it 1,626 miles from Houston, Texas to Sterling, Virginia, again on a single tank of fuel.

Out of Africa

Now, a Mercedes-Benz E 300 BlueTEC HYBRID has driven the 1,223 miles from Tangier, in Northern Africa, to the United Kingdom in 27 hours, arriving at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with an estimated 100 miles of range still available.  The BlueTEC averaged 73.6 mpg on the journey.  This type of demonstration shows what can be accomplished in a production vehicle in driving conditions that included heavy rain, intense heat, rush hour traffic jams, and significant elevation changes.

This sort of feat is one of the biggest challenges facing electric vehicle sales.  Although few people would actually want to tackle a journey of over 1,000 miles on a single tank of fuel, many people are happy that their vehicles can do that, just in case.  And few would want to undertake such a journey where they have to stop every 100 miles to recharge for a couple of hours, even if there was a network of charging stations in place.

 

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