Navigant Research Blog

Why There Are No Self-Driving Commercial Buildings, Part 2

— September 9, 2015

Light_Ladder_webIn 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.

Strike Two

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.

Strike Three

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.


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

— September 4, 2015

No_Limits_webAutonomous, 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.


Carbon-Saving Innovation in the Airline Industry

— July 7, 2015

Relative to the rapidly changing automotive industry, which pumps out new models every year, the airplane industry has evolved at a considerably slower pace. This is not surprising, given that around 1,000 aircraft are made by Airbus and Boeing, the leading manufacturers. Unlike cars, changes in design and function take longer to incorporate into planes. For some time, the airline industry has been under pressure to increase its fuel efficiency and lower its greenhouse gas (GHG) impact. While airplanes contribute to 2%–3% of global GHG emissions annually, some posit that the high altitude of those emissions has a greater impact on climate change.  This past month, the U.S. airline industry has been put on notice to reduce the amount of GHG from air travel.

Citing the right to regulate emissions as part of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that almost one-third of global aircraft emissions originated from U.S. aircraft. To address this, President Obama has charged the EPA to begin crafting rules similar to the draft Clean Power Plan (111(d)) that addresses power plants and utility energy use.  European carriers have been under similar pressure from the European Commission.

The Path toward Change

There are two fundamental ways that airplanes can reduce fuel use: they can use a lower GHG fuel source and they can make more efficient planes.

For airplanes, the lower GHG fuel source has been biofuel, either from biological sources or waste products. As discussed in Navigant Research’s Aviation and Marine Biofuels report, choosing biofuels also helps hedge against increases and variability in fuel costs. The volatility of aviation fuel cost over the last 5 years can be seen in the figure below.

Monthly Cost and Consumption: 2000-2015

carbon airlines

(Source: U.S. Department of Transportation)

It is interesting to note, however, how relatively flat U.S. and international fuel consumption has been over the past 15 years. The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) projections have cited the rapid growth of European plane travel in forecasting that fuel demand for air travel could result in a 300% to 700% growth in emissions by 2050.

U.S.-based United Airlines just announced an unusual step in securing biofuels for its planes. In late June, it was announced that the company is investing $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy. Once production of the waste-to-jet fuel has matured, United will be able to purchase up to 90 million gallons of jet biofuel.  Fulcrum already has a deal with Cathay Pacific and has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense with the aim of becoming another military jet fuel provider.  Yet, United is not putting all of its eggs in one basket; it already had a deal with AltAir Fuel, which began in 2009.


Google Weaving an IoT Web

— June 12, 2015

Recent announcements by Google that it is developing the Weave communication protocol are expected to make waves in the building automation ecosystem, possibly to the chagrin of incumbent equipment manufactures for commercial and home equipment. Weave is centered on Brillo, the Google-developed lightweight operating system, essentially a minimalist version of Android. With Weave, Google may be trying to quickly capture the mind-share of end consumers who want and answer to the question, “how can I quickly connect all of my home systems?”

With Weave, all Brillo devices (and Nest) are self-discoverable, making them, in theory, plug-and-play. A consumer could connect the new wireless door lock with the wireless lights, all through an Android phone. The proposed ease of connecting devices was introduced in Navigant Research’s recent Home Energy Management report, as being a challenge for consumers. This integration is contingent on the wireless protocols being interoperable, as mentioned in a recent blog.

Feeling Threatened?

For equipment manufacturers that sell into the commercial markets, Weave poses a threat in two ways. First, this is yet another communication protocol to incorporate into equipment, adding a step to the integration. On the commercial side, integration firms have been stepping up to manage that issue. Weave is not the first extensible system to be developed with an easy user interface (e.g., Android) in mind (see Apple’s Homekit). Weave’s approach is not anchored on iOS, of course, and is therefore more open.

More significantly, the entrance of Google and Weave are expected to force the small and medium commercial market suppliers into a quandary. The small and medium commercial market is vast, and is in need of energy and cost-saving solutions.  These customers do not have the funds to invest in large solutions, and in some ways are like residential consumers; HVAC does not keep them up at night. In this light, do original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) keep selling single end-to-end building automation system solutions, focusing on the value of a single integrated system, or do they appeal to the ease of integration with a solution like Weave? Most small or medium-sized commercial building owners or tenants have heard of Nest. But how many have heard of BACnet or LonTalk?

During a recent Lightfair panel discussing the promise of convergence of the Internet of Things  (IoT) and automated building controls, it was reiterated that IoT-based building integration solutions exist, and are being deployed. The linchpin in wide-scale deployment will be people wanting easy solutions. Weave is certainly going to push the adoption wave; it will be interesting to see how integration solution providers and OEMs respond.


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