Navigant Research Blog

With Investment from Ford, Civil Maps Hopes to Turn Every Car into Mapmaker

— July 21, 2016

Connected VehiclesIn general, an autonomous vehicle could drive itself around based only on its sensing systems without having any access to maps. Unfortunately, while such a vehicle might be able to avoid collisions, this would severely limit the overall capabilities possible with its autonomy. The type of detailed maps with constant updates required to create a robust autonomous mobility on-demand system require substantial resources. This is something that startup Civil Maps is trying to address through crowd-sourced data collection.

The Albany, California-based company recently announced a $6.6 million seed funding round led by Motus Ventures that also includes money from Ford. Civil Maps was founded in 2014 and began development of its crowd-sourced map-building platform in 2015.

Navigational Layers

“There are three layers to the navigational ecosystem for autonomous vehicles: strategic, tactical, and the decision engine,” said Civil Maps co-founder and CEO Sravan Puttagunta. “We are focused on the middle tactical layer that includes a more granular level of detail such as lane configuration, traffic signs, and signals.”

The strategic layer of mapping data includes the metadata about street names and directions of the type found in current navigation systems. This data can be used for overall routing to a destination; however, it is often inadequate for the low-level control that happens in the decision engine that sends commands to the vehicle actuators.

The tactical layer helps the decision engine determine which lane the vehicle should be in to make the turn that the strategic layer has asked for in 200 meters. This layer will know if the intersection has a traffic light, a four-way stop, or a roundabout. As a result of constant updates from vehicles in the field, it will also have awareness of lane closures and detours for construction—or just general road reconfiguration. While traditional map-makers such as TomTom, Here, and Google (and now even Apple) have begun to collect this sort of data in specific areas, the update frequency is low.

Civil Maps has developed a software layer that automakers can integrate into vehicles that have depth perception sensors in order to turn them into real-time probes. To collect this type of data, a vehicle needs either a stereoscopic camera—like those used by Subaru and Daimler—or a lidar sensor. The company has also built a cloud platform that aggregates and validates the data by cross-checking it from multiple sources.

The raw sensor data would be processed locally in the vehicle and filtered into vector data for uploading to the Civil Maps platform. To make the amount of data processing and transmission manageable, the company has devised a task management system that would see different vehicles assigned to gather lane markings, traffic signals, and more.

Ford Fusion Autonomous Prototype Testing at Mcity

autonomous-fusion-mcity-39A0181_HR

 (Source: Ford Motor Company)

OEMs Key to Developing Revenue

Civil Maps is still working out the details of its revenue model, but Puttagunta acknowledged that it will likely have two components. In the future, when autonomous vehicles are deployed using Civil Maps data, OEMs may pay a license fee per vehicle for the base data set. But before that happens, there will be a credit system for data contributions and use. For every set of data uploaded from a vehicle, the OEM would earn credits that would be spent when updated data is withdrawn and sent to cars.

Navigant Research’s 2015 Autonomous Vehicles report projects that more than 4 million autonomous-capable vehicles could be sold by 2025, and these will all need detailed 3D maps. If automakers adopt the Civil Maps approach in the next few years, they could help build those maps without operating expensive fleets of street-view style vehicles.

 

The Challenge of Being Mazda in the Mobility Transformation

— July 14, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2As automakers go, Mazda makes a fascinating case study in the challenges of being in the car business in the 21st century. In many respects, the company seems to have all the right pieces to be successful, yet at the same time the brand is struggling to find a path toward long-term success. Recently, Masahiro Moro, who took over as CEO of Mazda North America late last year, paid a visit to Detroit to chat with the local press corps about where Mazda has been and where it is going.

You might think that selling more than 1.5 million cars a year should be more than enough to build a sustainable business. However, in a world that is increasingly pushing for the adoption of expensive new technologies, even a company like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles with nearly twice as many sales is struggling to find a way. Funding the development of autonomous vehicles, mobility services, and electrification takes huge amounts of cash. Aside from stock market darling Tesla, which seems to be able to go back to the equity well at will to refill its coffers, this development usually requires strong profitability.

Revamping Strategy

Ever since Ford relinquished its equity holding in Mazda during the 2008 financial collapse, Mazda has been working to revamp its product strategy. The company developed a suite of technologies under the SkyActiv brand that included new engines, transmissions, and lightweighting that have enabled it to be the corporate average fuel economy leader for 3 years running without a single electric vehicle (EV) in its American lineup.

“Mazda’s product roadmap is set through 2021 and with our second-generation SkyActiv technologies, the company should be well positioned to meet fuel economy and greenhouse gas targets,” said Moro-san. “Meeting targets for 2025 will require further electrification.”

Unlike the Detroit-based automakers, Mazda is not a full-line manufacturer and doesn’t need to offset the fuel consumption of large trucks. Moro-san indicated that for the cars and utility vehicles that make up the Mazda lineup, mild hybridization using 48-volt electrification would probably be sufficient for fuel economy. However, that is only part of the puzzle that needs to be solved. An increasing number of regional markets such as California and Norway are mandating zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs).

“When it comes to electrification, development is not the problem,” added Moro-san. “The question is how to sell it.”

Absent Profit Margins

While the lack of big trucks helps a brand like Mazda on the efficiency front, it also means that like Tesla, the high profit margins that can subsidize affordable EVs are also absent. Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Market Forecast projects global battery EV (BEV) sales of just 1.6 million in 2024.

Moro-san also serves as Mazda’s global chief marketing officer. During his remarks, he discussed Mazda’s shift in strategy from trying to grow volumes based on selling to a price to focusing on the customer experience. Rather than trying to build a brand image from the top down through advertising, Mazda is working with its retail network to build an image of more premium vehicles for those that actually like to drive through customer word of mouth. This is actually very similar to the strategy employed by Tesla. While the EV-exclusive maker has not yet been profitable, if Mazda can build the margins on its traditional vehicles, that would help to fund the sales of ZEVs needed to meet mandates.

Automakers of all sizes are trying to chart a course through the stormy seas that will be part of the mobility transition over the next several decades. Mazda is taking a different approach from some of its larger competitors, and it’s far too soon to know how the company will come out on the other side.

 

Automakers Need to Start Being More Candid About the Limits of Autonomous Technology

— July 1, 2016

Connected VehiclesWhen was the last time you ever actually read an end-user license agreement or terms of service before clicking “Accept” to install a piece of software or join the latest social network? Odds are that unless you are a lawyer, the answer is never. The technology companies that make these products would probably like it to stay that way. However, in the world of the self-driving car, that is not an acceptable policy. The tragic death of a Tesla Model S driver in Florida highlights the need for all automakers to be more open and transparent about the limitations of autonomous technology.

Revolutionary (When It Works)

It seems that barely a day goes by when we don’t get a breathless press release from an automaker, supplier, technology company, or Silicon Valley startup about the amazing progress that they are making on self-driving technology. You can already go out today and purchase vehicles from a number of brands that promise at least partial autonomous capability, and full autonomy is being targeted by the end of this decade. While Tesla Autopilot, Volvo Pilot Assist, and other similar systems seem truly magical when they work as advertised, there are far more scenarios where these systems do not function at all.

Unfortunately, we have not seen Tesla CEO Elon Musk stand on a stage and tell people not to use Autopilot in the city, on curving rural roads, or in the snow. GM CEO Mary Barra stood on the stage at the 2014 ITS World Congress in Detroit and promised a Cadillac with hands-off Super Cruise capability in 2016. I’ve experienced prototype systems from Toyota and Honda and driven production systems from Tesla and Volvo, and when they work, they are incredibly impressive.

I am an engineer by training and technology analyst by trade, and I have a much greater understanding than the average consumer about how these systems work. As a result, I can never truly relax with these systems because I’m always on the lookout for the failure mode, and they are numerous. Unless very explicitly told, the average consumer will be so excited by the prospect of turning over control to a computer that they will not pay any attention to the warnings that Autopilot is very much in beta before enabling it. Volvo doesn’t even give that warning before allowing Pilot Assist to be engaged.

Mainstream Customers

Tesla is fortunate that many of its existing customers are early adopters that expect technology to be imperfect, although most of them probably don’t expect to be at risk of injury when it fails. When the Model 3 arrives and mainstream consumers try Autopilot and find its limitations, they aren’t likely to be as forgiving, and the same is true for every other automaker offering autonomous features. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects more than 4 million autonomous-capable vehicles to be sold by 2025. Those customers need to know what the systems can do—and, more importantly, what they cannot.

We don’t yet know all the details of what happened in the tragic crash in Florida. Similar accidents where one vehicle crosses a highway divider happen all the time, and fatalities occur when humans are in control. What we do know is that we are far from a time when we can just sit back and relax and let the computer do the driving. Every company involved in this space needs to be far more upfront with consumers about this technology can do or risk poisoning the market.

 

Initial Quality Study Highlights the Commercial Risks of Vehicle Automation

— June 29, 2016

Connected VehiclesFor many years after J.D. Power and Associates began conducting its Initial Quality Study (IQS) 3 decades ago, most problems reported by customers in the first 90 days of vehicle ownership were either defects or non-functional features. However, in the past decade, the nature of reported problems has shifted toward what J.D. Power calls design-related issues. This could pose a serious problem for manufacturers as they rush to introduce autonomous driving technology.

At a recent meeting of the Automotive Press Association in Detroit, J.D. Power vice president Renee Stephens presented the 2016 IQS results. The industry as a whole improved by 6% in 2016 to just 105 problems per 100 vehicles, the best improvement in 7 years. Among the reported problems, those that fall into the audio, connectivity, electronics, and navigation areas continue to represent the largest category of complaints.

Voice recognition and connected devices still befuddle consumers. Numerous manufacturers including Ford have seen ratings decline in past years as a result of difficulties using infotainment systems. “Expected reliability remains the most important consideration when purchasing a new vehicle, cited by 49% of owners,” said Stephens. “It’s critical that technology be implemented correctly or consumers lose trust.”

Potential Problems

An increasing number of new vehicles now include advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping aids. However, if features don’t work as expected by the consumer, they often get turned off after a few false positives or surprises. This highlights a potentially serious problem for the auto industry in the coming decade as semi and fully autonomous systems are increasingly rolled out in the marketplace. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report forecasts that nearly 5 million autonomous vehicles are expected to be sold in 2025, a volume that is expected to grow to more than 40 million in 2030.

Regardless of current ADAS and whether future autonomous systems work as the engineers intend them to, it is absolutely imperative that they work as consumers expect. Autonomous capability will add significant cost to vehicles, and until there is a shift toward on-demand mobility services, consumers will have to absorb that cost. If their experience with the stepping stone technologies is excessively negative, the market will reject these technologies.

Contradictory Views

This will be particularly true if consumers realize that autonomous systems don’t work at all in the scenarios where they are most likely to want to hand over control, such as in poor weather. A major market force for automated driving is improving safety. Related to the general functionality of these systems is the problem of ethics where, as is often the case, the public has contradictory views. A new study by MIT professor Iyad Rahwan shows consumers want autonomous vehicles to minimize casualties in the event of unavoidable crashes. However, that only applies if that person is not the potential casualty. It comes down to protect everyone—but protect me first.

If society as a whole is ever going to benefit from the potential of autonomous vehicles in reducing collisions, congestion, and energy use, much will have to change in society. Consumers will have to be educated in how these systems work so that expectations can be set appropriately. If the bar is not adjusted, consumer complaints in IQS and other studies will skyrocket, and this technology could die on the vine.

 

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