Navigant Research Blog

Volvo Pioneers Autonomous Vehicles

— March 17, 2015

Volvo has long sold cars that are considered among the safest in the world. Since the 1940s, Volvo has been at the forefront of introducing innovations that include laminated safety glass, crush zones, three-point seatbelts, and more recently, pedestrian detection with automatic braking. As Volvo prepares to launch its first all-new production vehicle since being acquired by China’s Geely Group, the company has announced plans for a test of highly automated vehicles on public roads near its Gothenburg, Sweden headquarters.

Self-Driving Cars a Reality

Self-driving vehicles from automakers, suppliers, and technology companies have become commonplace recently on Silicon Valley roads. However, all of those vehicles are under the control of the engineers trying to refine the complex control software required to make them work reliably. Beginning in 2017, Volvo plans to put a fleet of 100 autopilot-equipped XC90 SUVs into the hands of regular Swedish drivers.

Reiterating its oft-stated goal of achieving sustainable mobility and a crash-free future, Volvo has worked to design the autopilot system it is building into the XC90 to be robust enough to let ordinary drivers give  complete control.

“Making this complex system 99% reliable is not good enough, you need to get much closer to 100% before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic,” Erik Coelingh, technical specialist at Volvo, told me. With that in mind, Volvo has recognized the limitations of current technology, so the XC90 will be equipped with a combined array of radar, lidar, ultrasonic, and camera sensors.

Sensor Array on Autonomous Volvo XC90

(Source: Volvo)

Coelingh acknowledges that there are some fundamental problems that cannot be overcome. For example, lidar sensors cannot see through fog or rain and cameras cannot see lane markers that are obscured by snow. In addition to using multiple sensor types, Volvo is taking care in packaging the sensors to minimize the risk of obstruction from the elements such as snow and salt buildup.

The goal is to allow drivers to spend time on secondary tasks without constantly monitoring the system. The vehicles will be able to execute automatic lane changes and enter and exit a limited access highway. Soft degradation of the system will extend the time between the driver being alerted and when they have to take over. If the driver does not respond by taking over control in a timely manner, the vehicle will attempt to pull over and come to a safe stop.

Fully Autonomous vs. Self-Driving

Despite all of that, there is an important distinction between vehicles that are capable of fully autonomous operation and those that are entirely self-driving. The Volvo falls into the former category, with the ability to handle the driving when conditions permit, while reverting to human control in many scenarios. Google’s prototype pod car, which was designed without a steering wheel or pedals, is in the latter category. For the foreseeable future, driverless vehicles are likely to remain restricted to closed environments where they don’t need to interact with traditional vehicles.

As detailed in Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, 40% of new vehicles will have some form of automated driving capability by 2030. The bulk of those are likely to be similar in concept to what Volvo will be testing on Swedish roads in 2017. Although consumer surveys have indicated strong interest in autonomous vehicles, it’s too early to tell how much of that interest will be retained as consumers become aware of the real-world limitations of autonomous technology. Volvo’s test program in Sweden might give the first real feedback on this topic.

 

The New Volt: More Hybrid & More Electric

— March 9, 2015

In a somewhat ironic twist on the original and short-lived advertising tagline for the Chevrolet Volt, when the all-new second-generation Volt goes on sale this summer, it will be both more hybrid and more electric. When the first Volts arrived at dealerships in December 2010, Chevrolet promoted the extended range electric vehicle (EV) with the line “It’s more car than electric.”

That ill-conceived phrase was intended to communicate to consumers that the Volt would function just like any other car, without the range anxiety issues associated with plug-in battery-powered cars. However, the campaign came on the heels of a PR snafu during the media launch, when it became known that under certain operating conditions, the Volt functioned like other hybrid vehicles, sending a blend of torque from the electric motors and the engine directly to the wheels. Throughout the development of the Volt, General Motors (GM) had insisted that Volt wasn’t just a Prius-like hybrid but an electric car with an engine running a generator to provide juice when the battery was depleted. Within a few months, the much-criticized ad campaign was abandoned.

More Alike

When GM CEO Mary Barra revealed the 2016 Volt at the North American International Auto Show in January, she announced that the vehicle’s electric driving range would go up 30% to 50 miles and that range-extending fuel economy was expected to hit 41 mpg, an increase of more than 10% from the 2015 model. Since then, some additional details have been revealed about how the new Volt actually works, and it turns out that part of the mileage boost is achieved by making the electric drive unit work more like other hybrid vehicles.

The original Volt drive unit used two motor-generators, one planetary gearset, and two clutches to provide four different operating modes. In three of those modes, only electric power was sent to the wheels, with the higher-speed, range-extended mode supplemented by engine power, because it actually helped improve overall efficiency. The new drive unit is actually more mechanically complex than the original, although improved integration has enabled GM engineers to reduce the weight by about 100 pounds. In addition to the two motor-generators, the unit now has two planetary gearsets and a third clutch that together enable five operating modes. The new Volt also has three extended-range modes, each of which sends engine torque to the drive wheels in combination with torque from one or both motors.

At the Peak

During its gestation, the original Volt triggered a great deal of controversy among both engineers and the political class. Within months of the debut of the original concept, Toyota proclaimed that the Volt’s series hybrid layout was inferior to the parallel power-split configuration of the Prius. It now appears that GM engineers agree with that assessment. The somewhat more complex mechanism of the new Volt is closer to the way in which Toyota, Ford, and even GM’s discontinued two-mode hybrid systems work. The three hybrid modes provide the controls engineers with greater flexibility to keep the new, more powerful engine in the new Volt operating closer to its peak efficiency at all times while still providing improved performance of the old model.

Until the United States Environmental Protection Agency certifies the results sometime this summer, GM is only able to provide projections of the new Volt’s electric driving range and fuel economy. However, data collected through OnStar indicates that approximately 80% of the trips made with the 73,000 Volts sold in the last 4 years were done on electricity alone. With the electric range projected to go from 38 miles to 50 miles, Volt engineers expect drivers of the new model to complete 90% of trips without burning any gasoline, making it significantly more electric as well as more hybrid when the battery has been run down.

 

Improving the Breed at LeMans

— March 8, 2015

It’s long been said that competition improves the breed, but the reality of this in motorsports is that this is little more than a marketing tagline used to justify spending money on racing. If there’s one exception, it can be found at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and World Endurance Championship (WEC). During the recent Super Bowl, Nissan used its 90-second ad spot as an opportunity to debut a radical new hybrid race car that it hopes will challenge Audi, Porsche, and Toyota for overall victory in France this June.

Paths to Glory

At Le Mans, where time spent adding fuel in the pits is time that cars are not lapping the 8.5 mile circuit, fuel efficiency has always been critical to success. Every F1 car must use a gasoline-fueled turbocharged 1.6-liter V6 with an energy recovery system. Rather than prescribing one solution, ACO officials have told the engineers they can use up to 8 megajoules of energy from hybrid systems, plus either 4.42 liters of E20 or 3.56 liters of diesel per lap. Within those parameters, the teams can run whatever they like to complete as much distance as they can within 24 hours. The result has been some dramatically different solutions to the same problem.

  • Audi has had 13 Le Mans victories in the last 15 races, including the first diesel win in 2006 and the first hybrid win in 2012. Its current R18 e-tron quattro uses a 3.7-liter diesel V6 with an electric turbocharger and an electromechanical flywheel hybrid system.
  • Toyota pioneered production hybrid cars by adding a nickel metal hydride battery and electric motor to the Prius. The TS040 uses a naturally aspirated 3.4-liter E20-fueled V8 augmented by motors at the front and rear axles and supercapacitors for energy storage.
  • The Porsche 919 hybrid is built around a tiny 2.0-liter turbocharged V4 engine fueled with E20 and an electric turbo like the Audi. The electric motor/generator on the front axle stores recovered energy in a lithium ion battery.

In Reverse

Despite radically different propulsion systems, each of these cars has the combustion engine mounted behind the cockpit, driving the rear wheels with some form of electric drive providing all-wheel-drive through the front axle.

Nissan designer Ben Bowlby has shifted the entire concept into reverse with the new GT-R LM. Bowlby flipped the cockpit around and placed it behind the twin-turbocharged E20-fueled V6 that sends its 500-plus-horsepower output to the front wheels. Mechanical flywheel energy recovery developed by Torotrack augments the engine, boosting total output to 1,250 horsepower. The car can accommodate all-wheel-drive, with flywheel power being used at the rear wheels, but most of the power will go to the front. The unusual configuration of the GT-R LM has enabled unique aerodynamics that should provide the car with low drag and high downforce.

No manufacturer has used a flywheel hybrid system in production yet, but according to Navigant Research’s report, Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies, other endurance racing derived technologies, such as direct injection, are becoming increasingly commonplace. Mazda is using supercapacitor storage for the brake energy regeneration on its Mazda6 midsize sedan. Nissan has already confirmed that the next-generation production GT-R will have a hybrid powertrain, although how much it will take from this new race car remains unclear. We’ll be keeping a watchful eye on the famed Le Mans track to see what new propulsion ideas automakers are testing for the future.

In contrast to most top-flight racing series, such as Formula One, IndyCar, and NASCAR, the premier Le Mans Prototype 1 class has a unique set of technical regulations. Other series have restrictive rules about engine configurations and overall vehicle layout. The Automobile Club de l’Oeust (ACO), which runs Le Mans, has always encouraged technical innovation, and the current rule set that took effect in 2014 has taken this to new lengths.

 

Chevy Bolt Could Break Open the EV Market

— February 27, 2015

With GM’s announcement at the Chicago Auto Show that the Chevrolet Bolt battery electric vehicle (BEV) design concept would go into production, one of the biggest surprises of January’s North American International Auto Show became a reality just 1 month later. Although GM officials declined to comment on specific production timing, it’s now certain that the Bolt will be the automaker’s next BEV.

What makes the Bolt so important to GM and the auto industry as a whole is the targeted specification and price point. GM CEO Mary Barra quoted an electric driving range of at least 200 miles for the Bolt and a price of $30,000 after federal tax incentives. According to Navigant Research’s report, Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies, non-gasoline and diesel vehicles (including BEVs) are expected to account for less than 4% of light duty vehicle sales in 2024. If GM can execute on its goals, this car could break the market open and become a truly mainstream-acceptable BEV, with a price tag right in the heart of the market and battery capacity that should alleviate virtually all range anxiety.

Room for Five

According to KBB.com, at the end of 2014, the average transaction price of new vehicles in the United States reached $34,367. Recent media reports have indicated that production of the Bolt could start at GM’s Orion assembly plant north of Detroit by the end of 2016 or early 2017. By that time, the Bolt’s projected $38,000 sticker price won’t be much more than the average. Combined with the low operating costs of a BEV, that makes the Bolt a very attractive consumer financial package.

Another potentially critical argument in favor of the Bolt is its form factor. In recent years, American consumers have increasingly been migrating away from cars to crossover utility vehicles (CUV), particularly compact and midsize models such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape. With its taller CUV-style body and underfloor battery pack, the Bolt concept appears to offer ample room for five people—something that cannot be legitimately claimed for the Volt.

Rival Rides

The second-generation Nissan LEAF and the Tesla Model 3 are likely to be the primary competitors to the Bolt. With more than 150,000 sales to date, the LEAF is the best-selling plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) of all time. A new model is expected in 2016 with a projected range of about 150 miles. Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has promised the Model 3 by 2017 with a price of $35,000 before incentives and a 200-mile range. But the company’s new $5 billion Gigafactory battery plant, which will supply the Model 3, is not scheduled for completion until the end of 2017. It seems unlikely that the new car will arrive much before then. Tesla also has a history of mixing and matching numbers, claiming range specifications for high-end models along with entry-level prices. The $35,000 Model 3 is likely to deliver significantly less than the 200-mile range claimed by Musk.

GM has a major opportunity with the Bolt to make an impact in the EV market that the Volt has so far failed to achieve. Navigant Research will be watching the development of this car very closely over the next several years.

 

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