Navigant Research Blog

John Krafcik Takes the Steering Wheel of Google Car Project

— September 29, 2015

Someday, Google’s vision of cars without steering wheels, accelerators, or brake pedals may come to fruition. For the foreseeable future, however, intelligent people will still be necessary to guide the process of actually developing and building those machines. Incidentally, Google has just hired one of the smartest in the business, John Krafcik. The former Ford, Hyundai, and TrueCar executive is now the CEO of Google’s self-driving vehicle program.

As the former head of product planning and later CEO of Hyundai Motor America, Krafcik demonstrated his ability to run an operation that develops, manufactures, and markets vehicles to a mainstream audience. Prior to his decade with Hyundai, Krafcik spent 14 years at Ford, where he is reputed to have coined the term “lean manufacturing” in an article he wrote while working on his MBA at MIT.

Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2025, approximately 45 million light duty vehicles with at least Level 2 semi-autonomous capability will be sold globally every year. Level 2 is defined as a system that can automatically control at least two primary functions—such as steering and speed. Widespread adoption of Level 4 systems that can handle all primary driving functions without human intervention are unlikely before the 2030s.

Google and the Automotive World

For Google, Krafcik brings a reality check to the company’s automotive ambitions. Unlike Google’s primary businesses, the automotive industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the world, and the product can put lives at risk. Representatives from several manufacturers have acknowledged that they have been approached by Google about partnering on autonomous vehicles. However, Google’s approach so far has been to have manufacturers supply a vehicle platform while Google provides a black box of software that the manufacturers have neither control nor influence over. Given the many unresolved legal and ethical questions around autonomous vehicles, this approach has been rejected so far.

Krafcik knows how the auto industry functions and why it so often appears to be extremely conservative in rolling out state-of-the-art technology. He has a keen understanding of how to mass manufacture vehicles in high volumes and what mainstream consumers want in a vehicle. At the same time, he is an acknowledged risk taker in taking his companies into new market segments. Under his leadership at Hyundai, the brand steadily expanded from a second-tier purveyor of value, building credibility with consumers and critics so that it can now sell luxury cars like the Genesis without being laughed at.

Krafcik’s Credentials

This writer has known Krafcik for 8 years and he is clearly an engineer and manager that appreciates a challenge. Prior to being promoted to CEO at Hyundai’s American branch, the office had a rotating door of occupants who struggled with the home office’s demands. Krafcik managed to occupy the post for an unusually long 5 years and is likely the best candidate that Google could have hired.

Chris Urmson will continue leading the technical development side while Krafcik opens possibilities as this project evolves into a real business. Krafcik is well-respected in the industry, and if Google decides to pursue OEM partnerships, he is far more likely to be successful in brokering deals than those that have a distinctly Silicon Valley mindset. On the other hand, if Google opts to get into the manufacturing of cars, Krafcik knows that side of the business equally well—whether Google wants either its own factories or a contract builder like Magna Steyr to handle the work. Whichever path Google takes, the future looks interesting. And that is said without even knowing if Apple will get involved.


Toyota Reveals Fourth-Generation Prius, Sticks with NiMH

— September 25, 2015

Toyota did not invent the idea of a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV)—that honor goes to Ferdinand Porsche with one of his earliest creations at the turn of the 20th century. Toyota did not even invent the modern power-split HEV architecture—that being a concept developed and patented by engineers at TRW in the late-1960s. However, like Apple, which has taken ideas such as graphical interfaces, mp3 players, and smartphones and then refined them into viable consumer products, Toyota was ahead of its time with the 1997 debut of the Prius. After recently selling its 8 millionth HEV, Toyota has just revealed the fourth-generation of the groundbreaking original hybrid, and hopes it will spur renewed popularity for the concept.

Toyota has done an admirable job of leveraging electronics, motors, controls, and battery technologies developed for the Prius across its lineup, from the subcompact Prius C to the luxury Lexus LS600h sedan. Much of that technology is also being applied to fuel cell and battery electric vehicles, helping to bring down the costs of those powertrains.

NiMH Batteries

Building on that heritage is also part of this new Prius, as Toyota continues to be the last major automaker to use nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries while others have switched to lithium ion (Li-ion). According to Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report, hybrids are expected to account for about 10% of the North American market and more than 30% of the Western European market by 2024, as manufacturers try to meet new efficiency and emissions standards. To do so, they will have to drive down costs to make the technology palatable to consumers.

Over the past 2 decades, Toyota and its joint venture partner Panasonic have made large investments in production capacity for NiMH batteries and likely have the lowest costs in the industry at this point. Toyota’s continued use of NiMH batteries for the mainstream Prius and the just launched Lexus RX450h, reserving Li-ion for the even more efficient Prius Eco model and the upcoming plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), is one example of how Toyota is able to sell more of the most efficient vehicles than any other manufacturer.

Despite continuing with what many consider outdated battery technology, Toyota claims to have improved the energy density of its cells. Along with an internal combustion engine that is now claimed to have thermal efficiency of more than 40%, and lighter, more efficient hybrid system components, Toyota is projecting a 10% overall efficiency improvement for the mainline Prius (approximately 55 mpg combined). It has not yet revealed details about the Prius Eco, but media reports suggest it may achieve 60 mpg combined.

Looking Forward

The 2.4-inch longer Prius retains its now iconic egg-shaped profile while blending in some more dramatic design cues from the fuel-cell-powered Mirai. Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) provides the Prius with a new double-wishbone rear suspension that should help improve its traditionally uninspiring driving dynamics. After announcing in 2014 that it would deploy active safety features across its lineup, the Prius is now available with the Toyota Safety Sense package that includes automated pre-collision braking, pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams.

Through August 2015, HEVs have only accounted for 2.3% of U.S. sales, with plug-in vehicles grabbing another 0.63% and the electrified vehicle segment with less than 3%. If automakers are to achieve future emissions and efficiency targets, they need to follow Toyota’s lead with the new Prius and combine increased efficiency with a broader value proposition to attract customers.


New Qualcomm Mobile Chip Could Aid Automotive Cyber Security

— September 9, 2015

Dripfixer_webIt’s no secret that the future of transportation is going to be highly dependent on connectivity. As we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years with attacks on everyone from retailers to movie studios to dating websites, keeping computer networks secure has become increasingly difficult. It we are ever going to witness the safety and efficiency benefits made possible by this technology, vehicles are going to have to be made more secure than they are today. Qualcomm, one of the world’s leading suppliers of processors for mobile devices, smartphones, and tablets, has just announced a new feature for its next-generation chips that could be hugely beneficial on the road as well.

Malware on your phone could be annoying and potentially costly if it results in identity theft, but it’s unlikely to cause injury or death. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of potential intrusions into our increasingly automated and connected vehicles. As recently demonstrated by researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, it’s possible to remotely control systems such as brakes, steering, and engines.

V2X Dangers

Navigant Research’s Connected Vehicles report projects $36 billion in annual revenue by 2025 resulting from the deployment of vehicle-to-external (V2X) communications systems. Qualcomm and other chipmakers, including Nvidia and Broadcom, are vying for a piece of that transportation business. Qualcomm has already demonstrated future smartphone chips with support for V2X so drivers receive alerts to the presence of pedestrians carrying a compatible phone. Drivers of older vehicles may also be able to use their phones to add V2X capability when they are behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, V2X and telematics systems are the primary target for attackers to break into vehicle systems. Since connectivity systems need access to the vehicle network in order to provide much of the desired functionality, they will need mechanisms to thwart attacks.

When Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 system on a chip arrives in early 2016, it will include a feature called Smart Protect, which is specifically designed to recognize and stop malware before it can take control and damage the device. While the 820 is designed for phones and tablets, if Smart Protect works as planned, it could be incorporated into chips that Qualcomm is developing for automotive applications in the future. Smart Protect is different from the antivirus software on computers, which relies on static virus signatures that are compared against applications that try to run. Qualcomm augments the traditional approach with real-time machine learning that runs right on the chip to detect potential malicious behavior and stop it as it happens.

Best Practices

This sort of real-time heuristic analysis will be a necessity for all automotive electronic systems going forward, and Qualcomm is not alone in developing the technology. Argus Cyber Security, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, is also developing malware detection solutions designed to be embedded separately into the vehicle network from communications chips. While few automakers discuss their security efforts publicly, no one in the industry is denying that this is a major concern. Through the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Global Automakers, OEMs are in the process of setting up an Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center to enable them to share best practices. Even if manufacturers don’t end up using Qualcomm’s Smart Protect, odds are that future vehicles will use something similar to try to thwart hacker havoc on the road.


We’re Asking the Wrong Question about Electrification

— September 1, 2015

At the recent Fleet Technology Expo in Long Beach, California, Tesla Motors’ co-founder and founder of Wrightspeed, Ian Wright, delivered a keynote to the gathering of fleet managers, suppliers, and consultants that turned the conventional wisdom of vehicle electrification on its ear. While mandates like the California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program and various federal and state tax incentives seek to displace millions of fossil fuel-burning vehicles with electric equivalents, Wright says we’re asking entirely the wrong question. Rather than asking how to maximize the efficiency of the mass of vehicles, Wright said we should be asking: “How do we save the most fuel per vehicle per year?”

On the surface, those might seem like the same question. However, when you actually start doing the math, the resulting answer is quite different. Vehicle emissions, including CO2, are directly related to how much fuel is consumed. Unfortunately, most people tend to think of efficiency in miles per gallon (mpg). When we plot fuel consumed versus mpg, the consumption curve asymptotically approaches zero as mileage goes up. In fact, the curve of incremental fuel savings flattens out dramatically at about 35–40 mpg. Beyond that, increasing mileage comes at a very high cost with little to actually show for it in terms of reductions in total energy use and emissions.

The big gains come when you start from very low mpg, where each incremental improvement yields much larger reductions in fuel consumption. That’s where Wright has focused his efforts in recent years. Wright joined Tesla co-founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning and financial backer Elon Musk early on in 2003 to help the tech entrepreneurs with the technical aspects of actually building a car. While Wright left Tesla long before the Roadster finally went to customers in 2008, he continued working on electrification.

Different Solutions for Different Applications

Wrightspeed has developed a micro-turbine, range-extended powertrain system for medium and heavy duty trucks, the vehicles with the biggest potential for fuel savings because they use the most fuel. These big trucks typically only achieve 3–4 mpg running on diesel and even less on natural gas. While the Nissan LEAF or Chevrolet Volt can save individual owners hundreds of dollars a year in fuel compared to similar gasoline-fueled models, the actual amount of fuel saved is relatively small.

A refuse truck is an ideal application for hybridization since it operates at relatively low speeds and makes hundreds of stops and starts per day. In order to get the 130–150-mile range needed for its daily rounds, a fully electric version would need to carry so many batteries it would consume more than half its payload; however, a plug-in hybrid with 30 miles of electric range is entirely viable. Wrightspeed developed its geared traction drive, a 250 hp unit that integrates a traction motor, two-speed gearbox, and inverter, to provide propulsion and regenerative braking. In combination with a small 80 kW turbine range extender sized to run at its optimal efficiency, Wright claims the system delivers a 50% reduction in fuel consumption, saving $35,000 in fuel and $20,000 in maintenance per vehicle annually with a 3–4-year payback time.

Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report projects that a wide variety of solutions will be required to meet future efficiency and emissions targets. In order to get the maximum overall benefit, we need to ask Wright’s question and pick the best solution for each application—not one solution for every application.


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