Navigant Research Blog

Do Shared Vehicles Need Standard User Interfaces?

— May 14, 2015

Personal mobility is in the early stages of the most significant transformation since the birth of the Ford Model T more than a century ago. A shift from personal ownership to shared use of vehicles is expected to accelerate as an important means of enabling mobility while alleviating the negative aspects our transportation ecosystem. Navigant Research’s report, Alternative Revenue Streams for Automakers, projects that there were will be more than 26 million members of carsharing services by 2023. Automakers recognize the threat this change represents to their business model, and they are scrambling to adapt, but what about the drivers constantly exposed to changing user interfaces every time they use a different vehicle?

As thousands of engineers from across the globe gathered in Detroit recently for the SAE 2015 World Congress, one of the more surprising topics of discussion was whether vehicles should adopt a common human-machine interface. While politicians like to point at the rise of cellphone use in vehicles as a cause of driver distraction, more fundamental design issues can be just as problematic. As more functionality comes to vehicles, controls are needed. Anyone using a new vehicle for the first time is likely to be overwhelmed trying to figure out basic functions like climate control. Manufacturer’s desire to differentiate their products just makes things worse.

Taking Action against Distraction

When Apple introduced the iPad in January 2010, late-CEO Steve Jobs said that anyone that knew how to use an iPhone already knew how to use an iPad. A big part of Apple’s success over the years has been the consistency of its user interfaces. They evolve over time, but they stay consistent enough that users can migrate from one product to another. The same cannot be said for most automobile features, which often vary widely within an individual brand’s lineup.

David Acton, managing principal of P3 North America, suggested at the congress that all vehicles should have a common user interface to help avoid the distraction. This may actually be a step too far considering the technologies available now and in the near future. For example, the Tesla Model S already features a 17-inch touch screen display in the center console for the various controls and displays with another reconfigurable display screen in the traditional instrument location ahead of the driver. As a virtual control interface, these displays can be reprogrammed to suit a driver’s needs.

Google’s Chrome browser and ChromeOS automatically save a user’s settings to the cloud, reloading bookmarks and extensions whenever that user logs in from any computer. Logging out can delete those settings from the machine. If every manufacturer were to include reconfigurable control and display surfaces in their vehicles, a driver could set preferences and then immediately save them either to a cloud account or locally on a phone they connect to the vehicle. From then on, every time they get behind the wheel of a new vehicle, they could connect their phone or log in to instantly retrieve their preferred control layout. Preferences could even include physical settings like the seat and mirror positions.

Best of all, these virtual control surfaces could be integrated into surroundings that still leave flexibility for designers to differentiate their products. The combination of virtual controls and connectivity could enable a blend of personalization and familiarity that reduces complexity for drivers as we make the transition toward a more shared transportation ecosystem that reduces urban congestion and energy use.

 

Sensor Fusion Maps: More Than the Sum of Their Parts

— May 6, 2015

Touch. Taste. Smell. Vision. Hearing. The human brain continuously takes in these sensory signals, processes them, and fuses them into a whole that is more than just the sum of the parts. Engineers around the world are working to develop an artificial form of that same sort of sensor fusion in order to enhance the robustness of future autonomous vehicles.

Senses and Sensors

When we sit down to a meal, the appeal of that food is affected by far more than our taste buds. If a prime cut of steak were boiled into a grey slab, even if the taste were not affected, the visual signals to our brain would render it less desirable than if it had been seared over an open flame. No matter how well it might be prepared, if your sinuses are clogged from a cold, a plate of curry just doesn’t taste as good. The crunch when you bite into a fresh carrot stimulates your ears and your sense of touch in your mouth, but the same root steamed into mush has a totally different impact.

Since the 1970s, engineers have been steadily adding sensors to vehicles to monitor wheel speeds, airflow into the engine, engine knock, roll rates, distance to other vehicles, and more. Each sensor was added to enable a specific function, but over time, as engineers became confident in the reliability of the sensors, they built on that functionality. The first modern step toward the autonomous systems that are now being tested were the Mercedes-Benz/Bosch anti-lock braking systems from 1978.

Fusion

Forward-looking radars and cameras enable adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings. Side-looking radar and ultrasonic sensors power blind spot detection, cross-traffic alerts, and active parking assist. Today, each of those functions operate largely independently at different times. The automated highway driving assist systems coming from Tesla, General Motors (GM), Toyota, and others in the next 2 years merge those signals and functions into more comprehensive control systems that enable the driver to go hands-off in certain conditions. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that the majority of new vehicles will have at least some degree of automated driving capability by the mid-2020s.

This is made possible in large part by fusing these previously disparate signals to harness the advantages of each sensor type, producing a more cohesive view of the world around the vehicle. Radar sensors are useful for measuring distance and speed to another object, but not for recognizing the nature of that object. Digital camera images can be processed to distinguish pedestrians, animals, objects on the road, and signs while lidar sensors can produce remarkably detailed 3D maps of the surroundings. Vehicle-to-X (V2X) communications provide additional real-time information about what is happening even beyond the line of sight of the driver and sensors. These and other signals can be merged into a comprehensive real-time moving image that the vehicle can navigate through with a high degree of precision.

T-U Automotive Detroit

Experts and practitioners in the fields of telematics, autonomous systems, and mobility will be coming together at the T-U Automotive Detroit conference, June 3–4, 2015 in Novi, Michigan to discuss sensor fusion and many other related topics. Anyone interested in attending can save $100 on the registration fee at www.tu-auto.com/detroit/register.php by using the promotional code 2693NAVIGANT during checkout.

 

After a Century, the Era of the Cadillac V8 Is Over

— April 16, 2015

Twenty years ago, the thought of building a flagship Cadillac sedan without a V8 engine under the hood would have been virtually unthinkable. Nonetheless, in the coming months, the all-new Cadillac CT6 will hit the road to take on the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series with only 4- and 6-cylinder engine options to start with plus diesel and plug-in hybrid electric capability in the future. General Motors (GM) has created what it hopes will be a viable competitor to the segment leaders by harnessing a combination of advanced powertrain technologies and lightweighting to achieve both its performance goals and increasingly stringent fuel efficiency and emissions targets.

Cadillac introduced the first mass-produced V8 engine 101 years ago and, until as recently as 2010, every top of the line Cadillac had a minimum of 8 cylinders under the hood. After first being teased in a television ad run during the 2015 Academy Awards broadcast, the CT6 is debuting at the 2015 New York Auto Show and goes on sale later this year.

Bigger, Better, Not Heavier

In order to help meet the often conflicting goals of performance, driving dynamics, and energy efficiency, Cadillac is incorporating all of the major technologies discussed in Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report. Despite its significantly larger size compared to the existing CTS sedan, the CT6 is estimated to weigh about the same 3,600 lbs thanks to extensive use of aluminum in its structure.

A combination of stampings, castings, and extrusions accounts for 64% of the mass of the structure and contributes to an overall reduction of 198 lbs compared to a comparable steel version. GM developed new techniques for laser and spot welding of aluminum in addition to the rivets, screws, and adhesives used extensively by Ford in its new F-150 pickup trucks.

Still High Performance

Starting from a lighter platform enables the engineers to utilize smaller, more efficient engines without sacrificing the performance that customers in this segment expect. At launch, the CT6 will be available with GM’s existing 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, an all-new 3.6-liter normally aspirated V6, or a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 producing 400 horsepower and 400 lbs-ft. of torque. All of the engines feature direct injection and variable valve timing. The V6s will be GM’s first overhead-camshaft engines to feature cylinder deactivation with the ability to disable valve actuation and fuel flow on 2 cylinders under light load conditions.

Each power plant is paired with one of GM’s new 8-speed automatic transmissions and has auto stop-start functionality to shut down the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop to prevent wasting fuel while idling. Cadillac won’t reveal fuel economy numbers for the CT6 until later this year, but the new 3.6-liter V6 is expected to increase fuel economy of the midsize CTS by 9% compared to the 2015 model.

V8 86ed

In addition to these advanced gasoline engines, Cadillac plans to add both diesel and plug-in hybrid electric powertrains to its lineup over the next several years. What about the classic V8 configuration? Those are now limited to a pair of niche but still highly profitable segments, the ultra-high-performance CTS-V sedan and the full-size Escalade SUV. The rest of the lineup will rely on fours, sixes, and electrification from now on. It seems that a century after it began, the era of the mainstream Cadillac V8 engine has drawn to a close.

Update: Shortly after this blog was posted, Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen contacted me to confirm that the brand does in fact have a new high-performance V8 engine in development. While V8s will no longer be the volume powertrain, they will remain part of the future Cadillac lineup.

 

Seeking Fuel Economy, Automakers Slim Down

— April 16, 2015

As automakers scramble to stay on track to meet the 54.5 mpg corporate average fuel economy mandate by 2025, weight reduction is expected to be one of the key pathways to hitting that target. During 2015, General Motors (GM) is launching a wide range of new-generation vehicles—from its subcompact Chevrolet Spark up through its flagship Cadillac CT6 sedan, with virtually every new model boasting significant weight reductions thanks to new computer-aided engineering (CAE) processes.

Lightweighting and Global Platforms

In Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report, lightweighting is identified along with engine downsizing and engine stop-start technologies as the main vectors for achieving the most cost-effective improvements in fuel efficiency for high-volume vehicles. GM is pursuing all of these approaches, but its weight reduction efforts are among the most notable. Similar to Ford’s approach of rationalizing its product lineup with common vehicles sold in global markets, GM also made a shift to global platforms in the latter part of the last decade.

Designing global vehicles that must conform to often conflicting crash safety standards led to a first generation of vehicles that often turned out heavier than previous models because they were not properly optimized. For GM, the problem was exacerbated by the financial difficulties it faced during the late 2000s leading up to its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization. The continuous effort to cut costs led to a gutting of engineering resources as staff were either laid off or fled for greener pastures in other industries.

Revving Up

Over the last 5 years, as the auto industry has recovered to prerecession sales levels, the once sparsely populated engineering centers at GM, Chrysler, and Ford are now full again and new design techniques are being applied to the next generation of vehicles. We’ve already seen Ford introduce an all-new aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck that cut nearly 700 lbs of weight.

So far in 2015, GM has announced the next-generation Chevrolet Volt and Malibu and the new Cadillac CT6 sedan, with a new Chevrolet Camaro and Cruze still to come. The Volt and Malibu will be nearly 250 lbs and 300 lbs lighter, respectively, while the CT6 is projected to have a base curb weight of about 3,600 lbs. The latter is comparable to the midsize CTS sedan, which is 8 inches shorter and 2 inches narrower. The CT6 is roughly 800 lbs lighter than the Mercedes-Benz S550, 700 lbs less than the current BMW 740i, and 400 lbs less than the similarly sized Cadillac XTS.

Optimization

GM has achieved these impressive reductions through extensive application of multidisciplinary optimization (MDO). Traditionally, the development of various aspects of a vehicle was siloed, with teams responsible for specific aspects of the design. The expanded use of advanced CAE and simulations has enabled greater collaboration early in the design process, leading to more granular optimization. Engineers are able to select a wider variety of materials, including aluminum and high-strength steel alloys, to achieve the best balance of weight, strength, manufacturability, and cost.

Just as Ford was able to maintain or improve the payload and towing capabilities of its trucks while shifting to smaller, more efficient engines, GM is able to improve the performance and driving dynamics of its vehicles despite downsized engines. Chevrolet has projected a 7% improvement in combined fuel economy for the base gasoline engine Malibu to 31 mpg, while the new hybrid version is projected to achieve 47 mpg combined. Over the next 10 years, this pattern of weight reduction is expected to continue as other new materials such as carbon fiber composites are put to use, benefiting both electrified vehicles and those that continue with internal combustion engines.

 

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