Navigant Research Blog

Reliable Service Parts Critical to Autonomous Driving Future

— June 30, 2015

Short_Bridge_webThanks to advances in materials that increasingly avoid corrosion, modern engineering and manufacturing processes that improve build quality, and electronics that improve performance and efficiency, cars now last longer than ever. The average age of the more than 200 million cars on American roads today is nearly 11.5 years, and 20- to 30-year old machines are shockingly common. Despite how well-built vehicles have become, parts still eventually break or wear out and need replacement; this includes the sensors that control the vital systems in modern vehicles.

As cars become increasingly automated, the number of sensors has grown dramatically, and they need to be functional and reliable. This potentially poses a significant problem for vehicles after they are out of warranty or out of production. My friend Richard Truett, engineering reporter for trade publication Automotive News buys older vehicles, repairs or restores them, drives them, and sells them before moving on to the next vehicle.

While most of Richard’s vehicles are older British sports cars that predate the electronic age, he recently bought a 1988 Pontiac Fiero with relatively low mileage that was in need of his TLC. As Richard went through the car from the wheels up, he attacked the engine control electronics that were keeping the car from running properly. In the process he discovered issues that could pose serious problems for future automated vehicles. It’s actually not uncommon for people to manage to get around for months or years with the tell-tale “check engine light” illuminated, usually indicating some sort of sensor fault. For automated vehicles, that is less likely to be an option because of the dependence on sensors for basic functionality.

Lessons to be Learned

Standard industry practice after a vehicle goes out of production is for automakers and suppliers to license the production of replacement service parts to third-party manufacturers. In many cases, these service part manufacturers will also reverse engineer the original parts and produce compatible replacements. What Richard discovered when trying to replace the oxygen sensors and spark plugs on his 27-year-old sports car was that compatibility and functionality were often not a sure thing. The electronic systems in the Fiero were comparatively primitive by 2015 standards, but brand-new components as basic as an oxygen sensor or throttle position sensor fail out of the box—that’s a bad sign and these aren’t even safety-critical systems.

The sensors being used for automated driving systems are far more advanced, and the technology is evolving rapidly so components are less likely to stay in production with the original manufacturer than they were 3 decades ago. It may not even be possible for third-party manufacturers to replicate the original parts, and if they do, they may not perform to the same standard, thus hampering the performance of safety-critical automated systems.

Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2030, 40% of new vehicles will have some sort of autonomous driving capability built in. Those vehicles will be totally dependent on sensors that must provide accurate and reliable information about the world around that vehicle in real-time. Before we become overly reliant on these systems to get us where we need to be on our daily rounds, manufacturers need to sort out solutions that will ensure a more robust and reliable stream of service parts. Perhaps this should even be part of the safety regulations that govern automated vehicles. There are still many fundamental questions to be answered before you can summon an autonomous Uber car from your wrist and service parts is just one.

 

GM Aims For American Diesel and EV Leadership

— June 26, 2015

General Motors (GM) recently hosted a Chevrolet Innovation Day event in Detroit in conjunction with the reveal of the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Cruze compact car. During the sessions attended by media and analysts, GM executives, engineers, and designers covered a variety of topics including both internal combustion and electrified powertrain plans. As all automakers struggle with how to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy and emissions standards while also meeting customer expectations and remaining profitable, GM made it clear that it intends to be the market leader for both diesel and plug-in vehicles.

“We want to make EVs approachable to all, not just the elites,” said Pamela Fletcher, executive chief engineer for electrified vehicles, as she echoed a message dating back to the late 2006 previews of the original Chevrolet Volt concept while also taking a subtle jab at Tesla. At the time, GM officials explained that the Volt was badged as a Chevrolet rather than a Cadillac because the goal was to bring electric vehicles (EVs) to a mass audience at an affordable price. Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts projects that luxury brands will account for 50% of global light duty plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales by 2018, but Chevrolet clearly wants to shift the percentage toward more mainstream segments.

GM wasn’t entirely successful with the first-generation Volt, but it provided a valuable learning opportunity and those lessons have been fed into the second-generation Volt that is launching this summer. Perhaps more importantly, Fletcher’s team is moving aggressively to bring the knowledge it’s gained about lithium ion batteries and electric drive systems to full battery electric vehicles, such as the upcoming 200-mile range Chevrolet Bolt EV. After revealing the Bolt as a concept at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2015, GM announced just a few weeks later that it would be produced.

Setting a Pace

GM has moved quickly on development that clearly began long before we saw the Detroit concept. Bolt chief engine Josh Tavel announced that his team already has more than 50 pre-production prototypes running in the United States and South Korea where they were built. These are the first prototypes with production representative bodies and other systems, and they typically arrive about 18 months before production. Because of this, it’s reasonable to expect the Bolt to arrive in late 2016 or early 2017, putting it a year or likely more ahead of the Tesla Model 3. Many of the components for the Bolt have likely been tested for as much as 2 years in other vehicles before these prototypes were built.

Recognizing that not all customers have the same needs, GM isn’t planning to rely entirely on batteries to meet fuel efficiency requirements. In 2013, the automaker dipped a toe into the water with a diesel version of the Cruze that gets the best  Environmental Protection Agency- (EPA-) estimated fuel economy of any non-hybrid car in America. With virtually no promotion, Chevrolet sold 6,000 Cruze diesels in 2014. Dan Nicholson, vice president of global powertrain engineering announced that Chevrolet would offer an all-new 1.6L diesel engine in the 2016 Cruze that would offer even better fuel economy and more refinement.

“GM is aggressively going after passenger car diesels in North America and aims to be the market leader,” said Nicholson as he specifically called out long-time diesel champion Volkswagen. Along with new, more efficient gasoline engines with auto stop-start, diesel, and natural gas in trucks and future fuel cell vehicles, GM clearly intends to leave no stone unturned.

 

High-Accuracy Mapping: An Opportunity for the Post Office?

— June 23, 2015

Telescopers_webSynergy is one of the most overused and abused words in business. Whenever this word is uttered, it’s time to break out a big hunk of salt. However, at the recent TU-Automotive Detroit conference in Detroit, an actual synergistic opportunity popped up in the course of discussion. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—and by extension, other postal services globally—could play an important role in the future of automated driving. According to Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report, nearly 95 million vehicles with some autonomous capability will be on the world’s roads by 2035.

High-Resolution and High-Accuracy Mapping

One of the most common topics to arise during the 2-day gathering of people involved in automated driving and connectivity was the need for high-resolution and high-accuracy mapping data. Alain De Taeye, management board member at TomTom, gave a keynote presentation on the requirements for highly automated driving systems. While sensors including a global positioning system (GPS) that can detect the immediate surroundings are clearly a critical component, they are insufficient for robust automated control. Maps can help extend visibility well beyond the line of sight of either the driver or sensor system.

More importantly, the combination of high-definition 3D maps and sensors enables greater capability than either on its own. For example, GPS sensors are notoriously unreliable in the urban canyons where automated vehicles offer some of their most important potential benefits. As satellite signals bounce around off tall buildings set closely together, a GPS-only system often places the user far from their actual location. On the other hand, cameras and LIDAR sensors can contribute to a fused real-time map of the surroundings that can be correlated with stored maps for validation and provide more accurate and precise location information.

De Taeye discussed the sources of data used by TomTom and other map providers, including HERE and Google. By blending data from satellite imagery, government data, real-time crowdsourced information, and fleets of vehicles that traverse the actual roads, maps are constantly updated. De Taeye emphasized the need for continuous updates on road information to ensure accuracy as well as precision, which is where the USPS could come to the rescue. Even companies as large as Google have practical limits on how frequently they can drive down each road.

Capturing Data with Future USPS Vehicles

Ryan Simpson, an electrical engineer with the USPS, attended the conference to learn about some of the new technologies that could potentially be put to use in future service vehicles. With more than 150,000 daily delivery vehicles and another 100,000 vehicles of various form factors, the USPS has the largest commercial vehicle fleet in the world. Those 150,000 delivery vehicles traverse a huge proportion of the roads in the United States 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. The USPS is currently in the process of defining a next-generation delivery vehicle to replace its rapidly aging fleet. If the new vehicles were equipped with some cameras and sensors, they could capture data with much higher frequency than any of the existing mapping companies. Real world data about everything, including road construction, bridge problems, and even potholes, could be updated daily.

Given the persistent financial difficulties of the USPS, providing fresh and reliable navigational data to mapping companies could provide a significant revenue stream that helps support a very important service to the U.S. population. At the same time, such data would also help to enable automated driving systems. This would be genuine synergy.

 

Did CAFE Save Lincoln from Extinction?

— June 18, 2015

Wetpaint_webOne year after Mark Fields succeeded Alan Mulally as the CEO of Ford, the company’s premium Lincoln division is finally showing some signs of life after years of decline and ironically, fuel economy regulations may be part of the reason why. Not so long ago, it was appearing increasingly likely that Ford was going to allow Lincoln to simply wither away and die.

When Mulally moved to Dearborn in 2006 to take over the automaker that put the masses on wheels, Ford was in dire straits. He quickly formulated a restructuring plan that included divesting all of the premium brands that the company had acquired including Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin—refocusing only on Ford. Even Mercury and Lincoln were put on the chopping block, although only the former was discontinued in 2010.

Ford was the first U.S.-based automaker to introduce hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) in the 2006 Escape Hybrid and has consistently been second to Toyota in U.S. HEV sales since then. In 2010, Ford added a hybrid option to the Lincoln MKZ sedan, and it has consistently been a popular setup in the midsize luxury sedan. Despite the popularity of the battery-assisted MKZ, Lincoln has yet to offer any plug-in powertrains in any models, but that may soon change.

Changes Coming

2015 looks like it may be a turning point for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in premium vehicles. At the 2015 North American International Auto Show, the big three German premium brands—Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz—showed new production PHEV models, and all three have committed to adding plug-in options to all of their mainstream models in the coming years. According to Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, luxury brands are expected to account for 50% of global light duty plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales by 2018.

Automakers are pursuing this strategy of creating premium PEVs for several reasons.  Fuel economy and CO2 emissions standards are getting increasingly stringent and mainstream cars have already adopted the most affordable technologies for improving fuel efficiency. To add plug-in electrification would significantly increase the cost, pricing these vehicles out of the market. However, the heavier, more powerful luxury vehicles still have a lot of room to improve.

Adding PHEV powertrains with more powerful engines to a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the new Cadillac CT6, or potentially the upcoming Lincoln Continental enables manufacturers to dramatically improve efficiency while maintaining—or even improving—performance. Most importantly, customers in the luxury segments are more willing to absorb the cost premium for the additional hardware, allowing manufacturers to maintain profitability.

The Upside to Lincoln

For Ford, making an investment to revive Lincoln provides an opportunity make a significant contribution to its corporate average fuel economy while preserving the affordability and profitability of Ford-branded cars, trucks, and SUVs. Since current Lincoln products are closely related to Ford-brand equivalents with similar fuel economy and comparatively low sales volumes, eliminating the premium models wouldn’t have a notable impact on the fleet average.

On the other hand, Lincoln is revamping its entire lineup with all-new products in the next five years, starting with the MKX crossover this year and the new Continental sedan in 2016. No powertrain details of the production Continental have been announced yet, but it would be surprising if Lincoln doesn’t follow the lead of the rival Cadillac CT6 with a PHEV sooner rather than later. Using Ford’s established PHEV technology, Lincoln could quickly become more competitive and provide a boost to its parent with better margins and mileage.

 

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