Navigant Research Blog

A Scenario for Managing the Transition to Autonomous Vehicles

— November 25, 2015

Transportation is all about moving people and things from here to there safely, conveniently, and efficiently. However, as we continue to develop new automation technologies and business models, we now have a plethora of new questions to answer about how we are going to move the transportation ecosystem from here to there. At the recent Automotive Tech.AD conference in Detroit, people from many aspects of the industry came together to discuss the future of mobility. While the horizon is still mired in fog, some interesting ideas did emerge.

As development of autonomous vehicles has intensified over the past several years, the problem of how human- and computer-driven vehicles can safely coexist on the road has been among the most vexing. During the development of the Autonomous Vehicles report, Navigant Research interviewed many of the companies involved in developing this technology. Among incumbent OEMs, the most common strategy has been a gradual progression of deploying more sophisticated automation in new vehicles. This would enable customers to get accustomed to the technology while at the same time allowing OEMs, suppliers, and regulators to validate its reliability and robustness.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the need for a hand-off between automation and a human driver when the automation encounters a situation it cannot cope with might be unmanageable. Testing by Audi has shown that transition typically takes 3 to 7 seconds, and in some cases as much as 10 seconds. In an emergency scenario, that is far too long. Companies like Google and Ford are instead focusing on developing fully autonomous vehicles with no human control.

This brings us back to the transition from more than 1 billion vehicles on the road globally to self-driving vehicles. One potential scenario builds on trends that we’re already seeing today in large urban environments. Over the past several decades, cities such as London, Singapore, Stockholm, and Oslo have imposed congestion charges on drivers wishing to access crowded city centers. In other densely populated areas such as Manhattan, an unusually large proportion of the population don’t own cars because the cost of parking is so high. They instead rely on public transport, taxis, and ride-sharing services like Uber.

The Early Years

In the early years of deploying autonomy, the vehicles will likely have limited capability and difficulty dealing with weather and predicting the behavior of human drivers. They will also likely be reliant on highly detailed maps and communication infrastructure. Imagine a scenario where cities like London or Singapore convert traffic congestion zones into autonomous zones.

Rather than tolls, drivers may park their vehicles and take an autonomous pod to their final destination. They could subscribe to any of several services that could be operated by companies like Uber, Google, or Apple or even by incumbent automakers. Pricing for the services could be set by the operators based on factors like availability and amenities in the vehicle. Since these vehicles would be operating in an urban area, they could be restricted to lower speeds for added safety.

As people become comfortable with the technology, the autonomous zones could expand and be added to more cities. Much of the central parking could be redeveloped or replaced by charging facilities for what would likely be electric vehicles (EVs). This would also provide a built-in market for OEMs to absorb the EVs required to meet future emissions and efficiency standards.

This approach could work well for areas with high population density, while outlying and rural areas could continue to use human-driven vehicles with various levels of driver assistance for improved safety. The horizon is still foggy, but the haze is starting to lift.


Despite Volkswagen Scandal, GM Remains Committed to Diesel

— November 17, 2015

In the wake of the ongoing revelations about Volkswagen (VW) deliberately manipulating powertrain control software in order to pass emissions tests in Europe and the United States, it would have been unsurprising if General Motors (GM) and other automakers immediately cancelled all future diesel engine plans. Instead, GM remains fully committed to a broad portfolio of fuel efficiency technologies that include diesel engines in a variety of vehicles.

In June 2015, Dan Nicholson, GM vice president of global powertrain development, announced that “GM wants to be considered the leader in North American passenger car diesels.” The same month, Nicholson also spoke to the media and to analysts at a Chevrolet technology forum where the second-generation Cruze was revealed. In North America, the new Cruze will be offered with two four-cylinder powertrain options, a 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, and a 1.6-liter diesel.

Diesel on Schedule

Barely 2 months later, the automobile leader that Nicholson wanted to dethrone began imploding from self-inflicted wounds and proceeded to take an entire class of fuel-savings technology down with it. Despite the acknowledged illegal actions of VW and unconfirmed reports that other manufacturers may have cheated in a similar fashion, Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president for global product development, is staying the course.

Reuss told a group of North American Car and Truck of the Year jurors in early November that the next-generation Cruze diesel remains on schedule for production in 2016. That announcement came as GM revealed that the diesel-powered 2016 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon had officially been certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most fuel efficient pickups in the United States with an estimated 22 mpg city, 25 mpg combined, and 31 mpg on the highway.

The certification of the new trucks was due right around the time that the VW scandal went public and was held up for several weeks as the EPA decided that these should be among the first vehicles to undergo additional road testing in order to validate the results of the usual lab tests.

Unlike VW’s four-cylinder diesel engines, the GM trucks and the Cruze utilize a urea-injection system to control emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx). During development prior to the launch of the Cruze diesel in 2013, Chevrolet did test the same lean NOx trap technology used by VW, but found it inadequate to meet EPA and California Air Resources Board standards.

During a weeklong evaluation earlier this year, a 2015 Cruze diesel returned 39 mpg in combined driving with the older 2.0-liter engine that was then in use. The 2017 Cruze diesel will be powered by a new 1.6-liter engine that debuted earlier this year in several Opel models in Europe. In the Cruze, the new engine is expected to easily beat the 33 mpg combined rating of the old model.

Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report projects that diesels will only account for about 3% of North American light duty vehicles sales in 2025, but GM wants a big piece of that market as the company takes advantage of every technology in its portfolio. GM is already aggressively slimming the mass of its new vehicles and adding automatic stop-start as a standard feature on many models. In the next year, the company is set to launch new conventional and plug-in hybrid electric systems, the 200-mile Bolt electric vehicle, and by 2020 plans to launch fuel cell electric vehicles. No stone—including diesel—will be left unturned by GM.


The First American Gigafactory Probably Won’t Be from Tesla

— October 26, 2015

Over the past couple of years, Tesla Motors has received a tremendous amount of media attention for the construction of its massive Gigafactory lithium ion (Li-ion) battery production facility in Reno, Nevada. Tesla ultimately plans to produce up to 35 GWh of batteries annually at the facility, but it is still at least a year away from producing its first cell. Meanwhile, near the shore of Lake Michigan, an LG Chem factory is poised to be the first North American facility to produce more than 1 GWh of automotive Li-ion cells, likely before the end of 2016.

Construction of the LG Chem facility on the west side of Michigan began in mid-2010 with a $151 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and $187 million from LG. By the end of 2013, the Holland, Michigan facility had largely put early issues behind it as it began shipping cells to General Motors’ (GM’s) Brownstown, Michigan pack assembly factory. GM selected LG to replace A123 Systems as the battery supplier for the Chevrolet Spark electric vehicle (EV), and by mid-2014, LG’s plant had shipped more than 1 million cells to Brownstown.

The Holland facility is now delivering cells for the recently launched second-generation Volt, Spark, and Cadillac ELR models, and production for the new Cadillac CT6 plug-in hybrid is soon to follow. GM and LG just announced a wide-ranging partnership for the development of numerous systems and components—including the cells—for the new Bolt EV set to go on sale in late 2016. While neither GM nor LG Chem will yet confirm that the cells for the 200-mile range Bolt would be produced at the Holland facility, since the car will be assembled at GM’s Orion plant north of Detroit, the expectation is that the cells will come from Michigan rather than South Korea.

Adding Capacity

Navigant Research’s Advanced Energy Storage for Automotive Applications report projects an annual Li-ion battery capacity of 11.5 GWh for hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in North America in 2017. During a recent tour of the cell production lines in LG Chem’s Holland facility, plant manager Nick Kassanos declined to go into specifics regarding the plant’s total production capacity, except to say that “We are equipped to meet the demand.” The configuration of the plant with highly automated electrode coating, pressing, drying, and assembly equipment is such that additional modules can be added to scale up capacity as needed. The existing building has room for additional growth, and the property has sufficient space for at least two more similarly sized buildings that may be added in the future as demand warrants.

While no absolute capacity figure was provided, Steve Zachar, manager of the formation section of the Holland plant, confirmed that the plant is currently shipping approximately 130,000 cells per week to the Brownstown pack factory. At approximately 96 Wh per cell for the Volt, Spark, and the soon-to-launch CT6, that amounts to nearly 650 MWh per year, a figure that is likely to climb as Volt and CT6 production ramps up. LG Chem recently also announced another undisclosed automotive customer for the Holland plant.

GM has not revealed any specifications of the Bolt EV other than a range of at least 200 miles, which is expected to require at least a 50 kWh battery pack. News media have reported that GM is planning for a production capacity of 30,000 Bolts, which would require at least 1.5 GWh of cells, a figure which, along with other new business, nearly quadruples current production and potentially brings the total annual production of LG Chem’s Holland plant to nearly 3 GWh, or approximately one-quarter of the projected North American capacity by 2017.


Honda Takes Innovative Approach to Saving Weight

— October 23, 2015

Throughout its history, Honda Motor Company has accomplished a variety of challenges that range anywhere from creating the CVCC engines that enabled the Civic to meet early emissions standards without an expensive catalytic converter to developing the Integrated Motor Assist mild hybrid on the original Insight. The fall 2015 launch of the all-new 10th-generation Civic brings with it some manufacturing innovations that enable the compact sedan to meet the latest safety requirements while reducing mass and avoiding exotic materials.

Despite being 1 inch longer and 2 inches wider, the structure of the new Civic is 68 pounds lighter than the 2015 model, and it is expected to pass the tough new small-offset rigid barrier test used by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Ride, handling, and overall refinement are all improved, in part due to a 25% increase in torsional rigidity.

Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report projects that the global automotive use of aluminum will more than double by 2025 to 28.6 million tons annually. Like most new vehicles, the 2016 Civic makes limited use of aluminum and magnesium. Instead, it relies predominantly on a variety of high-strength steel alloys and new manufacturing processes. In recent years, automakers have begun to use tailor-rolled sheet steel blanks with non-uniform thickness to provide localized strengthening of components.

Industry Firsts

Honda is using a cost-effective layering, welding, and stamping process that enables even more optimization for mass reduction. Constant thickness high-strength steel is used and supplemented with additional layers in specific areas to increase thickness. The hot-stamping process causes these layers to be welded together while being formed. The result is a more optimal localized thickness variation with lower overall mass.

Another process claimed to be an industry first is the local in-die soft zone in the Civic’s frame rails. The structures at the ends of the car are specifically designed to deform in a collision—absorbing energy before it can be transferred to the driver and passengers. Honda has designed alternating soft zones in the rails, enabling these to collapse in an accordion motion as energy is dissipated. This is achieved by incorporating cooling passages into the stamping dies that provide local tempering of the steel. The initial tooling investment is higher than that for conventional dies, but the material cost and structural complexity is reduced all while improving occupant protection in a crash.

The new Civic is launching with two gasoline-fueled four-cylinder engines, a 2.0-liter normally aspirated unit, and a 1.5-liter turbocharged version, the first such engine used in a Honda brand vehicle in the U.S. market. Both of these engines are more powerful than the outgoing 1.8-liter engine. In combination with the reduced mass, improved aerodynamics, and other improvements, the combined fuel economy rises from 33 mpg on the 2015 model to 35 mpg on the 2016. This sort of engineering approach will be required for automakers to meet future fuel economy, emissions, and safety standards while keeping vehicles affordable enough for mainstream consumers to purchase.


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