Navigant Research Blog

Questions Aplenty About Interacting with Automated Vehicles

— March 31, 2017

Over the past 130 years, the interface between human and machine has become relatively standardized. We have steering wheels, pedals, seats, mirrors, and other major controls in roughly the same location no matter what brand or type of vehicle we use. We’ve made adaptations for additional hand controls for those that have physical disabilities, but overall, the experience is consistent. But when those controls are eliminated in automated vehicles (AVs), as Ford will do in the AV it intends to produce in 2021, designers have opportunities to rethink vehicle cabins. And those opportunities raise a few questions about interacting with AVs.

User Experience

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. As we accelerate toward an era where humans are no longer in direct control of the vehicles we move around in, it’s clear that making a car drive itself is only the beginning of the task at hand. A panel at the recent Automotive Megatrends Autonomous Car conference in Detroit examined some of the questions around the user experience (UX) with automation.

A crucial aspect of the human-machine interface are the seats and what we see as we move through the world. Over the last several years, automakers and suppliers revealed a number of fascinating concepts for cars of the future such as the Mercedes-Benz F015, Nissan IDS, and the BMW HoloActive Touch.

One of the seemingly more appealing ideas about not having to drive is that vehicle occupants could be repositioned so they can interface with each other instead of the vehicle. However, a driving force behind the design of modern vehicles is the need to protect occupants in the event of a crash. They must be properly positioned in order for airbags to provide protection. While AVs are likely to cause far fewer crashes, they will still have to coexist with the more than 1.2 billion vehicles on the road today and for decades to come. That means that unless we ban human-driven vehicles, AVs still have to conform to the same safety standards and seat rotation will be limited to small angles.

Then there is the whole issue of motion sickness. Many people experience physical symptoms when there is a disconnect between what their eyes see and their body feels during motion. If we go from driving to watching or reading during our commutes, this could become a design issue.

Voice Recognition Systems

Another question regarding interacting with AVs: Will we let self-driving vehicles know where we want to go? For all the attention that devices like Amazon’s Echo have received in the past couple of years, voice recognition systems remain frustrating to use. Companies like Google and Nuance have made huge strides in improving the reliability of these systems when they are connected to the cloud, but even the most advanced machine learning systems continue to struggle with natural language semantics and accents. There is an enormous difference between recognizing individual spoken words and the meaning that is imparted by stringing a series of words together.

Humans are remarkably adaptable, and we will likely adjust our own speech patterns to the limitations of the machines before the machines themselves can reliably understand us. Or we may decide that if technology can’t make our lives less frustrating, we may reject it.

 

V2V Communications Finally Arrives in America with Updated Cadillac CTS

— March 10, 2017

More than 2.5 years after General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced plans to launch vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications in the US market, the first of a new generation of connected cars is now on its way to dealers. GM has begun production of the updated 2017 Cadillac CTS sedan, the first of what is likely to be several models equipped with the technology within the next year.

At the time of Barra’s 2014 announcement, it was expected by most people in the industry that a mandate for V2V on new vehicles would be in place by now. That process was held up by efforts by the wireless industry to grab some of the 5.9 GHz spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had allocated for dedicated short-range communications. The final notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) was not published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) until December 2016. Under the new administration in Washington, it’s not clear if the NPRM will get final approval.

Pressing Ahead

Nonetheless, GM has been a strong proponent of V2V and vehicle-to-external (V2X) communications for more than a decade, having conducted its first public demonstrations in 2007. Despite the fact that the CTS accounted for only 0.5% of GM’s more than 3 million US sales in 2016, the company is pressing ahead with the introduction, clearly hoping to start demonstrating the efficacy of the technology in real-world conditions.

There is also a strong likelihood that this is only the first of a number of GM vehicles that will add V2V in the near future. The launch of the Delphi-supplied V2V system coincides with the introduction of an all-new next-generation CUE infotainment system. The new version of CUE includes support for over-the-air software updates that can add new functionality. Initially, the CTS will provide drivers alerts when cars down the road have hazard lights on, activate stability control, or have a hard brake application.

“At launch, we are offering these three features. That doesn’t rule out additional alerts in the future, as we are always looking for ways to add additional safety features to our cars,” said GM spokesperson Chris Bonelli. “Coupled with the next-generation Cadillac user experience also launching on the 2017 interim model year CTS, we are able to provide over the air updates as needed for new features and safety.”

Cadillac has already announced that the ATS and XTS will get the new version of CUE when they begin 2018 model production later this year. These vehicles will likely get V2V as part of that package, with other models to follow in 2018 as they get the electronics updates.

Another factor that may be driving GM to push the technology forward even in the absence of a regulatory mandate is automated driving. It is moving forward aggressively with the development of an automated version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV for use with the Lyft ride-hailing service. GM is projected to begin pilot deployments of automated Bolts with Lyft as soon as 2018. V2V is expected to be an important component of automated driving, significantly expanding the situational awareness of the vehicle beyond the line of sight that is possible with sensors alone.

Growing Market

Navigant Research’s Connected Vehicles report projects that more than 70 million vehicles will be sold globally with V2V technology by 2025. Toyota launched V2V on several Japanese models in late 2015 while Honda has also been very active in the development and testing of V2X communications. Neither company has made product announcements for North America, but these two OEMs are likely to follow GM in the next year.

 

Ford Makes $1 Billion Bet on Artificial Intelligence Startup as Recruiting Tool

— February 10, 2017

Electric Vehicle 2Over the past 4 years, Ford has made a concerted effort to move from also-ran status to vying for the lead in the race to produce automated vehicles. The latest move by the company is a 5-year, $1 billion investment in Pittsburgh-based Argo AI. The artificial intelligence startup will operate semi-independently while developing the virtual driver platform for the automated vehicles that Ford has promised to start producing by 2021. However, the deal seems less about acquiring technology today than acquiring new talent in the coming months and years.

Startup Power

Argo AI was founded in late 2016 by Google self-driving car program veteran Brian Salesky and Peter Rander, who led Uber’s automated car program until September 2016. The total investment of $1 billion will be parceled out over the next 5 years to fund the operating expenses of the company and to provide equity incentives to new employees in order to help with recruiting.

Ford plans to retain control of all hardware product development and manufacturing internally, as that’s where the automaker’s expertise lies. The Argo team, which has plans to grow to a staff of 200 engineers by the end of 2017, will work on developing the so-called virtual driver software platform that will control the vehicle. The software team will be integrated into the product development process as it moves forward with trying to make the system robust enough to be able to fully operate without a human driver. Ford has been developing its automated driving platform over the past several years to get its software platform where it is today.

The fact that Ford has gotten this far down the development timeline with a committed production date only about 4 years away does raise some questions. An investment of this size into a startup at this stage implies that there may be issues with the automaker’s in-house software platform. However, Ford chief technology officer Raj Nair emphasized during a conference call to announce the deal that Argo’s expertise will be used to further enhance what Ford has already built.

Attracting Talent

The existing engineers working on Ford’s platform will move over to the Argo AI team to become core employees of that company. As such, they will be eligible for the stock compensation plan that Argo is putting in place, which is typical of Silicon Valley startups. Since Argo has only existed for a few months, it’s unlikely that the company has built a complete system that would replace what Ford already has. Instead, it appears that Ford saw an opportunity with Argo to put in place a corporate structure that would enable it to tackle one of the thorniest issues that the auto industry faces in the race to deploy advanced technology: recruiting.

Traditional companies have long had difficulty attracting some of the top talent away from Silicon Valley, where they see startups as a potential pathway to a huge payday with an initial public offering. Many of those companies with limited funds pay employees with stock options that can be worth millions if the company succeeds and the employee sticks around. That doesn’t happen with regular Ford employees.

Ford CEO Mark Fields acknowledged on the call that an Argo IPO at some stage is a possibility if the company succeeds. Investing in what is essentially a brand new company with some proven leaders in the form of Rander and Salesky is an interesting new approach to the talent acquisition problem.

 

Minimal Fuel Economy Impact from Regulatory Executive Order

— February 6, 2017

The presidential executive order that commands two federal regulations to be rescinded for every new rule enacted probably will not have a direct impact on US Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates, but that does not mean they will not change. At this time, it seems highly probable that at the very least, penalties for failing to meet the standards to increase fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025 will be significantly reduced, and those targets may be slashed as well. Even if that does happen, it may have only a minimal impact on the product development strategies of the auto industry.

Since the CAFE regulations were already in force, the fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reaffirmed the standards in the waning days of the prior administration mean they are not directly subject to the new order. In addition, section 5(a)(i) of the order also states that:

Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof …

The current CAFE regulations were enacted under the authority of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, signed by President George W. Bush, which specifically called for a fleet average of at least 35 mpg by 2020. That would appear to make CAFE at least partly exempt from complete elimination without a corresponding repeal from congress. As of December 2016, the unadjusted fleet average in the US market was at 31.2 mpg. The auto industry would only need to get to 35 mpg to meet the congressional mandate.

Technology Development Will Continue, but…

If the new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao opts to scale back the standards or penalties, the industry will still develop fuel economy and emissions technologies to meet standards set by California and the global market. The problem that the industry faces in the US market is an environment of low fuel prices and an increasing consumer preference for less efficient utility vehicles. Faced with the realities of the marketplace, manufacturers are finding it difficult to sell smaller, thriftier vehicles.

If the national standard were reduced while maintaining California requirements, it would provide automakers with the opportunity to meet market demand in regions such as Texas with higher margin products—such as the full-size pickup trucks and SUVs that are favored there—without resorting to incentives to stimulate demand for small cars. This would allow some subsidization of electrified vehicles in those markets that require them.

Uncertainty and Instability

Ford CEO Mark Fields has claimed that having standards that market demands will not support with sales could end up costing up to 1 million jobs. The CEOs of Ford, GM, and Fiat Chrysler met with President Trump days after he took office to discuss this. The industry would also like to see the elimination of separate standards for California, which are possible under a waiver granted by the EPA through a clause in the Clean Air Act.

Rescinding this waiver could prove problematic. It likely could lead to a battle that would end in the Supreme Court. If it became a state’s rights case, it is not at all clear how even a conservative majority on the court would rule.

This is a situation unlikely to be resolved quickly—and the resulting uncertainty creates instability in the business.

 

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