Navigant Research Blog

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

— June 23, 2015

Synergy 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

One 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.


The EV Could Mean the End of the Brake Pedal

— June 1, 2015

The battery electric vehicle (BEV) will likely remain a small fraction of the overall automotive market for many years to come, according to Navigant Research’s report, Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts. However, spending time with the BMW i3 left me pondering the possibilities for changing the automotive human-machine interface by eliminating the brake pedal.

A recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about automotive safety brought to mind the 2010 Toyota recall crisis prompted by consumer complaints about sudden unintended acceleration. While the automaker replaced the floor mats and accelerator pedal assemblies that could stick, the root cause of most of the reported incidents was determined to be pedal misapplication by drivers. This is a recurring problem for many brands, most prominently Audi in the mid-1980s.

What Does Pedal Misapplication Have to Do with BEVs?

BMW’s 2007 megacity project to investigate sustainable transportation in a world with increasing number of densely populated urban centers settled on electrification as a key component of any solution. BMW partnered with California-based AC Propulsion to retrofit a fleet of MINI hatchbacks, to gather real-world data on how people used EVs.

The MINI E featured unusually aggressive regenerative braking. Previous EVs I had driven had been programmed to replicate the behavior of traditional vehicles with a little bit of creep ahead when the brake was released and mild deceleration similar to engine braking when the accelerator pedal was released. Releasing the right pedal of the MINI E brought on about 0.5g of deceleration, which would be considered hard braking under most circumstances. Real-world driving data has shown that 80% to 90% of stops involve deceleration of less than 0.3g, with most being less than 0.2g.

In addition to electric propulsion, BMW decided to rethink everything about urban driving, including braking. Since the MINI E, many manufacturers have introduced plug-in vehicles, and virtually every one of them has defaulted to the traditional approach for brake control. Most of these vehicles include some form of simulated down-shift that triggers stronger regenerative braking, but most drivers are probably unaware this even exists.

The ActiveE, a second-generation EV prototype, came out in 2011, followed by BMW’s definitive BEV, the i3, in 2014. Like its predecessors, the i3 retains the one-pedal strategy, and it makes perfect sense in a vehicle targeted for urban driving.

“I would say that it’s absolutely the most calming car I’ve driven in stop-and-go urban traffic jams. I think the single-pedal drive has benefits I didn’t appreciate,” said John Voelker, editor-in-chief of “Sebastian Blanco of Autoblog and I drove it together at the Amsterdam launch, and we both struggled to figure out why being caught in horrible, chaotic, European rush hour was just fine. Seriously, the only car I’ve ever been able to call soothing.”

During a 90-mile round trip drive to a meeting with the i3, I could count the number of times I touched the brake pedal on my fingers, and once I became accustomed to it, I found it worked extremely well. When considered from a safety perspective, dropping the brake pedal would immediately eliminate instances of pedal misapplication since a driver only has to release the pedal to stop. Fewer accidents mean less congestion, wasted fuel, and time. Since all new vehicles include electronic stability control, the ability to tie brake application to movement of the accelerator pedal already exists even for non-EVs. It seems like only a matter of time before the brake pedal follows other anachronisms like the manual transmission and the foot-operated high-beam switch into the annals of automotive history.


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.


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