Navigant Research Blog

Performance Dominates Detroit Auto Show, Even for Hybrids

— February 2, 2015

With gasoline prices hitting near inflation-adjusted all-time lows, performance and design once again came to the forefront at the January 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit – even for what once would be considered green vehicles.  From the second-generation Acura NSX and Chevrolet Volt to the Volkswagen Cross Coupe GTE concept, performance was touted nearly as much, and in some cases more, than fuel efficiency.

Navigant Research’s report, Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies, projects that hybrid electric vehicles will continue to be a niche, accounting for significantly less than 10% of global light duty vehicle sales by 2025.  Targeting the combination of improved performance while at the same time reducing energy consumption and emissions may be the best way to grow consumer acceptance.

Almost exactly 8 years after the debut of the original Chevrolet Volt concept in this same venue, the second-generation production model was revealed at this year’s show.  The redesigned, extended-range electric vehicle (EV) boasts a 200-lb weight reduction, a higher-capacity battery, a more compact electric drive unit, and a new, more powerful engine.  While General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra promoted the extended 50-mile electric range and 41 mpg combined fuel economy in hybrid mode, she also highlighted the Volt’s quicker acceleration compared to the original model.

Meanwhile, all of the new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) models introduced to date by Volkswagen have been given a GTE badge, indicating that these are performance-oriented PHEVs, just as GTI and GTD identify gasoline and diesel-fueled performance variants.  Each of these models, including the new crossover utility concept shown in Detroit, feature larger, more powerful internal-combustion engines than those typically found in hybrids optimized for efficiency, such as the Toyota Prius.

A Cost to Pay

“We very much want to maximize the efficiency of all of our models, but there is a cost premium involved with adding batteries and electric motors,” said Volkswagen spokesman Mark Gillies.  “So far we have found that customers are more willing to pay the price premium if we provide the technology in combination with the other capabilities they expect at that level, although as we increase production, we expect to bring plug-in hybrids to more affordable trims.”

The Cross Coupe GTE concept previews the styling direction for an upcoming seven passenger crossover utility vehicle.   The concept car is powered by a 276 hp V6 engine, along with an electric motor at each axle for on-demand all-wheel-drive.  The combined output of the propulsion system is 355 hp, for 0-60 mph acceleration of just 6.0 seconds, while the 14.1 kWh lithium ion battery provides an estimated 20 miles of emissions-free driving.

Lighter, Faster

Volkwagen’s premium sibling brand, Audi, introduced a redesigned Q7 SUV that is 700 lbs lighter than the model it replaces.  In addition to traditional gasoline and diesel engines, the Q7 will be the first production vehicle offered with a diesel-hybrid electric propulsion system.  Rather than one of the four-cylinder diesels that Audi has in its lineup, the Q7 e-tron Quattro gets a 3.0-liter V6 that combines with two electric motors for 373 hp and 516 lb-ft. of torque that should yield swift acceleration and a claimed 35 miles of electric driving range.

Honda launched the idea of a performance hybrid when it added the original Integrated Motor Assist system to the V6-powered Accord sedan a decade ago.   At that time, consumers were not yet willing to accept the idea of hybrid power as a performance enhancer, and the first Accord hybrid was a commercial flop.  Since then, we have seen the introduction of $1 million supercars, like the LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 with plug-in hybrid power, and the idea has come full circle.

The all-new second-generation Acura NSX debuted in production form this year.   Acura won’t reveal full specs for the new NSX until closer to production this summer, but did tell the media in attendance that a new twin-turbocharged V6 engine and three electric motors will produce more than 550 hp for the lightweight two-seat sports car.

After debuting in fuel economy specials, like the original Toyota Prius and Honda Insight in the 1990s, hybrid power has jumped to the opposite end of the automotive spectrum – and will hopefully soon converge on the heart of the mainstream market.


‘Not Invented Here’ is Good for Automakers

— February 1, 2015

Not so many years ago, the auto industry was afflicted by a phenomenon known as “Not Invented Here,” or NIH.  As one of the less desirable relics of the massive vertical integration that provided tremendous economies of scale and profits, NIH also led to technological stagnation.  Fortunately, the drive to reduce fatalities, fuel consumption, and emissions has helped push automakers to look beyond their proprietary engineering labs to adopt and fund innovations from both established suppliers and more recently tiny startups.

“Four decades ago, 90% of the intellectual property [IP] in the auto industry originated from inside the OEMs,” said Dr. David Cole, chairman and co-founder of the AutoHarvest Foundation and an engineering professor at the University of Michigan.  “In those days, suppliers would basically build to print, but today they generate more than half of the IP that goes into new vehicles.”

OK to Fail

As Cole observes, as manufacturers have grappled with integrating state-of-the-art electronics, automated driving systems, and electrified powertrains, they have expanded the scope of their collaboration beyond traditional suppliers that are equally inexperienced in these areas.  In 2005, Ford began a development partnership with Microsoft that led to the SYNC in-vehicle connectivity system.

In 2011, General Motors (GM) and BMW took inspiration from Silicon Valley and established GM Ventures and i Ventures.  Both of these venture capital (VC) funds make relatively modest investments in startup companies that have promising ideas that could enhance future mobility.

For example, GM Ventures put $5 million each into Powermat and Bright Automotive and $4.2 million into Sakti3.  Like all VC investments, a certain percentage are expected to fail, while others will catch on.  Electric van builder Bright went bankrupt in 2012, while GM introduced wireless phone charging mats based on Powermat technology into several vehicle lines in 2014.  Sakti3 is still developing a new type of solid-state battery that shows tremendous promise for reducing the cost and improving the range of future electric vehicles (EVs).  Companies that have received funding from BMW i Ventures include and Coulomb Technologies, the company behind the ChargePoint EV charging network.

Opening Up

Ford doesn’t have a separate venture funding arm, but has made strategic investments in companies like Michigan-based software firm Livio.  Ford bought the startup in 2013 and has incorporated its technology for connecting smartphone apps to the vehicle into its new third-generation SYNC system, scheduled to debut later this year.  In 2013, Ford also contributed the code for its SYNC AppLink system to the open-source GENIVI project, so that any automaker can use the system in its vehicles.  In December 2014, Ford announced a partnership with Techstars to launch a mobility startup incubator in Detroit that will also get funding from Verizon Telematics and Magna International.

From newcomers like Tesla Motors to century-old companies like GM and Ford, everyone has recognized that NIH inhibits innovation, and that no one knows where the next great idea that revolutionizes mobility will come from.


Cloud Connections Bolster In-Vehicle Systems

— January 26, 2015

With the average transaction prices of new vehicles in the United States hitting nearly $35,000 at the end of 2014, drivers can be grateful that the cars they purchase are also more durable and reliable than ever before. The average age of the more than 200 million vehicles on the road in the United States today is now nearly 11.5 years.  However, that longevity has a big potential downside: as computing and communications technology marches on to improve safety, efficiency, and reliability, many of those existing cars will be incapable of participating in these advances.  Luckily, cloud computing could come to the rescue.

According to Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, full-function self-driving vehicles aren’t expected to be available in significant volumes until late in the 2020s.  Until the fully self-driving car arrives, we’ll have a steady stream of incremental improvements in advanced driver assistance systems.  Thanks to increasing connectivity in vehicles, we’re also less likely to be stuck with the capability that was built-in when the vehicle rolled off the assembly line.

No Car Left Behind

General Motors (GM) and Audi are among the manufacturers that are already building 4G LTE radios into many of their new vehicles.  When this capability is combined with advanced new microprocessors from companies like NVIDIA and Qualcomm, vehicles will be able to leverage cloud computing infrastructure to get smarter as they age, rather than being left behind.

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NVIDIA unveiled a new generation 256-core processor, called the Tegra X1, along with electronic control units powered by this advanced chip.  One of the problems that driver assistance and autonomous systems have to solve is being able to recognize and distinguish the objects detected by all of the sensors on new vehicles.  The human brain is remarkably adept at distinguishing the nuances between an animal and pedestrian or an ambulance and a delivery van.

Detection before Failure

This sort of image recognition is far more difficult for a computer, so the Tegra X1 is designed to collect image data from its 12 camera inputs and transmit it back to data centers where it can be aggregated with information from other vehicles.  By combining data from many vehicles, the object recognition can be dramatically improved, and updated image libraries can be fed back to vehicles for improved onboard sensing ‑ even without changing hardware.

GM is also harnessing the power of the cloud to provide drivers with predictive diagnostic information for their vehicles using OnStar.  Available for more than a decade, OnStar provides subscribers with vehicle health reports when faults are detected.  Now, by monitoring critical systems such as the battery, starter, and fuel pump and sending this information back to the cloud, OnStar is able to detect subtle changes in performance that have previously been shown to be precursors to component failures.  The OnStar Driver Assurance system can then notify the driver so that an impending problem can be corrected before the driver is left stranded on the side of the road.  This predictive diagnostic system will be available on several of GM’s 2016 model year vehicles.

As automakers roll out new infotainment interfaces, such as Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, drivers will also benefit from improved voice recognition that leverages massive data centers run by these technology companies.  More robust and reliable voice control will help reduce driver frustration and keep their attention on the road ‑ at least until the car can take over completely.


Sensor Technology Not Yet Ready for Self-Driving Cars

— December 30, 2014

According to Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, some limited self-driving vehicles will arrive by 2020, but widespread adoption of full-function autonomous vehicles won’t happen until at least the late 2020s.  Over the next 15 years, manufacturers are expected to continue making incremental progress with more capable assist systems and semi-autonomous systems, such as the Super Cruise system recently announced by General Motors and the Advanced Highway Driving Assist from Toyota.

Many of the vehicles sold today already contain most of the essential building blocks to enable them to operate autonomously.  However, a new study from AAA indicates those pieces are not yet all that reliable or consistent.  Based on that, it’s reasonable to deduce that we cannot yet trust those systems for full automation, and drivers must remain fully engaged in vehicle operation.

AAA recently conducted a series of tests of blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems and found that the performance can vary widely among different vehicles and under different conditions.  “AAA’s tests found that these systems are a great asset to drivers, but there is a learning curve,” says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering.

Enhancement, Not Replacement

Automakers have always marketed these features as assist systems meant to augment rather than replace the control of an attentive driver.  For example, the lane-keeping assist that is part of many such systems can automatically provide some correction to help prevent the vehicle from drifting out of a lane.  However, these systems typically also monitor the driver using sensors in the steering wheel or torque feedback in the steering column to prevent hands-off driving.

Advanced Driver Assist Sensors: Ford Fusion



(Source: Ford Motor Co.)

Similarly, blind spot monitoring sensors don’t negate the need to check mirrors regularly while driving.  The sensitivity and field of view of each vehicle depends on where the manufacturer has positioned the sensors behind the rear bumper cover.  Each of the vehicles tested by AAA would detect vehicles or cyclists in the adjacent lanes at different times.

My own experience driving a wide variety of vehicles equipped with both types of assists has been as spotty as the results from AAA indicate.  Lane departure systems use digital cameras and sophisticated image processing algorithms to look for lane markers painted on the pavement, and all of the systems currently on the market only function at speeds above 35 mph to 40 mph.   The problem arises when the lane markers aren’t clearly visible or don’t exist at all.  On a rural road or residential street with no markings, you’re completely on your own.

Alerts and Alarms

Another problem is the lack of consistency in how alerts are presented to drivers by different manufacturers.  Vehicles can have audible, visual, haptic alerts, or a combination of these.  Sometimes, the systems are overly sensitive and trigger so many alerts that drivers are tempted to disable the system to avoid being annoyed, thus defeating the purpose.  Other times, the monitors don’t provide an alert until it’s too late to be useful.

Sensing systems will need to be robust enough to provide accurate warnings or control inputs under all driving conditions, and designers will have to develop human-machine interfaces that provide information to drivers without being overwhelming.


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