Navigant Research Blog

In the U.S., EVs Not Quite Ready for Mainstream

— October 6, 2014

A week spent with a new 2014 LEAF on loan from Nissan again demonstrated that, for many Americans, the modern battery electric vehicle (BEV) is at least a technically viable option.  However, for far more Americans, batteries are not yet a silver bullet.

The LEAF is an excellent all-around car, but it also displays the two main drawbacks of the battery-fueled car – range and cost.  Even after subtracting the $7,500 federal tax credit from the $29,860 base price of a new LEAF, it still costs about $7,000 more than comparably equipped conventional compacts like the Honda Civic or Ford Focus.

What’s more, even the well-optimized dedicated EV LEAF only manages an EPA-estimated range of 84 miles.  That means that cars like the LEAF Focus Electric and Chevrolet Spark EV need to spend a lot of time plugged in.

Feeling Range-Anxious

BEV advocates claim that unlike mostly nonexistent hydrogen fueling infrastructure, charging infrastructure already exists.  Strictly speaking, this is true since any standard 120V outlet can charge a BEV, albeit very slowly.  The loaner LEAF arrived with two-thirds charge on the battery and took 11.5 hours to top off.

Assuming you live somewhere with ready access to a plug and a commute of less than 30 miles, this is a perfectly viable option.  Longer commutes could be managed with a plug at work.  Otherwise, a $1,500 investment in a 240V Level 2 charger is called for.  The LEAF also offers support for 400V CHAdeMO quick charging – for which there are just two compatible chargers in Michigan. Even if there were any Tesla Supercharger stations in Michigan, they use a proprietary connector that is exclusive to Tesla.

One night during my loan, I had to drive 38 miles from my home to Detroit, and with only two public chargers within walking distance of Comerica Park, I opted to leave the LEAF at home.  While the LEAF’s 84-mile nominal range could have supported the round trip, I decided not to risk getting stranded at night because BEVs remain far more sensitive to deviations from nominal driving than conventional vehicles.

Promises, Promises

That nominal range is based on EPA test cycles that don’t get much over 55 mph, considerably lower than the 70 mph limit on most highways in America.  Within a minute of getting on the highway for the first time, the range estimate had dropped by 5 miles and would have continued dropping faster if I had stayed at highway speeds for any length of time.  Because BEVs also rely on the battery to provide heat in the winter, the nominal range during cold weather months drops by 25% to 50% percent depending on conditions and the driver’s willingness to bundle up.  Range also drops to varying degrees when running windshield wipers, turning on headlamps, or defogging windows.

Tesla has promised to launch its smaller and more affordable Model III sedan in 2017, with a starting price of $35,000 and a range of 200 miles – which would be a major milestone if the company actually delivers all of that.  Unfortunately, based on Tesla’s history thus far, we can probably expect that launch date to slip by a year or more, and that advertised price to be the net cost after the federal tax credit.  That base price will probably get you a car with a smaller battery that gives a range of 120 miles to 150 miles.  The 200-mile battery will probably only come in a car that costs $45,000 to $50,000.  That’s still a big step in the right direction.  But even at $35,000, it’s well beyond what many customers can afford, and the bigger the battery, the longer it takes to charge.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Will Work Best Within Limits

— October 1, 2014

About the only way your next car has much chance of driving itself is if you live in a gated community or on a college campus where it won’t have to deal with too many variables like other traffic.  Just as voice recognition systems work best with limited vocabularies, autonomous vehicles will probably be limited to such constrained environments for the foreseeable future.  That’s the conclusion from the recent ITS World Congress 2014 in Detroit.  Increasing levels of vehicle automation were a major topic of discussion during the annual conference on intelligent transportation systems.

Google has been pushing the idea that self-driving vehicles will hit the road within the next 5 years.  Google had no official presence at the conference, but a lot of companies that build cars, parts, and infrastructure systems were there, and no one that I spoke with was in agreement with Google’s timing projections.  The general consensus is that we won’t see widespread use of full operating range autonomous vehicles until closer to 2030.

Not Street-Ready

That’s not to say that no one believes in automated driving; quite the opposite.  It’s just that in engineering circles, there’s a rule of thumb known as the 90/10 rule.  That is, 90% of the technical challenge of a project takes about 10% of the time and effort.  The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.  In the realm of self-driving cars, we have just begun that last 10% phase, where the basic hardware elements are all worked out but a lot of software decisions have yet to be made in order for autonomous systems to be truly robust.

Much of the on-road development by Google and other companies has been occurring in places like California and Nevada, where environmental factors like snow and even rain are a rarity.  In order for autonomous vehicles to be both commercially and legally viable, they’ll have to work reliably under any weather and road conditions.

General Motors (GM), Volkswagen, and other automakers have been working on autonomous technology much longer than Google, and they understand these limitations.  When GM rolled out a two-seat self-driving pod car known as the Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V, at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, program leader Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird acknowledged that, while this type of vehicle would eventually be an ideal way to deal with the congestion problems of megacities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the first feasible real-world applications were likely to be in restricted environments, such as campuses and gated communities.

Say Again

As powerful as computers have become, they still don’t deal with the nuances of the real world very well.  That’s why voice recognition systems still struggle to understand what should be simple natural language commands on a smartphone.  The most successful applications of the technology have been for tasks like medical transcription, with limited and specific word vocabularies and little ambient noise.  Similarly, automated vehicles function best in constrained spaces, such as buses over fixed routes or the aforementioned commuter pods.

Google hasn’t actually made any major breakthroughs in the technology that we know of.  It just jumped into field relatively recently, hiring many of the engineers and scientists that worked on the autonomous vehicles fielded by automakers in the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge competitions of 2006 and 2007, and leveraging the cost declines of the required sensors.

Where Google has outdone the incumbents is getting the technology media to talk about their efforts – but that’s unlikely to put full-function self-driving cars into consumers’ hands any sooner.

 

A Few Steps Closer to Autonomous Vehicles

— September 30, 2014

As engineers, scientists, executives, and government officials involved with transportation systems gather in Detroit this week for the annual ITS World Congress, the auto industry took another incremental step along the 60-plus-year road to autonomous vehicles.

In her keynote address, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced that two of the technologies that are building blocks toward a driverless future will come to market in 2016.  The 2017 Cadillac CTS will be the first production car from GM equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology.  Barra did not provide any details about exactly what sort of information would be exchanged between cars equipped with the technology, but messages will likely include alerts about brake applications, slippery road conditions, and position and speed as the vehicle approaches an intersection.

GM is the first automaker to announce that it will equip a production vehicle with V2V technology, but it’s likely that other premium brands will soon follow suit, especially now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has begun the process of writing rules to mandate the technology in the coming years.

Beyond Cruise Control

Barra also announced that a new Cadillac model that has yet to be revealed will be the first car in its lineup equipped with super cruise technology.  Super cruise is a semi-autonomous highway driving mode that combines advanced radar-based adaptive cruise control with upgraded camera-based lane-following capability.  In traffic, the system is able to bring the car to a full stop, automatically restarting as soon as the leading car moves.  GM first demonstrated super cruise to media in 2012 and has continued to refine the system.

In the days before the official opening of the ITS World Congress, Toyota held a separate advanced safety systems seminar where it demonstrated a system very similar to super cruise installed in the Lexus GS 450h.  The system also includes the capability to determine which lane the car is in to provide the driver with alerts for potential hazards, such as traffic merging from the left or exit-only lanes.  GPS doesn’t provide enough precision to determine which lane a vehicle is in, and Toyota engineers declined to provide specifics, but the system almost certainly uses the new higher-fidelity camera that is installed as part of the lane-tracking system.

Driver Still Required

Toyota also announced that this system would be coming to market very soon, but would not be as specific as GM.  During the technology demonstrations at the congress, Honda also demonstrated its own automated highway driving system, although it has not yet announced when the system will reach production.

The key to these systems is that they do not completely replace the driver, but simply reduce the workload during some of the more monotonous aspects of highway driving.  Unlike Google, which is extremely bullish on autonomous vehicles, traditional automakers, which are more familiar with the realities of putting high-technology cars in customers’ hands, are taking a much more cautious approach.

 

Toyota Commits to Active Safety Features

— September 18, 2014

If the world’s largest automaker gets its way, by the end of this decade, we can expect advanced active safety and semi-automated driving features to become as familiar as anti-lock brakes and stability control have in the past 10 years.

During an advanced safety systems seminar near Toyota’s North American technical center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the automaker challenged its competitors when it committed to offering advanced active safety systems across its lineup by 2017.  Toyota also increased its commitment to advanced safety R&D by extending the initial 5-year mandate of the Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC) from 2016 through 2021 and adding $35 million in new funding.

At the same event, Simon Nagata, senior vice president of the Toyota Technical Center, announced an expansion of the scope of the CSRC, which was launched by company president Akio Toyoda in 2011.  Nagata described the program as unique in the industry because “all findings are openly shared in order to benefit people everywhere.”

CSRC research initially focused on three areas: driver distraction, active safety, and helping to protect the most vulnerable traffic populations, including children, teens, and seniors. Automated and connected vehicle technologies are now part of the CSRC scope of work. To date, CSRC has initiated or completed 34 projects with 17 universities and research hospitals.

Join the Crowd

Ford has drawn attention in recent years for offering a full suite of driver assist capabilities, including active park assist, blind spot information, lane departure warning and prevention, and adaptive cruise control on the high-volume Fusion midsize sedan.  Some of these features are even available on the smaller Focus and Escape.  Other manufacturers, including Nissan, Honda, and even Hyundai, have since added some of these features to mainstream products.  Toyota, on the other hand, has largely restricted these technologies to its premium Lexus brand.

“Many of these capabilities will be added to Toyota brand vehicles starting in 2015 and with the goal of becoming the first full-line manufacturer to offer these technologies across the entire lineup by 2017,” said Bill Fay, Toyota group vice president and general manager.  Fay didn’t provide details about exactly which vehicles will get what features.  However, the updated 2015 Camry sedan, announced in April at the New York Auto Show, will offer radar-based adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, cross traffic alert, lane departure alert, and a pre-collision system.

Toyota’s increased emphasis on active safety and automated driving is likely to inspire both the competition and regulators who may well see this as an opportunity to begin mandating the technologies that are building blocks for autonomous vehicles, just as they did previously with stability control and rear cameras.  And it will provoke a wider discussion of how we incorporate automated vehicles into the transportation ecosystem.

 

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