Navigant Research Blog

Reliable Service Parts Critical to Autonomous Driving Future

Sam Abuelsamid — June 30, 2015

Thanks to advances in materials that increasingly avoid corrosion, modern engineering and manufacturing processes that improve build quality, and electronics that improve performance and efficiency, cars now last longer than ever. The average age of the more than 200 million cars on American roads today is nearly 11.5 years, and 20- to 30-year old machines are shockingly common. Despite how well-built vehicles have become, parts still eventually break or wear out and need replacement; this includes the sensors that control the vital systems in modern vehicles.

As cars become increasingly automated, the number of sensors has grown dramatically, and they need to be functional and reliable. This potentially poses a significant problem for vehicles after they are out of warranty or out of production. My friend Richard Truett, engineering reporter for trade publication Automotive News, buys older vehicles, repairs or restores them, drives them, and sells them before moving on to the next vehicle.

While most of Richard’s vehicles are older British sports cars that predate the electronic age, he recently bought a 1988 Pontiac Fiero with relatively low mileage that was in need of his TLC. As Richard went through the car from the wheels up, he attacked the engine control electronics that were keeping the car from running properly. In the process, he discovered issues that could pose serious problems for future automated vehicles. It’s actually not uncommon for people to manage to get around for months or years with the tell-tale “check engine light” illuminated, usually indicating some sort of sensor fault. For automated vehicles, that is less likely to be an option because of the dependence on sensors for basic functionality.

Lessons to Be Learned

Standard industry practice after a vehicle goes out of production is for automakers and suppliers to license the production of replacement service parts to third-party manufacturers. In many cases, these service part manufacturers will also reverse engineer the original parts and produce compatible replacements. What Richard discovered when trying to replace the oxygen sensors and spark plugs on his 27-year-old sports car was that compatibility and functionality were often not a sure thing. The electronic systems in the Fiero were comparatively primitive by 2015 standards, but brand-new components as basic as an oxygen sensor or throttle position sensor fail out of the box—that’s a bad sign, and these aren’t even safety-critical systems.

The sensors being used for automated driving systems are far more advanced, and the technology is evolving rapidly, so components are less likely to stay in production with the original manufacturer than they were 3 decades ago. It may not even be possible for third-party manufacturers to replicate the original parts, and if they do, they may not perform to the same standard, thus hampering the performance of safety-critical automated systems.

Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2030, 40% of new vehicles will have some sort of autonomous driving capability built in. Those vehicles will be totally dependent on sensors that must provide accurate and reliable information about the world around that vehicle in real-time. Before we become overly reliant on these systems to get us where we need to be on our daily rounds, manufacturers need to sort out solutions that will ensure a more robust and reliable stream of service parts. Perhaps this should even be part of the safety regulations that govern automated vehicles. There are still many fundamental questions to be answered before you can summon an autonomous Uber car from your wrist—and service parts is just one.

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