Navigant Research Blog

Increasing Collaboration between Tech and Automakers Is Better for Everyone

— May 19, 2017

Over the past several years, there has been an ongoing narrative that a battle has sprung up between Silicon Valley and the auto industry. The tech industry hype machine wants the world to believe that venture capital-backed startups are going to appear with some magic technology that disrupts and destroys the century-old incumbents. The reality is likely to turn out quite differently, with some of the brightest minds in the valley coming up with cool ideas that become a key part of the transportation ecosystem.

Tech Has Saved the Automobile Industry Before

The fact that the auto industry has remained vibrant over the past 50 years can in large part be traced to innovations that have emerged from the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly the silicon microprocessor that gave the region its nickname. At the onset of environmental regulation at the end of the 1960s, most of the functional aspects of cars were mechanically controlled, and these vehicles consumed more fuel and spewed more pollution than they do today.

As engineers struggled to meet the new regulatory requirements, the industry entered what became known to car enthusiasts like myself as the malaise era. Attempts to better control engines through mechanical means like vacuum lines led to many terrible engines with weak output, awful drivability, and barely improved emissions and efficiency.

Silicon Valley saved the auto industry from being suffocated by regulations. As early microprocessors and sensors were applied to engine and transmission management as well as new safety systems like anti-lock brakes, it became clear that computers in the car would be the key to enhanced driving. By the mid-1980s, electronic controls were enabling engineers to extract more power while using less fuel and cleaning up emissions. As fuel economy regulations stopped climbing, car companies offered customers improved performance and capability without making them spend more at the pump.

After earning my degree in mechanical engineering, I spent the next 17 years working on improving vehicles through  more sophisticated software running on a series of cheaper, yet more powerful slivers of silicon. Today’s most sophisticated vehicles utilize anywhere from 50 to 100 onboard computers to manage everything from lights that follow the angle of the steering wheel to automatically maneuvering a truck to connect a trailer.

Looking Forward to More Industry Collaboration

Silicon Valley has been a key enabler of the modern vehicle for decades. As we shift toward a world where most of the driving is done by software instead of people, the tech and auto industries must continue to collaborate more closely. The auto industry has developed an immense base of knowledge in building complex pieces of hardware at high volume and with high degrees of reliability and durability. Those machines come in a huge variety of configurations to meet virtually every possible transportation need.

Meanwhile, the tech industry has an unrivaled set of capabilities in developing software and electronics and driving down costs while improving performance. There are great minds on both sides focused on how to make mobility safer, cheaper, and more universally accessible. The Navigant Research Leaderboard Report: Automated Driving scored automakers and tech companies on their likelihood of success in commercializing this technology.

Almost everyone recognizes that transportation will change in the coming decades. The collaboration between the tech and auto industries has yielded incredible results for nearly half a century. New partnerships are going to form on the way to fully automated driving. There’s no need to spin those relationships into a competition when greater collaboration will likely yield much better results for everyone moving forward.

 

Success in Automated Vehicles Depends on Tech, Services, and Manufacturing

— April 3, 2017

An old axiom in motorsports goes: “to finish first, first you must finish.” This means you can have the fastest car on the track and qualify on the pole position, but if you don’t have the preparation or team to back you up, the quality of the car is meaningless. In the race to make automated driving a successful commercial reality, hype may get companies all the media attention, but a fully realized strategy combined with the ability to execute are the keys to success. This is why Ford, General Motors (GM), the Renault-Nissan Alliance, and Daimler are the leaders in the latest Navigant Research Leaderboard Report: Automated Driving Systems.

Outside observers would not be faulted for believing that companies in Silicon Valley were about to roll over the entire automotive industry and take over personal mobility in the coming months based on news coverage. However, as many veterans of the technology industry have become painfully aware of, the reality is that building vehicles to safely transport the world’s population is far more difficult than just writing an app and publishing it to an online store.

Horse Before the Cart

Assembling a suite of sensors and writing the basic software to control a vehicle are actually the easy parts. Before that package can become a real product, you need a vehicle. Google developed its automated driving system in 2009 by hiring many of the top brains from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and several automakers that had previously created winning vehicles in the DARPA Grand Challenge program between 2004 and 2007. Then Google went to local Toyota and Lexus dealers and bought vehicles one or two at a time. Companies like Cruise Automation and Uber followed similar paths. In order to commercialize a system, they will need to invest billions more to develop and manufacture vehicles or find an automaker partner willing to supply cars.

Uber is reported to have lost more than $3 billion in 2016 without capital investment in vehicles or manufacturing. The world’s major automakers already have the engineering and manufacturing infrastructure in place, and many of them have been working on autonomous technology for far longer than Silicon Valley. Major automakers understand the intricacies of developing, validating, and certifying vehicles for profitable production.

At Navigant Research, we believe the leading automakers are learning what it takes to develop automated vehicles faster than new entrants can learn how to build cars. Companies like Ford, GM, Nissan, and Daimler also understand the regulatory and product liability hurdles faced by bringing automation to the world’s roads. These companies have heavily invested in controlling and understanding the key technologies required to make vehicles and automated driving system work seamlessly.

Just Around the Corner

The leading companies in this field are also rapidly developing their own in-house mobility services so that they can provide consumer access to automated driving systems while retaining control of vehicle manufacturing. This will help to ensure that the vehicles are properly maintained and updated—something that is key to safe and proper use within the early years of deployment.

Technology companies like Waymo and nuTonomy, as well as suppliers like Delphi and ZF, will have an important role to play in the new mobility ecosystem. But for now, automakers lead in the automated driving system race.

 

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.

 

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