Navigant Research Blog

Hybrids Need a Refresh

— September 18, 2014

Worldwide sales of hybrids through August were off 9% over sales during the same period in 2013.  The drop contrasts starkly with the last 3 years, which have seen January-August sales rise 65% from 2011 to 2012 and 24% from 2012 to 2013.  While the market for hybrids is certainly not going away – 2014 sales will likely hit 400,000 by year-end – it is becoming significantly more competitive, and expansion outside of the midsize hatchback segments that hybrids crowd is just not happening.

Toyota’s introduction of the Prius family in 2012, alongside a market for plug-ins that was limited to few costly models, signaled a revival of the hybrid market.  Since then, though, plug-in makers have cut costs sharply, and the number of available models has grown considerably.  Only 1/20th the size of hybrid market in 2011, sales of plug-ins are now one-quarter of hybrid sales.  Meanwhile, the difference between hybrids and conventional gas- and diesel-powered vehicles in terms of fuel economy is shrinking.

Weight Loss

Driven by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, automakers are introducing vehicles with stop-start systems that are already widely popular in Europe and have significant weight reductions through materials engineering and engine downsizing.  Tracked by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), the average new vehicle sold in the United States hit 25.8 mpg last month ‑ 5 mpg higher than the 2008 average.

All of this means that, for new hybrids to succeed, they must show significant fuel economy savings over conventional competitors ‑ and at a price point significantly lower than plug-in rivals (minus government subsidies).  Or they must be new: they have to fill a segment outside the densely populated small hatchback or offer cutting-edge technologies that can grab some of the spotlight that Tesla, Nissan, BMW, and Chevrolet eat up with each new plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) introduction.

Ford has announced it will introduce a new dedicated hybrid – another small hatchback — to compete with the Prius in late 2018, and industry sources believe that Hyundai may also soon join the fray.  But the wisdom of these introductions is questionable if current trends continue.  Breaking into the cross-over market, as plug-ins are poised to do next year with the Model X and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, would do much to keep hybrids relevant.  Bringing a diesel hybrid over from Europe would also help capture car buyers’ imaginations.

 

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.

 

Automakers Add Gears for Better Fuel Efficiency

— September 3, 2014

Automakers are pursuing many options to improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks.  Most recently, the emphasis has been on reducing weight by changing to less dense materials even though they’re more expensive.   There is also ongoing development work with electrification to recover and reuse kinetic energy.  The latest change to help manufacturers comply with tightening fuel economy targets worldwide is revamping the automatic transmission.

Historically, automatic transmissions were inherently less efficient than manual gearboxes, and convenience was the tradeoff for the loss of a few percentage points in fuel economy and acceleration. Some of the latest automatic gearboxes, though, are actually more efficient than a manual gearbox with a clutch.  Today, the desire to retain complete manual control over gear selection means, in some cases, slightly higher fuel consumption and longer 0 to 60 mph times.  However, a stick-shift generally still saves money off the new sticker price and in North America is sometimes regarded as an anti-theft device.

On Up to 10

From the late 1960s, three speeds was the standard automatic configuration, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that overdrive and lock-up top gears were added to help improve the efficiency, leading to more four- and five-speed automatic gearboxes.  In 2002, gearbox technology began to get a lot more attention when BMW put the first 6-speed automatic into production, followed by Mercedes with its 7-speed in 2003 and Toyota with an 8-speed in 2007.  Recently there have been a number of transmission announcements:

  • GM is crediting its new 8-speed automatic for making the 2015 Corvette Stingray faster and more efficient.  More gears allows for a lower first gear ratio for better acceleration, as well as a higher final drive ratio to reduce engine speed at highway cruising speed.  The 8L90 transmission will also feature in GM’s range of pickup trucks and SUVs.  Careful packaging and internal design features means that the new gearbox fits the same space as the 6-speed 6L80 – even though it can handle higher torque and power in addition to weighing less.
  • ZF introduced its revised 8-speed transmission in the 2014 BMW 5 Series.  This second-generation 8HP gearbox (the first was introduced in 2009) offers revised gear ratios to take advantage of the latest engine efficiency improvements that deliver more torque at lower rpms.  Advanced torsional vibration dampers improve smoothness, and a new shifting design has reduced internal energy losses.  Other users of the 8HP for rear-wheel-drive cars are Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, and Chrysler.
  • Chrysler is building a 9-speed transmission under license from ZF.  It went into production at the end of 2013 in the Jeep Cherokee.  ZF also supplies the 9HP for the Range Rover Evoque.  Chrysler is planning to implement a version in its minivans and smaller front-wheel-drive cars, as well.  Although the wider ratios provide better fuel economy and acceleration, concerns have been raised about erratic shifting.  These are being addressed via a software update.
  • In September 2013, Mercedes launched its 9G-TRONIC transmission on the E 350 BlueTEC diesel saloon car.  Despite two additional gears and a higher maximum torque, the new automatic transmission requires no more installation space than its predecessor and is also lighter.  The torque converter housing is made of lightweight aluminum, while the transmission housing with plastic oil pan is made of an even lighter magnesium alloy.

Ford and GM have already announced that they are planning to develop a 10-speed gearbox together.  It seems that manufacturers have figured out how to get more ratios in the same space and, at the same time, reduce internal energy losses so that efficiency is higher while maintaining or improving performance.  The key is integration with the latest engine characteristics to optimize the driving experience.  This topic will be covered in more detail in our upcoming report on automotive fuel efficiency.

 

Time for Automakers to Get Real on Vehicle Security

— August 21, 2014

Recently, the annual Black Hat and DefCon computer security conferences took place in Las Vegas, and this week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications.  Hacking cars was once again one of the hot topics at the two security conferences this year, in part because automakers don’t appear to have done much to improve the security of the vehicles we drive.  Each year researchers announce some newly discovered vulnerability that gets blown out of proportion by the mainstream media.

Fortunately for drivers everywhere, none of the issues discovered so far have actually amounted to anything worthy of concern.  However, as vehicles continue to get increasingly advanced in the coming years, the potential for attackable flaws will only increase.  Automakers are notoriously quiet when it comes to publicly discussing anything that might potentially be deemed a flaw in any of their products, but it’s time to change that attitude when it comes to electronic security.

Calling All Cars

Over the past half-decade, advanced driver assist systems such as adaptive cruise control, automatic parking systems, and lane departure warning and prevention have rapidly migrated down-market from expensive European luxury models to mainstream, high-volume family cars, such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion.  With the addition of just a few extra sensors and a lot more software, these are the building blocks for tomorrow’s fully autonomous vehicles.

One other piece of that puzzle is the V2V communications that the NHTSA would like to mandate.  Along with vehicle-to-infrastructure  communications, cars will be able to send and receive messages that can influence the behavior of the vehicle.  Initially, the plan is to send these alerts only to drivers.  However, it’s only a matter of time before that expands to include autonomous vehicle capabilities like automatic braking or steering to avoid a collision.

Anyone who’s ever worked on software will acknowledge that it’s virtually impossible to write absolutely perfect and bug-free code, and the task gets exponentially more difficult as systems get more complex.  Automakers often like to brag about how many millions of lines of code are in the latest and greatest new vehicle and how many gigabytes of data are processed every second.  They neglect to mention how every additional byte of code means more potential for mistakes or security flaws.

No Such Thing as Bug-Free

Companies with vast software engineering expertise, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, have acknowledged that they cannot possibly find every potential issue in their products.  The impact of a Facebook or Google breach can be annoying, and potentially expensive, but not life threatening.

It’s time for automakers to follow suit and acknowledge that despite their best efforts to secure vehicles, the potential does indeed exist for security vulnerabilities.  Tesla Motors started on the right track this year with the hiring of security expert Kristin Paget away from Apple.  The company also sent a team of recruiters to the Black Hat and DefCon conferences to find more talent.

Each automaker should also set up a bounty program similar to those established by the big tech firms, which pay researchers cash rewards for disclosing security vulnerabilities to the companies.  The corporate lawyers might not be crazy about the idea, but with the recent flood of vehicle recalls from General Motors and other manufacturers, the increased focus on safety and quality might actually make this an ideal time to do this.

 

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