Navigant Research Blog

Ralph Nader Enters Automotive Hall of Fame: A Legacy

— June 24, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2For more than 5 decades, many in Detroit and other automotive capitals have considered Ralph Nader to be public enemy number one. Despite the strong feelings against Nader throughout much of the auto industry, the lifelong consumer advocate will be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in July 2016. While Nader first came to prominence with the publication of his book Unsafe at Any Speed, the industry would probably not be where it is today without his efforts.

When Nader’s book was published in 1965, there were almost no safety-related automotive regulations. A year later, the U.S. Congress enacted the first Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and the era of automotive regulation began. Within the next few years, emissions and fuel economy were also being regulated and the automobile would never be the same.

Rules Are Good

Over the past 50 years, the industry has fought virtually every new regulation tooth and nail, and in the process, it has seriously eroded consumer trust. While repeatedly claiming that new rules were technically impossible to meet and/or too costly but ultimately managing to meet the rules (for the most part), automakers and suppliers have chipped away at their own credibility.

Thanks to those rules, engineers were forced to convert vehicle systems from mechanical to electronic controls. Beginning with basics such as ignition and later anti-lock brakes, today’s vehicles have up to 100 computers and more than 100 million lines of code. There are already production vehicles on the road from Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Tesla with semi-autonomous capabilities. Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t far off.

Despite the animus between them, the efforts of Nader and colleagues like Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow on issues such as airbags have spurred the industry to develop and adopt more capable and affordable sensing and processing systems. Those same systems have become the enablers for the transformation of urban mobility that is projected in Navigant Research’s Transportation Outlook: 2025-2050 white paper.

While there have undoubtedly been backward steps along the way—such as the ongoing Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal—overall, today’s vehicles are safer, more efficient, cleaner, and better performing than at any time in the 130-year history of the automobile. The industry also remains incredibly profitable, with more vehicles being sold than ever. The reality is that regulations have enhanced the transportation industry and personal mobility, rather than killing it.

An Inflection Point

The industry now stands at an inflection point, as mobility is about to be transformed. This is uncharted territory, and there are no rules that govern it. There are countless new players stepping up and hoping to grab a piece of the mobility pie. The potential to make a quantum leap in safety is there if autonomous vehicles are executed properly.

However, many of these new players are coming into vehicle control from a software-based technology space, where “fail fast and iterate” is the model. That’s fine when talking about apps. If they crash, it’s an annoyance. If an autonomous control system fails, lives may be at stake. If autonomous vehicles are executed poorly, it could drastically undermine a half-century of work by Nader and many others.

The time is right for the industry to step up to the plate and work with regulators to develop common-sense rules for autonomous vehicles that don’t stifle innovative ideas. At the same time, they must set standards for system performance and mechanisms to validate that performance.

Ralph Nader upset the apple cart 50 years ago; he deserves a place in the hall of fame. The auto industry needs to embrace that legacy for the future.

 

Does Vehicle Automation Need to Overcome the Uncanny Valley to Succeed?

— May 31, 2016

Connected VehiclesIn the world of digital animation, there is a concept known as the uncanny valley, which refers to a sense of unease generated in a viewer when something meant to replicate a human appears extremely close to being real, but subtle errors indicate that it is not. Automated driving systems are now approaching something similar in their development cycle. If the electronic control systems that are expected to drive our future vehicles can’t reach a sufficient level of reliability and robustness to cross this valley, it’s possible that consumers will never accept the technology.

Accident statistics indicate that up to 94% of all crashes are caused by human error; there is no doubt that the human decision-making process is deeply flawed. Nonetheless, human perception and visual processing have some unique qualities that make us able to detect incredibly subtle nuances. When audiences saw the 2004 film The Polar Express, it was not well-received due to characters in the movie falling into the uncanny valley. The microexpressions that are such an important part of human communication were missing from the characters in the film, leaving them with what appeared to be dead eyes.

(Dis)trusting the System

In my role as a transportation analyst, I have the opportunity to drive many new vehicles to evaluate the latest technologies. Despite usually knowing where I’m going, I try to utilize navigation systems along with voice recognition and human-machine interface and driver assistance (ADAS) features to aid my understanding of what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.

Having spent more than 17 years developing electronic control systems including anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control, I’m constantly impressed at how far these systems have advanced. Nonetheless, I have yet to encounter a system that I completely trust, including Tesla’s Autopilot, which is arguably the most advanced ADAS system on the market today. For the most part, Autopilot and other ADAS features work well within their control domains. Using radar, they can track a vehicle ahead at a safe distance and automatically slow down or speed up in response. Lane keeping systems detect road markings and provide alerts or even adjust the steering to keep the vehicle from drifting out of the lane.

Unfortunately, the sensors don’t always detect what’s around the vehicle consistently, so drivers must remain alert and be ready to take control. There are enough control errors in normal operation that it’s impossible to completely trust the system. Even far more advanced fully autonomous systems that are currently being testing by many automakers, suppliers, and technology companies aren’t perfect. They have little or no ability to operate in areas that don’t have hi-definition 3D maps, clearly visible signage and road markings, or even in instances of poor weather.

Consumer Pushback

A recently released study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute revealed that only 15.5% of respondents wanted fully autonomous vehicles, and nearly half wanted no self-driving capability at all. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report forecasts that fewer than 5% of new vehicles sold in 2025 will have fully autonomous capability.

This low consumer interest comes despite the fact that almost no one besides the engineers working on the technology have actually experienced a self-driving car. If those engineers cannot find a way to cross the uncanny valley of automation and convince people to completely trust the technology, it will be very difficult for it to gain traction in the marketplace.

 

Will Cities of the Future Be Car-Free?

— May 5, 2016

Bangkok SkylineCity plans to eliminate cars have regularly garnered media coverage over the last few years. Some examples describe initiatives and plans in London, Madrid, and Brussels. Most major cities already have limited areas where cars are not allowed, but a detailed examination of the proposals reveals that there is a wide variety of approaches and nothing close to a uniform policy.

Some cities want to eliminate the use of diesel cars. Some want to restrict private vehicles on certain days or during business hours. Some want to control when commercial vehicles can be driven within city boundaries. Some cities implement congestion charges but allow electric vehicles in for free. Few have tackled the question of how to deal with plugin hybrid vehicles that can drive just for short periods on electricity.

While currently there is much soul searching about the car and whether it has a future in the cities of tomorrow, there is a need to define the goals and benefits of restriction or elimination of certain vehicles and also decide what is going to replace them. If the goal is cleaner air, strong legislation on emissions will do the job, but all vehicles must be included. Eliminating private cars but continuing with large numbers of trucks and buses running on diesel will have a limited effect on air quality. If the main problem is congestion, encouraging people to choose electric vehicles is unlikely to deliver a solution.

City Transportation Needs

Vehicles are needed in cities to move people and goods. Garbage must be collected and disposed, and stores must be restocked. Public transport offers efficient point-to-point movement of large groups of people at busy times, but for much of the day large city buses contribute to congestion and poor air quality without actually moving many people around. Established subway systems are almost all electrically powered and don’t affect air quality or make congestion worse, but building them is very expensive. Trams, though they use electric power, do influence congestion because they operate on city streets.

The challenge is to provide a clean transportation system that meets the needs of the people who wish to travel in a cost-effective way with maximum efficiency. Low cost and easy access are what most people want. The system must cater for people who are prepared to pay a little extra for comfort or privacy to convince them that they no longer need to own private vehicles. It must be able to collect and drop people off within a short walk of where they are or want to be. The ideal system will interface with longer range point-to-point transport by providing first- and last-mile service on demand.

The Autonomous Fleet Option

As a large range of companies continue with self-driving vehicle testing, from established OEMs and Tier One suppliers as well as new market entrants such as Google and Tesla, consideration is being given to the potential for these vehicles to operate in a shared fleet rather than being owned by individuals. The biggest challenge for autonomous driving technology is interacting with existing traffic and drivers. If a fleet was given exclusive access to certain roads, the implementation would be easier and the benefits could be properly assessed.

Implementations of autonomous fleets are already under consideration. In California, the city of Beverly Hills wants to be one of the first to do this. The city council believes it can afford to fund the investment in vehicles and fiber optic infrastructure to add another layer of security. In Europe, a new agreement to standardize traffic laws is laying the groundwork for an autonomous fleet in Amsterdam in 2019. More details are available in Navigant Research’s recent study on Autonomous Vehicles.

 

Google and Fiat Chrysler Team Up to Build New Fleet of Self-Driving Minivans

— May 3, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2For the first time since Google began work on developing autonomous vehicle technology 7 years ago, the company now has an official relationship with an existing automaker. The technology giant is teaming up with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to build an expanded test fleet to accumulate more real-world miles. Engineering teams from FCA and Google will be colocated at an undisclosed facility somewhere in southeast Michigan to develop and build vehicles based on the new Pacifica Hybrid minivan.

Until now, Google has largely worked independently on its self-driving car program, purchasing Toyota Priuses and Lexus RX450s and installing the sensors and computing hardware necessary to have the vehicles drive themselves. More recently, Google contracted with Michigan-based Roush Engineering to build dozens of dedicated self-driving pod vehicles, but these were strictly low-speed electric machines limited to a maximum speed of 25 mph.

Approaching the Automakers

Several automakers have acknowledged off the record that they had been approached by Google over the past several years, but the business conditions set by Google were unacceptable. Essentially, Google wanted a company to build cars and turn them over for installation of a black box control system. Since it’s generally acknowledged now that automakers will be liable for the reliability and performance of autonomous vehicles, no company was willing to cede that much control to Google.

The hiring of former Ford and Hyundai executive John Krafcik as CEO of the Google Self-Driving Cars division last fall likely led to a change in attitude in Mountain View about how to collaborate with incumbent automakers. There had been speculation in late 2015 that Google would announce a partnership with Ford as early as the 2016 CES in Las Vegas last January, but the show came and went without an announcement.

For more than a year, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne has been looking for a partner to merge with. Marchionne made an especially hard push for a merger with General Motors, but was repeatedly turned away. More recently, Marchionne has publicly stated that FCA would make an excellent partner to manufacture vehicles for Apple should the electronics company decide to get into the automotive business. Given FCA’s limited resources relative to larger rivals in Detroit, Europe, and Asia, a partnership with Google is likely the company’s best course of action right now.

FCA Developments

Navigant Research’s Leaderboard Report: Autonomous Vehicle OEMs from last year ranked FCA 14th among 18 OEMs evaluated for their work on autonomous vehicles. FCA has never publicly discussed or demonstrated an autonomous vehicle program, although it has been surprisingly aggressive in deploying advanced driver assistance systems to its model lineup in the past 3 years. Back in the mid-1990s, Chrysler also developed robotic driving systems that could be used to control vehicles running on a particularly harsh durability test track at its Chelsea, Michigan proving ground. Human drivers could only withstand short periods of driving on the course because of the pounding and it was hoped that an autonomous system could be used to conduct accelerated durability tests. The system was not sufficiently reliable at that time and was eventually abandoned.

The new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid was unveiled in January 2016 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and features FCA’s first in-house developed hybrid drivetrain. The plug-in hybrid features an 18 kWh lithium ion battery pack manufactured by LG Chem in Holland, Michigan and is capable of an approximately 30-mile all-electric driving range.

FCA and Google have not said when the new autonomous minivans will be ready for testing, but the 100 vehicle fleet will enable the two companies to significantly expand their collection of real-world data needed to make autonomous systems more robust.

 

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