Navigant Research Blog

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 Auto Pilot, which is arguably the most advanced ADAS system on the market today. For the most part, Auto Pilot 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.

 

Key Automotive Trends Are Driving Acquisitions

— May 2, 2016

DashboardAs a new Navigant Research white paper on transportation is published, it is interesting to note that the trends identified are already influencing merger and acquisition (M&A) decisions in the automotive world today. Transportation Outlook: 2025 to 2050 takes a long-term view of how the automotive vehicle market may change over the next 35 years. As with all long-term forecasts, there are many unknowns that could influence the end results, but it is a useful exercise to think about where current trends could lead.

The study identifies four major trends in automotive technology today and extrapolates into the future to speculate about how the global marketplace might change. The four technologies are:

  • Connectivity
  • Autonomous driving
  • Car and ridesharing
  • Electric drive

It is interesting to observe some recent M&A activity that acknowledges the significance of these technology developments for the future. Although they have evolved independently, the key to long-term success is integration.

Recent M&A Announcements

While one aspect of acquisitions is always economic and looking for efficiency improvements from shared overheads and broadening of product offerings, some are more about strategic factors that consider long-term goals.

NXP and Freescale: This merger was announced in March 2015 and completed by December. NXP wanted to increase the proportion of its automotive business and was attracted by Freescale’s growing business supplying OEMs with processors for powertrain and safety systems, particularly advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Intel and Altera: Completed in December 2015, Altera expanded the Intel product line into field-programmable gate array technology, which makes it easier to customize processors and upgrade them while in service. While generally useful for the Internet of Things, one possible application may be for secure chips to control safety and autonomous driving systems. Updating software remotely is a topic covered in more detail in a recent blog from my colleague Sam Abuelsamid.

Intel and Yogitech: Acquired in April 2016, Yogitech specializes in fault-tolerant integrated circuits. With concerns about hacking and interference growing as more cars become connected by wireless communications, safety is an important factor for automotive OEMs.

General Motors (GM), Lyft, and Sidecar: In January 2016, GM acquired the employees and technology of Sidecar, a ridesharing service that shut down in December 2015. At around the same time, GM made a major investment in Lyft, the largest U.S. competitor to Uber. The automaker does not want to get left behind in the on-demand mobility stakes. For more detail, see another blog from my colleague Sam Abuelsamid.

General Motors and Cruise Automation: In March 2016, GM announced it was buying Cruise Automation (founded in 2013) to accelerate development of autonomous driving functionality for its vehicles.

Harman and TowerSec: Once known mainly for audio and infotainment systems, Harman is expanding its product line into connected and autonomous vehicles. TowerSec provides important extra safety via cyber security capability.

ZF Friedrichshafen and TRW: When ZF Friedrichshafen AG acquired TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. in May 2015, it added key expertise in radar and camera sensors to its offerings, among other things. TRW is now a new division within ZF called Active & Passive Safety Technology. The Tier One supplier can now offer complete ADAS capability from sensors to activation of steering and brakes.

Also in 2015, Audi, BMW, and Daimler got together to acquire HERE from Nokia. This was covered in a Navigant Research blog at the time by Lisa Jerram.

This is a quick overview of recent activity in the automotive world; there will surely be more to look forward to in the near future.

 

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