Navigant Research Blog

Reliable Service Parts Critical to Autonomous Driving Future

— June 30, 2015

Short_Bridge_webThanks 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.


Uber-CMU Deal Highlights Transition of Autonomous Technology

— June 16, 2015

FT_Advisory_webIn February 2015, Uber and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) announced a strategic partnership to develop autonomous driving technology. It caused a bit of a stir in the auto industry because until that time Google was the only non-automotive company that had put serious effort into advancing automotive technology. Uber, however, identified a technology that could make a big difference to its bottom line in the long term and had decided to become an active participant in the engineering.

Then, in May, an article in The Verge claimed that Uber had gutted CMU’s robotics lab. Within a week or two, more articles were published about how Uber had “poached” staff and that CMU was “in a crisis”—all very dramatic. It turns out that Uber had indeed opened its own engineering center in Pittsburgh, just up the road from CMU, and that a good number of engineers and scientists had been given lucrative offers to work there.

CMU, however, seemed somewhat less excited about the situation than the journalists. Gradually, more reasoned articles made it into print, pointing out that there are many other more positive aspects to this story. Yes, Uber had diverted a large chuck of the CMU staff to work full-time on its autonomous vehicle project, but CMU enhanced its reputation as the source of advanced robotic development work. Additionally, the City of Pittsburgh has the potential to challenge Silicon Valley as an alternative site for automotive innovation. (It probably doesn’t hurt that SAE International is also based nearby.)

Universities have always been at the forefront of the latest technology development, and their role is usually to then spin off and partner with commercial companies that can take concepts into production. This is precisely what is happening now in Pittsburgh—another indication that autonomous driving is close to entering production and becoming a reality. There are plenty of new challenges for CMU to explore, and the establishment of an advanced automotive engineering center in Pittsburgh can only be good for the future because it will attract talented researchers who eventually want to end up in high-paying jobs.


Google’s Autonomous Vehicle Crashes Are Misunderstood

— May 18, 2015

There’s been a fair amount of coverage in the media around the 11 reported accidents with Google’s autonomous vehicles. While some headlines about self-driving cars crashing may confuse the public about the merits of autonomous vehicle safety, the facts on the 11 accidents should ease any cause for worry: all of the 11 minor accidents were a result of driver error (from drivers of other vehicles) and had nothing to do with the autonomous vehicle functionality.

Seven of the accidents reportedly involved another vehicle rear-ending Google’s car, two were sideswipes from other vehicles, and a car running a red light was the cause of another. This information helps confirm what we already know: 94% of accidents are attributed to human error, and autonomous vehicles offer drastically improved safety capabilities that are expected to reduce the number of accidents on the road by enormous proportions. With 360-degree visibility; 100% attention in all directions at all times; and sensors keeping track of other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians out to a distance of nearly two football fields, autonomous vehicles use much safer and more advanced driving techniques than humans—and they won’t ever be caught texting at the wheel.

Accident Rates

Google released figures on the accident rates for their autonomous vehicles to clear up any confusion that may have been going on in the media: there have been 11 accidents in over 1.7 million miles of driving over the course of 6 years. While this is actually higher than the national average of 0.3 damaging incidents per 100,000 miles, Google has noted that the higher rates are largely due to the company’s full reporting of accidents, a practice most drivers ignore. Most importantly, director of Google’s self-driving program Chris Urmson has said that not once was the self-driving vehicle the actual cause of the accident. Thus, the at-fault accident rate for Google’s autonomous vehicles’ through nearly 2 million miles of driving is 0%.

Benefits of Automation

Autonomous vehicles have benefits that extend far beyond fewer traffic accidents. In early 2015, the International Transport Forum at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report titled Urban Mobility System Upgrade: How shared self-driving cars could change city traffic. This report found that autonomous vehicles could provide the same mobility we have now (using a mid-sized European city as an example) with just 10% of the cars. Additionally, a network of autonomous vehicles could completely remove the need for on-street parking spaces while also removing 80% of off-street parking, opening vast new public and private opportunities for alternative uses of valuable city space. Considering that driver error accounts for the vast majority of vehicle accidents and Google’s autonomous cars have racked up a total of zero at-fault accidents over the course of 6 years of driving, it’s clear that the potential long-term benefits of autonomous vehicles are well worth the associated risks—even if there were one or two accidents in the process.


Uber Expanding into Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

— April 7, 2015

Since Uber’s creation in 2009, the adoption of the company’s mobile app-based transportation service has exploded and the service is now available in 56 countries and over 200 cities worldwide. In fact, it was recently reported that there are now more Uber cars than yellow cabs in New York City. With nearly $3 billion in total funding raised by 2015, Uber is looking to expand its business into the growing electric vehicle (EV) and autonomous vehicle markets.

Offering local customers emissions-free transportation options, Uber has partnered with BYD to provide electric e6 taxis in Chicago. Uber drivers have the option to rent the e6 taxis from the Green Wheels USA dealership for $200 a week, and Uber customers will be able to choose an EV through the smartphone app when booking a vehicle. This new option gives users added flexibility in their riding choices, and more cities around the United States can expect Uber EVs as an option in the near term.

So Long, Driver

Likely to be more disruptive than the introduction of EVs, autonomous vehicles could have a much more notable impact on Uber’s business. In February 2015, Uber announced that it is setting up a laboratory in Pittsburgh to develop self-driving technology. In partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the company will reportedly be developing the core autonomous technology, the vehicles, and associated infrastructure at the Pittsburgh facility. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has stated in the past that he would gladly replace human drivers with a self-driving fleet of vehicles, as Uber drivers reportedly take home about 75% of every fare.

Beyond massive savings on costs for Uber, and potentially its customers, autonomous vehicles would make Uber a much safer service—not just in terms of smoother running vehicles with (likely) fewer accidents, but also in terms of the well-being of the passengers. Uber has come under intense scrutiny as of late, as accusations of assaults on passengers by Uber drivers have come from numerous customers from a variety of countries. While Uber does conduct background checks on its drivers, prosecutors in California are suing the company for alleged exaggeration regarding the rigor of its background checks.

Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, projects that globally, close to half of all new vehicles sold in 2035 will have some form of autonomous driving capability installed. Uber may have autonomous vehicles on the road even sooner, which would go a long way toward ensuring safer driving and safer environments for customers who would no longer have to consider the possibility of a dangerous driver.


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