Navigant Research Blog

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.

 

Volvo Pioneers Autonomous Vehicles

— March 17, 2015

Volvo has long sold cars that are considered among the safest in the world. Since the 1940s, Volvo has been at the forefront of introducing innovations that include laminated safety glass, crush zones, three-point seatbelts, and more recently, pedestrian detection with automatic braking. As Volvo prepares to launch its first all-new production vehicle since being acquired by China’s Geely Group, the company has announced plans for a test of highly automated vehicles on public roads near its Gothenburg, Sweden headquarters.

Self-Driving Cars a Reality

Self-driving vehicles from automakers, suppliers, and technology companies have become commonplace recently on Silicon Valley roads. However, all of those vehicles are under the control of the engineers trying to refine the complex control software required to make them work reliably. Beginning in 2017, Volvo plans to put a fleet of 100 autopilot-equipped XC90 SUVs into the hands of regular Swedish drivers.

Reiterating its oft-stated goal of achieving sustainable mobility and a crash-free future, Volvo has worked to design the autopilot system it is building into the XC90 to be robust enough to let ordinary drivers give  complete control.

“Making this complex system 99% reliable is not good enough, you need to get much closer to 100% before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic,” Erik Coelingh, technical specialist at Volvo, told me. With that in mind, Volvo has recognized the limitations of current technology, so the XC90 will be equipped with a combined array of radar, lidar, ultrasonic, and camera sensors.

Sensor Array on Autonomous Volvo XC90

(Source: Volvo)

Coelingh acknowledges that there are some fundamental problems that cannot be overcome. For example, lidar sensors cannot see through fog or rain and cameras cannot see lane markers that are obscured by snow. In addition to using multiple sensor types, Volvo is taking care in packaging the sensors to minimize the risk of obstruction from the elements such as snow and salt buildup.

The goal is to allow drivers to spend time on secondary tasks without constantly monitoring the system. The vehicles will be able to execute automatic lane changes and enter and exit a limited access highway. Soft degradation of the system will extend the time between the driver being alerted and when they have to take over. If the driver does not respond by taking over control in a timely manner, the vehicle will attempt to pull over and come to a safe stop.

Fully Autonomous vs. Self-Driving

Despite all of that, there is an important distinction between vehicles that are capable of fully autonomous operation and those that are entirely self-driving. The Volvo falls into the former category, with the ability to handle the driving when conditions permit, while reverting to human control in many scenarios. Google’s prototype pod car, which was designed without a steering wheel or pedals, is in the latter category. For the foreseeable future, driverless vehicles are likely to remain restricted to closed environments where they don’t need to interact with traditional vehicles.

As detailed in Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, 40% of new vehicles will have some form of automated driving capability by 2030. The bulk of those are likely to be similar in concept to what Volvo will be testing on Swedish roads in 2017. Although consumer surveys have indicated strong interest in autonomous vehicles, it’s too early to tell how much of that interest will be retained as consumers become aware of the real-world limitations of autonomous technology. Volvo’s test program in Sweden might give the first real feedback on this topic.

 

Cloud Connections Bolster In-Vehicle Systems

— January 26, 2015

With the average transaction prices of new vehicles in the United States hitting nearly $35,000 at the end of 2014, drivers can be grateful that the cars they purchase are also more durable and reliable than ever before. The average age of the more than 200 million vehicles on the road in the United States today is now nearly 11.5 years.  However, that longevity has a big potential downside: as computing and communications technology marches on to improve safety, efficiency, and reliability, many of those existing cars will be incapable of participating in these advances.  Luckily, cloud computing could come to the rescue.

According to Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, full-function self-driving vehicles aren’t expected to be available in significant volumes until late in the 2020s.  Until the fully self-driving car arrives, we’ll have a steady stream of incremental improvements in advanced driver assistance systems.  Thanks to increasing connectivity in vehicles, we’re also less likely to be stuck with the capability that was built-in when the vehicle rolled off the assembly line.

No Car Left Behind

General Motors (GM) and Audi are among the manufacturers that are already building 4G LTE radios into many of their new vehicles.  When this capability is combined with advanced new microprocessors from companies like NVIDIA and Qualcomm, vehicles will be able to leverage cloud computing infrastructure to get smarter as they age, rather than being left behind.

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NVIDIA unveiled a new generation 256-core processor, called the Tegra X1, along with electronic control units powered by this advanced chip.  One of the problems that driver assistance and autonomous systems have to solve is being able to recognize and distinguish the objects detected by all of the sensors on new vehicles.  The human brain is remarkably adept at distinguishing the nuances between an animal and pedestrian or an ambulance and a delivery van.

Detection before Failure

This sort of image recognition is far more difficult for a computer, so the Tegra X1 is designed to collect image data from its 12 camera inputs and transmit it back to data centers where it can be aggregated with information from other vehicles.  By combining data from many vehicles, the object recognition can be dramatically improved, and updated image libraries can be fed back to vehicles for improved onboard sensing ‑ even without changing hardware.

GM is also harnessing the power of the cloud to provide drivers with predictive diagnostic information for their vehicles using OnStar.  Available for more than a decade, OnStar provides subscribers with vehicle health reports when faults are detected.  Now, by monitoring critical systems such as the battery, starter, and fuel pump and sending this information back to the cloud, OnStar is able to detect subtle changes in performance that have previously been shown to be precursors to component failures.  The OnStar Driver Assurance system can then notify the driver so that an impending problem can be corrected before the driver is left stranded on the side of the road.  This predictive diagnostic system will be available on several of GM’s 2016 model year vehicles.

As automakers roll out new infotainment interfaces, such as Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, drivers will also benefit from improved voice recognition that leverages massive data centers run by these technology companies.  More robust and reliable voice control will help reduce driver frustration and keep their attention on the road ‑ at least until the car can take over completely.

 

How Will Self-Driving Vehicles Find Their Way?

— January 8, 2015

Google continues to push the technology for its autonomous vehicle, but some recent articles in the media have been more about the detailed mapping required than any of the other technologies that may be necessary for bringing such vehicles into production.  Google is not the only company interested in this angle.  Nokia’s HERE subsidiary is also putting a lot of effort into making high-definition maps that combine detail about roadways with information about traffic flow.

Google has decided that its vehicle must have a detailed map of the roads it will travel on, accurate to a few centimeters, with detailed knowledge of the exact location and height of the curbs, not just the lane markings.  Recognizing that these vehicles must also cope with construction and temporary obstacles, HERE is exploring the idea of using the cloud to store the digital map data and having it updated on a continual basis.

A Perfect Map

The concept relies on huge amounts of data being constantly uploaded and downloaded to the cloud so that all vehicles always have a highly accurate digital map of their surroundings to rely on.  While this is clearly one potential solution for the future of autonomous vehicles, it’s a concept thought up by two large companies that have already invested heavily in scanning and mapping technology.  It’s natural to find solutions that match the tools already available, and all the better if the solution requires a tool upgrade.

In a previous blog, I wrote about self-driving vehicle developments in China.  It seems to me that putting more intelligence into each vehicle, to deal with real-time traffic issues, is a more practical option than requiring a highly accurate database of all the world’s roads that is updated minute by minute.  Existing digital maps can be used to provide direction just as they do for human drivers today, and powerful, intelligent sensors can monitor the local traffic and obstacles in real time.  I suspect this is how the major automakers are moving forward with autonomous vehicle technology – and why nobody has yet jumped on Google’s offer of a partnership.

 

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