Navigant Research Blog

With Self-Driving Cars, We’re All Cartographers

— December 5, 2016

Connected VehiclesMapmaking used to be the domain of a select group of cartographers that would gather, review, and plot out data onto sheets of paper. The chances that you actually knew a cartographer in the past were probably pretty slim—but not anymore. Today and in the future, virtually everyone is or will be a contributor to the increasingly detailed maps that represent the world we live in.

As our vehicles become increasingly automated, they need ever more detailed maps, and not just the maps we get from Google or Apple on our smartphones. The self-driving car will need much more information. The basics of street names, directions, and building numbers are just the beginning determining a basic route from where a car is to where its user has asked it to go. This data set already exists in every vehicle with a navigation system and a GPS receiver.

Limits of GPS

However, if you’ve ever tried to navigate around urban canyons in places like Manhattan or Chicago, you’ve no doubt experienced the limitations of GPS as the signals orbiting more than 12,000 miles above the Earth’s surface bounce between skyscrapers. Looking at the navigation display and realizing that the car thinks it is several city blocks away from your actual location is not exactly confidence-inspiring.

Even when it works correctly, GPS is only accurate to several feet, not nearly precise enough to safely locate where a car is on the road. Then there’s the problem of navigating around on streets when you can’t actually see the road, such as when it snows. If you can’t rely on GPS for precise positioning and you can’t see lane markers, you need other data to calculate location.

Crowdsourced Maps

That’s where the future of crowdsourced mapping comes in. If you use smartphone-based navigation apps like Waze, Here, TomTom, or Google or Apple maps, you are already contributing to augmenting the map data that is also collected by fleets of sensor-equipped vehicles that drive the world’s roads.

In the near future, the cameras and other sensors that power lane keeping systems and other driver assist features will be feeding information to datacenters where it is aggregated with information from other drivers. In addition to real-time traffic and road conditions, they will be looking for landmarks like bridges, signs, buildings and more, and anything that isn’t already in the high-definition map will be uploaded.

Mobileye is the leading maker of image processing and recognition systems used by automakers for driver assist. In January 2016, the company announced a new product called Road Experience Management that processes images captured by car cameras and sorts out new information. This data is then transmitted and collected in order to update maps. Earlier this year, Ford invested in a startup called Civil Maps that is developing a similar system using cameras and any other sensors on the vehicle that can provide relevant data.

Even when the vehicle sensors can’t see the road, if they can see landmarks, they can triangulate and calculate position to within a few inches. Last winter, Ford demonstrated the ability to do precisely this with its autonomous prototype using a high-definition map generated using LIDAR. The future ability of autonomous vehicles to successfully operate in varied conditions will depend in large part on the contributions that we all make toward improving the quality of maps.

 

Lucid Motors Is the Latest Silicon Valley EV Upstart

— November 28, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2Chances are you’ve never heard of Lucid Motors. The company has been around for nearly a decade but only recently rebranded itself from Atieva in mid-October. Despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of public awareness, several members of the Lucid team came to Los Angeles for some private briefings during AutoMobility LA. I had an opportunity to learn about what Lucid is planning, get a VR walk-around of the company’s finished vehicle design, and check out one of its prototypes.

The Lucid team includes former Tesla staff among its ranks, including CTO Peter Rawlinson and marketing director Zak Edson. The company’s as-yet-unnamed luxury sedan is scheduled to go into production in 2018 and will be built at a US factory, although no site has yet been announced. Atieva was launched in late 2007, focusing on producing batteries for commercial EVs. “Atieva-powered vehicles have accumulated more than 20 million miles of real-world use with a faultless safety record,” said Rawlinson.

Smaller Footprint, Larger Interior

Rawlinson joined Atieva in 2014 when the company decided to build cars from the ground up. Despite the achievements of Tesla, Rawlinson explained that he still saw a lot of untapped potential in repackaging everything to take advantage of the electric drive system. Tesla’s Model S has the footprint of a large luxury car, but only has the passenger volume of a midsize sedan at 94 cubic feet. However, it meets the US Environmental Protection Agency’s large car designation based on its 26 cubic feet of cargo space, bringing the total to the 120 cubic feet threshold to qualify as “large.”

Rawlinson and Derek Jenkins, Lucid’s vice president of design, sought to reverse that trend with a smaller footprint (akin to a midsize Mercedes-Benz E-class) and an interior volume of 112 cubic feet for occupants. The Lucid sedan uses a similar skateboard layout to other modern dedicated battery EVs (BEVs), with the battery pack under the floor and electric motors at each axle.

In mid-2016, Lucid published a video showing off the performance capabilities of an in-development powertrain prototype based on a Mercedes-Benz Metris cargo van. Using a 600 horsepower (hp) front motor and 400 hp rear motor, the van is capable of sub-3 second 0-60 mph acceleration.

Better Batteries

Lucid has been developing its own proprietary battery chemistry that Rawlinson claims will have 20% greater volumetric energy density and will be less vulnerable to deterioration from repeated fast charges. Assuming Lucid and its cell manufacturing partners can deliver, this will help enable the company to deliver a 100 kWh battery with an optional 130 kWh unit to deliver driving ranges of 300 and 400 miles, respectively. The company plans to equip its car with a sensor package capable of Level 4 autonomous driving. The package includes four solid-state lidar sensors, short- and long-range radar and cameras, and ultrasonic sensors.

The prototype that Lucid brought to Los Angeles had an incomplete interior, but based on the VR demo and looking at the test vehicle, it does appear to be more roomy than Tesla’s Model S. Pricing won’t be announced for some time but it will likely be comparable to the Tesla and in line with Lucid’s goal of delivering a zero-emissions executive jet for the road. Lucid plans to publicly reveal its car on December 14 at its engineering facility in Fremont, California.

 

Automakers Doing More Rigorous Safety Analysis for Vehicle Automation

— November 23, 2016

Connected VehiclesBack in September 2014 as the ITS World Congress gathered in Detroit, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced that in 2016, a new Cadillac model would become available with the semi-autonomous Super Cruise system. With only a handful of weeks left in 2016, we now know that the Super Cruise will debut on Cadillac’s flagship CT6 sedan, but it won’t be arriving until sometime in 2017.

A lot has happened since that announcement, and GM has put a much greater emphasis on ensuring safety as a result of the massive ignition switch recall that began early in 2014. Those process changes have led to some significant upgrades to Super Cruise in an effort to avoid the issues caused by human interactions with Tesla’s similar AutoPilot driver assist system. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2020, approximately 13 million vehicles with these so-called Level 2 automation systems will be sold annually.

Geofencing

In the process of evaluating the safety of Super Cruise, one of the key differences that GM has implemented is geofencing. Since Super Cruise is designed primarily as an advanced highway driving assist system for use on limited access roadways, GM is not relying on customers to understand where it does and does not function. Instead, the system will check the navigation map—if the vehicle isn’t on a suitable road, the driver will not be able to activate it. In contrast, Tesla’s operating instructions state that AutoPilot should only be used on divided, limited access roads, but there is nothing in the system to actively prevent a driver from using the system in an urban area or any other roadway that it’s not designed for.

Similarly, Tesla doesn’t really take measures to prevent operators from taking their attention away from the road. Countless videos have been posted by Tesla drivers as they take a nap, read, or even climb in the back seat while using AutoPilot. The research conducted by Bryan Reimer and the Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reinforces the idea that even informed drivers will get distracted while using systems like AutoPilot or Volvo’s Pilot Assist.

Improving Safety

Cadillac is installing an active driver monitoring system in the CT6, which will include more prominent alerts if the operator does not remain engaged while using Super Cruise. If the driver does not respond, the car will pull to the side of the road and come to a safe stop.

GM safety engineers have also addressed the issue of the inevitable mechanical failure. When fully autonomous vehicles arrive, they will require systems that can maintain control during a failure mode until the vehicle is safely stopped. One of the key safety failure modes for a system like Super Cruise is the electrically assisted steering.

One of the optional features on the currently available CT6 without Super Cruise is the Active Chassis Package, which includes a rear-wheel steering system to aid low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability. This rear steering system will be included on the CT6 with Super Cruise. While the rear steering is not designed to provide the same full maneuvering capability of the normal front steering, it will be sufficient to safely steer the car to the side of the road in the event of a front steering failure.

We won’t have an opportunity to fully evaluate the capabilities of Super Cruise until sometime next year, but it does inspire some confidence that GM is at least thinking about and trying to address both human and mechanical failure modes before putting the system into customer hands.

 

The Apple Car Was Always a Long Shot

— October 18, 2016

Connected VehiclesIn February 2015, when word of Project Titan filtered down from Cupertino, California, Apple fans and the tech media instantly whipped themselves into a frenzy that has barely subsided since. However, if a new Bloomberg report is accurate, the never-announced Apple car is now all but dead.

For anyone that gave the premise of Apple building a car serious thought, including yours truly, the concept was always a long shot at best. There is a fundamental disconnect between the way Apple has operated for most of the past 2 decades and the auto industry. With a few rare exceptions like Porsche, automakers have long scraped by on notoriously thin, single-digit margins. Ever since Tim Cook joined Apple in 1998, the company has grown into the most profitable enterprise in the history of the world, with margins that regularly exceed 35%.

Along the way, Apple has created a string of hit products that built on its core competencies of computers and user experience. Building cars would have required several new sets of skills that were completely foreign to Apple. (That’s not to say that a company with $200 billion in the bank and an extremely capable leadership team couldn’t have developed or acquired the necessary skills.)

However, if there is one thing that many (although apparently not all) in Silicon Valley have learned from watching Tesla over the past dozen years, it is that building a car is orders of magnitude more difficult than building a messaging app or a smartphone. The complexities of the supply chain are vast, and the regulatory requirements are labyrinthine.

Automotive Transformation

However, Apple is coming at the automotive space at a time when we are on the verge of the biggest inflection since the Model T. As described in Navigant Research’s Transportation Outlook: 2025-2050 report, the autonomous car may be about to take over from the human driver, and we may be shifting from individual car ownership to on-demand mobility services.

To a degree, this would actually be a very good time for Apple to jump in. Apple is a company that likes to control the user experience, and offering an on-demand mobility service where it doesn’t have to sell individual vehicles might actually be a great fit. On the other hand, that same desire to provide a reliable, consistent experience may be working against the company, as we are on the bleeding edge of autonomous vehicles. Apple prefers to let others go first and then learn from their lessons. It didn’t build the first MP3 player, smartphone, or tablet, but instead waited to build devices that worked better. If Apple wants to enter the mobility business, it might be better off waiting a few years until more of the technical and legal hurdles have been overcome.

The Bloomberg report indicates that the company is pivoting toward providing a software platform for other automakers. This seems unlikely to be a successful strategy. The aforementioned desire for control clashes with automakers’ preference to provide a distinct user experience to customers, so if Apple offered an infotainment system beyond CarPlay, it is unlikely to be adopted. If the company were to offer an autonomous driving platform, it would be something that’s not consumer-facing and unlikely to appeal to Apple. The bigger automakers are all developing autonomous systems in-house, and the smaller brands are likely to go with the more experienced Tier One suppliers like Delphi or Continental that can offer a turnkey solution.

Only a fool would completely discount Apple in the transportation space or anything else it wanted to try—but holding your breath while waiting for the company’s automotive offering might prove just as foolish.

 

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