Navigant Research Blog

In China, Cars Learn the Roads

— August 5, 2014

Navigant Research’s recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, focused on the activities of large global automakers, Tier One suppliers, and universities and research organizations (including, of course, Google) in Western Europe and North America.  Extensive work is also happening in Japan, and the Japanese automakers are among the companies providing a steady stream of interesting automotive engineering news.

Not so much is heard about what’s going on in China.  The rapid growth in vehicle sales in that country gets most of the headlines, along with the accompanying congestion and air pollution.  But, like Northern California, China also has a tech company that has built its fortune from an Internet search engine and has branched into R&D on self-driving vehicles.  Sometimes referred to as China’s Google, Baidu revealed in July that it’s working on what it calls a highly autonomous car.

Unlike the Google car that famously has no steering wheel or foot pedals, the Baidu concept will be a conventional vehicle with a driver when the first prototypes are shown in 2015, but it will have plenty of intelligence and awareness built in.  The best way to think about it is to consider an earlier form of personal transportation: the horse.  The rider gives instructions about when to start and stop and turn, but the horse knows to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations and can learn familiar routes and navigate itself through traffic.  This is a very different approach to the Google model, which requires highly detailed digital maps of every road before it can venture out.

Affordable Autonomy

The only other developer I have heard contemplating this approach is the Australian startup Zoox, which I mentioned in a previous blog.  Baidu is also reportedly working on a driverless bicycle that will be able to deliver packages as well as provide mobility to those unable to drive.  A prototype is slated for demonstration by the end of this year.

The Chinese approach is an interesting alternative to the high-tech and likely high-cost options for self-driving being developed in the rest of the world.  One of the keys to success in the mass market is affordability.  Another obstacle to the rollout of autonomous driving, in the West, is legislation.  In China, the government can act very quickly to support the modification of laws to allow driverless vehicles to operate on public roads if it deems the technology ready and the benefits are clear.

Chinese car makers have struggled to break into Western markets, typically finding it difficult to meet the extensive crash safety specifications required in the European Union and the United States.  They’ve had more success exporting to other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In all these regions, getting permission to offer semi-autonomous vehicles could prove relatively easy, and the potential benefits for safety and traffic flow are even bigger than they are in the high-profile Western countries.

 

Unknowns Narrow for Tesla’s Gigafactory

— July 31, 2014

Tesla Motors announced today that it has started civil engineering work at a site in Nevada for the eventual construction of its Gigafactory – a battery-manufacturing plant that will produce 50 GWh of batteries a year.  Broadcast in a shareholder letter that accompanied Tesla’s quarterly earnings results, the announcement confirmed some rumors but was still extremely short on specifics.   A lot of uncertainties remain about how, where, and by when the Gigafactory will be built.

The first issue is site location.  Tesla has said in the past that it will build the factory in one of five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas.  It has also said that it will begin development work on more than one site, choosing the eventual location from multiple contenders upon which initial civil engineering work has already been done.  Now we know that the Nevada site outside of Reno is one of those finalists.  Where is/are the other/s?  No word from Tesla on that, but it is pretty easy to identify the five top contenders.  That’s because the Gigafactory will need to be on a main rail line that connects with the company’s Fremont, California automobile factory.  It will also need to be near a large population center in one of those five states.  That leaves the following contenders:

  • Central Valley, California
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • El Paso, Texas
  • Austin/San Antonio, Texas

You can expect the second site to be in one of those areas.  There is still one potential curveball that might come  from Tesla – the possibility that the Gigafactory will be composed of multiple sites: maybe a separator factory in one state, an electrolyte factory in another locale, and a final assembly plant in another.

More to Come

The other piece of interesting information still to be determined is exactly how the Gigafactory will be structured.  No blueprint exists for how to design a factory that is owned by multiple parties: it’s a unique concept that has never been tried before.  One day earlier, Tesla said that Panasonic will definitely be the manufacturing partner for the Gigafactory.  Now the questions are how will the ownership of the site and its equipment be divided, and who will be the other component manufacturing partners? Expect a number of announcements on that end to come out over the next several months.  Among the potential other manufacturing partners that Navigant Research expects to be chosen are a cathode material supplier (such as Nippon Denko or Umicore), a graphite supplier (Northern Graphite, Alabama Graphite), an electrolyte manufacturer (Ube, Sumitomo, or Nichia), and a separator manufacturer (Celgard, Ube, or Toray).  Other materials needed for the batteries, such as lithium carbonate, copper foil, and aluminum casings, will probably be made offsite and delivered by rail.

The final questions are when the Gigafactory will go online and when it will reach full capacity.  Tesla has already said that it hopes that those dates will be 2017 and 2020, respectively, but exactly how the ramp rate works will be interesting to see.  Panasonic has clearly stated that it will invest in the equipment for the factory in a staggered, conservative fashion.  That could lead to a much slower build-up to full capacity than the 3 years that Tesla is claiming.  Regardless of the details of the how, when, and where of the facility, Navigant Research believes strongly that the Gigafactory will be built and will be a successful, potentially revolutionary, manufacturing venture.

 

Hyundai Steps Up to Autonomous Driving

— July 31, 2014

First established in 1967 to build cars under license from Ford, South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Company is a relative newcomer to the automotive world.  In 1976, it began producing its first internally designed car, and in 1986, it began exporting cars to America.  In 1990, the company established a design center in California, and in 2005, it began production of vehicles and engines in Alabama.  In 2012, the Hyundai Motor Group (including Kia Motors, which is one-third owned by Hyundai Motor) was ranked fourth in the world in terms of overall vehicle production behind Toyota, General Motors, and Volkswagen.

Today Hyundai is well-established in Brazil, China, India, and Europe.  The only remaining major market it has not tapped is Japan, where it competes only with its small commercial vehicles.  Now, Hyundai is looking to become a leader in autonomous driving.

Assisted Driving Drama

Hyundai’s early sales success came from building simple, low-cost vehicles and then establishing a reputation for reliability by offering warranties of 10 years or 100,000 miles.  Once it had acquired the status of a quality vehicle manufacturer, it then shifted focus to safety.  Never among the new technology leaders, it was one of the first manufacturers to make antilock braking systems standard on practically all its models.  As advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) have been introduced to the market, Hyundai has quietly kept its flagship vehicles updated with key features such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

The last 12 months or so have seen a flurry of media coverage of autonomous vehicles, with various manufacturers and suppliers (and non-automotive companies such as Google) making announcements about their efforts developing and testing self-driving cars.  In July, Hyundai released a dramatic video to demonstrate that it will not be left behind in this new technology arena.  Click here to watch.

No Vertical Exits

Hyundai wants to showcase the driver assistance technology features that have been added to its new Genesis model.  The technologies include smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and a lane-keeping assist system.  The only adaptation Hyundai had to make to the technology for this demo was to modify the lane-keeping assist system not to turn off when it sensed there was no longer a driver holding the steering wheel.

What this video demonstrates rather theatrically is the capability of today’s technology to perform simple driving tasks efficiently and reliably.  All the major manufacturers, along with their Tier One supplier partners, have this capability today, and freeways would be just as safe and potentially less prone to traffic jams if such features were widely used.  All that’s needed is legislation permitting the use of automatic lane-keeping systems to assume full control of the steering, rather than just assisting the driver as they do today.  And possibly a warning sticker advising drivers not to exit via the sunroof when the vehicle is in motion – unless there is a truck fitted with an airbed alongside.

 

Buy a Car, Get a Solar Array

— July 29, 2014

BMW Canada is betting that electric vehicle (EV) drivers want to further reduce their carbon footprint by going solar.  The company’s new electric i3 comes with an added purchase incentive for Canadians: a 10% discount on a home solar system (only available in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia).  BMW partnered with Toronto-based PURE Energies, which will provide the solar home evaluations, panel installation, and relevant paperwork.

BMW Canada’s e-Mobility Specialist, Blair Dinsdale, stated in a press release that the solar energy offer “was designed to cover the exact amount of power you would use in the car, based on sun access in Canada.”  According to PURE Energies, a 6 kW system (24 panels) in Canada produces roughly 7,000 kWh of electricity per year.  The BMW i3 gets an estimated 100 miles of range per 27 kWh of electricity, as per the U.S. Department of Energy.  Thus, with a 6 kW solar system, a homeowner could drive the i3 nearly 26,000 miles per year exclusively on home-produced solar energy.

A Literal Sunroof

A February 2014 survey conducted by the Center for Sustainable Energy in California found that 32% of EV owners in the western United States already have solar panels on their homes.  While parts of Canada do not enjoy abundant sunshine, the province of Ontario does offer a feed-in tariff program to help offset the lack of year-round solar energy.

Although combining solar with EVs is not new, the move by BMW to offer direct discounts on a home solar system is a first for the industry, and a smart one.  According to Navigant Research’s 2013 Energy & Environment Consumer Survey, 79% of Americans have an overall positive impression of solar energy and 61% share the same impressions for EVs.  While not all consumers of EVs purchase the vehicle for environmental reasons, the ones who do place great importance on where the electricity to power the car comes from.  And, as you’d expect, EV owners align very closely with solar buyers from a demographic perspective.

Combining solar with EVs makes so much sense that several automakers are now showing prototype EVs with solar panels directly integrated onto the roof of the vehicle.  The Ford C-Max Solar Energi and the Sunswift eVe have built-in rooftop panels.  If BMW’s approach proves successful, we could see Tesla and SolarCity creating similar offers in the future.  For more information on solar and EV synergy, check out Navigant Research’s research brief, Solar and Electric Vehicle Cross-Marketing Strategies.

 

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