Navigant Research Blog

Autonomous Vehicles Coming Sooner Than Predicted

— October 14, 2014

Recent developments in the automotive industry indicate that semi-autonomous vehicles may be coming to market sooner than previously expected.  In early September, General Motors announced that it will introduce a 2017 Cadillac model equipped with advanced driver assist technology – allowing drivers to travel at highway speeds without touching the steering wheel or pedals.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, stated that the company plans to introduce self-driving technology in the next 3 years with the new Model 3 electric sedan (due for release in 2017).  Musk also gave some longer-term forecasts: “Full auto-pilot capability is going to happen, probably, in the 5- or 6-year time frame.”  Additionally, Audi became the first company to receive the newly established autonomous driving permit, issued by the state of California.  As discussed in earlier blogs by my colleague David Alexander, the United Kingdom, China, and South Korean company Hyundai have also been active in the autonomous vehicle space.

New Market Entrants

Israel-based technology company Mobileye has recently received considerable media attention and market interest for its advanced driver assistance technology.  The company went public on August 6, 2014 at $25.00 per share.  Since the IPO, Mobileye’s share price has more than doubled to $51.23 as of September 24.  The company’s products are integrated into vehicle models from global automakers, including BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Volvo.  Mobileye also works with several Tier One suppliers, including Autoliv, Delphi, Continental, Magna Electronics, and TRW Automotive.

Too Big to Ignore

Growing interest in autonomous vehicles can be attributed to the fact that the benefits of the technology are simply too large and far-reaching for policymakers, investors, and analysts to ignore.  In the United States alone, 33,561 people died and about 2.36 million people were injured as a result of traffic accidents in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The majority of all auto accidents (75% to 90%) are caused by driver error, distraction, or impairment.  In theory, fully autonomous vehicle traffic would prevent nearly all of these driver-related accidents.  Self-driving vehicle technology also has the potential to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, traffic congestion, and the stress of driving.

Navigant Research expects the global market for fully autonomous vehicles to average about 4.6% of new vehicle sales in 2025, rising to 40% in 2030 and reaching nearly 75% by 2035.

 

California Reaffirms EV Leadership

— October 13, 2014

California Governor Jerry Brown has doubled down on the Golden State’s commitment to electric vehicles (EVs) by enacting six laws aimed at promoting EVs.  The package of legislation includes two laws aimed at making EVs available to a broader audience of individuals – one for people who live in multi-unit dwellings and another with incentives for getting EVs into carshare programs.

Landlords in California now cannot block the installation of EV charging equipment through restrictive leases if renters agree to pay the costs.  This law will help California’s large renter population join the EV crowd and could help the state reach its goal of 1 million EVs on the road by 2023.  Most purchasers of EVs to date live in single-family homes, and this law removes one potential obstacle for broader adoption.

According to Navigant Research’s report, EV Geographic Forecasts, which was produced before these new laws were passed, California was likely to have approximately 820,000 light duty EVs on the road by 2023.

PEVs on the Road, California and the United States: 2014-2023

(Source: Navigant Research)

Smoggy and Dry

California is home to 7 of the 10 cities in the United States with the worst air quality, including smoggy Bakersfield, and has endured 3 consecutive years of drought, which is motivating Governor Brown to continue efforts to promote emissions-free driving in the state.  Some of those afflicted communities might breathe a little easier in future years, as another of the new laws targets incentives for placing EVs in carsharing programs in lower income areas with air quality problems.  EVs make sense in carshare and rental programs, as users don’t have to refuel the vehicles, and motorists who have a good experience could later become EV purchasers.  However, even after federal and state incentives, higher priced EVs are still out of reach of many consumers.

Incentives for plug-in vehicle drivers, such as HOV access, have proven critical in increasing EV adoption.  States such as California, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington that offer financial and other incentives are also the top sellers in EVs per capita.  According to HybridCars.com, sales of plug-in hybrids are up 44% over last year, while sales of battery electric vehicles are up 20%.

 

DeltaWing Offers a Radical Alternative to Vehicle Architecture

— October 6, 2014

Automotive manufacturers are working hard to improve the fuel efficiency of their vehicles without sacrificing internal space, comfort, or performance.  Having concluded that the energy density of battery technology is unlikely to increase enough and prices are unlikely to fall far enough in time to enable them to meet upcoming emissions (CO2) legislation, automakers are investing heavily in technology that delivers greater fuel efficiency in conventional vehicles rather than switching the majority of their fleets to electric or hybrid drive.  Battery electric and hybrid vehicles will continue to be developed and offered, but the gasoline and diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) will remain the primary source of motive power for the foreseeable future, as described in more detail in Navigant Research’s report, Transportation Forecast: Light Duty Vehicles.

Slimmer & Sleeker

In a recent Investor Day presentation by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the company pointed out that CO2 emissions are highly influenced by weight in the EPA’s city drive cycle.  The biggest factor in the highway test cycle is aerodynamic resistance.  Tire drag is the other major factor in both cycles, but it’s much harder to reduce while retaining acceptable ride and handling properties.  So the manufacturers are focusing most of their efforts into weight reduction and aerodynamic improvements.  Most of the changes are incremental, in the hope that many small benefits will combine to make a significant overall improvement.

BMW concluded in the early stages of the development of its electric i3 and i8 vehicles that incremental changes would not give them enough improvement.  Rather than simply exchange the conventional powertrain for a battery and electric motor in an existing model, engineers developed an entirely new architecture for the new range of vehicles, which included new materials, such as carbon fiber, and new manufacturing processes.  Other volume manufacturers have, so far, taken a more cautious route and focused on smaller improvements to components while maintaining current vehicle architecture.

New Look

DeltaWing Technologies is a company best known for developing a radically different racing car that is currently competing in IMSA sports car road races.  It is now looking to partner with major automakers to develop vehicles that will meet and exceed the fuel efficiency targets of the future.  The DeltaWing concept is a radical change from most current road vehicles.  The engine is located at the rear, and the front wheelbase is narrow with thinner tires that reduce rolling resistance without sacrificing road holding.  The distinctive shape has improved aerodynamic properties over conventional vehicle shapes, and the overall design uses lightweight materials extensively.

According to the company, its concept vehicle offers a 35% reduction in overall mass and consumes 35% less fuel for equivalent performance in a four-passenger sedan.  The current performance targets are 0 to 60 mph in about 6 seconds, 130 mph top speed, and up to 70 mpg when using a small displacement, four-cylinder engine producing between 85 and 110 horsepower.  These specifications are clearly attractive to OEMs.  It will be interesting to see if any are prepared to commit to such a radical change.  A more detailed analysis of the options under consideration is included in our upcoming report, Automotive Fuel Efficiency.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Will Work Best Within Limits

— October 1, 2014

About the only way your next car has much chance of driving itself is if you live in a gated community or on a college campus where it won’t have to deal with too many variables like other traffic.  Just as voice recognition systems work best with limited vocabularies, autonomous vehicles will probably be limited to such constrained environments for the foreseeable future.  That’s the conclusion from the recent ITS World Congress 2014 in Detroit.  Increasing levels of vehicle automation were a major topic of discussion during the annual conference on intelligent transportation systems.

Google has been pushing the idea that self-driving vehicles will hit the road within the next 5 years.  Google had no official presence at the conference, but a lot of companies that build cars, parts, and infrastructure systems were there, and no one that I spoke with was in agreement with Google’s timing projections.  The general consensus is that we won’t see widespread use of full operating range autonomous vehicles until closer to 2030.

Not Street-Ready

That’s not to say that no one believes in automated driving; quite the opposite.  It’s just that in engineering circles, there’s a rule of thumb known as the 90/10 rule.  That is, 90% of the technical challenge of a project takes about 10% of the time and effort.  The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.  In the realm of self-driving cars, we have just begun that last 10% phase, where the basic hardware elements are all worked out but a lot of software decisions have yet to be made in order for autonomous systems to be truly robust.

Much of the on-road development by Google and other companies has been occurring in places like California and Nevada, where environmental factors like snow and even rain are a rarity.  In order for autonomous vehicles to be both commercially and legally viable, they’ll have to work reliably under any weather and road conditions.

General Motors (GM), Volkswagen, and other automakers have been working on autonomous technology much longer than Google, and they understand these limitations.  When GM rolled out a two-seat self-driving pod car known as the Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V, at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, program leader Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird acknowledged that, while this type of vehicle would eventually be an ideal way to deal with the congestion problems of megacities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the first feasible real-world applications were likely to be in restricted environments, such as campuses and gated communities.

Say Again

As powerful as computers have become, they still don’t deal with the nuances of the real world very well.  That’s why voice recognition systems still struggle to understand what should be simple natural language commands on a smartphone.  The most successful applications of the technology have been for tasks like medical transcription, with limited and specific word vocabularies and little ambient noise.  Similarly, automated vehicles function best in constrained spaces, such as buses over fixed routes or the aforementioned commuter pods.

Google hasn’t actually made any major breakthroughs in the technology that we know of.  It just jumped into field relatively recently, hiring many of the engineers and scientists that worked on the autonomous vehicles fielded by automakers in the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge competitions of 2006 and 2007, and leveraging the cost declines of the required sensors.

Where Google has outdone the incumbents is getting the technology media to talk about their efforts – but that’s unlikely to put full-function self-driving cars into consumers’ hands any sooner.

 

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