Navigant Research Blog

Sensor Fusion Maps: More Than the Sum of Their Parts

— May 6, 2015

Touch. Taste. Smell. Vision. Hearing. The human brain continuously takes in these sensory signals, processes them, and fuses them into a whole that is more than just the sum of the parts. Engineers around the world are working to develop an artificial form of that same sort of sensor fusion in order to enhance the robustness of future autonomous vehicles.

Senses and Sensors

When we sit down to a meal, the appeal of that food is affected by far more than our taste buds. If a prime cut of steak were boiled into a grey slab, even if the taste were not affected, the visual signals to our brain would render it less desirable than if it had been seared over an open flame. No matter how well it might be prepared, if your sinuses are clogged from a cold, a plate of curry just doesn’t taste as good. The crunch when you bite into a fresh carrot stimulates your ears and your sense of touch in your mouth, but the same root steamed into mush has a totally different impact.

Since the 1970s, engineers have been steadily adding sensors to vehicles to monitor wheel speeds, airflow into the engine, engine knock, roll rates, distance to other vehicles, and more. Each sensor was added to enable a specific function, but over time, as engineers became confident in the reliability of the sensors, they built on that functionality. The first modern step toward the autonomous systems that are now being tested were the Mercedes-Benz/Bosch anti-lock braking systems from 1978.

Fusion

Forward-looking radars and cameras enable adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings. Side-looking radar and ultrasonic sensors power blind spot detection, cross-traffic alerts, and active parking assist. Today, each of those functions operate largely independently at different times. The automated highway driving assist systems coming from Tesla, General Motors (GM), Toyota, and others in the next 2 years merge those signals and functions into more comprehensive control systems that enable the driver to go hands-off in certain conditions. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that the majority of new vehicles will have at least some degree of automated driving capability by the mid-2020s.

This is made possible in large part by fusing these previously disparate signals to harness the advantages of each sensor type, producing a more cohesive view of the world around the vehicle. Radar sensors are useful for measuring distance and speed to another object, but not for recognizing the nature of that object. Digital camera images can be processed to distinguish pedestrians, animals, objects on the road, and signs while lidar sensors can produce remarkably detailed 3D maps of the surroundings. Vehicle-to-X (V2X) communications provide additional real-time information about what is happening even beyond the line of sight of the driver and sensors. These and other signals can be merged into a comprehensive real-time moving image that the vehicle can navigate through with a high degree of precision.

T-U Automotive Detroit

Experts and practitioners in the fields of telematics, autonomous systems, and mobility will be coming together at the T-U Automotive Detroit conference, June 3–4, 2015 in Novi, Michigan to discuss sensor fusion and many other related topics. Anyone interested in attending can save $100 on the registration fee at www.tu-auto.com/detroit/register.php by using the promotional code 2693NAVIGANT during checkout.

 

Crowd Data Drives New Mobility Technology

— May 4, 2015

City planners and traffic management agencies are avid consumers of data, which is critical to both planning and managing transportation services. Traditionally, government agencies relied primarily on data from loop detectors installed in streets and highway. These sensors tell transportation officials how many cars pass by the sensors, allowing them to understand the volume of traffic on the roadways they manage. This then feeds into infrastructure plans, as cities understand where the heaviest demand is and where the pinch points are in the roadways.

This data is also used to report when traffic has stopped in the roadway, which is used for traveler information systems. What these sensors cannot tell you is where the traffic came from, where it ended up, or even how fast it’s traveling. And these sensors are not cheap. It’s a significant investment to install them in existing roadways, and even building then into new roadways is costly, given that the sensors must be highly robust and maintained throughout the year in challenging conditions.

Listen to the Crowd

Crowdsourced data, gathered from GPS navigation devices, cellphone records, or mobile apps, is becoming an increasingly viable way for cities and transportation agencies to acquire data without expensive infrastructure projects. And these crowdsourced data sources can supply new data points that help cities get a much more complete view of mobility, like pedestrian and bicycle traffic and parking usage.

Traffic data company INRIX has been incorporating data from a variety of sources to supplement its own vehicle probe data for years. The company aggregates data from GPS navigators and mobile phones in vehicles to provide a more complete picture of the traffic landscape in real time. AirSage utilizes cellular phone data for its traffic data offerings. Through partnerships with Sprint and Verizon, AirSage receives anonymized real-time data from cellular phone activity which the company provides to transportation planners and transit planners. AirSage provides origin and destination data, as well as speeds.

Cellular based traveler data also enables traffic managers and planners to see the movement of pedestrians and cyclists, as well as motorized vehicles Still, there are limitations: namely, that AirSage cannot tell what type of motor vehicle it is tracking.

We Know Where You’ve Been

But the most interesting new crowdsourcing data potential is from companies that aren’t even in the data aggregation business. Just as Google and Facebook have found data to be their most valuable assets,  app providers like Uber and Strava, are discovering the potential value in the data they amass.

Earlier this year, Uber announced it would offer its data to cities, with the Boston the first recipient. Uber is offering this as a free service, likely in part as an effort to present a kinder, gentler image after a recent spate of negative press. Uber has also partnered with the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Program members can receive reward points for using Uber; customers who opt-in to Uber’s Starwood point program agree to giveStarwood access to their Uber activity.

This sort of data exchange has huge revenue potential for Uber, as it’s easy to imagine how many businesses would be interested in tracking the travel habits of Uber users. trava, a company that allows runners and cyclists to log and share data on their athletic activity has also found a way to turn its data into revenue. The Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) is buying Strava’s data to better understand the routes used by cyclists. This is another way for cities and states to fill out their picture of mobility and provide better services for their residents.  The potential for crowdsourced data is huge, and we expect to see more partnerships like these develop as transportation planners begin to grasp the full potential of crowdsourced data. You can also expect renewed privacy concerns, especially when the data comes from users who are not fully aware that they are opting in to share their data when they download an app.

 

No Clear Path to Highway Funding Solution

— May 4, 2015

The gap between the investment needed for U.S. transportation infrastructure and the available taxpayer funding continues to grow. And neither Congress nor the White House has not gotten significantly closer to solving this problem.  A new report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), released just 2 months before the latest temporary Congressional funding patch for transportation is set to expire, provides further evidence that the federal funding transportation pool will continue to shrink unless Congress takes action.

Navigant Research has been writing about the problem of the Shrinking Gas Tax Fund for many years. Created by Congress in the 1950s, the fund was set up to pay for transportation from direct taxes, rather than from the general Treasury. The current tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon was set in 1993, 22 years ago. Congress and the White House are loath to propose raising the gas tax, which has long been the third rail in American politics. Today, unfortunately, the drop in gasoline consumption combined with the shrinking purchasing power of 18.4 cents per gallon has made the unthinkable closer to becoming reality.

Tabled

Mainstream business groups have proposed raising the gas tax, and the Republican leader of the Senate Transportation Committee, John Thune, said that raising the gas tax would be on the table for the current Congress. The head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, climate change denier James Inhofe, agreed with that statement.

As of the end of March, though, there was still no clear legislative pathway to raising the gas tax.  The UMTRI report should set off alarm bells in Washington about the future of the Highway Trust Fund. The report points out that U.S. gasoline consumption has been dropping steadily since well before the 2008 recession. From 2004 to 2013, fuel consumption by light duty vehicles in the United States dropped by 11%. The report’s author, Michael Sivak, also noted that the U.S. passenger car population has decreased since 2008, which could be considered an artifact of the economic downturn, or a foretaste of millennials’ mobility habits.

Millennium Shift

This data confirms reports about the shift in attitudes about car ownership among millennials that have been widely reported, albeit mostly anecdotally. A 2013 U.S. PIRG report found that there is a permanent change in expectations about how to get around–with driving seen as just one of many options that millennials regularly use.  And increasingly stringent fuel economy standards are likely to further reduce total gasoline consumption.

Unfortunately, the White House’s proposal for the new transportation bill does not include a gas tax increase, so it will be left to Congress to determine whether the time is finally right to increase the rate–or find a new mechanism to pay for the maintenance and improvement of U.S. transportation infrastructure.

 

China Spurs EV Development

— April 28, 2015

China has aggressively supported the production and purchase of electric vehicles (EVs) since 2010. The government’s goal to deploy 500,000 EVs by 2015 may seem unrealistic. Nonetheless, this target serves as a reflection of the government’s intention to combat pollution and save energy by means of EV deployment. Chinese automakers have struggled to improve the fuel efficiency of conventional vehicles. Between 2010 and 2014, fuel efficiency improved by 5.8% annually in Japan, 3.3% in Europe, and 1.8% in the United States—but only 1.1% in China. As such, the government’s support for EV deployment seems to be the preferred solution for China’s situation.

Incentives Spur the Market

Only around 70,000 EVs were on the road in China during 2014. This is still an almost 250% increase from the 2013 figure, and many experts forecast strong growth in the coming years. To further spur demand for EVs, the government has implemented various incentive programs applicable to approved EV models, which are locally produced. As of 2014, there was a ¥35,000 ($5,600) purchase subsidy for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and a ¥60,000 ($9,700) purchase subsidy for battery electric vehicles (BEVs). BYD’s Qin, one of the most popular EVs in China, retails from around ¥210,000, but with government subsidies, customers usually pay between ¥120,000 and ¥160,000 for the PHEV. Qin sold 11,200 units in the first 10 months of 2014.

In addition, the 10% purchase tax is waived for new energy autos, which include EVs, PHEVs, and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). The government plans to allocate around ¥4 billion for this tax initiative, which is in effect between September 1, 2014 and December 31, 2017. Because the tax break applies to imported EVs as well, foreign car makers have been eager to enter the Chinese market. In 2014, BMW’s i3 and i8 EVs, as well as the Daimler and BYD joint venture EV model Denza, were launched in China. On top of the central government’s efforts, incentive programs and EV targets exist in mega-cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Beijing plans to deploy 170,000 electric taxis and at least 4,500 electric buses by 2017.

Due to the strong government support, many Chinese automakers, such as SAIC Motor, Dongfeng Motor, FAW, and Changan, as well as automobile components companies, are nowadays interested in manufacturing EVs. In March 2014, Wanxiang, an auto parts manufacturer, acquired American EV maker Fisker. Also, Foxconn, an IT manufacturer, has partnered with Tesla to enter the EV market.

Opportunities and Challenges  

Even though it’s difficult for foreign companies to enter the Chinese EV market, some—including General Motors (GM), Nissan, Hyundai, and Daimler—have jumped on the bandwagon via joint ventures with Chinese companies. However, two major variables are critical to China’s future EV market growth—charging infrastructure and battery technology. While charging equipment and infrastructure investment became open to the private sector recently to speed up development and construction, China lacks a national infrastructure standard. This can lead to operability issues from one city to another.

In addition, Chinese EV battery technology is in a transition from lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries to manganese-series batteries. Most EV markets around the world use lithium manganese oxide (LMO) and lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NCM) batteries, which have better performance than LFP batteries. However, Chinese battery manufacturers currently lag behind their competitors in Japan, South Korea, and the United States in this area. Therefore, battery technology, as well as charging infrastructure standards and governance, will significantly influence the future of China’s EV market along with the sustainability of the current incentive programs and subsidies.

 

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