Navigant Research Blog

A Few Steps Closer to Autonomous Vehicles

— September 30, 2014

As engineers, scientists, executives, and government officials involved with transportation systems gather in Detroit this week for the annual ITS World Congress, the auto industry took another incremental step along the 60-plus-year road to autonomous vehicles.

In her keynote address, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced that two of the technologies that are building blocks toward a driverless future will come to market in 2016.  The 2017 Cadillac CTS will be the first production car from GM equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology.  Barra did not provide any details about exactly what sort of information would be exchanged between cars equipped with the technology, but messages will likely include alerts about brake applications, slippery road conditions, and position and speed as the vehicle approaches an intersection.

GM is the first automaker to announce that it will equip a production vehicle with V2V technology, but it’s likely that other premium brands will soon follow suit, especially now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has begun the process of writing rules to mandate the technology in the coming years.

Beyond Cruise Control

Barra also announced that a new Cadillac model that has yet to be revealed will be the first car in its lineup equipped with super cruise technology.  Super cruise is a semi-autonomous highway driving mode that combines advanced radar-based adaptive cruise control with upgraded camera-based lane-following capability.  In traffic, the system is able to bring the car to a full stop, automatically restarting as soon as the leading car moves.  GM first demonstrated super cruise to media in 2012 and has continued to refine the system.

In the days before the official opening of the ITS World Congress, Toyota held a separate advanced safety systems seminar where it demonstrated a system very similar to super cruise installed in the Lexus GS 450h.  The system also includes the capability to determine which lane the car is in to provide the driver with alerts for potential hazards, such as traffic merging from the left, or exit-only lanes.  GPS doesn’t provide enough precision to determine which lane a vehicle is in, and Toyota engineers declined to provide specifics, but the system almost certainly uses the new higher-fidelity camera that is installed as part of the lane-tracing system.

Driver Still Required

Toyota also announced that this system would be coming to market very soon, but would not be as specific as GM.  During the technology demonstrations at the congress, Honda also demonstrated its own automated highway driving system, although it has not yet announced when the system will reach production.

The key to these systems is that they do not completely replace the driver, but simply reduce the workload during some of the more monotonous aspects of highway driving.  Unlike Google, which is extremely bullish on autonomous vehicles, traditional automakers, which are more familiar with the realities of putting high-technology cars in customers’ hands, are taking a much more cautious approach.

 

Tesla Breaks into Japan

— September 25, 2014

Last week Tesla opened its Japan sales operation with Elon Musk handing over nine keys to the first Model S owners in the country.  The event is significant because foreign automakers, especially U.S. ones, sell very few vehicles in Japan.  Although the country’s vehicle market officially opened to limited foreign participation in the 1970s, despite extensive automotive trade negotiations between the United States and Japan, the country has effectively remained closed.  Nearly 96% of all vehicle sales in the country come from Japanese companies, while the remaining 4% come from German automakers, with a barely visible blip of around 1,000 vehicles coming from GM.  This has been frustrating for foreign automakers – but it’s also hindering Japan’s plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) market.

As of 2013, Japan is the third-largest vehicle market and the second-largest PEV market in the world.  PEV sales were initially strong, thanks to infrastructure developments and vehicle deployments by Nissan, Mitsubishi, and, to a lesser extent, Toyota.  However, Toyota and Honda have since scrapped most of their PEV development programs, and no new PEVs were introduced in 2014, until Tesla did so last week.  To provide some context, there have been 24 different PEV models sold in Norway in 2014, while only 7 (including Tesla and three variations of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV) have sold in Japan.

Flat through ‘14

As a result, despite significant growth in every other PEV market, PEV sales in Japan will likely remain flat in 2014, at around 30,000 units.  This means that the country’s market will fall to third behind China; it may also lose ground to Germany, France, Norway, and the Netherlands, winding up in seventh in 2014.  Given Japan’s significant foreign energy dependence issues (Japan essentially imports 100% of its oil), this is a problem.

PEVs have substantial energy efficiency improvements over conventional vehicle platforms that, if adopted en masse, could do a lot to reduce Japan’s dependency issues.  Additionally, the country’s subsidy program, large vehicle market, significant price differential between electricity and gasoline on a per mile basis, and well-developed public charging infrastructure present the optimum conditions for the PEV market.  Unfortunately, Japan’s traditionally isolationist national automotive policy is inhibiting its own national energy security and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals.

 

Toyota Commits to Active Safety Features

— September 18, 2014

If the world’s largest automaker gets its way, by the end of this decade, we can expect advanced active safety and semi-automated driving features to become as familiar as anti-lock brakes and stability control have in the past 10 years.

During an advanced safety systems seminar near Toyota’s North American technical center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the automaker challenged its competitors when it committed to offering advanced active safety systems across its lineup by 2017.  Toyota also increased its commitment to advanced safety R&D by extending the initial 5-year mandate of the Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC) from 2016 through 2021 and adding $35 million in new funding.

At the same event, Simon Nagata, senior vice president of the Toyota Technical Center, announced an expansion of the scope of the CSRC, which was launched by company president Akio Toyoda in 2011.  Nagata described the program as unique in the industry because “all findings are openly shared in order to benefit people everywhere.”

CSRC research initially focused on three areas: driver distraction, active safety, and helping to protect the most vulnerable traffic populations, including children, teens, and seniors. Automated and connected vehicle technologies are now part of the CSRC scope of work. To date, CSRC has initiated or completed 34 projects with 17 universities and research hospitals.

Join the Crowd

Ford has drawn attention in recent years for offering a full suite of driver assist capabilities, including active park assist, blind spot information, lane departure warning and prevention, and adaptive cruise control on the high-volume Fusion midsize sedan.  Some of these features are even available on the smaller Focus and Escape.  Other manufacturers, including Nissan, Honda, and even Hyundai, have since added some of these features to mainstream products.  Toyota, on the other hand, has largely restricted these technologies to its premium Lexus brand.

“Many of these capabilities will be added to Toyota brand vehicles starting in 2015 and with the goal of becoming the first full-line manufacturer to offer these technologies across the entire lineup by 2017,” said Bill Fay, Toyota group vice president and general manager.  Fay didn’t provide details about exactly which vehicles will get what features.  However, the updated 2015 Camry sedan, announced in April at the New York Auto Show, will offer radar-based adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, cross traffic alert, lane departure alert, and a pre-collision system.

Toyota’s increased emphasis on active safety and automated driving is likely to inspire both the competition and regulators who may well see this as an opportunity to begin mandating the technologies that are building blocks for autonomous vehicles, just as they did previously with stability control and rear cameras.  And it will provoke a wider discussion of how we incorporate automated vehicles into the transportation ecosystem.

 

Automakers Add Gears for Better Fuel Efficiency

— September 3, 2014

Automakers are pursuing many options to improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks.  Most recently, the emphasis has been on reducing weight by changing to less dense materials even though they’re more expensive.   There is also ongoing development work with electrification to recover and reuse kinetic energy.  The latest change to help manufacturers comply with tightening fuel economy targets worldwide is revamping the automatic transmission.

Historically, automatic transmissions were inherently less efficient than manual gearboxes, and convenience was the tradeoff for the loss of a few percentage points in fuel economy and acceleration. Some of the latest automatic gearboxes, though, are actually more efficient than a manual gearbox with a clutch.  Today, the desire to retain complete manual control over gear selection means, in some cases, slightly higher fuel consumption and longer 0 to 60 mph times.  However, a stick-shift generally still saves money off the new sticker price and in North America is sometimes regarded as an anti-theft device.

On Up to 10

From the late 1960s, three speeds was the standard automatic configuration, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that overdrive and lock-up top gears were added to help improve the efficiency, leading to more four- and five-speed automatic gearboxes.  In 2002, gearbox technology began to get a lot more attention when BMW put the first 6-speed automatic into production, followed by Mercedes with its 7-speed in 2003 and Toyota with an 8-speed in 2007.  Recently there have been a number of transmission announcements:

  • GM is crediting its new 8-speed automatic for making the 2015 Corvette Stingray faster and more efficient.  More gears allows for a lower first gear ratio for better acceleration, as well as a higher final drive ratio to reduce engine speed at highway cruising speed.  The 8L90 transmission will also feature in GM’s range of pickup trucks and SUVs.  Careful packaging and internal design features means that the new gearbox fits the same space as the 6-speed 6L80 – even though it can handle higher torque and power in addition to weighing less.
  • ZF introduced its revised 8-speed transmission in the 2014 BMW 5 Series.  This second-generation 8HP gearbox (the first was introduced in 2009) offers revised gear ratios to take advantage of the latest engine efficiency improvements that deliver more torque at lower rpms.  Advanced torsional vibration dampers improve smoothness, and a new shifting design has reduced internal energy losses.  Other users of the 8HP for rear-wheel-drive cars are Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, and Chrysler.
  • Chrysler is building a 9-speed transmission under license from ZF.  It went into production at the end of 2013 in the Jeep Cherokee.  ZF also supplies the 9HP for the Range Rover Evoque.  Chrysler is planning to implement a version in its minivans and smaller front-wheel-drive cars, as well.  Although the wider ratios provide better fuel economy and acceleration, concerns have been raised about erratic shifting.  These are being addressed via a software update.
  • In September 2013, Mercedes launched its 9G-TRONIC transmission on the E 350 BlueTEC diesel saloon car.  Despite two additional gears and a higher maximum torque, the new automatic transmission requires no more installation space than its predecessor and is also lighter.  The torque converter housing is made of lightweight aluminum, while the transmission housing with plastic oil pan is made of an even lighter magnesium alloy.

Ford and GM have already announced that they are planning to develop a 10-speed gearbox together.  It seems that manufacturers have figured out how to get more ratios in the same space and, at the same time, reduce internal energy losses so that efficiency is higher while maintaining or improving performance.  The key is integration with the latest engine characteristics to optimize the driving experience.  This topic will be covered in more detail in our upcoming report on automotive fuel efficiency.

 

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