Navigant Research Blog

The Race to Control the Automated Vehicle

— June 14, 2017

Since the birth of the automobile, manufacturers have raced to claim the most power and best performance. The continuing evolution of the internal combustion engine has been a key component in that competition. That’s all about to change. As we begin the transition to automated and electrified vehicles that are programmed to obey speed limits and play nice with other road users, the performance benchmark for satisfying those in the vehicle shifts from the propulsion system to the computing platform, with both old and new players trying to grab a slice of the prize.

The situational awareness needed by highly automated vehicles (HAVs) requires data from sensors and communications links to be fused into a coherent, real-time 3D image of the space around the vehicle. Current semi-independent systems such as stability control, adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping assist each use discrete sensors, electronic control units (ECUs), and related software. More limited feature set and sensor inputs allow them to work with relatively low powered processors by modern computing standards.

Old Processors Aren’t Good Enough

Those aging, low power processors simply aren’t up to the task of managing HAVs. Thus, we have the integration of these systems under a single umbrella computing platform with more input signals than ever. During early development of automated driving, vehicles were packed full of server racks to handle the necessary processing. Production viability requires that to be condensed down to a much smaller package that consumes far less electrical power than the kilowatts used by those servers with reduced heat generation.

Best known for its graphics processors used in video games and editing, Nvidia has grabbed headlines with its Drive PX2 development platform. At just $10,000, this is an ECU for automated driving development utilized by many of the companies working in this space. It is currently too expensive for mass production. At the 2017 CES, supplier ZF announced that it would commercialize this platform as the ProAI ECU in 2018. Bosch made a similar announcement in March, but it will use a repackaged version that combines the graphics processing unit (GPU) and CPU into a single unit. Toyota recently announced that it too would use the Nvidia platform.

Intel Is Continually Making Strategic Acquisitions

Meanwhile, Intel is moving aggressively to expand its footprint in the HAV space. In 2016, BMW announced that it was building its automated driving technology using Intel CPUs and chips from Mobileye for sensor processing. Supplier Delphi is using the same combination with its own software in its multi-domain controller ECU. The current market leader in vision systems for lane keeping assist and collision warning, Mobileye’s next-generation chips are considered so capable that Intel decided to acquire the company for $15 billion. This follows Intel’s 2015 acquisition of Altera for its powerful field programmable gate array (FPGA) processors. Combinations of Intel CPUs, Altera FPGAs, and Mobileye sensor processors are now being made available to manufacturers as the Intel Go platform.

The traditional automotive chip suppliers don’t intend to be left out of the competition either. NXP, which was spun off from consumer electronics giant Philips, acquired Motorola spinoff Freescale in 2015 and is currently in the process of being acquired by Qualcomm as part of a larger effort to power HAVs. Japanese supplier Renesas already provides processing power for many driver assist systems and wants in on the HAV action as well.

With performance, reliability, and thermal management more important than ever in HAVs and the market projected to grow into the tens of millions of vehicles annually by the late 2020s, don’t expect to see any slowdown in the evolution of these computing platforms anytime soon.

 

E-Scooters Get Their Own Network

— January 5, 2015

A San Francisco-based startup with Asian roots called Gogoro announced on January 5 that it is launching a line of futuristic battery-powered electric scooters and an e-scooter charging network that, for a monthly fee, will provide unlimited battery swapping and cloud connectivity.  The concept of battery swapping for electric vehicles has been tried before – most notably with the epic failure of Israeli startup Better Place (and with a little bit more success by Tesla Motors).  But this venture might have a much happier ending.

To understand how Gogoro might succeed, let’s first examine why Better Place failed.  Although the company made a number of personnel and strategic missteps, the fundamental problem of the Better Place model was that the battery switching stations were too expensive and too complex.  Another major problem was that the financial projections didn’t pan out because battery costs were still too expensive at the time of the firm’s launch in 2012.

Swap It Out

Gogoro, which has engineering facilities in Taiwan and whose CEO, Horace Luke, was the design mastermind behind Taiwanese cell phone manufacturer HTC, solves the complexity issue with a smaller battery pack: the Gogoro Smartscooter uses two batteries, each about the size of a Kleenex box and containing about 1 kWh of energy.  The user merely takes the battery out by hand and inserts it into the vending machine-like switching station.  Six seconds later, a fully charged battery comes out of the machine and can easily be reinserted into the scooter.  A fully charged pair of batteries provides the user almost 60 miles of range in an urban driving environment.

To solve the battery cost problem, Gogoro has two aces up its sleeve.  The first is timing: we are in a period of dramatically shrinking lithium ion battery costs.  What would have cost more than $1,000 per kWh a few years ago can be had for as little as a third of that today.

Gogoro’s other advantage is its strategic partnership with Panasonic, one of the largest battery manufacturers in the world.  Gogoro will use the same battery cells, made by Panasonic, that are used by Tesla Motors for its Model S battery pack.  And if it can grow quickly enough, Gogoro will get Tesla-type volume discounts.  Navigant Research estimates that Tesla pays approximately $200 per kWh for its Panasonic cells today, and that price is expected to drop as low as $130 per kWh by 2020 once the recently announced Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory is up to full capacity.

Cool and Clean

Gogoro has one more big advantage going for it: the world’s young people are begging for alternatives to car ownership.  They want clean, affordable, yet stylish transportation alternatives.  This trend is as true in scooter-crazy Asian cities as it is in North America.  Traditional scooters are too dirty, dorky, and noisy to provide an appealing car substitute for most young people.  But Gogoro’s scooter will be affordable enough (although pricing hasn’t been announced, it should be cheaper than most other e-scooter options because the battery isn’t part of the purchase price) and stylish enough (CEO Horace Luke is a renowned industrial designer whose accomplishments include the Xbox game console and the much lauded HTC smartphone lineup) to be attractive to young urban dwellers in many countries.

 

Modular Mobile Phones Could Connect Vehicles

— December 23, 2014

If you drive to work or school or the grocery store, there’s a good chance that your vehicle is at least 11 years old and probably runs just fine.  If, on the other hand, you dig an 11-year old cell phone out of your junk drawer, there’s a good chance it won’t even start up and if it does, it might not have a network to connect to.

That dichotomy between vehicle longevity and electronic obsolescence will pose an increasing problem going forward as our vehicles become more connected to the world around us.  Connectivity is likely to be one of the key building blocks toward a world of automated driving (as described in Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles), and an idea from a young Dutch designer that’s being brought to reality with the help of Google could be an important part of the solution.

In mid-2013, Dave Hakkens created a modular phone concept called Phonebloks that would enable users to pick and choose the components that make up their communication devices.  By swapping out modules for cameras, processors, batteries, displays, and other components, consumers could upgrade only the pieces they needed, reducing electronic waste and prolonging the life of the devices.  Google engineers subsequently picked up on the idea and launched Project Ara to help bring Hakkens’ concept to reality.

Keep the Vehicle, Toss the Phone

The Project Ara team has developed a novel magnetized mechanical interface to hold the modules together and provide the electrical interconnects that enable the whole system to work.  In October 2014, Google demonstrated a working prototype Ara phone running Android.  However, as Hakkens acknowledges, the idea doesn’t have to be restricted to the devices we carry in our pockets.

In 1996, General Motors launched OnStar, the first successful vehicle telematics system with a built-in cellular radio that enabled customers to get their cars remotely unlocked or automatically call for assistance in the event of an accident.  Unfortunately, those early systems used the first-generation analog cellular network, and by 2007, they were permanently disconnected as the network was decommissioned.  Mechanically, those vehicles still had many years of useful life left in them, but it would have been impractical to replace the OnStar systems with newer technology.  That pace of change in wireless communications is not expected to slow down anytime soon, as we’ve already moved past 3G into 4G wireless in the 7 years since the original OnStar shutdown.

Insert Here

If it works, Project Ara could provide the solution to the conundrum of long-lived vehicles and changing communications technology.  Google has not responded to a request for comment on the project, but if the company follows its past practice with Android and Chrome, it would not be surprising to see Google either open-source or license the interface on reasonable terms.  This would enable automakers to incorporate one or more Ara-style slots in the vehicle while companies such as Qualcomm or Samsung produce new radio modules to support updated networks or capabilities.  Manufacturers could even produce aftermarket systems to allow the installation of Ara modules into existing vehicles, enabling them to join in with the expanded connected vehicle ecosystem.

Decoupling the communications technology from the vehicle lifecycle could enable drivers to keep existing vehicles on the road while gaining the potential safety and efficiency benefits powered by ever-more affordable and capable electronic systems.  What seemed like a fairly simple idea from Dave Hakkens could ultimately have a much wider impact on society.

 

Manufacturers Race to Bring E-Bike Wheels to Market

— December 21, 2014

With the cost of fully electric bicycles still relatively high (on average $1,500-$2,500) in the United States, several manufacturers are looking to offer innovative new products at a lower price in order to attract consumers.  One example is all-in-one e-bike retrofit wheels.  For $1,000, you can pre-order the EVELO Omni Wheel (targeted shipping date of March 2015), which replaces the front wheel of a traditional bicycle to convert it into an e-bike.

With a maximum range of 25 miles, EVELO’s product contains a 350W motor and has a top speed of up to 20 mph.  Similar products are available, though shipping dates vary slightly: the FlyKly Smart Wheel (estimated shipping time of 3 months) and the Copenhagen Wheel from Superpedestrian (expected ship date is spring 2015).  At a cost of $1,099, the FlyKly is the least powerful of the three products, with a 250W motor and top speed of 16 mph.  Developed at MIT, Superpedestrian’s Copenhagen Wheel is more comparable with the EVELO product, as it has the same motor power (350W) and top speed (20 mph), while coming in at a slightly lower price point than its competitors ($949).   

Both the FlyKly and the Copenhagen replace the rear wheel of traditional bicycles, while EVELO’s retrofit kit replaces the front wheel.  Generally, consumers prefer the rear hub placement, as it’s the most natural location to provide thrusting power.  While all three products are likely to be delivered in a similar timeframe, FlyKly has been the first to market, with the other two competitors following closely behind.

Going Electric

The influx of new product offerings is a good sign for the U.S. e-bike market, as manufacturers are seeing strong interest from consumers.  In fact, FlyKly has more than quadrupled its initial Kickstarter goal ($100,000 in funding) for its Smart Wheel product.  The increased availability and affordability of product offerings, combined with urbanization and an aging population, is driving the growing acceptance of e-bikes as a means of personal transport, particularly in Western Europe and North America.

With three competitive all-in-one e-bike replacement wheels set to be available in 2015, it could be a big year for e-bike retrofit kit sales.  For more information on e-bikes, see Navigant Research’s report, Electric Bicycles.  Global annual sales of e-bikes are expected to exceed 40 million units a year by 2023, according to the report.

 

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