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by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Autonomous Vehicles: Moving Closer to the Driverless Future

An Uber self-driving car was reported getting into an accident in Arizona last month. But as the saying goes “any publicity is good publicity”, this also holds true for autonomous vehicles. The news sparked a discussion and shed some light on potential challenges the technology may face before it becomes available for commercial use. At the same time, it spread awareness about the level of safety testing being done to improve the technology before it is rolled out to the public. We are taking a look at what’s potentially in store for users waiting to see streets flooded with driverless vehicles.

Autonomous self-driving vehicles have been the talk of the industry for some time now, with some of the initial attempts to create a modern autonomous car dating back to 1980s. However, major advancements have only been made during the last decade, coinciding with advancements in the supporting technologies, such as advanced sensors, real-time mapping, and cognitive intelligence, which are perhaps the most crucial to the success of any autonomous vehicle.

Early advancements in the segment were led by technology companies which focused on developing software to automate/assist driving of cars. Some prime examples include nuTonomy, which has recently partnered with Grab (a ride-hailing startup rival to Uber) to test its self-driving cars in Singapore, Cruise Automation (acquired by GM in 2016), and Argo AI, which has recently received a US$1 billion investment from Ford. These companies use primarily regular cars/vans that are retrofitted with sensors, as well as high-definition mapping and software systems.

However, software alone is not capable enough to offer self-driving driving functionalities, therefore, automotive OEMs are taking the front seat when it comes to driving advancements in autonomous vehicles segment. New cars/vans, which are tuned to work seamlessly with this software, are likely to adapt better with the algorithms and meet stringent performance and safety standards required before they can be rolled out commercially. California-based Navigant Research believes that with its investment in Argo AI, Ford has taken a lead among such automotive OEMs in the race to produce an autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

Advanced levels of autonomy still to be achieved

In a nutshell, there are five levels of autonomous cars. Levels 1 through to 3 require human intervention in some form or other. The most basic level comprises only driver assistance systems, such as steering or acceleration control. Most common form of currently prevalent autonomy is Level 2, which involves the driver being disengaged from physically operating the vehicle for some time, using automation such as cruise control and lane-centering. Tesla’s current Autopilot system can be categorized as Level 2.

Level 3 involves the car completely undertaking the safety-critical functions, under certain traffic or environmental conditions, while requiring a driver to intervene if necessary.

Most OEMs developing autonomous cars target launching their vehicles in the next three to five years. Tesla is probably the closest, with its Model 3 car with Autopilot 3 system expected to be unveiled in 2018 (however, this depends on whether the regulations are in place by then). Nissan, Toyota, Google, and Volvo plan to achieve this by 2020, while BMW and Ford have set a deadline for 2021. Most of these companies are working on achieving cars with Level 3 autonomy, with a driver sitting behind the steering wheel to take over from the car’s programming as and when required.

Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles are deemed as fully autonomous which means they do not require a driver and all driving functions are undertaken by the car. The only difference is that while Level 4 vehicles are limited to most common roads and general traffic conditions, Level 5 vehicles are able to offer performance equivalent to a human driving in every scenario – including extreme environments such as off-roads.

Some OEMs, Ford in particular, are against the practice of using a human as a back-up, based on the understanding that a person sitting idle behind the wheel often loses the situational awareness which is required when he needs to take over from the car’s programming. Ford is planning to skip achieving Level 3 autonomy and target development of Level 4 autonomous vehicles instead.

Google is currently the only company focusing on developing a Level 5 autonomous car (or a robot car). The company already showcased a prototype that has no steering wheel or manual controls – a prototype that in true sense can be the first autonomous car. Tesla also plans to work on achieving the highest level of autonomy and plans to fit its cars with all hardware necessary for a fully-autonomous vehicle.

High costs continue to be challenging

While the plans are in place, one massive roadblock that persists in the development of these cars of future are costs. There are multiple sensors used in these cars, including SONAR and LIDAR. The ongoing research has helped to reduce the costs of sensors – Google’s Waymo has managed to reduce the costs of LIDAR sensors by 90%, from about $75,000 (in 2009) to about $7,000 (in 2016) – but they are still very expensive. The fact that a driverless car requires about four of these sensors, makes the cars largely unaffordable for consumers, and that puts off any discussion of feasibility of commercial production at this stage.

EOS Perspective

The first three months of 2017 have been particularly eventful, with several prototypes launched or tested. This activity is expected to increase further as companies try to meet their ambitious plans to roll out self-driving cars by 2020.

Initial adoption is likely to come from companies investing in commercial fleet, particularly those focusing on on-demand taxi or fleet, similar to what Uber or Lyft offer. Series of investments by large bus manufacturing companies, such as Scania, Iveco, and Yutong, also indicate how this technology will be the flavor of the future in public transport.

It is too soon to comment how and when exactly these autonomous vehicles can be expected to impact the way people choose to travel and how they may redefine the societies’ mobility. It is likely to depend on how the regulatory environment evolves to allow driverless cars in active traffic. Current regulatory environment for driverless cars is still at a nascent stage and allows only for testing of these cars in an isolated environment. Some states in the USA, particularly California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, have opened up to testing of these cars in general public. However, recent accidents and cases of autonomous cars breaking traffic rules have put pressure on authorities to reconsider their stance until the cars become more advanced and tested to handle the nuances of public traffic. We might need to wait another decade or two before driverless cars are a reality in many markets. As things stand, endless efforts continue to go behind the curtain, as companies strive to win the race to develop highly autonomous and safe vehicles.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Pick’n’mix: The Evolution of Automotive Materials

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The article was first published in Automotive World’s Q2 2016 Megatrends Magazine

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The increasing demand for fuel efficient, lighter, and safer vehicles is re-shaping the global automotive industry landscape. Significant pressure from regulators and customers is driving vehicle manufacturers to focus on design efficiencies using advanced technologies and materials. These factors have made vehicle material composition a vital part of every OEM’s overall manufacturing strategy.

Evolution of Material Composition over the Last Three Decades 1-Average Material Composition

The ongoing evaluation of the vehicle materials performance as well as continuous enhancements in the material composition of vehicles have always been on the agenda for automakers as vehicle weight has direct implications on driving dynamics and fuel consumption.

Due to the changing industry dynamics, automakers face growing pressure to develop lightweight vehicles that would on the one hand ensure lower environmental impact, and on the other hand provide safety and desired performance. This has led the material composition of passenger vehicles to evolve constantly over the past three decades.

In recent years, the increased regulatory and user pressure on auto manufacturers and materials suppliers to discover better and lighter materials has resulted in an increased use of plastics, with the declining role of metals in vehicle manufacturing (though metals are expected to still account for more than half (55%) of the vehicle materials composition in 2020).

Key Drivers of Material Composition Evolution

2-Evolution of Material CompositionRegulatory Reforms

Stringent CO2 reforms such as corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) in the USA as well as EU CO2 emission targets for 2021 are forcing OEMs to make their vehicles more energy efficient.

These reforms have fueled R&D efforts as well as investments in vehicle lightweighting. According to Ducker Worldwide, a US-based research and consulting firm, by 2025, an average vehicle in the USA will have to reduce approximately 181kg of its total weight to achieve an average fuel economy that enables passenger vehicles to drive at least 54.5 miles per gallon of fuel. Clearly, as lightweight materials are a significant factor in meeting these rigorous regulations, OEMs are re-thinking their vehicle material composition.

In the coming years, one can expect the material composition to evolve further as these compliance deadlines approach nearer and OEMs begin to feel the pressure of monetary penalties for non-compliance. For example, in Europe, OEMs will have to pay at least €95 for every gram of CO2 above the set limit (95g) multiplied by total cars sold in 2020. This could translate to approximately €1 billion for Volkswagen and €300 million for Hyundai in penalties as per estimates by PA Consulting.

New Market Entrants

The entry of new players, such as Tesla and the Silicon Valley 3D printing start-up Divergent Microfactories, is transforming traditional vehicle manufacturing processes and technologies. By leveraging new materials and technologies, these companies have developed new vehicle models that offer better design and performance. This is encouraging traditional players in the industry to learn and adapt their designs and material composition choices in their upcoming vehicle models to can help them to achieve better design and fuel efficiencies.

Consumer Demands and Expectations

Over the years, consumers’ demands with regards to their cars have changed considerably, with expectations of improved fuel economy, safety, as well as driving experience through technology and functionality enhancements. These factors have driven the R&D, design, and material teams in the industry to innovate to satisfy the evolving consumer demands. As the tech-savvy consumers of ‘Generation Z’ (born post 1995) and the generations after ‘Z’ are surely going to be more demanding, one can expect the passenger vehicles to continue on the innovation path, which is likely to also consist of more advanced grades of plastics and composites as materials used for construction of these vehicles.

Technology Advancements

Improvements in materials as well as production technologies in the automotive sector have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. According to ArcelorMittal, a multinational steel manufacturing corporation, only five grades of steel were available to the automotive industry in 1960, while today, the industry has more than 175 grades of steel at its disposal for design optimisation. The current grades of steel, such as advanced high strength steel (AHSS) and ultra high-strength steel (UHSS) are much stronger, lighter, and processing friendly for various vehicle manufacturing applications.

The emergence of 3D printing, new design, testing, and processing tools is transforming automobile engineering. By leveraging technology and advanced manufacturing techniques, along with the strategic use of various materials, auto engineers today are designing body-in-white (BIW) structures that are far lighter than the ones in 1990s.

Current Trends in Material Composition

There is no single approach to material composition that applies across each passenger vehicle segment. In fact, material composition choices vary across regions, OEMs, vehicle type, manufacturing volumes, and target customer segment. For example, a pick-up truck in the USA uses far more aluminum than similar truck in Europe (138kg versus 59kg), while OEMs in Europe use more aluminum in their premium car segment than their US counterparts. At present, BIW material composition of an average passenger vehicle consists of a mix of various grades of steel, aluminum, iron, and plastics, while at the upper end of the market, the use of carbon fiber and composites is more prevalent.
3-Current BIW Material Composition

While there has been a lot of talk about rapid uptake of advanced composites in vehicle production, integration of these materials creates significant challenges in designing, simulation, and parts processing. Besides these challenges, the industry still lacks good understanding of these materials at the engineering level for vehicle manufacturing applications. Current barriers range across issues in forming, joining, and corrosion, paired by high cost and limited supply of such materials. Therefore, the use of composites, especially in mainstream structural components, will remain very limited in the near future.

OEMs are also exploring nanomaterials and nanotechnology that can provide OEMs with better weight-to-strength ratios and help them with vehicle lightweighting. In addition, companies are looking into other advanced metals such as titanium and nickel-based alloys that offers high strength, low density, and superior resistance to corrosion and oxidation, thus make them ideal for use in vehicle manufacturing applications. However, these research projects are still in nascent stages with most of them in laboratory testing phases.

The Future of Material Mix

For OEMs, any material switch requires significant investments in R&D, production processes and equipment, repair infrastructure, securing material supply, staff training, etc. Many OEMs have already made significant investments in their existing production infrastructure that supports steel. Amid the current global economic environment and cost pressures that majority of automakers face, they are likely to refrain from making new capital investments. Therefore, steel is expected to continue its dominance in the near future due to its cost effectiveness and design flexibilities. Further, due to the consumers’ limited willingness to pay for weight reduction, the uptake of advanced lightweight materials will remain limited within the mass market segments of passenger vehicles.

Steel and aluminum are expected to be the two key materials that OEMs will use for their BIW components over the next four to five years. According to some industry players such as Jaguar Land Rover and Kaiser Aluminum, between 2016 and 2020, the use of aluminum in overall material composition is going to surge. According to Doug Richman, Vice President of Engineering and Technology, Kaiser Aluminum, the average vehicle in USA and Europe will constitute of 14% aluminum (kerb weight) by 2025, up from around 10% at present. This is primarily due to the fact that advancements in steel processing have nearly reached the tipping point that limits further massive weight savings. Additionally, aluminum is the easiest switch for the vehicle production line, compared to plastics, magnesium, and carbon fiber.

The pressure to change and improve the material composition to achieve regulatory compliance will work as a double-edged sword for OEMs. On the one hand, it will create opportunities for industry players to innovate by creating new designs using advanced materials and manufacturing techniques. This can help them to outperform their peers by enhancing their product and brand value proposition. On the other hand, integrating these materials will create more manufacturing challenges for OEMs and require them to pour more investments. This will not only lead to higher capex and opex, but it will directly impact their profit margins.

As vehicle design optimization remains the largest leverage available to vehicle manufacturers to satisfy regulatory compliance, there is no doubt that material composition will be an important part of every OEM’s fuel efficiency optimization strategy in the coming future. Going forward, automakers are likely to focus on component specific materials that will use different materials for different structural components. They will combine materials to take the best advantage of what each has to offer. Although the complexities at present are enormous, OEMs that will master the art of efficient manufacturing material mix will enjoy a huge competitive advantage.

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