Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How ‘autonomy’ will become the new ‘green’ for the car industry. The Green Piece.

With Frankfurt Motor Show just around the corner, many of the carmakers are already letting us in on what they plan to unveil on the opening days of the show.
While previous international motoring shows like Frankfurt’s have had a very eco-focus about them, with the manufacturers falling over themselves to show off their latest electric and hybrid concepts, this September’s show could have a very different feel about it.
This year ‘green’ is so 2007 and the new buzzword is ‘autonomous’. The benefit of driverless vehicles is that they will actually help us fulfil the former eco criteria and help make road accidents a thing of the past.
In recent weeks we’ve heard from the likes of Ford, Nissan, Volvo and Volkswagen who are all in the process of developing autonomous driving technology.
With technologies that incorporate an element of self-driving already available on new cars, it seems we’re slowly inching our way towards the dream of being able to put our feet on the dashboard and snoozing our way to work.
Technologies that include an aspect of autonomy already on the market include collision avoidance systems which will apply the brakes should the driver fail to do so, lane correction technology to correct steering to avoid the car drifting into another lane and even systems that will parallel park a car for you.
Google has been one of the early pioneers of autonomous driving cars, having adapted Toyota Prius cars and even tested them on real roads in California for as much as 140,000 miles without human intervention.
Autonomy by 2020
The latest development in the move for more autonomy for cars comes from Nissan, however, which last week promised that it would have market-ready autonomous cars by 2020, having successfully demonstrated its latest autonomous driving tech on its LEAF electric car in California.

Self-driving technologies usually combine a series of cameras and lasers to enable the car to ‘see’ any hazards and read road markings and signs, as well as a powerful processor to interpret that information and take the appropriate action.
While it is already technically possible for cars to drive themselves, there are two big issues which lie ahead; first the legislation to support and allow self-drive cars on public roads and secondly, how the first self-drive models will integrate with the flawed and imperfectly driven regular cars.
Another issue is uniformity; its great news that so many carmakers are in the process of developing self-driving systems but each system is in danger of being completely different and we need to ensure that all autonomous cars can communicate and co-operate with each other.
Already Google is one that has seen how these issues can hinder progress. Despite its fleet of Prius cars having only ever been involved in two incidents (one when a Google car was rear-ended by a conventional human-driven car and another through driver error, when a Google car was being manually driven), its cars remain approved for use in just four US states.
And thanks to the phenomenal cost associated with trialling and testing these cars, not to mention that such work is beyond the search giant’s usual business area, it seems that the firm might be planning on retire its current fleet as taxi cars and possibly just leaving it to the traditional carmakers to actually manufacture the first mass production self-driving cars.
Another interesting concept came from the SATRE project run in association with Volvo, which recently concluded. In this project, a lead truck, driven by a regular, human driver controls a platoon of following vehicles, leaving the drivers of these cars free to do as they wish.
The vehicles share real-time information with each other, to follow the movements of the lead vehicle, using a series of cameras, radar and laser technology.
One self-driving vehicle that is already in commercial use is the Induct Navia shuttle. Designed as a ‘last mile’ transport solution, this eight passenger vehicle suit the needs of enclosed, off-road environments such as campuses, pedestrianised city centres, airports, theme parks and hospitals. As such, it is already at a university campus in Singapore and at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)-a federal institute of technology in Switzerland.
It’s these off-road solutions that will likely be the first vehicles to become driverless.
But if Nissan sticks to its timescale, it will be only seven more years before we see the first driverless cars ready for production.
The benefits of that will include streamlined traffic flow, enabling us to make better use of increasingly crowded roads. This in turn will lead to less wasted fuel and lower emissions.
Cost of human error
According to Nissan, in the US alone, around 93 per cent of the six million car crashes each year are due to human error, costing $160 billion and ranking as the top reason of death for four- to 34-year olds.
That’s a huge economic and financial cost and an issue that the entire motor industry is geared to try to change. Every road accident involving one of its cars is essentially the worst PR a manufacturer can experience.
For Nissan that’s resulted in the pledge to strive for both zero emissions and zero fatalities, to address the car industry’s two key negative impacts; road accidents and environmental pollution.
It’s fitting then, that it should be the carmaker’s first fully electric car, the LEAF that becomes the test bed for its latest autonomous technology.
Its not that cleaner car technology is no longer of interest, it is just that it will be tailed by the development of self-driving cars, which in turn could help us manage the refuelling and use of cleaner alternative vehicles such as electric cars, eliminating unnecessary energy waste, through poor driving styles and automatically monitoring vehicle charges.
As our whole transport system becomes connected with vehicle-to-vehicle comms, vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-X communications, green and autonomous will be the future for the motor industry.