DAVE WADDELL, WINDSOR STAR
December 11, 2019
The automobile redefined life in the 20th century, but the vehicle of the future will likely embed itself even deeper into our daily lives.
Electric, connected and increasingly autonomous, the future car is following a similar developmental path to the smartphone in its evolution into a powerful, rolling computer gathering information and changing forever how we do things.
“The compute platform that’s become the standard has migrated from the PC to the smartphone and now the compute platform that’s really driving research and development in the tech companies is automotive,” said Chris Borroni-Bird, a Detroit-area independent mobility consultant.
“If you can solve the platform requirements for an autonomous vehicle, it means you can address many other markets.
“Other industries feel, if it’s good enough for a car, it’s good enough for us because a car is so robust.”
Borroni-Bird has spent 25-plus years in the automotive/mobility sector working on future mobility concepts.
He’s been chief engineer (futures programs) for Waymo, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts for General Motors and led fuel-cell development research for Chrysler, now FCA.
He’s co-authored Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century with colleagues from MIT and oversaw Qualcomm’s research into car-to-car communication and wireless charging.
“The scale of change is unprecedented in the auto industry right now,” said Borroni-Bird, who holds over 40 patents for his work and is a member of the Automotive Hall of Fame.
“You’ve got these huge disruptions going on in terms of autonomy, connectivity, electrification and shared mobility.
“If you’re running a car company or are a supplier, you’re making a lot of decisions with a lot of uncertainty.”
The automotive industry has also slammed the pedal to the metal with the pace of change.
Jim Lyijnen, FCA’s director of advanced concepts engineering, said the industry is moving forward as quickly as technology can take it.
“The last decade has (seen the most change in my nearly 30-year career) and I expect the next decade will be even greater,” Lyijnen said.
“It’s a challenging time for all industries as technology continues to grow exponentially.”
But just exactly where will all this unprecedented change take us?
“The car of the future will be an evolutionary not a revolutionary change from what we have now,” said Peter Frise, director of the University of Windsor’s Centre for Automotive Research and Education. “I don’t think it’s going to fly.
“I think it’ll have four wheels, not three or two.
“The cars of the future will be more efficient (electric) and have less environmental impact. It will be connected. It’ll help the driver be safe and it’ll talk to the environment and other cars to make the whole ecosystem aware of that vehicle and its actions.”
The dawn of the electric car era is upon us with automakers expected to launch about 120 electric models in the next three to five years.
The new propulsion system, which may eventually see four small wheel motors rather than one large one, frees up space in the car’s chassis.
The lithium-ion battery will power the vehicle in the short-term, but over time the energy source could evolve to include hydrogen fuel cells and in some cases solar power.
With an electric motor, there’s virtually no transmission, no exhaust system, no lubricating or extensive cooling systems and, if wheel motors are introduced, separate braking systems could eventually disappear too.
The wheels on vehicles could also move forward or backward to improve manoeuvrability, while the passenger compartment space will expand even as the overall footprint of the vehicle shrinks.
Michael Robinet, executive director of IHS Markit’s Automotive Advisory Services, said the addition of autonomous driver assistance systems and car-to-car communications will make collisions unlikely. That will allow safety regulations to be altered and bulky equipment reduced.
“Everything is up for grabs then,” Robinet said.
“You can change seating configurations. You can change the glass.
“Why do you need to see out if a camera can project the image on a screen inside?
“The public needs to understand the industry is thinking about all these things and more.”
Robinet said variable-seating configurations would allow for pop-up tables for business meetings or entertainment options.
Also expected to disappear are centre consoles with gearshifts in favour of buttons and knobs. Large touchscreens will anchor your digitalized dashboard.
Carmakers are also going greener with materials.
California-based Fisker Inc. announced this month its new electric Ocean crossover, scheduled for production in 2021, will have a vegan interior.
It will use recycled nylon from fishing lines pulled from the ocean, an eco-suede material made of recycled polyester and other plastics and repurposed rubber in tires produced from the waste of tire manufacturing.
Consumers will enjoy a completely customized experience inside the car’s cockpit.
Seat position, climate control, lighting, navigation and entertainment will all fit the registered user’s preferences.
Expect more cinematic-style lighting to make reading digital screens inside easier while illuminated door handles and logos become more common.
Without a traditional engine, battery and power train, car floors will flatten out.
“The inside of the vehicle is all about real estate,” Robinet said.
For those who can’t imagine such futuristic concepts, Borroni-Bird said look to the Tesla Model 3.
“It’s the closest to the traditional car of the future,” Borroni-Bird said.
“It’s purpose built around the electric architecture.”
It receives over-the-air updates and has sensors baked in for higher-level autonomous driving.
“To me that’s the most sophisticated vehicle in existence in the world today,” Borroni-Bird said.
The automobile has long held a special place in the hearts of consumers as a utilitarian product, but also a fashion accessory that says much about the owner. That romance seems to be withering with younger generations, who value cars more for their technological prowess.
“The car companies are staying very much in tune (with consumers’ technological demands),” said Shelley Fellows, chair of Automate Canada.
“That’s what’s going to set the successful vehicle manufacturers aside from the unsuccessful manufacturers.
“The car of the future, what we see in the exterior, is much like the case on our phone. It holds an incredible amount of computing power under that shell.
“That’s the way younger generations view the car.”
Robinet sees a future with replaceable exterior car shells. As automakers move to new and lighter materials, it allows for more customization of the car’s exterior.
“People will get very creative with designs and colours,” Robinet said.
“With the electric platforms expected to be more flexible and to last two to 2 1/2 times the current life cycle (250,000 to 320,000 km) you can change the hat (body) from a minivan to an SUV.”
While vehicles will grow sleeker and perhaps a little lower, the external looks of vehicles won’t likely deviate much from traditional concepts in the short term.
However, what you can’t see in the vehicle will undergo radical redesign. Embedded sensors and cameras will feed the ravenous appetites of the electronic systems that control them.
“The electronics in the car are completely changing,” said Grant Courville, vice-president, products and strategy for Blackberry QNX.
“It’s really what that (consolidated electronic systems) will allow or provide to consumers that they’ll notice.”
The sophisticated electronics will allow for over-air app updates to the car’s systems similar to smartphones.
The advanced software will increase opportunities for after-market purchases of car features.
Technology will automatically make you aware of a faster way home due to traffic, sense whether you’re drowsy and react with prompts or notify you of a wine tasting at a local vineyard en route.
“I think the consumer will have a much closer relationship with the automaker,” Courville said.
“That’s the other reason automakers are jumping in with both feet and taking on more software and electronics. They want to own that relationship.”
The OEMs may also retain ownership of your car, leasing it to you instead. That way they can legally control a vehicle that will likely need significant software and hardware updates after a couple of years.
The cyber security of those systems is also of paramount importance to automakers, suppliers and consumers.
Blackberry’s reputation for cyber security makes it a major player in the auto industry because of its secure operating systems.
The company’s QNX operating system now guides some 150 million vehicles worldwide. In November, Hyundai announced the QNX system would grace its advanced-driving and autonomous vehicle platforms.
Courville said Ontario’s rapidly growing tech and software sectors position it well to capitalize on the auto sector’s rebirth.
“They realize the innovation, differentiation and monetization to be made is all around the electronics and software of the car,” Courville said.
“It’s a complete shift.”
The masses of data cars gather present new revenue opportunities.
According to a study by the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR), new mobility technology will account for 40 per cent of auto industry profits by 2035.
“Your vehicle has more capacity than your cellphone,” said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.
“Your car on the road is interacting with every other car on the road, every smart traffic signal and hydro pole and smart highways.
“Who owns the data? That’s the debate.”
Volpe added the data could not only serve commercial purposes, but could help machine learning, allowing cars to educate themselves.
“We see lot of companies talking about 2025 or 2035 in being able to sell reliable vehicles that have a bunch of these crazy features,” Volpe said. “To what proportion and volume is up to the consumer.”
Despite rapid advances in technology, many experts say we’ll have to wait some time before driverless vehicles arrive.
Though electronics can see and react quicker than humans, compute platforms ‘are primitive in comparison to the human brain’ at quickly processing and making correct decisions with a vast array of driving situations.
“The fully automated vehicle is a few decades away, Level 5, and there’s a lot of investment and co-operation that has to occur,” Courville said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of regulation and standardization that’s gotta occur for these things (AV) to become reality. Government will have a big role in this.”
Already autonomous Level 2 and 3 features such as advanced cruise control, rear-view cameras, lane assist, blind spot alerts and collision avoidance braking are becoming commonplace.
According to CAR, automakers spent US $5.5 billion on autonomous driver assist systems in 2018 and that’s projected to increase to US $36 billion in 2025.
Volpe said every major automaker has the capability of producing a Level 5 autonomous vehicle today.
What automakers don’t know is the acceptable level of risk to society, governments and the legal system.
“Where the milk gets in the coconut is are you releasing a vehicle whose systems failure rate for all intensive purposes is zero or one incident per millions,” Volpe said.
“The restricting factor is how perfect will that technology operate in the real world. If it doesn’t, the lawyers will say forget it.”
Borroni-Bird said it’s possible we’ll see autonomous vehicles in a geo-fenced environment, without too many pedestrians and good infrastructure in the near future.
“L4 is what Waymo is doing right now (in Chandler, Arizona) and it’s geo-fenced,” Borroni-Bird said.
“That’s possible (in two or three years) in the most benign environment possible. L4 in a more challenging environment, like Manhattan, will be 10 years or more away.”
Borroni-Bird urges caution in introducing autonomous vehicles.
He believes cities must get ahead of the auto and technology industries or suffer a repeat of last century’s car-dominated urban planning.
“Technology creates tools that can be used to help, but it can also make things worse,” Borroni-Bird said. “People need to be really thinking about public policy and technology together.
“Whenever you make mobility easier, you make congestion worse.”
Jonathan Azzopardi, past president of the Canadian Association of Mold Makers and president of Tecumseh’s Laval Tool, said autonomous vehicles, reduced ownership and ride sharing will reshape more than just the auto industry.
A CAR study estimates by 2030 shared electric vehicles will account for 20 per cent of all vehicles sold and 25 per cent of all passenger miles driven.
“Imagine cities without parking spaces, houses without garages, vehicles without steering wheels,” Azzopardi said.
“The interaction between humans and the automobile is going to drastically change. I’d compare it to us moving from a rural to an urban society. That’s how the big change is we’re looking at.”