2017 – a year of self-driving progress.

So it’s time to ring in a new year, with 2017 flying by we’ve seen a huge amount of progress in the automotive industry.

We’ve finally seen Tesla Model 3’s leaving the factory, albeit rather slowly and far behind the original targets.

We’ve seen the tech giants, Google, Apple, Uber and others all make progress with self driving technology. Google span off their self driving division to become Waymo, which has had fully self-driving cars on the road, letting the public get their first chance to experience a ride without anyone driving. Apple have been altering their goals, but still making progress and Uber have had their self driving fleet on the road in Pittsburgh after some initial legal issues. Uber also announced plans to buy over 20,000 autonomous cars from Volvo.

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The car giants haven’t rested on their laurels though. Almost every brand has shown off concepts, made steps into on-the-road trials or launched models with some from of autonomous elements. Mercedes have shown off their ever advancing tech in the form of Drive Pilot in the E-Class, Nissan have launched ProPilot in the new Leaf, Volvo have launched self driving trials, with real world participants and we couldn’t forget to mention Tesla, who have been tweaking their Autopilot technology further during the year, launching models with ever more cameras.

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There has also been a lot of progress with electric cars, from 48v mild-hybrid announcments from lots of manufacturers including Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Volvo and more. More PHEV Plug-in hybrids from BMW, MINI, Mercedes and more pure electric cars from Nissan, Smart, BMW, Volkswagen and others. We’ve also seen the all new Roadster and SEMI from Tesla which are yet again shaking up the industry.

Model 3 - Mountain Pearl

2018 promises yet more innovation and electric and self-driving features in more and more of the public’s daily drivers. We should also see a lot more deliveries of the Tesla Model 3.

Autonomous cars. Where we are and what we’re aiming for.

 

Up until a few years ago autonomous cars didn’t seem to really be on the horizon. A product that was felt an inevitability, but one far off in the future. Mercedes had pioneered some elements of dynamic cruise control, but otherwise the industry, at least outwardly, seemed fairly quiet. Newer innovations included lane guidance and auto braking, being developed initially by Volvo and now widespread across almost all brands.

Within the last 3 – 5 years there has been huge progress and we’re in a position where you can walk into a showroom and drive out in a car that can almost drive itself. I say almost because as it stands no manufacturer has reached the point of perfection as yet, but it appears to be getting ever closer.

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Tesla Model X with Autopilot.

Tesla have been renowned for their Autopilot, which sells itself as self driving, but this is more of an advanced form of cruise control, relying on the driver to take control whenever the car reaches a point it can’t quite understand – but every day the thousands of Tesla Model S and X on the roads contribute more knowledge to Tesla’s AI, constantly improving the product.

The latest models now come as standard with all of the hardware for self driving, but the software remains locked unless you’re willing to pay a hefty price tag. What this means though, is that for every Tesla sold with the hardware, Tesla can understand how the car would have responded whenever it gets into an emergency situation and see if Autopilot would have prevented the emergency or accident. It does seem though that Tesla are providing the hardware on all cars for their benefit, to be able to compile your driving data and enhance the Autopilot product for the customers who can afford the extra price of safety.

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Volvo is another manufacturer keen to lead the self driving market, and they’re known as a company which prides itself on being very much safety first. Introducing some of the key safety elements into vehicles, they even introduced the safety belt – and avoided patenting it – so all manufacturers could use this technology and save lives, even if customers had decided against purchasing a Volvo.

Volvo are making strides with their self driving technology and have partnered with UBER in the USA to test their cars. This hasn’t been without controversy though, with UBER failing to get appropriate licenses for this and having to move the trial from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. They’re also trialling self driving cars in Gothenberg and in summer 2018 this trial also moves to London.

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A Volvo XC90 self driving for UBER.

The progress that companies are making with autonomous driving has increased in speed. From just a few years ago, fairly basic technologies such as lane keeping assist and road sign recognition have now been combined into a more useful package. With more mileage and trials by the major car companies it seems like a self driving future is inevitable.

It also brings about the challenge to car companies of non traditional brands taking over their place. UBER, Google and Apple are all competing as well so the competition is ever increasing.

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One of the self driving fleet from Waymo (previously Google).

Of course, with cars driving themselves, plenty of road users will have concerns, and rightly so in some cases as proven by recent high profile accidents such as a Tesla Model S crashing under a trailer and killing the driver. This has been associated with the driver not paying attention to his surroundings, but perhaps he was taking the name Autopilot more truly to it’s name then Tesla intended.

There are also other concerns, how will self driving cars change car ownership? Will self driving cars create a risk of external control limiting your usage, perhaps in the  form of hackers, or a controlling government implementing curfews. What will people do with the time freed up from driving? Will there be job losses when self driving lorries/trucks/buses take to the roads?

This new technology opens an whole wealth of issues, it’s an interesting time ahead.

The never ending battle of technology vs the car manufacturing cycle.

 

The manufacturing cycle of an average car is a long one. From the first day of planning through to the car being launched to the world takes from 4 – 5 years on average, which poses a variety of technology problems. 4- 5 years feels like an absolute age in the technology industry. 5 years ago we had just seen the iPhone 4s launch and Snapchat and Instagram were still in their infancy, yet brand new cars released in 2016 were being planned at this point.

The first day obviously isn’t the day all of the decisions are made, but there are phases along the roadmap where things get locked down to ensure the production cycle will work. This varies from company to company, but a specific example I can share is via Bentley. It takes around 48 months to design a Bentley and some of the architecture for infotainment systems can be defined even earlier. Sometimes this is due to technology sharing amongst the wider parent group, in this case VW. For Bentley’s new 2-seater sports car, which is due to launch in 2021, the lock down date for the interior technology has already passed in 2016. With a 5 year lead time between this point and the car reaching customers, it’s easy to see why the digital experience can lack behind the rest of the tech world.

A recent example is the £150,000+ Bentayga. The entertainment system has an 8 inch screen with a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels (116 pixels per inch), which compared to the Samsung Galaxy S7’s screen at 2560 x 1440 pixels (577 pixels per inch) is pretty lacklustre.

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Bentley have adopted some more up-to-date technology though, by having Apple Watch integration you can control some of your in-car settings remotely. Although for the exception of setting the climate control to pre-warm or cool the car I’m not sure why you’d need to remotely turn on your massaging seats. If you’re already in the car, the button to activate this would be much faster to use – even if you’re being chauffeured and sat in the back – so some of this technology is part of the sales pitch and may exist because it can, but may not be actively useful for the customer.

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Another issue with the car industry is the reluctance to provide software updates to improve the usability of the digital experience. Occasionally there will be updates to mapping for example, but for the general rule, the car you drive out of the dealership won’t change one bit until the day it’s scrapped. One manufacturer which skips this trend is Tesla who have taken a different approach.

Tesla famously make use of a rather large 17 inch screen in a portrait orientation and a further screen above the steering wheel. The hardware for both the car and technology is obviously fixed at the point of manufacture, but the software is frequently updated via it’s inbuilt connection (or your wifi network) and brings not just software fixes, but actual visual changes and improvements to the way the car works. The most recent version is V8.01 which brought design changes and completely altered the digital layout on some of the system screens. It also brought along Autopilot improvements (Tesla’s “self driving” system which is currently more of an advanced cruise control), but only to cars with compatible hardware, so some older cars are now incompatible with certain features which brings in a level of obsolescence.

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So what can manufacturers do to help bridge this issue of the manufacturing cycle and the continual march of technology?

By being influenced by the tech industry itself.

  1. Add the same technology across the model variants, no more 5 inch screen on the base model and a 9 inch screen for the percentage of customers who pay for the upgrade (an example would be the 2016 Mercedes E-Class). Differentiate models based on the power/range/interior styling instead. This would help simplify the manufacturing cycle and ensure a consistent experience across the range and reduce the testing burden of multiple variants.
  2. Add the most powerful hardware available within budget at the time. This would allow for future software updates or new options that you hadn’t considered at the lock down stage.
  3. Hire great teams of designers and researchers to work on your long term digital experience. Once a car is launched it shouldn’t be forgotten about and the team focused on the next secret model. There should be a greater continued focus on improving and keeping models up-to-date throughout their 5 – 7 year sales lifecycle (with reduced support once the car has come off the new car market, providing support for software bugs and glitches).