DETROIT – Growing an electric-vehicle industry will be a nonprofit endeavor for years, but development of self-driving cars will generate income along the way in the form of the advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) that are exploding onto the scene.
“We don’t see a breakthrough for pure-electric vehicles by 2020,” Continental Automotive CEO Elmar Degenhart says at the North American International Auto Show here.
“We don’t see hydrogen (fuel-cell propulsion) playing a major role before the 2030 timeframe,” he adds.
However, Continental this year expects to sell €500 million ($680 million) of ADAS systems such as blindspot warnings, emergency braking systems and lane-keeping assist.
“ADAS systems are the biggest contributor to our performance,” says Degenhart, whose company generated €33 billion ($44 billion) in revenues in 2013. “Sales will grow at 30% per year, toward €1 billion ($1.4 billion) in 2016 and €1.5 billion ($2 billion) in 2018.”
Advanced driver-assistance systems are the building blocks of automated driving, with sensors gathering information around the car and computers calculating what needs to be done next, such as warning a driver of a car in the blindspot, or calculating the steering angle for a parking maneuver.
Researchers at major suppliers and automakers are refining such systems so that cars can operate safely in more-complex situations, controlling horizontal and longitudinal motion, acceleration and braking.
For example, Continental is working with BMW to develop prototype cars that will drive without human intervention during traffic jams on limited-access roads.
“We performed a mobility study last year, and we know that car drivers in Germany, China, the U.S. and Japan are open to automatic-driving functions in principle on freeways and in traffic-jam situations,” Degenhart says. The desires of customers are a match to our abilities today.”
At last year’s NAIAS, Continental announced its program for automated driving with news that it, like Google and Audi, had licensed an autonomous car in Nevada. This year the supplier announced a new partnership with map-making expert Nokia/HERE to develop autonomous driving.
Precise digital maps will be used to help develop what Continental calls an Electronic Horizon, a digital vision of what is ahead so the car can choose the right gear for hill-climbing, or the appropriate speed to arrive at a traffic signal when it changes to green.
The electronic maps of Nokia/HERE and Google are making them important players in the development of automated driving.
For the research phase, Ford is making its own digital maps, says physicist Jim McBride, who has led the automaker’s automated-driving program for 10 years. In December, Ford began talking publicly about its program, revealing a Ford Fusion Hybrid loaded with ADAS systems, a trunk full of computers and a roof bar bearing four Velodyne lidar sensors.
Ford software matches every pixel of data collected by the 32 laser beams in each of the lidar sensors to pixels collected by a surround-vision camera similar to one Google uses. That merged information becomes a map with precise information about every tree, curve, signpost and garbage can along the test route.
Other cars using other sensors under development then can follow that map, and Ford can evaluate the efficiency of on-board sensors.
The Velodyne lidar sensors still are too expensive and bulky to be accepted by consumers, but McBride says future models could be smaller with just 16 beams, and could be packaged in exterior mirrors or with cameras behind the windshield.
Ford is working with State Farm Insurance and the University of Michigan to develop automated driving. State Farm provides information on where drivers need help driving, among other things. U-M in recent years has decided to move into the league of academic automotive robotics dominated by MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, all champions in the last decade’s Grand Challenge competition organized by the Defense Department.
U-M by this summer will open its $6.5 million, 28-acre (11.3-ha) Mobility Transformation Facility on its north Ann Arbor, MI, campus, with on-ramps, crossroads and red lights to model typical Michigan driving situations.
Researchers can test their ideas for automated driving on the facility, changing, for example, a green light to red to cause a critical situation for approaching cars.
Safety is driving the push toward automated driving. Human error is a factor of an estimated 90% of accidents. Highway fatalities in the U.S. declined to 11.4 per 100,000 population in 2010, according to the World Health Organization; in European countries such as France, Germany and Spain, the death rate was about five per 100,000.
Even if computer-driven cars inevitably will be involved in some accidents, developers say they will be far safer than human drivers.
“I’m not obsessed about where the end point is,” McBride says of the level of autonomy cars eventually could reach. “I’m interested in safety programs, running all the time.”
Continental believes ADAS and automated driving “will help us achieve our vision…of zero fatalities,” Degenhart says. “The second step is no accidents. We have to industrialize it and bring it to the market.”
Radar, cameras and many other sensors already are made efficiently at high volume.
“We can improve the range and resolution of sensors, and we need robust algorithms that can handle complex traffic situations,” the Continental executive says.
Software is the development priority, and of the supplier’s 20,000 automotive engineers, “more than half are software engineers,” Degenhart notes.
Because of its complexity, automated driving has generated numerous partnerships like those at Ford and between Continental and Cisco, IBM and Nokia.
“New partners, business models and technology will be needed” to meet the challenges of a global vehicle population that already numbers 1 billion, says Randy Visintainer, director-research and advanced engineering for Ford. “These technologies will become key enablers for cars to become part of an integrated transportation ecosystem....We are looking at how can we make this affordable.”
Continental’s consumer study indicates not only an appetite for certain automated driving technologies, but also a willingness to pay, Degenhart says. In the U.S., customers say they would pay a premium of $1,500 for features such as automated driving on freeways and in heavy traffic, while Germans would pay twice as much.
However, today that is “not a price point where profits are possible,” Degenhart says.
Highly automated driving initially will be limited to speeds up to 25-35 mph (40-56 km/h), with the car controlling speed and steering, he says.
“Then, using this as a base, we will increase the speed to where fully automated driving works up to 100 mph (161 km/h) while the driver can do other things. The difficult factor is that with highly automated systems the driver is in charge liability-wise, while with fully automated driving the responsibility for the car will turn over to the...,” Degenhart says, leaving the blank unfilled – supplier, carmaker, other.
“For highly automated vehicles like those we are developing with BMW, technology-wise it is possible by 2020,” says Christian Senger, who heads Continental’s automotive systems and technology area. “However, car makers and lawmakers are needed” to move the concept forward.