Electric dreams of an autonomous future

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The autonomous vehicle will not arrive by itself – it will require considerable engineering expertise to test, validate and get it over the line. It will also need to be fuelled which means, for an electric vehicle, inductive charging and V2G (vehicle-to-grid) potential if it is to be more than a toy with limited use. Integration is key to future developments and cost limitation.

If we can travel from home to office and back again in our autonomous vehicle, one connected to the other and all controlled from our smartphones, we will be able to save energy and costs while ITS updates our travel plans and arrival times by the second. The car can pick up the children from school and return to the office for the evening commute home. But all of this will only be possible if the vehicle can charge itself whenever it isn’t in use.

Short of building complicated robotic fuel pumps, induction charging offers the most viable solution. It is telling that Tesla is now bringing autonomous features into its vehicles, and that General Motors’ radical Chevrolet FNR concept vehicle (pictured), unveiled at the Auto Shanghai 2015 show last month, was both electric and autonomous.

“There are several innovations on the FNR concept vehicle, most notably the autonomous driving capability,” said Kevin Kelly, electrification technology communications manager at General Motors.

“This technology will provide the ability for the FNR to locate a charging station and charge itself when not in use. We envision the possibility when the vehicle would know when the battery is getting to a low level and then would use the on-board GPS and charge station location software to automatically travel to an available charge station and recharge itself.”

Future challenges

So far, so utopian – but could there be some unexpected drawbacks to an autonomous future? Recently, Barclays analyst Brian Johnson suggested that the expected popularity of shared driverless cars could spell a downturn in US auto sales of about 40% over the next 25 years. This would be bad news for well-known major automakers, which would have to cut production radically. Every shared vehicle on the road would displace nine traditional cars, Johnson commented, and could take the place of as many as 18. However, consumers’ mobility costs would drop dramatically.

Then there are also customer fears and non-technical issues to address. Dr Norbert Reithofer, chairman of the board of management at BMW (below), says he recognises some people are concerned that at a certain point, technology will take over completely: “Our customers’ concerns are our concerns. This is why, when it comes to our vehicles, it is the driver who chooses when to enjoy sheer driving pleasure and when to hand over to vehicle technology.”

He also points out that the technology is already here: “Our vehicles are fit for highly automated driving – from the parking garage to the racetrack. However, there is still the matter of the regulatory framework.”

Testing is being conducted now, not at some unspecified date in the future. For example, it is reported that Bosch is working with Tesla to develop the automated systems required for autonomous production vehicles, retrofitting 50 new Bosch components into Model S test vehicles.

Ahead of the curve

The early realization of demonstrably safe and fully integrated autonomous production vehicles depends on rigorous and thorough testing well beyond standard procedures. This addresses not only the industrial need, but also issues of consumer confidence about as-yet unfamiliar technology. This is of particular importance given that the widespread recognition of established driver assistance technology as a fully trustworthy contribution to safe and reliable motoring is also in its infancy.

With all this in mind, the forthcoming Autonomous Vehicle Test & Development Symposium 2016 (May 31 – June 2) is focused specifically on test and validation processes and will bring together all relevant experience and the latest thinking, providing considerable assurance for legislators, highway authorities and consumers.

An exciting new era of integrated transport lies before us. The Autonomous Vehicle Test & Development Symposium, taking place in Stuttgart, Germany, will provide an unparalleled opportunity to learn and share. Book your delegate pass here. 

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About Author

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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