Autonomous Vehicles Remaking Automotive Manufacturing
Driverless vehicles from a broadening spectrum of players are redefining how cars are made and the role of cars around the world.
A world where autonomous vehicles combine with responding to ride-hailing apps is rapidly moving from theory to reality and prefacing enormous changes in automotive manufacturing and world car culture.
Think about current car ownership and use. You drive your car to work or school, where it sits idle for most of the day before it’s used to run needed errands and return home. Replace this scenario with an autonomous car summoned by hailing or ride-sharing services, and many paradigm shifts occur. In urban areas, a majority of cars are no longer necessary. Infrastructure maintenance costs plummet, parking lots and structures are repurposed and the horrific consequences of drunk or distracted driving are rare, if not eliminated.
A recent special article in The Economist reports that ride-hailing services in the rich world currently cost around $2.50 per mile, compared with about $1.20 per mile to own and operate a private car (see chart). But the Uber or Lyft driver accounts for about 60 percent of the cost of ride-hailing. UBS, an investment bank, reckons that automation, competition and electrification (which makes cars more expensive to buy but much cheaper to run) will cut the cost of ride-hailing by 70 percent, to about 70 cents per mile. This means a typical Western household driving 10,000 miles a year could ditch its car, use robo-taxis and save $5,000 a year.
Billions are being spent on developing autonomous vehicles, not only by automakers but by electronics, computing and software giants. In March 2017, Intel bought Mobileye, a maker of autonomous-driving systems, for $15.3 billion. A year prior, GM bought Cruise, an AV startup, for $1 billion and invested $500 million in Lyft, Uber’s main ride-hailing rival. Ford fired its CEO last May, partly in response to concerns that the firm was falling behind in electric and autonomous vehicles; it is now investing $1 billion in Argo, an AV startup, and also has an alliance with Lyft. Delphi, a Tier One supplier, bought nuTonomy, an AV startup, for $450 million and has since reinvented itself as an AV company called Aptiv.
Uber recently agreed to buy 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo for use in its robo-taxi fleet; it also has a partnership with Daimler. For its part, Daimler has been buying up ride-hailing services across Europe and the Middle East that compete with Uber and also owns a car-sharing service. Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest carmaker, has struck a deal with Aurora, an AV startup founded by veterans of Google, Uber and Tesla.
Cameras and LIDAR
Autonomous cars work through a combination of sensors including cameras, radar and LIDAR, which uses pulses of light-like radar to create a high-resolution 3D map of the surrounding area. Cameras are cheap and can see road markers but cannot measure distance; radar can measure distance and velocity but cannot see in fine detail; LIDAR provides fine detail but is expensive and gets confused by snow. Most people working on autonomous vehicles believe a combination of sensors is needed to ensure safety and reliability. High-end LIDAR systems currently cost tens of thousands of dollars, but startups are devising new solid-state designs that should eventually reduce the price to a few hundred dollars.
Having combined the data from its sensors, the car needs to identify the items around it: other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, road markings, road signs and so forth. Humans are much better at this than machines, which have to be trained with lots of carefully labelled examples. One way to obtain them is to pay people to label images manually. Mighty AI, based in Seattle, has an online community of 300,000 people who carefully label images of street scenes for a range of automotive clients. “We want cars to have human judgment,” says Mighty AI’s boss, Daryn Nakhuda, “and for that we need human expertise.”
Car Design and Manufacturing
More autonomous vehicles will appear that perform only very specific duties.
There will be autonomous SUVs that do nothing but rugged driving. There will be autonomous city cars that never go on the highway. They increasingly will be designed and built for specific use patterns.
Essayist and futurist Brad Templeton theorizes the growth and use of autonomous vehicle technology will fundamentally change car design and manufacturing. As robocars prove much less likely to get in accidents, despite the first recorded autonomous vehicle fatality recorded earlier this year, car designs can be made much lighter, changing the need for many expensive safety features, including bulk.
As long as human drivers share the road, safety belts will presumably be required, as a robocar may need to brake or swerve suddenly to react to a sudden stop by a vehicle ahead, road obstacle or pedestrian on the road. Airbags, however, may be able to suffice if such events become rare, as they will on streets and highway lanes where pedestrians, and eventually human-driven vehicles (HDVs), are forbidden.
If human driving is never intended, vehicles without steering wheels, pedal sets and forward-view windshields (or with partially occluded forward views) are also possible.
The in-car environment will move beyond simply a travel means and evolve into more of a work and entertainment space, Templeton continues. Passengers will expect things like a screen, a keyboard and a desk. Passengers may wish to face one another (though not all are comfortable riding backward.) Quiet will be a very important consideration, though passengers will be allowed to wear headphones if desired, unlike drivers today.
Imagine a future where a majority of cars are driverless and allow a much greater degree of ride-sharing. The result is fewer cars on the road, dramatically fewer accidents and deaths, less pollution and lower costs. Bring on the future of automotive.