Pilot Projects Test Perceptions
In its home base of Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo is putting 100 autonomous cars into public hands in a partnership with city government, legislators, telecom players and transport authorities. The experiment is intended to help the partnership members identify the challenges of creating a workable infrastructure for cars that are integrated with the Internet, and possible solutions to those challenges. For instance, infrastructure designers must determine how much intelligence can be built into the car and which functions should be housed on-board, such as controlling proper vehicle spacing in a saturated mobility environment.
“We can have an academic discussion around these things forever, but the key is to get people into cars,” Tylman-Mikiewicz said. “It’s not until you do these pilot projects that you will be able to measure behaviour, to quantify things and understand how quickly this will ramp up.” Trials also help to create confidence among interested parties that the technology is feasible, he said, which moves the process along.
Enthusiasts Versus Pragmatists
Jean Redfield is president and CEO of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based incubator that serves as a catalyst for advanced energy technology demonstration and commercialization. “Our most seasoned decision makers in (the automobile) industry are deeply affected by feedback from the enthusiast community, but that’s not the mobility market,” Redfield said. While enthusiasts are interested in horsepower, handling and aesthetics, shared mobility devices have far more utilitarian issues to address before a global grid of smart cars can become feasible.
Pierre Loing, vice president Product Planning Nissan North America, believes that there is a long road between automatic braking, which is becoming common in today’s new vehicles, and the challenges involved in automated control of multiple lane changes and the complexities of navigating through intersections. “Cars are exciting vehicles,” Loing said. “Just ask Silicon Valley research teams,” a reference to the enthusiasm from Google and Apple for automated vehicles.
One often-overlooked challenge, however, is that “autonomous vehicles are not completely driverless,” Loing said. ”We only give the car control under certain conditions. Take our existing lane-keeping system, where you may have hands off the wheel for 5-10 seconds. This is why we are focusing on such a difficult-to-manage issue: autonomy.” But autonomy must be protected, he said, which raises yet another daunting challenge: protecting an automated driving grid from hackers. “When we develop a system, we develop safeguards,” he said. “It’s what we do.”
Investment Requires Redefinition
Of all the technical challenges facing the automotive grid concept, the largest one may be how to pay for the research required to make it a reality – and how to recoup those investments when the technology is mature.
Sheryl Connelly, resident global futurist at Ford Motor Company, headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan, says barriers to raising investment funds are lower than ever before. “Unconventional methods like Kickstarter, and other new platforms such as crowd sourcing or angel investors, can all give people with a great idea a leg up,” Connelly said.
What traditional funding sources, including banks and venture capitalists, are seeking, Tylman-Mikiewicz said, are the business cases for autonomous automobiles – and what will follow. “Once the car has taken responsibility for driving, the driver can actually do other things, which is a business element that doesn’t exist today,” he said. “It creates a big market expansion for many of these players. I think that’s what will generate a lot of revenue.”