Automotive Culture Readying to Shift Up into Autonomous Tech

When many people hear the phrase “autonomous vehicle,” they automatically think of a passenger car or van, or SUV.

Yet, the world of assisted driving already covers far more than just the good old “family truckster.” Vehicles that are powered by assisted – and even autonomous, in some cases – solutions also cover trucks, other specialty cargo craft and public transport vehicles. The reason why is simple: companies and municipalities, with their particular transport needs, are and will be some of the most important consumers of assisted/autonomous functionalities.

In fact, some of the biggest steps made towards full autonomy have come from these segments. There’s already a market for autonomous trucks, albeit with some significant limitations, while driverless buses ferry passengers along well-defined, popular routes. In many ways, the future of non-mass market transportation has already arrived. How, then, can automakers, suppliers and solutions providers target these clients?

Firstly, it might be good to prioritize these segments because they’re often on the cutting edge. “Level 5, in the near term, will be mostly limited to closed-loop environments like tram lines and local shuttles but limited in commercial deployment,” says Christian Renaud, research vice-president for the Internet of Things at 451 Research.

There is good reason for this. Systems like that, with their fixed routes, relatively low speeds and frequent lack of competing traffic, are more suitable for autonomous operation. This also goes for other vehicle functionalities as well. “As we have better connectivity of ships, ports, trucks, and trains (as one example), or between consumer ride-sharing and light rail or bus, you should be able to easily train computer aided dispatch/routing models to optimally place resources at the best place and time,” said Renaud. He cites, as a particular example, the busy Port of Hamburg in Germany. In 2017 the port implemented what it said was the world’s first 100% automatic system for monitoring the status of refrigerated containers using a solution developed by Austrian specialist firm Identec.

Today’s solutions in cargo and public transport can become tomorrow’s mass-market standards if cleverly engineered and implemented. Mercedes-Benz’s Urbanetic concept vehicle, for one, might be seen as a bridge between these lands. The craft is an electrically-powered chassis that can be outfitted with several different body types in order to conform to a particular use case. A passenger transport body allows the resulting vehicle to haul up to 12 passengers along, say, a municipal bus route. A cargo shell transforms the automobile into a goods hauler capable, says the automaker, of transporting as many as 10 EPAL pallets of materiel.

The automaker’s spokesman Jan Weber believes vehicles like this are the key. “At first the advanced-level use cases will be somewhat limited but progressively widen in their availability and hence the positive impact driverless vehicles can have on society,” he said.

Those involved in the future of transport should never forget the importance of serving the most critical element of most transport modes – the passenger. The human relationship to vehicles will change in radical ways. Manufacturers and solutions providers keep themselves up at night figuring out how this is playing out. Said Weber, “We’re convinced that the car of the future will not only be a car but also a private ‘retreat area.’ In this context, autonomous driving will offer lots of advantages for future passengers. One of them will be more free time inside the car and so a better life quality in the dense traffic of the 21st century.”

That’s a big shift in focus; the passenger as an individual to be actively engaged, rather than passively transported and entertained. Weber provided an intriguing example of how technology might be harnessed in this attempt with so-called “immersive gaming.” Gamers can be linked together through the car’s system, with the vehicle providing complimentary sensory input such as ambient lighting, or aural effects from the sound system.

Finally, manufacturers, suppliers and solutions providers need to be aware that the auto industry is going to depart from tradition no matter how the future shapes up. Consolidation seems to be the name of the game just now, and the classic relationships between suppliers and makers are shifting and morphing. Adapt or die seems to be the order of the day.

“Our surveys show that OEMs are increasingly viewing themselves as the integration point for best of breed components such as sensors, perception and path planning stacks, etc.,” said Renaud. “I don’t see OEMs reverting back to being final customers of total solutions from Tier 1s anytime soon as Pandora’s box has been opened to them having multiple parallel paths of development underway for different use cases such as Level 2/Level 3 consumer driving, automated commercial highway driving and Level 5 closed loop applications.”

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