FISITA, an international network of over 200,000 automotive engineers around the globe, hosted a one-day conference in London this week focused on the future of mobility.
The opening keynote was delivered by Michael Hurwitz, Director of Transport Innovation at Transport for London. He set out the challenges faced by transport planners in the world’s fast-growing megacities. “London’s current population is about 8.7 million and we’re expecting it to grow to 10.5 million by 2041” he said, adding that this expansion was equivalent to the population of Birmingham and Glasgow moving to the capital over the next 25 years. “On the transport network today there are about 26 million trips, which will rise to 32 million by 2041. These are huge, huge pressures.”
Hurwitz noted that private cars remain the least efficient way of moving people within cities. London’s buses currently take up 14% of street space and account for 57% of miles travelled by road, for example, but Hurwitz warned surface transport simply cannot scale to meet London’s projected growth. New underground services will be vital, he said, citing the capacity due to be added by Crossrail, now known as the Elizabeth Line: “Thirty trains per hour each carrying 1,500 people – you’re never going to be able to provide that density and throughput on the surface.”
These factors plus air quality concerns mean restrictions on private cars in London – and diesel cars in particular – are certain to be tightened. “We’re talking about a zero-emissions zone in Central London, boundary to be determined, by 2025” Hurwitz said.
Dr Tim Leverton, President and Chief Technical Officer at Tata Motors, outlined challenges of an even greater scale faced by megacities in the developing world. In India, there are just 18 cars per 1,000 people versus 500 in Europe, but there are millions upon millions of motorcycles – two-wheelers account for 81% of vehicles and, given population densities in India’s big cities, create the same issues of congestion and air quality generated by cars in other parts of the world.
When it comes to solutions, Leverton cautioned that the Indian market is very price sensitive, making it hard for expensive, high-tech approaches such as battery-powered EVs to make headway.
Dr Venkatesh Prasad, Senior Technical Leader for Open Innovation at Ford Motor Company, noted that the global automotive sector is currently worth $2.3 trillion whereas transport services amount to $5.4 trillion.
Outlining Ford’s Smart Mobility programme, launched in 2015, Prasad told delegates that the company aims to invest in transport innovators while also transforming its own business.
Prasad outlined a host of trends in society that are influencing the car industry. These range from the popularity of streamed media, which is warming appetites for car-sharing rather than ownership, to the tendency to have children later in life but in quicker succession, reducing demand for intermediary, medium-sized cars.
Market changes may also arrive more quickly than we imagine, Prasad predicted. “Technologies and the associated tools for innovation have been democratised [unlocking] new ways of manufacturing and prototyping” he said. “Creating ideas, testing ideas, finding initial capital [is now happening] at a clock speed that is significantly faster – almost tenfold faster. What might once have taken ten years can now happen in a year.”
Professor Walter Van Dyck of Vlerick Business School in Belgium highlighted the disruptive impact of technology-led services such as Uber’s ride-hailing service, and urged today’s car companies to become “open, platform-based federators that engage with the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Like Ford, General Motors is also investing in external innovation via its GM Ventures arm. Jon Lauckner, GM’s Chief Technology Officer and President of GM Ventures, said his company is able to support entrepreneurs by becoming both an investor and a potential customer.
Lauckner also said he hoped the current wave of high-profile innovation around autonomous cars would encourage more young people to pursue careers in engineering. “There’s a lot more interest in start-ups in automotive, which is a bellwether for what students will want to do” he observed.
Bernhard Biermann, Vice President Europe & South America at powertrain engineering company FEV, noted that the confluence of political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental considerations mean future trends in transport are almost impossible to predict, with so many critical factors that might have a large impact having very low levels of certainty.
“We are on the cusp of a transformation” he said. “The cars we build, the companies that build them and how consumers use and pay for them will look very different in 2030.”
Turning to the technologies of tomorrow’s vehicles, Professor Luc Van Gool provided fascinating insight into the software that will be needed by fully autonomous vehicles. Van Gool is an expert on computer vision associated with the University of Leuven in Belgium and ETH in Switzerland as well as Toyota’s autonomous cars research programme.
Van Gool outlined how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to analyse a vehicle’s surroundings, categorise objects such as vehicles, buildings, trees, street furniture, animals and people, and make predictions about what is likely to happen next.
He described the seemingly unlikely tactic of using computer games to teach AI systems about the real world. Simulated scenes created by games packages can be fed into vision systems as if they were camera images, to help autonomous technology learn how to cope with emergencies, for example. Example data, both real and simulated, and in vast quantities, will be vital in unlocking fully automated vehicles, he said.
Van Gool also described how automated “deep learning” leads to highly complex decision-making software, beyond the understanding of even the cleverest programmers. “Systems can learn much better features than engineers can design” Van Gool said.
However, he warned that legislation is out of step with science in this respect. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, due to come into force next year, includes the right to obtain an explanation of decisions made by algorithms. “It’s often very difficult to know why a certain decision has been taken” Van Gool said. “Suppose you have an accident and there’s a question of what went wrong, it would be difficult to explain.”
In a presentation about fuels of the future, Dr Wolfgang Warnecke, Chief Scientist for Mobility at oil giant Shell, said photovoltaic solar panels are on course to become the world’s cheapest source of energy by 2035, reaching parity with coal-based electricity generation by 2025, and playing an important role in the switch to electrically-powered transport.
Warneke said it will remain vital to consider the overall impact from well-to-wheel, rather than tank-to-wheel. He outlined figures for various options including synthetic fuels such as methane made by splicing hydrogen with CO2 from the atmosphere. While such fuels seem promising, he noted that about eight units of energy are consumed for every unit of useful energy at the wheel, versus about six for petrol or diesel, about 2.2 for hydrogen fuel cells and 1.1 for battery EVs supplied with renewable energy.
Andrew Palmer, a Vehicle Line Director at sports car maker McLaren Automotive, delivered the meeting’s closing keynote. He discussed the brand’s interest in electric vehicles – its P1 hypercar unveiled in 2012 was a plug-in hybrid, and it is currently evaluating a pure EV prototype – as well as the potential for autonomy in the world of performance cars.
Of widest relevance, however, is the company’s rapid progress in cutting the cost and complexity of lightweight carbon-fibre structures, which can simultaneously improve safety and dramatically slash weight.
“We didn’t really know how to manufacture a carbon fibre mono-structure back in 2010” Palmer said. McLaren pioneered carbon fibre in racing in the 1980s but when it applied the same technology to road cars with 1992’s McLaren F1, the process was far from automated.
“The F1 took about 4,000 man-hours to build the tub” Palmer explained. “Now we can build a tub in a few hours, through the technology that we’ve developed here in the UK.”
By Lem Bingley
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