How autonomous car design will transform fleet
11 May 2018
Author: Guy Bird
Car design is set to change more dramatically in the next decade than at any other time in its 132-year history. Guy Bird reports on how and what it might mean for fleets.
A staggering 1.2 million global road deaths a year - 95% caused by human error - are hard to ignore indefinitely. Those avoidable accidents are the main reason why autonomous cars - where the occupant of the car is increasingly removed from a safety-critical driving role - are coming fast. There are other big cost-benefits, too, in lower fuel consumption and higher productivity, because if you're not driving, you can be working.
As early as 1939, General Motors sponsored the New York Futurama exhibition that predicted special highways where vehicles could drive themselves by 1960. In that year, the UK's Road Research Laboratory adapted a Citroen DS19 that could reach 80mph without driver input through signal communication to cables embedded in test roads.
Other projects from mainstream makers followed, but arguably the biggest push towards autonomous vehicles in the past decade has been from outside the car industry, from 'disrupter' companies like Google and Tesla. The latter introduced the AutoPilot system in 2015 on its Model S. This 'Level 3' partial autonomy (see timeline) is able to keep the car in check north, south, east and west. It knows when to brake, accelerate, turn or stop completely on prescribed highways with decent road markings and no pedestrians, cyclists or complicated crossroads. But it still requires an alert driver holding the steering wheel and ready to take over, a requirement starkly illustrated by recent Tesla-related fatalities where drivers allegedly
In early 2018, Nissan, Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Volvo all offer cars that can drive themselves in a similar way and while this level of vehicle autonomy entails extra kit - a combination of exterior cameras, laser sensors, radar and GPS sat-nav - these are largely hidden within conventional vehicle designs. The Nissan Leaf Mk2 still looks like a regular supermini and the Volvo XC60 a compact SUV.
The bigger changes to car design will come when cars get to Level 4 (high-autonomy) and Level 5 (full-autonomy) and steering wheels can fold away when not required, as previewed on the 2015 Mercedes F 015 concept, or are dispensed with completely, as in the Rolls-Royce Vision Next 100. The cars themselves will be fully electric - whether battery-powered or hydrogen-fuelled - meaning long bonnets are no longer necessary to cover big engines, as electric motors tend to be smaller and housed over the rear and/or front axles, or in-wheel. Large open grilles will be less relevant, as electric cars don't need to draw in as much air to cool the motors - the 'closed mouth' Tesla 3 is a prime example - and door handles could become redundant, as start-up Byton showed in the facial recognition sensors embedded in the B-pillars of its 2018 concept.
The autonomous effect on interior design will be even greater. As Volvo's design VP, Robin Page enthuses, "The next four years for any interior designer will probably be the most exciting time since we converted from coaches to cars."
Electric vehicles (EVs) with battery packs will need to grow in size to ensure greater range to make them feasible for daily life. These weighty extended packs are usually placed between the wheels and low down to aid the car's stability, so the obvious way to make more room is to extend the length between the two axles. This creates space for bigger cabins above them that, as autonomous driving becomes the norm, will allow lounge-like interiors with more flexible seating and controls.
Global automotive interior supplier Yanfeng unveiled similar ideas in its 2017 XiM17 and XiM18 concepts, with various seating modes including a very fleet-relevant 'meeting mode'.
"What we love about this mode is that the experience is not reliant on screens alone," designer Leo Schürhaus explains. "They just provide the background. What's fundamental to the experience is that both passengers can have an exchange, by facing each other diagonally."
The big display in the XiM17 isn't a touchscreen either. "The reason why is because it will be too far away for many of the seating positions the interior can create," Schürhaus continues. "The flexibility of the seating requires the floor console with built-in touchscreen to be with the driver at all times, so it moves with them. That gives neat access to all of the controls you need, including those on the instrument panel."
Other nifty touches include a gear selector on the ceiling to allow seat movement and hidden buttons behind upholstery that reveal themselves through light effects as necessary, to reduce visual clutter. As a supplier to carmakers, Yanfeng has to demonstrate it can make its conceptual multimode cabins work now - they do - and Schürhaus says a 2021-25 timeline is feasible for such Level 4 cars to enter production.
Ford has said it will launch a car without a steering wheel at all by 2021. "The whole autonomous trend is really changing our industry," says Ford's vice-president of design Moray Callum. The car will take on all aspects of driving, even if the human fails to respond to a request to intervene. "You won't be able to cross the Sahara in it," Callum qualifies. "But it will be autonomous within geo-fenced areas, and that area is pretty wide".
'Full-autonomy' Level 5 could take a few more years, from a technical perspective - to cope with rare circumstances like a tree falling or an animal stepping out into the road in an erratic fashion - and also from a legislative one, although various governments have announced plans to change laws to allow their future use and current tests on public roads. Callum says Ford's 2021 foray into production-ready autonomous vehicles won't be something the general public can buy and own but rather "a transportation service, run by one company for another company".
Longer leases and one size fits all?
In terms of fleet use, the extra cost of such technology could change the way people hire their business vehicles, including 'pay as you go' and other flexible ways of paying to get from A to B.
"As fully autonomous cars are likely to be more expensive than manually driven vehicles - especially as the majority will also be fully electric - we expect the average contract length of a lease to increase," reasons Robert Clements, marketing manager of Fulton Leasing. "But businesses could offset the cost over more monthly payments and the need for vehicle maintenance could also decrease, with possibly less wear and tear on electric/autonomous vehicles."
Design consultancy Icona has also acknowledged the higher cost in its all-purpose 2018 Level 5-autonomous concept. The 600hp in-wheel-electric Nucleus can drive itself in all situations and was born, says Icona global design director Samuel Chuffart, from the "idea of a car that you will still love and want to own, despite autonomy", in a retort to the notion that all future cars will merely be hired.
It's big: 5.25m long, 2.12m wide, 1.75m high and riding on 27in wheels with a 3.3m wheelbase, but those dimensions allow a huge interior space for up to six people.
"As this will be a car for all occasions, you won't need to own so many cars," Chuffart reasons. "So you might invest more on this one, perhaps ?60,000 (£52,000) or so. As it's autonomous, it could drop you off at the airport for work, pick up the kids from school and take the grandparents to the doctor as well".
The other striking element of the design is the lack of conventional glass windows - there's no driver, thus no need for a front windscreen - and occupants can look out the sides through semi-transparent body-colour panels that allow for privacy from the outside. The 2015 Mercedes F 015 concept displayed a similar idea, where the inside windows could also host video conferencing, or even your favourite landscape, until the real-world
There's clearly a long way to go before autonomous vehicles become commonplace. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers predicts, at the earliest, "a 100% highly automated UK fleet by 2040 and a fully autonomous UK fleet by 2050", and there are other issues not touched on here to be solved as well, from cybersecurity, insurance liability, business-case cost and legislative hurdles to jump.
But Matthew Avery, research director of UK-based safety testing experts Thatcham, is still excited, even when only a small part of the total vehicle park becomes auto-controlled. As he concludes, "A fleet of automated vehicles on the road has a knock-on effect. You do not need 100% of the vehicles to be autonomous to reap huge benefits. Even 10% of cars driving autonomously will control the behaviour of the cars around them."