Are Autonomous Cars Just Around the Corner?

Three years ago, we all believed that autonomous cars were just around the corner – and we felt that was a good thing. Retain human control for the fabled blast in the country, but let the machines take on the drudgery of commuting and long-distance motorway work – and getting us home from the pub!

Range Rover Sport that managed to drive the Coventry ring road

So what’s changed?

It was shocking to read, in Autocar, that Andy Palmer, boss of recently floated Aston Martin, quoted as saying “The idea of full autonomy being widespread in my lifetime is absurd. Full Level 5 systems are a moonshot.” As an aside, Mr Palmer was also scathing about Brexit, confirming that the delay was the worst of all worlds, preferring a decision, any decision, to be made to close down the uncertainty.

Andy Palmer of Aston Martin

We have some doubts about the direction of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd as a company, but we respect Andy Palmer as a well-connected, senior car-industry figure. So when he says that full autonomy is a pipe-dream, we listen.

Another issue revealed to us is the autonomy “big accident” risk. When autonomous cars crash, they tend to be large ones! If humans have crashes, mostly they will realise that something has gone wrong and slam on the brakes at the last split-second. Whilst this does not prevent the crash, it does mean that some deceleration occurs before impact, and so the crash happens at much reduced speed. Typically, crashes in autonomous cars happen because of a failure to correctly interpret the surroundings of the vehicle. And thus the autonomous car hasn’t noticed anything wrong – so it ploughs into the obstruction at full speed! Ooops.

There have been two famous crashes, where Teslas have sped straight into the side of juggernauts parked across the highway. Speculation among the online community (oh dear, not the most reliable source then) is that the crashes happened because seeing a juggernaut sideways is such an unusual occurrence that the AI-developed software interprets the sight as an overpass bridge and so ignores it.

Finally, there is the fabled issue of how can one let a computer decide whether to swerve away from a man in the road, if that then endangers two children on the pavement.

However, we are not convinced that these issues will prevent autonomous cars. At its present stage of development, it appears that sensors, processing power and software are not quite there. But these are engineering problems that are easy to define and will be solved.

  1. Computers are very good at measuring distances and heights. Therefore, interpreting a truck as a truck and not a bridge can be pre-programmed. Likewise, new types of sensors will be developed so that cars will know much better than human drivers what is going on around the vehicle. Add to that car-to-car connectivity, so that each car knows the intention of all the vehicles within half a mile, and suddenly an autonomous car is much better placed to co-ordinate its movements with those of all the surrounding cars.

  2. We do not agree with the idea that humans are better at split-second, morally loaded decisions than computers. In a crash situation, the choices made by a driver will be essentially random, or pre-programmed by their normal reaction. Given a little forethought by the software programmers, 99.9% of situations can be managed for an optimal result rather than the vague human output.

  3. Convoys of communicating vehicles can travel closely together, allowing for more efficient use of roads, and greater fuel efficiency.

  4. We wonder if Mr Palmer’s reluctance over self-driving cars is that it removes a key justification for buying an Aston Martin – and that providing such systems is also beyond the capacity of a relatively tiny car company?
  5. However, combining human drivers with convoys of autonomous vehicles could be tricky.

It is this last point which is exercising us! We believe that fully autonomous roads will happen within the next 10 years. Our worry is that will the take over of roads by autonomous vehicles mean that car enthusiasts in their old-fashioned, petrol engined “classics” are banned from going out at all eventually?

Peak SUV Is Now. Electric Vehicles are the Future!

We are on the cusp of Peak SUV. The automotive world has cycles of fashion. Over the last 60 years, the fads of “must-have” cars have been in regular cycles;-

1960-1975 Two-seater sports cars

1975-1990 Hot hatches

1990-2005 MPVs and retro styles

2005-2020? SUVs

Working on a 15 year popularity-life, we are due for a new type of car to become the thing to buy.

And it is clear what the new fashion is; ELECTRIC VEHICLES.

The Wonderful Jaguar I-Pace

Already, the cutting edge new automotive products are Tesla, Jaguar I-Pace and BMW i8/i3. But they are not the only ones. Waiting in the wings are premium products from Mercedes and Audi. Volkswagen have a whole range of ID EV’s to launch in the next couple of years.

My geeky engineer friends tell me that the key challenge to EV design is the balance between driving range and battery weight/cost. The standard target is to achieve 300miles between recharges. Range is driven (pardon the pun) by rolling resistance and aerodynamic drag. Rolling resistance minimisation means large wheels and stiff tyre sidewalls. Aerodynamic drag is the product of slipperiness and cross-sectional area. We all like a sleek looking car, so aerodynamic designs will be welcome.

But here is the coffin-nail for SUVs. Not only are they heavy – which increases rolling resistance – but they have large cross-sections. It is like trying to push a barn-door through the air at 60mph. Which takes much more energy than pushing a cupboard-door. This is why the Tesla Model S is a large but low car – lots of interior space, but lower air-resistance.

Autocar’s image of the Dyson EV

Interestingly, Autocar magazine reports that the new Dyson EV will be high-riding, but with much ground clearance – so that the cabin remains shallow. This gives the dual benefit of lower air-resistance from a reduced cross-sectional area, but retains the popular high-riding high-visibility seating position.

You heard it here first. The days of the SUV are numbered. Sleek, high-riding EV’s are the future.

Engineer James Dyson Should Be A National Hero

Is Sir James Dyson a hero or a villain?

James Dyson

Mr Dyson is now staking his reputation on an electric car totally designed and developed by his own company. Recently it was announced that the new vehicle will be manufactured in Singapore.

Sir James is founder, chief innovator and driving force behind the Dyson company. He has devoted his career to designing, developing and selling innovative consumer products. Products for which the public around the world are happy to pay a premium because of the quality of the design and engineering.

As Mr Dyson commented on his website,We’re all about invention and improvement.”

Dyson Ltd employs thousands of highly trained engineers in Wiltshire. With his latest project of an electric car, he is taking on Tesla and all of the automotive big-boys at their own game. In some ways he is a UK version of Elon Musk (but without the cannabis and misleading market comments). We should all be celebrating his success and rooting for his new EV. Who would bet against him succeeding?

James Dyson understands that improving the standard of living of people globally is largely a result of the actions of engineers. As such, he has ploughed his own money into the James Dyson Foundation, which is dedicated to the promotion and improvement of engineering education. It is all very well for politicians to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools, but here is a wealthy industrialist investing his own money in the future of our nation. He has even founded an Engineering University to train youngsters.

The only worrying sign is the recent claim that Dyson are so good that their cars will arrive on time, and the manufacturing will start up smoothly and completely to plan. I can see why Dyson might want to take a swipe at Tesla, whose ramping up of production has faced many self-created problems. However, when Dyson’s manufacturing plans are at such an early stage, this crowing is quite a hostage to fortune, and could easily start to look like hubris.

Nonetheless, James Dyson should be a national hero. We should be singing his praises in schools, showing him as an example, using him to inspire the next generation to become successful engineers.

There is the small matter of Mr Dyson organising his production in Singapore, and more recently moving his corporate HQ there as well. Rather than chastising him for such decisions, shouldn’t the Government be looking rather closely in the mirror and wondering why he made these decisions? What is so wrong about the UK that pushed Mr Dyson away?

Greg Clark

James Dyson must be one of the most successful engineers and entrepreneurs of his generation. Losing his company is a blow to the UK. But instead of internet abuse of him, why aren’t we criticising Business Minister Greg Clark and Prime Minister Theresa May for allowing such a tragedy to unfold? It’s not as if they have been particularly successful in any other areas of political management recently is it?

 

 

So in answer to our question at the top. Definitely, Sir James Dyson is a HERO.

Tesla Should Buy Honda’s Swindon Plant

Honda Civic

It is heartbreaking that Honda has decided to close its Swindon factory.  Honda have a remarkable history of being totally apolitical, so we believe their remarks that the decision was not provoked by Brexit.  And logic says that nobody would make such a large decision when we are only a few weeks away from knowing how the tariffs will stack up in the future.  In many ways, Trump’s threats of 25% charges on European built cars (which includes us for now) would do more damage to Honda.

 

The sad truth is that Honda’s Swindon operation was too small!  As Jim Holder of What Car https://www.whatcar.com/  noted, Honda only has a 1% market share in Europe, compared to 8% in North America and Asia.

 

Honda also needs to invest in electrification.  A subscale factory with subscale supply lines, half way around the world, doesn’t make sense.  Why not crank up a home – factory from 2 million to 2.2 million and ship the cars?  The very recent zero tariff trade agreement between Japan and EU will have been a larger factor than Brexit.

 

So that all leaves a modern factory, a highly trained workforce and existing supply lines all in place.  Which manufacturers are expanding, capacity constrained, and potentially keen to get around EU tit-for-tat tariffs on cars.???

TESLA!!!!

Tesla Model S

The value in electric cars is in the batteries, motors and control systems, so ship them in from California, and produce the rest of the car in the UK!  For a smaller scale producer (think 1 million total not 5 million total), a smaller factory would be ideally sized for the European market.

 

Greg Clarke

Come on Theresa May and Business Minister Greg Clarke, time to arrange a meeting with Elon Musk and get on that plane to California! At least the weather should be better than Brussels.