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Autonomous Vehicles

The Things We Do in Our Cars

I was thinking about the different demands that we all put our vehicle through on our daily drives throughout a year.  It got me thinking about all the changes that can happen to us inside 12 months – whether the weather seasons change dramatically, families get larger or smaller, job promotions happen, we can change jobs for whatever reason, building renovations happen, moving house occurs, we make new friends, we start a fitness schedule at the gym, we try out a new sport across town, go fishing, go for that caravan trip around Australia and what not…  Our lives are fun and full of regular tasks that we both love or put up with, have jobs that we stick with or change, are full of people that come and go and people that we just love to be around and who will always be a part of our life.  The cars we drive regularly, are often a reflection of our lifestyle and can tell us a story about who we are and where we are in life.

With this ticking through my thought processing, I started to think about the changes that may or may not happen to our cars as we drive them, and how the lifestyle changes and choices that we make can affect the cars we drive.  In essence, a car is a very adaptable machine (or at least should be), and it has to be fit for purpose to cater to our own individual needs.  Often, I find myself needing to hitch up the trailer to grab some more compost for the garden, take a load to the recycling centre or help out a mate who is shifting house.  I like to make use of my drive into town to charge my mobile phone up on the way and listen to my favourite music with the volume wound right up.  Some days the temperature outside can get so cold in wintertime that I need to wind up the heater in order to thaw my fingers out and demist the rear window.  But then in summer, when the temperatures soar, I’ll have the air-conditioning wound up to maximum to keep the family inside the car nice and cool, particularly when we have the tiny grandchild travelling with us.

We have different drives that we frequently make in a month, and they all take different roads and cover varying landscapes.  Some journeys require us to drive up steep streets to get us to our friend’s house on top of the cliffs overlooking the sea, other roads have us in the middle of congested city streets and then another drive may take us for an hour or two north into the wild blue yonder through flat and undulating scenery to visit family.

We’ve learned to trust our cars to get us from A-to-B whatever the weather, whoever we have onboard, whatever we have to tow or carry.  Can a new EV manage all the lifestyle changes and demands dependably?  I’d hate to be late for my daughter’s graduation because my EV ran out of power halfway there, or that I missed the ferry because the EV had to be topped up at a charging point that had a long queue, and what about the police who aborted a chase after a dangerous criminal because he spent too long with the heater on and the siren going at the same time.

We need a car fit for purpose, a car that is cheap to run, nice to the environment and above all dependable!

When ADAS Features Fail

I don’t quite know why I’ve become more attentive to learning about a car’s ability to protect its occupants in the event of a collision, along with its ability to avoid the collision altogether in the first place.  I expect it has a lot to do with having close family members who occasionally need to drive themselves places.  Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) are growing in popularity.  ADAS systems can help prevent accidents not only at speed, but also when parked as a stationary car.  ADAS features are designed with one purpose in mind and that is to increase driver and occupant safety.

ADAS features include things like automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, collision warning systems, cross-traffic alert, forward and rear collision warning, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, park assist, pedestrian detection and avoidance systems, cyclist detection and avoidance systems, road sign recognition, active radar cruise control… and the list goes on.  ADAS employs cameras and sensors to detect a potential collision or event and then proceed to activate systems of avoidance if necessary.  These are important safety features which help prevent accidents.

Research on insurance claims that was carried out by LexisNexis Risk Solutions showed that vehicles involved in incidents that had ADAS on-board exhibited a 27% reduction in the frequency of claims made for bodily injury.  The results also showed that vehicles that had ADAS on-board exhibited a 19% reduction in the frequency of claims made for property damage.  Obviously, this would suggest that the systems must be doing some good.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) revealed that the crash involvement rate for vehicles with blind-spot monitoring was 14% lower than for the same vehicle without the equipment.  Researchers also stated that the study also suggested that if every vehicle sold in the US in 2015 was equipped with blind-spot monitoring, 50,000 crashes and 16,000 crash injuries might have been prevented.

At present, one of the big downsides of the ADAS features is that they are darn expensive.  Not only do they put the price of a new car up, they also make the car costlier to insure because if any of the systems gets damaged the insurance and repair bills are usually eye-watering.  Hopefully, ADAS features will come way down in price and become similar to standard computer software and technology which is, on the whole, a dime-a-dozen now.

The other thing is that I hope ADAS will function 100% of the time correctly as intended, because vehicles designed to be able to automatically brake for objects such as other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, and to drive themselves inside highway lanes without driver input, is not an exact science.  A slightly frightening example of my concern here is when Volvo was demonstrating its pedestrian AEB technology to journalists in 2016.  Volvo used their V60 model in the demonstration, where it was travelling toward a dummy named Bob.  The V60 didn’t detect Bob being in the way, and so Bob was hit in what was a controlled environment.  An alert driver in the V60 may well have returned a better outcome.

Then shortly after, another Volvo V60 was demonstrating its collision detection and avoidance system where it was to avoid hitting a stationary truck.  The failure to detect and avoid the collision can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNi17YLnZpg

Again, an alert and competent driver could well have resulted in a better outcome, should this have happened in the real world.

In 2018, the IIHS took five new vehicles and tested them.  The Tesla Model 3, the Tesla Model S, the BMW 5 Series, the Mercedes E-Class and the Volvo S90 were the test vehicles.  Each vehicle’s AEB, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist systems were tested.  Some of the problems IIHS encountered was that the AEB didn’t actually work in some vehicles in some circumstances.

In other tests, the IIHS observed: “The BMW 5-series steered toward or across the lane line regularly, requiring drivers to override the steering support to get it back on track.  Sometimes the car disengaged steering assistance on its own.  The car failed to stay in the lane on all 14 valid trials.  The Model S was also errant in the hill tests.”

Sadly, just a couple of years ago an autonomous Uber fitted with even more sensors than any standard ADAS-equipped road car killed a pedestrian at night in the US.  This happened while researchers and designers were conducting public testing.  What this suggests is that the ADAS technology is amazing and good enough to be placed into new cars.  However, it doesn’t mean ADAS will always work as intended, and it does point to the fact that drivers must still always be fully alert at the wheel.  If the driver is not fully alert, the outcome from these system fails can sometimes be way worse than if the driver was fractionally slower to manually override the systems detection time and action times.

I’ve heard of numerous occasions when vehicles have falsely detected situations.  A more common fail is when accident emergency braking (AEB) engaged on-board a car when it shouldn’t have, which meant that the AEB stopped the vehicle abruptly and unexpectedly on a clear road.  At the time, traffic is still coming up behind the vehicle.  Lane keep assist isn’t always that great either, and the results of a high-speed mishap on a main highway is tragic.

ANCAP is Australian’s big car-safety tester, and a recent representative suggested that AEB and lane-keeping assist technology, which is where the car will steer itself, was beginning to be put under the microscope.  This would test for how accurate the system actually is, and if it would actually do the opposite and steer the vehicles into a dangerous situation.  Testing ADAS features should take priority over just saying that the technology is available in the car at the time of crash testing, whereby the appropriate ADAS feature box is ticked and the job done.

ADAS mostly works for the better.  It does raise obvious safety problems, particularly when manufacturers have all the pressure to pack in as many ADAS features into their vehicles as possible for as little cost as possible to remain competitive on the sales front.  This pressure would suggest that these systems could be prone to potentially become unsafe.

With cars loaded with ADAS features, you could also say that drivers of these new vehicles might be tempted to hop on the mobile phone to check messages once they have activated the adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist systems.  Essentially, it becomes easier to break the law; which takes us back to the point that we shouldn’t rely heavily on ADAS technology because it can fail to work.  We don’t often hear this preached at the car sales yard or on new-car adverts.

In Australia, features such as antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) are mandatory in new vehicles that are sold to the public.  These mandatory requirements are set to be pushed to the next level, where automatic emergency braking (AEB), adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist would have to be on-board any new vehicle being sold to the public.  Even alcohol detection devices may well be part of these standard requirements.  Europe is set to introduce some of these requirements over the next few years, and Australia is likely to follow the lead.  Newly imported European cars would end up with these features anyways, a win-win for us new-car buyers.

ADAS is good, but we still need to drive our cars.

Small Overlap Crash Test

The influx of all the amazing new electronic safety aids and crash avoidance systems found on-board new cars has been exceptional.  There is no doubt that these systems are helping save lives and minimising injury.  There has been one part of the latest car crash testing regime that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has brought in as part of their testing in order to help make cars safer.

The IIHS is an independent, non-profit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes through their ongoing research and evaluation, and through the education of consumers, policymakers and safety professionals.  The IIHS is funded by auto insurance companies and was established back in 1959.  Its headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia, USA.  A lot of what the IIHS does is crash test cars in a variety of ways to gather data, analyse the data, and observe the vehicles during and after the crash tests to quantify how safe each car is.  The results and findings are published on their website at IIHS.org.  Car manufacturers have been forced to take these tests seriously because, at the end of the day, these results matter and will affect car sales as the public become informed about how safe their cars will likely be in the event of an accident.

Since 2012, the IIHS has introduced a couple of new tests that they put the vehicles through to see how safe they are in an event of small overlap collision.  The driver-side small overlap frontal test was brought about to help encourage further improvements in vehicle frontal crash protection.  Keeping in mind that these IIHS tests are carried out using cars with left-hand-drive, the test is designed to replicate what happens when the front left corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole.  This crash test is a challenge for some safety belt and airbag designs because occupants move both forward and toward the side of the vehicle from the time of impact.  In the driver-side small overlap frontal test, a vehicle travels at 40 mph (64 km/h) toward a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier.  A Hybrid III dummy representing an average-size man is positioned in the driver seat.  25% percent of the total width of the vehicle strikes the barrier on the driver side.

Most modern cars have safety cages encapsulating the occupant compartment and are built to withstand head-on collisions and moderate overlap frontal crashes with little deformation.  At the same time, crush zones help manage crash energy to reduce forces on the occupant compartment.  The main crush-zone structures are concentrated in the middle 50% of the front end.  When a crash involves these structures, the occupant compartment is protected from intrusion, and front airbags and safety belts can effectively restrain and protect occupants.

However, the small overlap frontal crashes primarily affect a vehicle’s outer edges, which aren’t well protected by the crush-zone structures.  Crash forces go directly into the front wheel, the suspension system and the firewall.  It is not uncommon for the wheel to be forced rearward into the footwell, contributing to even more intrusion into the occupant compartment, which often results in serious leg and foot injuries.  To provide effective protection in these small overlap crashes, the safety cage needs to resist crash forces that haven’t been amplified, concentrated on one area or aren’t tempered by crush-zone structures.  Widening these front-end crash protection structures does help.

The IIHS also performs the passenger-side small overlap frontal test.  The passenger-side test is the same as the driver-side test, except the vehicle overlaps the barrier on the right side.  In addition, instead of just one Hybrid III dummy, there are two — one in the driver seat and one in the passenger seat.

Automotive manufacturers initially responded to these driver-side small overlap test results by improving vehicle structures and airbags, and most vehicles now earn good ratings.  However, IIHS research tests demonstrated that those improvements didn’t always carry over to the passenger side.  Discrepancies between the left and right sides of vehicles spurred the IIHS to develop a passenger-side small overlap test and begin issuing passenger-side ratings in 2017.

It is good that vehicle safety always seems to be on the improve and, with each new model, the new-car buyer can expect a safer vehicle.  Thanks to crash testers like the IIHS, ANCAP and Euro NCAP, we are experiencing safer cars on our roads.

What happened to Park Assist Technology?

Park assist technology was talked up as the next big feature for many of our cars, particularly as a pre-cursor to fully autonomous driving. However, despite much hype, and after what is now 20 years of development and fine-tuning, the feature is still rather uncommon as far as being an inclusion in today’s cars.

 

Looking in the rear-view mirror

The push for park assist technology stemmed from the day-to-day frustrations of parking.

Forget the dreaded issue of parallel parking –with the metaphorical flick of a switch, you’re all good. The notion behind it all was that you need not worry about the prospect of a fender bender in a tight spot – after all, computers will control your vehicle’s movements with precision that even the best drivers wouldn’t be able to match.

How does it all work?

Using a simple touch-screen activated system, sensors scan the sides of the road, parking lots, garages and the like in search of spots that a motorist would be able to park their vehicle.

Once a vacant parking spot has been identified, a series of sounds and on-screen images will be used to illustrate the particular situation.

At this point the vehicle’s automated system will be engaged, which relies on the power steering system to override the steering wheel and direct the car into position.

If the system is used for guidance instead, the screen will display a series of projectories for the driver to use to align the vehicle into the space -designating control to the driver. In either case, however, the driver will be required to adjust the throttle to move the vehicle, and will also have the support of cameras.

Why hasn’t it completely caught on?

There are stumbling blocks here on a couple fronts.

First, the system has really been leveraged in a way where drivers have been encouraged to use it as means of providing guidance, and therefore, ultimately navigating the parking process themselves. Not only that, not every driver is still comfortable in the idea of giving away that control.

Meanwhile, because the full-suite of autonomous technology has historically been limited to high-end vehicles, and only recently been filtering down the ranks, it has still yet to find widespread adoption, which can only be achieved through its integration in mainstream, accessible cars.

All the while, despite improvements after multiple generations of development, the autonomous component of the technology is still not fit for every circumstance, nor every car. That said, the guidance mechanisms have proven to be invaluable for everyday drivers.

But the notion of a complete hands-off parking experience might be some time away, for there is still much progress to be made here before you might find it in your next entry-level model. Now, manufacturers are so focused on an all-encompassing autonomous experience, parking alone just won’t cut the mustard!

 

The European EV Compass

The best of European engineering and technology has always been considered to be some of the finest the world has to offer (particularly German, Swedish and British engineering).  However, with the advancement in microelectronics and electrical know-how that is coming from the Asian parts of the world, there is little time to be had before German, Swedish, Dutch and British (to name a few) technology giants, and automotive and engineering giants, could get swallowed up and placed in the history books.

It might be that to counter the advancement (or even to just keep pace with) of big Chinese, USA, Korean and Japanese automotive, electronics and digital giants, that it’ll likely take a collective pan-European approach in tech-innovation and mobility transformational advancements.  The movement is happening in Europe but is it fast enough?

Rather than each country try and do it alone, a pan-European alliance for the electric mobilization of Europe along with the coordination and alignment of national policies would be far more capable of countering the competition from the USA and China.  Being able to pool assets, funding, supply chain networks, research and development, battery production, electronic charging point networks, power storage technology, recharging technology and Pan Eurpean policy initiatives that promote market entry for electric vehicles (EVs) will go a long way to keep Europe at the forefront of transport design and innovation.

With the spotlight heavily focusing on environmentally-friendly transport, EVs and driverless cars, and their growing numbers filling the roads up in Asia and in Europe, the rest of the world will also need to catch up with the technology, or change to other manufacturing designs instead.  Now and into the future we are seeing how global status, energy and transport are directly linked to each other.  Renewable electricity generation and storage at the national level is an assignment across Europe that is a huge task on any given day, but its roll-out also needs to quicken its pace.  Politics will play an important role for European countries to pull together to use renewable energy, energy networks and EV and Fuel Cell vehicle technologies.

Demanding logistical changes like this also calls for an adoption of a new social perspective on this new way of doing transport, even new way of life, whether that be in purchasing a new energy efficient car or pooling together to get from A to B or using environmentally friendly public transport.  Not everyone can cycle to work!  The automotive landscape in Europe is changing, just as it is globally.  Government policy will play a leading role in moderating and coordinating the transformation of the automotive industry into new ways of doing transport for the people.

At European local government levels, there also requires the push to implement the urban-transport transformation towards emission-free and fossil-fuel-less transport systems.  Urban and development planning needs to promote the electric charging infrastructure, as well as providing big financial benefits and incentives for the public to change from fossil-dependent transport to the use of EVs.  Global carbon emission goals are driving the need to steer away from fossil fuels.

In the future, there would seem to be few chances to succeed as a nation if smaller countries choose to go it alone.  Then again, maybe that’s what Australia, NZ, UK and Japan might do best; they could be attractive in their own right if they did emission-free transport their own unique way, unconnected with the rest of the world’s EV and driverless vehicle systems.

China’s Automotive Targets

Autonomous Bus Train

Looking at the current landscape of automotive skill, technology and manufacture, China places itself solidly at the forefront.  China is a prominent global automotive game changer.  The huge growth in vehicle traffic across China has been driven primarily by the country’s economic development.  The growth has been immensely rapid (particularly since 2000), where the rate of motorisation of this huge country has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The Chinese government has led a massive revolution towards the urbanizing of its people.  Research has shown that about 300 million people are expected to move to the cities over the next few years, where all of the existing – as well as new – cities will grow considerably with the influx of new inhabitants coming in from around the countryside.  This massive development plan is scheduled to run through until 2025 and is based on clear goals and the development of good electric mobilization.  Being able to integrate electric vehicles into digitised infrastructures and services will soon become a complete Chinese realization.

Currently, in China electric vehicles (EVs) are not subject to any major restrictions; if there are restrictions they are only minor.  Compared with the growing costs and restrictions enforced upon combustion engine vehicles, getting yourself into an EV brings massive benefits for Chinese owners of new EVs, and the financial incentives for having an EV are strong.  As early as 2013, a change of policy that favoured electric mobilization throughout China’s major cities and infrastructure was initiated.  The expanding EV charging infrastructure is continuing to grow rapidly, though it has some way to go before being consistently functional over wider areas.

Big digital companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are providing the drive and expertise behind the autonomous transport network across China’s major cities.  Many big brand car manufacturers from around the world have already linked with huge Chinese automotive companies seeking to use China as a platform and marriage for producing their cars at lower cost, and it would seem logical that, after entering the Western market via European brands, the first imports of premium Chinese vehicles (hybrid, EV and Fuel Cell) from China to other countries around the world can be expected over the next few years.  The commercial EV sector and EV buses will likely arrive even sooner.

The Arab, Latin American and African markets are ripe for gaining access by the Chinese automotive manufacturers.  Also the Silk Road Project can be perceived as a means for opening up the Asian market to the big Chinese brands of EVs and Fuel Cell vehicles.

China is on target for completely phasing out combustion technology much earlier than was first expected.  At the end of 2017, Chinese car manufacturer BAIC announced plans to stop production of non-electric and hybrid cars by the end of 2025.

We see the Chinese brands like Great Wall, Haval, MG and LDV growing here in Australia, and it seems that this Chinese automotive development will continue rapidly into countries who want to take non fossil fuel transport to new levels.  China will play a key, dynamically strong role in the future of clean automotive transport.  I wonder how soon we’ll see more autonomous and EV transport being rolled out in Australia?

Japan’s Automotive Brilliance

Tokyo, Japan

You can’t go anywhere around Australia without noticing just how many Japanese made vehicles are motoring around our roads (and off them).  Since the 1960s, Japan has been among the top 3 automotive manufacturers in the world.  The country is home to a number of motor companies, and you’ll be familiar with them: Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Subaru, Isuzu.  There are, of course, more than these mainstream manufacturers.  Japan has around 78 car-manufacturing factories in 22 regions, and these employ over 5.5 million people (more than the entire population of New Zealand).

The strong competition that is happening on a global scale in the automotive industry has forced the manufacturers to come up with a new model design every four to five years.  Along with the new models, new innovative designs and new technologies are presented and used by the automakers in their new vehicles.  Automotive manufacturing is the prominent manufacturing type in Japan, which takes up 89% of the country’s manufacturing sector.  A large amount of time and money are invested into developing and improving the automotive manufacturing process, which, in turn, increases the quality and efficiency of their manufactured automotive products.

Some of the brilliant new developments from Japan automobile manufacturers have led to distinct and innovative new designs for current and future automobiles.  In order to control the market dependency on fuels, and in order to design vehicles that are more fuel-efficient, Japanese automakers have invested and built hybrid vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles.

The ideology and popularity of environmentally friendly vehicles is creating a wave of global interest and demand for these sorts of vehicles.  More and more automakers around the globe are focusing on creating the types of vehicles that are friendlier on the environment to their production line.  Japan’s automotive manufacturers are leaders in this field.  Japanese innovations in these technology sectors include autonomous taxi services and airport transportation, high-definition maps and open-source software modules for autonomous vehicles, advanced hydrogen fuel cell and alternating-current battery technology, and silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductor films for EV power electronics.  Japanese companies have been developing hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is projected to reach a market size of approximately $43 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 66.9% from 2019 to 2026.  Japan’s prowess in creating autonomous vehicles and their resulting cutting edge safety features puts them well ahead of the game.

An electric vehicle is an automobile that produces power from electrical energy stored in batteries instead of from the burning of fossil fuels.  Top automakers such as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are already class leaders.

Hybrid vehicles use two or more distinct power sources to move the car.  Typically, electric motors combine with traditional internal combustion engines to produce power. Hybrid vehicles are highly fuel efficient.  Again, Japan’s Toyota motor company is one of the automotive industry leaders in hybrid vehicle research and production – with the Toyota  Prius model leading the way.  Hybrid variants are available on many of Toyota’s collection of new vehicles.

A Fuel Cell Vehicle is equipped with a “Fuel Cell” in which electricity is generated through the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.  This chemical reaction provides the source of power to the motor.  Fuel cell systems operate by compressing hydrogen made from natural gas and gasoline, which is then converted to hydrogen by on-board systems.  Toyota’s latest fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai II, is sold in Japan.  The Mirai II uses a Hydrogen Electrochemical fuel cell that creates 130 kW.  The electric motor that is powered by the fuel cell produces 136 kW and 300 Nm.  It’s very stylish, too.

Toyota Mirai II

Tesla Reinvents Their Wheel For 2021.

Tesla has revealed updates to their Model S. The big sedan has been given tweaks to the exterior, the drive, train, and the interior. Also, gone is the Performance model and replaced by the Model S Plaid and Model S Plaid+.

Front and centre, well…left on American spec cars, is a major change to the wheel. It’s no longer round or even vaguely ovoid. It’s a yoke, not unlike those found in fighter jets. A broad “U” shape, a pair of spokes join the verticals at hub height and allow a broader view of the digital screen. It’s sure to cause controversy and pub discussion, but that’s not the only change. The large centre console screen has been tipped 90 degrees to a landscape orientation and is set into the dash rather than standing proud. Tesla say it’s more a gamin screen than anything with ten teraflops of processing power.

There’s more carbon fibre or wood trim covering parts of the dashboard and door panels, and the door cards have been redesigned and appear to feature much-needed additional storage space. The stylish new centre console also has more storage space and comes complete with wireless charging for multiple devices. The rear seats look more sculpted and feature a new fold-down armrest with cupholders.

Rear-seat passengers get an 8-inch screen that offers the same infotainment and gaming functions as the main screen, and it even works with wireless gaming controllers. The Model S has three-zone climate control, a 22-speaker audio system, heated seats all around (and ventilated front seats), ambient lighting and a glass roof as standard. White, black and beige remain the only interior color options.

The exterior has been gently massaged. There the same coke bottle flanks, slightly reprofiled slimline front and rear lights, and coupe style profile. The front bumper has been reprofiled, losing the blunt end from top to bottom, and now adds a gentle curve to split the look horizontally, including a cooling airvent, as it wraps around to each wheel arch and extends a bottom lip ever so slightly. The rear valance has also been changed and looks more like a pair of exhausts tips hiding on each side.

Underneath are now three motors. The new Plaid and Plaid+ will offer a scintillating 1.99 seconds (Plaid) to see the 100kph mark, cross the 400 metres in just over nine seconds, and 200mph/320kph in the top speed matter. Current pricing, says Tesla, is US$121,190 Model S Plaid and US$141,190 Model S Plaid+. Expected range is now 520 miles or 837 kilometres.

The Model X will come with only one three motor variant, and should see the tonne in 2.5 seconds. Top speed for the SUV is around 163mph/262kph and a range of around 340 miles or 547 kilometres. Pricing starts from US$121,190, the same price as the Model S Plaid and US$40,000 more than the Long range bi-motor Model S.

Robert Opron and the Simca Fulgur: Better Than Nostradamus?

The question as to where all the flying cars are now that we’re in 2020 has become a bit of a cliché.  It’s been a bit of a cliché ever since we hit the new millennium. This is a reference to the way that popular culture envisioned what family cars would look like in the 21st century.

However, at least one car designer had ideas that were a bit more down to earth – literally.  The year was 1958 and the designer was Robert Opron. This designer had accepted a challenge to produce a concept car for the 1959 Geneva Motor Show for his parent company Simca. Never heard of Simca? This was a French company owned by Fiat that rivalled Citroen for the title of “France’s answer to the VW Beetle”. I owned one back in my student days – possibly a Simca 1300; it had a front engine like a normal car rather than a rear engine and it’s probably worth a mint now, so I’m rather regretting selling it. Its only quirk was a flaw in the speedo: after it hit 50 mph, the needle went back down even when I accelerated.

Anyway, enough memories of student cars and back to Robert Opron.  Opron later took his genius to Citroën, then Renault, then Alfa Romeo. He has been recognised as one of the top 25 designers of the 20th century, although he wasn’t the chap responsible for the very distinctive Citroen 2CV. The Renault Alpine was his, though, as were a number of 1980s Renaults.

Opron had come across a challenge issued by the Journal de Tintin.  Yes, that’s Tintin as in the intrepid red-haired reporter who has a dog called Snowy and a best friend called Captain Haddock.  The challenge was to design a “typical” car for the 1980s or for the year 2000. The challenge included a list of specifications that had to be included in the design, including the following:

  • fuelled by a nuclear-powered battery or a hydrogen fuel cell with a range of 5000 km
  • running on two wheels, balanced gyroscopically, at speeds over 150 km/h,
  • voice controlled
  • radar guidance for navigation and for detecting hazards
  • top speed of over 300 km/h
  • automatic braking if it detected a hazard
  • headlights that adjust automatically with speed

Although Opron didn’t produce a full working prototype, he did show a shell of the concept at the 1959 motor show and the full details of the concept car, known as the Simca Fulgur, were published in the Journal de Tintin (this suggests that it would have appeared alongside The Red Sea Sharks and/or Tintin in Tibet – just in case you were curious, like I was).

The Simca Fulgur – which takes its name from the Latin word meaning “lightning” – looked like the classic Jetsons flying car, except it didn’t fly. It captured the public imagination somewhat and became the basis for what people thought futuristic cars would look like. Or what UFOs would look like – take your pick.

Anyway, from the perspective of late October in 2020, 61 years later, it’s amusing to take a look at the cars of today and see how close we’ve actually come to getting some of these features. How well did the Fulgur predict what we’d have on our roads?

  • Voice control: Yes, we’ve got this, although it’s not quite a case of telling the car your destination and letting it get there (they’re working on that). But you can use voice control on quite a few things, including the navigation system.
  • Top speed of over 300 km/h: Yes, but most cars that are capable of this have their speeds limited for safety purposes.
  • Autonomous braking and hazard detection: Yes. However, human input is still needed.
  • Automatically adjusting headlights: Yes, although they adjust for the ambient light levels rather than how fast you’re going.
  • Electric motor with hydrogen fuel cell technology: Yes, although the range isn’t anywhere near what was predicted. We’d all love a range of 5000 km in an EV (electric vehicle) or HFCV (hydrogen fuel cell vehicle).
  • Electrical motor with nuclear power: Are you kidding me? Since Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power isn’t quite the sexy answer to our energy problems that it was back in the 1950s.
  • Balancing on two wheels with gyroscopic stabilisers at speeds over 150 km/h: No. Just no. If you want that sort of thing, get a motorbike, not a family saloon.

All in all, not too bad a job of predicting the future, Monsieur Opron – you did a better job than your compatriot Nostradamus.

An Automated Way of Life

Instead of a person performing tasks like accelerating, braking, turning or changing lanes, an autonomous vehicle uses its sophisticated vehicle computer system to calculate, monitor and perform these everyday driving tasks itself.  Australian governments are working together to make sure that automated/autonomous vehicles can be legally and safely used when they are available for purchase in Australia.  Already today, some new cars have automated features such as self-parking, active cruise control or lane-keep assist.  These features assist the driver with driving, but a licensed human driver is still in control of the car.  Over the next few decades vehicles will likely become increasingly automated, and eventually a human will not need to drive a car at all.  Think of the road network of the future being a giant computer programme that is performing the road transport requirements for the people.

Whether we like it or not, the onset of automated vehicles is upon us.  In fact, in America, automatic road trains/trucks to get goods from one depot to the next is already reality.  Several companies, including Aurora, Daimler, and Embark Trucks, are competing for a slice of the future of self-driving freight trucks.  Waymo is also expanding its own self-driving trucking routes throughout the American Southwest and Texas, following previous tests in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Georgia. This long-haul automated trucking works well in America, and it could be key for Australian trucking companies in the near future.  While most of the current use has been on iron ore and coal mines, the roll-out of autonomous fleets in Australia is spreading.  Newmont, Australia recently announced plans to make the Boddington mine the world’s first open-pit gold mine with an autonomous haul truck fleet.

So maybe the order of automation roll-out might be trucks first along with public transport, and then private vehicles to follow?  The implementation of autonomous vehicles isn’t a cheap dream.  Understandably, the level of research and development, as costly as it is, is so important to ensure all road users remain safe in-and around an autonomous vehicle.  The sort of research and development needed for safety reasons costs loads of money, and this (as always), along with the requirement of actually keeping people safe while implementing the use of autonomous vehicles, are the real brakes on the realization of the dream for complete global autonomous vehicles.  But is that just the tip of the iceberg?

Autonomous vehicles obtain emerging technologies that can potentially disrupt cities, economies, infrastructure and the way we do life together.  Add those truths into the mix and we can see what a phenomenally expensive, chaotic and disruptive new technology this is, but the actuality of total autonomous transport could be astounding!  Not something that’s everyone’s cup of tea but definitely worthy of at least partial implementation.  Maybe that’s the way it is going to be introduced, subtly and gradually over time so people can get used to paying for it as well as using it.