Friday 24 May 2019

What lies ahead: experts warn of rocky road to autonomy and EVs

Near future: The Land Rover Discovery self-driving vehicle
Near future: The Land Rover Discovery self-driving vehicle
John Cormican (Jaguar Land Rover)
Maik Stephan (Volkswagen AG)
Jean-Luc di Paola-Galloni (Valeo Group)
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

It was fitting, as former Top Gear star Quentin Wilson put it, that so many experts and authorities should be at a summit on the future of motoring.

It was the day on which a climate emergency was called for in the UK - and there was yet another demand for diesel's demise.

"This is a most critical time in automotive industry," he told us at the Electronomous conference, organised by in conjunction with Mobility X, in Killarney, Co Kerry.

The future, as he said, is all about autonomy, mobility and electricity. As experts settled into their speeches and presentations - many had flown in from Silicon Valley, Europe etc - the sheer breadth of what is coming at us emerged quite graphically.

Sadly, not all managed to master the directness and openness of the likes of leaders in their field from Jaguar Land Rover or Mobility X. Some just told us what their PR departments dictated.

Yet it was great to be there for the big moments. Such as those with Philip McNamara of MobilityX. He told how stuff that is going into drones is also going into cars now. He lives in San Francisco and was the first speaker to explode the myth that Level 5 (total autonomous) driving is around the corner. It is not. It's still a long way off - despite what Tesla's Elon Musk is saying. There are so many roads and route-navigation nuances that self-driving cars won't be able to figure for a long time. "It could be 15/20 years before we have total autonomous ability in the real world."

It's OK talking about it for San Francisco. But go to the west of Ireland or Kerry, he said, and there are far too many situations that still have to be catered for and dealt with.

And it is going to be awkward having a mix of autonomous and human-driven cars on the roads simultaneously.

There is so much tech; so many infrastructure and legal situations, it will take a few years for legislators to iron out the legal wrinkles.

Self-driving cars still don't know what to do in certain circumstances though, but ultimately data will show they are safer and help reduce deaths.

John Cormican is general manager at Jaguar Land Rover Ireland's Vehicle Engineering Connected Autonomous Vehicles arm.

He and his colleagues believe Ireland can become a world leader in auto technology. He referred to the Land Rover Discovery, in the display area, with all the trappings of Level 4 autonomy. It had a 2-litre petrol engine, yet developed 400bhp thanks to associated electrification.

The challenge is to get such a car of the future to do everything, to manage all that's involved in real-time-world driving. So data, cyber security experts, software engineers, scientists etc are in demand. The big challenge is around the complexity of software as well as building a car; around auto driving, connectivity, eletricification and shared mobility. He reckons we are between Level 2 and Level 3 right now. How do we get to Level 5? It's a long and winding road. He threw down the challenge (to Musk?) of traversing the Conor Pass in winter with a current 'autonomous' car.

Yet, despite the long-term nature of auto-driving, he highlighted how the chances are that his seven-year-old son will never have to drive.

Tim Smith, director UsTwo Auto, said things could go "terribly wrong" if we don't think about the impact of developments on users: blind people are often overlooked, he warned.

Jean-Luc di Paola-Galloni is vice-president of automotive supplier Valeo Group corporate. He spoke of the "amazing transition" of the physical world moving into the digital.

Valeo employs nearly 1,000 in Tuam, Co Galway, and recently announced the creation of more jobs. He reckons developments will come much faster than expected.

Maik Stephan, Group Strategy director of Volkswagen AG, said his company is convinced we all face the big challenge of finding technical solutions. If we don't do something, he warned, future generations will suffer from the side-effects of climate change (yes, coming in the wake of the Dieselgate scandal that prompted a few 'looks').

Volkswagen is responsible for 2pc of global transport emissions. It is now changing its whole outlook and will launch its last internal combustion engine by 2030 - something he described as "tomorrow" in motoring terms.

Meanwhile, the company has decided to fully focus on electrification. There will be 70 new pure-electric vehicles by 2028; with €30bn invested in EVs by 2023.

The strategy is to make an 'electric car for all' - that means bringing down the cost of mainstream cars to current price levels for petrol and diesels. The only problem I can see is how much longer will governments subsidise prices to current levels (in Ireland, EVs effectively have €10,000 knocked off their price).

Importantly, when the first low-cost electric VW arrives next year (called the ID) he promised cars will be handed to customers as CO2 neutral products; right the way through production they will be emissions free.

"EVs are coming. Customers are not yet convinced. We need the help of governments to install charging infrastructure. We need help from partners too, our suppliers and even from our competitors".

Manuela Papadopol is CEO of Designated Driver. Basically she told us how her colleagues could take control of a vehicle and 'drive' or 'steer' it either directly or indirectly via waypoints. She told me afterwards how Dublin-based operators could conceivably direct a car in Los Angeles.

Yes, we were certainly given a glimpse of our transport future at this conference.

Thankfully it was heavily tinged with the reality rather than the rhetoric about what lies ahead.

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