On Strategy: Toward the Autonomous Car

Columns From: 10/1/2005 Automotive Design & Production, , Senior Researcher , , consultant , , Partner from Roland Berger Strategy Consultants

Various media, ranging from action movies to the most erudite automotive engineering journals, depict vehicles capable of autonomous driving and little, if any, human interaction.

Various media, ranging from action movies to the most erudite automotive engineering journals, depict vehicles capable of autonomous driving and little, if any, human interaction. Such developments captivate the general public's attention while simultaneously drawing laughter from the skeptics. As usual, the truth of the autonomous vehicle lies somewhere in the middle. This middle ground is known today as "Vehicle Infrastructure Integration," or simply "VII." As its name implies, VII encompasses the integration of the vehicle with the infrastructure on which it travels, and vice versa. The idea of "wired cars" and "intelligent highways" communicating with each other has been studied in depth for many years, and is slowly on its way to becoming a reality in some areas of the world. In the U.S., the Federal Government, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), has identified VII as one of the nine key initiatives that are being researched within its Intelligent Transportation Systems division.

In a nutshell, VII can be seen as the backbone of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), since it requires cooperative technology and policy development from everyone who has anything to do with mobility: Federal and State Departments of Transportation (DOTs), legislators, law enforcement, and especially automotive manufacturers and suppliers. Due to the complexity brought about by such massive interaction, most efforts are directed toward those technologies that can reasonably be expected to be offered to the public over a three-to-five year time horizon. A cooperative effort already in place is the VII Coalition, which is comprised of several OEMs and various Federal and State transportation agencies. Currently, a number of high-priority, safety-related issues are driving VII research, such as systems that warn the driver of potentially dangerous road conditions due to weather or other phenomenon, excessive curve speed/ roll-over hazards, and even traffic signal and stop sign violations.


Regulatory/public-sector implications

Since one of the major components of VII is the roadway itself, it follows that those entities entrusted with its efficiency and upkeep are involved in VII research. Federal, state, and local governments are allocating resources for the testing and validation of a nationwide VII system. The USDOT’s funding of VII research has been steadily increasing in recent years as the program goals have solidified. In addition to the Federal program funding, several states have contributed local money to VII-related initiatives (e.g., Indiana has provided a $1.5 million grant to develop intelligent highways, and Florida has been developing its expansive i-Florida program with a total budget of more than $20 million). In light of the activity surrounding VII, Federal and State government bodies need to play some role in determining a standard set of protocols to enable system conformity and cross-platform functionality,but more importantly, in safeguarding the security of the data that is collected and analyzed from VII deployments.

The first issue aims to avoid the structural and interface problems that the fledgling telematics industry faced a few years ago. Since a standard communication protocol was not agreed upon up front, interoperability was impossible. As in the computer software industry, a standard operating platform can speed the development of VII while enabling functionality within FCC standards for data transmission. The second issue impacting the regulatory environment is building trust among the public to guarantee that the data and information that is collected from them will not be used improperly or be in violation of privacy rights. To maintain system integrity, data collection should be kept as secure and as anonymous as possible, with personally identifiable data being encrypted.


OEM Applications

OEMs and suppliers have also contributed to the VII vision. Visteon, Denso, Motorola, DaimlerChrysler, GM, and Nissan are a few of the 38-plus entities that helped write the DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication) standard for VII data transmission, which is a first major step toward realizing VII. Transplant manufacturers, especially the Japanese OEMs, are in a position to leverage their home market VII experience. In Japan, Toyota has been leading the effort to realize ubiquitous wireless connectivity for cars through the Internet ITS Consortium. Additionally, both Toyota and Nissan are involved in standard-setting for VII communication in the U.S.

Several pilot programs are underway in the U.S. that will gauge the results for VII applications and functionality. One noteworthy example is how GM and the Road Commission of Oakland County, Michigan (RCOC), have partnered in the development and testing of a VII network along a section of highway in the county. This testing involves probe vehicles (i.e., vehicles with embedded data collection sensors and communication hardware) and roadside units that collect traffic and road condition data that is transmitted by the probe vehicles. RCOC is analyzing the test results to determine ways to improve their FAST-TRAC system that adjusts traffic light timing and relays roadway information to drivers via changeable message signs. Another example of public-private partnerships is between Ford and the Minnesota DOT, whose engineers are testing a similar probe vehicle system using a fleet of state-owned emergency vehicles. These engineers are monitoring and transmitting data on vehicle speed, location, direction of travel, use of windshield wipers, and the engagement of traction control systems. A wireless backbone developed by Nextel delivers roadway information collected from the probe vehicles via hardware from Motorola to the state’s Condition Acquisition Reporting System (CARS). The information can then disseminated through several channels to improve emergency vehicle response times and to increase travel efficiency.


Implications for OEMs and Suppliers

Since driver safety is one of the main goals of VII, OEMs and suppliers are faced with two approaches: embrace the coming changes and become proactive in the development of VII-related technology, or play catch-up when regulators mandate that OEMs incorporate these safety-critical VII components into their vehicles.

If not underway already, OEMs should begin designing their cars to incorporate VII system requirements that will be necessary when such a network is fully implemented. This means developing or utilizing existing sensors that measure speed, ABS activation, traction control usage, and other features, and developing a secure method to collect and transmit these data. Suppliers will be the group most likely developing the on-board units, working within the standard protocol and specifications for data transmission the FCC has defined, and building in expandability to accommodate future technologies or services. Before these new features become functional in a vehicle, however, OEMs will need to invest in electronics component development to support this architecture. The growing divide between the increasing electronic content in a vehicle and the dwindling in-house competencies for electronic systems at OEMs will become more pronounced when a VII network is established. At a basic level, some of the sensing technology demanded in a VII system already exists (e.g., speed/ rain/ temperature sensors). What has yet to be hammered out is how these sensors will record the information to be relayed to the network, or which data the sensors are collecting and measuring. Even if the data measurement issue is resolved, the need to optimize its collection and transmission still exists. Looking back, we may find that it was necessary to develop completely new electronics and systems in order to accommodate the requirements of the network.

Raising the issue of efficient traffic management involves another element even less-developed at present: vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Capturing and transmitting data between vehicles in the roadway is significantly helpful, but enhancing the data to cover dynamic communications from the car next to you on the roadway opens the door to many more possibilities. Imagine if you could avoid an accident by receiving data while driving that the road has been made slick due to rain (rain sensors and traction control sensors on a vehicle-to-infrastructure communication) and in your car an emergency brake warning is sent from a vehicle 10 cars ahead alerting you that defensive or evasive action must be taken. By leveraging systems and networks already in place and ensuring that a standard interface is used across all communication devices, vehicle-to-vehicle communication can be seen as a natural progression in an increasingly integrated transportation network.

For automakers and suppliers to capitalize on the inevitable development and roll-out of VII technology, we offer the following suggestions for action:

  • Assess existing technologies and prioritize development of electronics systems most necessary for VII progress
  • Determine what capabilities are required internally and establish strong partnerships with technologically-sound suppliers where gaps exist
  • Collaborate with groups of suppliers, other OEMs and government agencies to determine practical and effective solutions for this initiative
  • Drive the establishment of standards by creating viable solutions to the structure before someone else determines the optimal solution that you must follow
  • Focus your development around safety and educate consumers about these features

The implications of a fully developed Vehicle Infrastructure Integration network yield endless possibilities. Our roadways can become safer, more efficient places. Fuel consumption and work-related time loss drops due to improved traffic management. Vehicle and drivers become more aware of weather-related and safety-critical driving issues. Better yet, vehicle-related fatalities should drop. What we have witnessed in the movies and read in the engineering journals is not as distant as it might seem. The opportunity to capitalize on all of this awaits those who can anticipate the possibilities.