Brave new car world

Our means of transport are changing in drastic ways

What is the future for cars, buses and trucks? Manufacturers are competing to stay relevant in the years ahead. The IEC is also paving the way with a number of forward-looking Standards.

Airbus and Italdesign's flying car prototype

Whether flying, connected, electric, hydrogen-powered or autonomous, the immediate future for cars seems to be spelt out in a few short buzz words which are on everyone’s lips. Once you peel away the hype, and take a closer look at technology trends and investment, you realize that big companies have set out clear plans and are pumping large amounts of cash into new technology. Most are planning for these new vehicles to be produced around 2020.

In the future  people are expected to own fewer cars, as they increasingly share, rent or use fleet-based autonomous vehicles, particularly in cities. As Volvo Car Group’s director for governmental affairs Anders Eugensson admitted, speaking at a joint ITU-UNECE conference on the future of the networked car during the Geneva Motor Show this year: “Owning a car in big cities will become more and more difficult and people will increasingly buy or rent mobility services instead of acquiring physical devices. We see car ownership going down in a decade or so. We are therefore preparing for a future where cars will belong to city fleets and will be renewed, but where fewer people will buy cars”.

The Swedish company, which has an unrivalled reputation for building safe cars, has put autonomous driving at the heart of its strategy as it is believed by many to ultimately be safer than man-driven vehicles: no falling asleep at the wheel and no emotional reaction to unpredicted outside stimuli...

Electric and fast!

Tesla has positioned itself as a forward-thinking, visionary outfit with big projects on the way, some of which are expected to be launched in 2017. On the car front they include the much anticipated Model 3 which is to go into production this year after being unveiled as a prototype in 2016 by the company’s chief executive officer (CEO) Elon Musk. The car is widely expected to build on the advances achieved by its Model S electric vehicle (EV). The Model 3 will be cheaper than Model S as well as smaller but it is widely expected to be as fast.

Just like Model S, it will be equipped with the company’s Autopilot software package, which Tesla claims to have perfected. For Autopilot to work, the car needs to be equipped with ultrasonic sensors placed around the bumpers and sides, a camera, a front-radar and digitally controlled brakes. They combine to allow for the car to take over and stop before crashing occurs.

The idea is to enable the car to be semi-autonomous although the driver is still very much in control. Tesla claims to be very close to launching fully autonomous vehicles as well, which it says should be ready in a couple of years from now. Standards development encouraged by the IEC in the area of EVs is wide-ranging and is overseen by IEC Technical Committee (TC) 69: Electric road vehicles and industrial trucks.

Autonomous and self-driving

Ford has announced that it will produce a fully autonomous self-driving car without a steering wheel by 2021. The US outfit is increasingly presenting itself as a technology company rather than simply a car manufacturer. Unlike Tesla, Ford is not adopting what it calls “a stepping stone approach.”

The IEC is heavily involved in the standardization effort behind sensor technology, an indispensable feature of autonomous driving. Through IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, it produces International Standards for the use and reuse of sensors as well as testing equipment.

Daimler-Benz has unveiled plans for a fully self-driving heavy duty truck named Actros. The 430 hp truck has already been driven on a motorway in Southern Germany, after getting special permission from the local authorities to do so. It was controlled by a system called Highway Pilot, which includes sensors, radars, cameras and active speed regulators. Daimler/Benz showed that the truck could be operated fully autonomously but the aim is for it to assist the driver, rather than replace him.

The company is also developing what it calls a Future Bus, which it has also tested from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Haarlem. Based on the same technology as the truck, the Bus used Citypilot, a self-driving package derived from Highway Pilot. The bus is able to communicate with traffic lights and has an auto-brake system that recognizes obstacles. It halts automatically at bus stops and opens and closes its doors.

Arguably, trucks will turn out to be the fastest developing market for autonomous vehicles, as the shortage of drivers in the US represents a huge problem for the transport of goods. While a number of hurdles still have to be overcome, notably of the legal kind, big plans are afoot.

Europe does not want to be side lined:  the EU has launched the European Truck Platooning Challenge in April 2016. The competition resulted in six different autonomous truck convoys leaving different North European countries and meeting up in Rotterdam.

Smart cars in Smart Cities

Renault-Nissan and architecture firm Foster and Partners dshared their vision of a smart car as an energy storing device at last year’s Geneva Motor Show. The idea is to transform the car into a sort of electric fuel station. Using Nissan’s fully electric LEAF vehicle as an example, the companies showed how cars could store and distribute renewable energy along a street equipped with an underground Smart Grid. The energy is supplied by a combination of solar, wind and wave sources.

Smart Grids and Smart Cities are at the heart of IEC work. A whole raft of standards has been agreed which address those technologies under the capable remit of IEC TC 57, Power systems management and associated information exchange. The standards involved include IEC 61968: Common Information Model (CIM)/Distribution Management, and IEC 61970: CIM/Energy Management.

Renewable energy is another key area for the IEC, with a large number of TCs involved, ranging from IEC TC 4: Hydraulic Turbines, and IEC TC 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems, to IEC TC 88: Wind energy generation systems, and TC 114: Marine energy-Wave, tidal and other water current converters, as well as IEC TC 117: Solar thermal electric plants.

One novelty at the 2017 Geneva car show was the Dragonfly concept presented by Swiss company Catecar Group. The car is a depolluting vehicle, with a solar roof developed by EPFL’s photovoltaic lab in Neuchâtel. It is equipped with a fine particle filter which cleans the air 24/7. The company is looking for investors and or automotive companies with which to build joint-ventures. “We are talking to several companies in Africa and in Asia,” said the company’s chairman Henri-Philippe Sambuc.

Is flying the answer?

While Tesla seems to have backed off from its project of creating a flying car, in other parts of the world, plans are afoot to launch hover taxis. Dubai’s state transport authority reportedly aims to have these taxis up and running by July of this year, enabling passengers to get around at an altitude of 300 m at speeds of up to 100 km /h. The vehicle used will be the Ehang 184 built by Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang. The autonomous aerial vehicle combines hovering/drone and self-driving technology. It is powered by eight propellers and weighs approximately 200kg, and will be able to transport one person at a time. A fail safe system will automatically land the vehicle if it senses any component is not functioning properly.

Airbus is another company angling for the head of the pack: at this year’s Geneva car show, it wowed visitors with Pop.Up, a concept flying autonomous car, which it developed with Italdesign. It relies on an AI platform which processes all the travel information while the flying module is equipped with eight different rotors.

The IEC, through TC 107: Process management for avionics, is involved in overseeing standards work on electronics used in the aerospace industry but developed in other industries.

Hydrogen versus batteries

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are another key technology in our environmentally conscious world. Just as clean as EVs, the vehicles are powered by pressurising hydrogen with oxygen creating a chemical reaction that generates electricity to power the car. One of the great advantages of the technology is that there is no time has to be wasted on recharging batteries. The car can just refuel at any petrol station equipped with a hydrogen pump.

Japanese and Korean manufacturers such as Toyota, Hyundai or Honda, are leading the way in this area. So are some big oil companies. Shell is part of a public/private consortium with Total which aims to open up 400 filling stations in Germany by 2023. The Anglo-Dutch company has opened a hydrogen filling station in the UK near Cobham in February this year.

The IEC is paving the way for fuel cell technology. With the help of TC 105: Fuel Cell Technologies, Standards in that area are being agreed. Most of them fall under the umbrella of the IEC 62282 group of Standards.