Driving the future

Autonomous and greener means of transport to become ubiquitous

Vehicle makers, telecoms operators and local authorities are planning our future means of transport in big cities, with the help of some key IEC Standards. Self-driving tractors and agribots are changing agriculture in the countryside as well.

Agribots are revolutionizing agriculture (Photo: FarmingUK)

Autonomous and connected car-rental services as well as self-driving fleets of electric buses… This is not science-fiction but a future which is about to descend upon us – probably sooner rather than later. Why?

Most large car makers as well as a number of high-tech newcomers have set out plans to introduce self-driving vehicles – cars, taxis, buses or trucks – by the year 2020. The initial technology is based around sensors, radars and cameras. Sensors, in particular, are already widely used in current road vehicles and have become an integral part of engine management, safety systems and climate control. Many sensors use microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

The IEC is paving the way with a wide number of International Standards. Some come under the remit of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 47: Semiconductor devices, which produces Standards for the use and reuse of sensors as well as testing equipment. MEMS are the focus of Subcommittee (SC) 47 F: Microelectromechanical systems. Anything related to cameras comes under the aegis of TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment.

Talking vehicles

Telecoms operators are involved too. They are working on vehicle-to-vehicle communications using smartphones. As the Head of Connected Car at Orange Business Services, Julien Masson explained at a joint ITU-UNECE conference on the future of the networked car held during the 2017 Geneva Motor Show: “Vehicle-to-vehicle communications are one of the ways to help autonomous cars change lanes on highways, which remains a big problem for self-driving technology”. Telecoms operators generally are in favour of a server and cloud-based solution that will enable a high volume of data to be used and exchanged.

One of the problems being tackled is the issue of cyber security: cloud-based and smartphone-controlled operations can be hacked. As Dirk Schlesinger, Chief Technology Officer of TÜV SÜD, an international testing, inspection, auditing and certification service provider, highlighted at the same conference : “the car of tomorrow is a PC on wheels, but much more challenging”.

That is where some IEC Standards come in. The growing risks of connected vehicles being hacked are being addressed jointly by the IEC and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) through various subcommittees of their joint technical committee, ISO/IEC JTC 1. For instance, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC38 deals with cloud computing and distribution platforms.

Local authorities have their take on the subject too. They are looking at new means of urban transport. The aim is to reduce levels of congestion and of pollution and one of the solutions is to set up autonomous bus services or self-driving electric car rental fleets.

Other means of transport are not immune to cyber security threats: while piracy has posed a major security challenge to mariners everywhere, since time immemorial, in the future, threats from armed gangs boarding ships and asking for ransom may be replaced by ones from cyber space. While the maritime industry has yet to record a major cyber incident, it recognizes that it is only a matter of time before some of its assets are targeted.

Mean green machines

Greener means of transport include wirelessly charged electric vehicles based on high-power inductive energy transfer. This takes place between sending components that are buried beneath the road surface and receiving equipment that is installed beneath the vehicle. Wireless power transfer (WPT) requires very little additional infrastructure. In the town of Gumi in South Korea a road has been built which allows buses to recharge while in motion, for instance.

IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, is a key player in that field. It has four working groups (WGs). Among these, IEC TC 69/WG 7 works specifically on electric vehicle wireless power transfer systems. WG 7 is focused on IEC 61980, a three-part International Standards series which applies to equipment used in WPT from the supply network to electric road vehicles.

IEC TC 105 prepares International Standards for all fuel cell technologies, including for transportation. Since fuel cells can ideally be used as the main power source for all-electric systems in ground vehicles, ships and aircraft, this TC works with a number of other TCs which contribute to standardization of component parts and systems for transport.

Energy harvesting is another solution envisaged for road transport, especially when associated with innovative or improved storage systems. In spite of greatly improved fuel consumption, internal combustion engines (ICE) are still inefficient, wasting a large amount of thermal energy coming from the fuel they burn. Various forms of energy recovery can improve the overall efficiency of road vehicles, significantly making them less dependent on fossil fuels and cutting emissions of noxious gases. Urban public transport offers the greatest potential for energy recovery. In some cases, fossil fuels can be replaced entirely.

Hot, hot engine

Among the various forms of energy harvesting, heat recovery from exhaust gases is one of the most ubiquitous. Energy from the exhaust system in the hot engine, which would otherwise be wasted, is converted into electrical energy using thermoelectric generators (TEGs). The energy saved can be used to power a growing number of accessories. TC 47 prepares the Standards for semiconductor devices used in TEGs.

Energy harvested from the sun also offers attractive possibilities. Recently, a leading Japanese car maker introduced a new model of one of its electric vehicles (EVs) with the option of a rooftop photovoltaic system that provides additional power. IEC TC 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems, develops International Standards which make way for the conversion of solar into electrical energy.

Storage wars

Energy recovered from these different harvesting methods sometimes needs to be stored. Rechargeable batteries are the most mature and widespread storage system for automotive applications. TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries prepares the appropriate product Standards in that field.

Another useful energy storage system in automotive applications relies on capacitors which store energy electrostatically on the surface of the material rather than chemically as is the case with batteries. Capacitors can capture energy over a very brief period, for instance during braking phases, and release it quickly to boost power or for other uses. TC 40: Capacitors and resistors for electronic equipment, is working on Standards in that field.

Night and day agribots

Self-driving technology is also used in agriculture. Over the next decade, autonomous hybrid or fully-electric tractors will become widespread. In addition to self-driving, these vehicles must also plant seeds, pick vegetables and apply pesticides.

Leading European and US agricultural machinery companies have launched prototypes of fully-autonomous cables and driverless tractors filled with GPS-guided steering and sensors including radar, laser and light imaging, detection and ranging (LIDAR). Small electric-powered agribots are already used for planting, seeding and tillage, picking and harvesting, weeding, sorting and packaging and even for pruning vines.

The robots can work night and day and in poor weather conditions. They are battery-powered with electric drive mechanisms and are controlled through cloud-based digital technology. The IEC is also involved in setting the Standards for agribots, under the remits of TC 47, TC 69, TC 21 as well as ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 38.