The real-life integration of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is becoming an increasingly popular topic of discussion. While anticipation and excitement is rising, the day that AVs will become commonplace on our roads remains unconfirmed, with estimates varying widely. Many battles need to be fought and kinks ironed out before the prospect of us riding in autonomous vehicles, on demand, can become a reality. In this post, I’ll break down what we know now about autonomous vehicles, and will unpack some of the barriers and challenges around AV charging and maintenance that we will inevitably encounter in the future.
What We Know
There are 6 levels of autonomy, level 0 (no autonomy) to level 5 (full autonomy). Some vehicles on the streets now already have varying degrees of autonomy – between levels 1-3 depending on the model – but this isn’t enough for a fully autonomous service; human attention and capacity to act remains necessary 100% of the time.
But when we talk about level 5 autonomy – ‘full automation’ – are we also considering the vehicle’s charging and maintenance? Will a human still be required to actively plug in a charger, or to tell the vehicle to drive to a charge point? Will a human still be required to diagnose vehicle damage after potential collisions (particularly relevant during the transition period where there is overlap with AVs and traditional vehicles) and to then complete the necessary repairs, replacements or updates? Will a vehicle be able to detect its own routine servicing needs, and book and attend the appointment without human intervention? Will a human be required to clean the extra-sensitive camera and sensor equipment?
Within the industry, a widely shared vision for autonomous vehicles is in the form of on-demand ride-share services. Charging and servicing are still manually-heavy tasks and are often predicted to remain as such, even with the rise of the autonomous vehicle. In order to shift from thinking purely about the autonomous vehicle, to the idea of a wholly ‘autonomous service’ (drawing the service boundaries to encompass charging, servicing and maintenance), the service needs to operate with minimal human intervention.
So, how is this shift being made? Currently, there are a number of technologies being developed and piloted to enable the transition to an autonomous service. A few of these are highlighted below:
Let’s start with charging. Whether we’re talking about conductive (plug-in) or inductive (wireless) charging, technology has the potential to remove human interaction and foster an autonomous service.
At the roadside / in a garage:
Momentum Dynamics (inductive) ground pad – trialling inductive technology with public transport, at bus stops and depots in the USA. Speeds of up to 75kW
PowerHydrant (conductive) – Uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) to detect where a charging port is and connects autonomously. Vehicles charge at speeds of up to 1.6 mW; that’s 1600 kilowatts. Bear in mind, the average Electric Vehicle (EV) charging speeds today are:
<22kW for slow charging
50kW+ for fast
>150kW for ultrafast (IRENA, 2019)
Experts within the industry are beginning to question whether those kinds of charging speeds have the potential to fry an autonomous computer system. Also, the faster and more frequently that batteries are charged, the quicker the capacity and efficiency deteriorates. You’d expect a drastic loss of battery health and a frequent need for battery replacement. These are things we don’t have the definitive answers to until we test in the field.
On the Move
Charging infrastructure is also being developed under streets, so that vehicles may charge while they are moving - thereby, negating the need for stopping and taking time out of service for recharging. Depending on the efficiency and speed of charge, this has the potential to completely remove the need for journey breaks and the barrier to adoption of ‘range anxiety,’ as well as creating a smoother service.
Renault partnered with Qualcomm Technologies and Vedecom to develop a stretch of road in Versailles, France, capable of inductive charging at up to 20kW, at vehicle speeds of up to 62 mph
Coventry city is set to test the UK’s first under-road induction charging by 2020, intending to create the UK’s first public ‘E-lane’
With the advent of these autonomous charging technologies on a large scale, you could expect your autonomous vehicle to be adequately charged before it comes to get you, or by the time you need to jump into your car. In theory, a vehicle could drive itself to a charge point, charge up, and once adequately charged, move to a regular parking space until the vehicle is requested again - without any human control necessary.
When you add in the prospect of V2X (vehicle-to-everything communication) vehicles can communicate with each other to prioritise charging and parking, as well as with surrounding infrastructure to know when and where charge points are available. The integration of V2X with autonomous charging will be key to ensuring a smooth autonomous service.
The same ideas discussed above apply to vehicle maintenance as well. We expect vehicles will have to self-diagnose issues, predict when maintenance will be required, book themselves in and drive to servicing garages, while in the meantime have communicated the issue and parts required to the garage. Specialised mechanics (or even a machine?!) can then immediately get to work to ensure the car is back in action.
OEMs are working toward this. Already, some vehicles on the roads are capable of self-diagnosing maintenance and servicing needs, and communicating with a garage to find available appointments (though, a human is still required to book, drive the vehicle there and make the necessary repairs).
Predictive maintenance works by assessing data transmitted by the vehicle, comparing this across a fleet of vehicles, and identifying performance anomalies and correlations. This is something being explored by a number of different start-ups already:
Preteckt developed Vehicle Prognostics as a Service (V-PAAS), which leverages real-time automotive data architecture to allow continuous integration of AI, deep learning and machine learning algorithms
Stratim developed intelligent technology that monitors over 10,000 cars and vans in ride-sharing and car-sharing services in the USA from 50 clients including BMW, Ford and General Motors
With the added potential of V2X, think about how an autonomous vehicle could first self-diagnose issues, or predict failure, then drive themselves into a free servicing garage and on the way, communicate the issues and order the item parts. Whether the repair work would be undertaken by a human or machine is another question that we have yet to answer.
Currently, autonomous vehicles require the use of special cleaning equipment that are manually operated with meticulous care to avoid damaging or displacing a vital aspect of the vehicle. Any activity causing damage or leaving behind a residue essentially blinds an autonomous vehicle, and thus – due to the intricacy of cleaning requirements – at present it remains a very labour-intensive task. However, for a truly autonomous service, the automation of all of this is necessary.
GM Cruise are developing self-cleaning sensor technology, though little information has been released at this time
Avis, who clean Waymo, Google’s self-driving fleet, report that it requires much greater care, focus and regularity than cleaning a ‘regular’ human-driven vehicle
Additionally, there is speculation around how we’d get a car to detect when its interior needs cleaning. Would it use a smell sensor? Would it use cameras? The latter particularly opens the door to many potential privacy issues with monitoring of the passenger cabin in this way.
The Smart Mobility Living Lab: London (SMLL) testbed will be trialling some of these technologies and is working with companies to help develop resilient business models that encompass and incorporate this vision. The Shared Research Programme (SRP) - a collaboration of corporate members, using the SMLL testbed, who’ve joined together to understand autonomous, connected, electric and shared (ACES) mobility - has upcoming trials in October. During these trials we will run tests to understand V2X capabilities, and aim to answer some of the above charging and servicing questions.
Project Endeavour also aims to answer some of the above questions that are associated with the management and operation of an autonomous fleet of vehicles. Addison Lee Group are leading a consortium of members developing an autonomous ride-sharing service for piloting in 2020 and expected public use from 2021. Many of the cleaning, servicing and maintenance tasks discussed will need to be considered. Through the pilots, understanding how these work with an autonomous service will provide crucial insights for future R&D and development of business models supporting autonomous services.
It's clear that there are a lot of questions that will remain unanswered for the time being. Answers will be found through rigorously testing these cars in the real world, with real-life, non-rational human interactions. We rarely get the future right, because it’s not possible to predict the unknown. We predict based on what we know and how the world currently works; the future (and innovation) rarely goes as planned. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Vehicles, was the first to implement standardisation and mass production of motor vehicles to increase affordability, which led to the mass adoption of privately-owned vehicles. Ford allegedly said. “If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Planning what an autonomous vehicle service might look like 30 years down the line is a necessary undertaking, but it’s likely that what plays out won’t be what we expect now. At DG Cities, we do not underestimate the importance of public insights and social inclusion in guiding this journey - this is vital. The adoption of autonomous vehicles and services is going to be a step-by-step learning curve that will require adapting our vision as we go along, and we at DG Cities are excited to be at the forefront of this exploration.