AMITIAE - Thursday 1 October 2015
Speculation and Ideas Around the Design of an Apple Autonomous Car (Updated - correction)
By Graham K. Rogers
The VW FactorThe revelations in the past week or so that not only had VW been cheating when its cars took emissions tests in the USA, but that several high-level persons within the company were aware of this, has profound implications. Rightly, Martin Winterkorn the CEO took responsibility and resigned, to be replaced by Matthias Mueller, Porsche President and CEO. AUDI, part of the VW group is also involved with some 2 million cars affected. With over 11 million vehicles affected in all, VW has also set aside several billion dollars to allow for compensation and perhaps fines.
The Economist calls this "A mucky business" and suggests that it could lead to a reshaping of the entire industry. Unfortunately automobile manufacturers are no strangers to such controversies, with Doron Levin in Fortune outlining examples like the Chevrolet Corvair (1965) [amended - had earlier written Corsair], Ford Pinto (1970s), Ford Explorer and Firestone tyres (2000) and more recently the Lexus "sticky pedals".
As well as fines to come, Volkswagen share values have fallen and consumer confidence dropped. With the expected lawsuits that might follow from customers who thought they were buying environmentally-friendly vehicles, VW may be in for a rough ride.
Although sales of diesel-engined vehicles may drop initially, it is unlikely that they will remain depressed for more than a few months, especially in Europe. In the USA, which has a different environmental awareness, the loss of favour for this type of motive power may cause a significant switch. Companies that already have (or may soon have) electric cars ready may have an advantage. While Tesla and other brands seem to be catering to the high-end consumer, the middle ground is fairly open, with offerings from several major manufacturers. In the area of the autonomous car, the field is narrow and currently no vehicles are on sale.
The main difficulties in designing a car, stem from four major requirements: the motor and its fuel source; the four wheels; the passenger cabin; and aesthetics. Each of these will place demands on the design, although manufacturers treat these in different ways.
Power SourceInternal combustion engines come in several different configurations. Normally in-line, V, or flat, with cylinder numbers ranging mostly from 2-12 (but not 7 or 9). These motors burn gas, petroleum, diesel or ethanol, converting the linear motion of cylinders into rotation, which eventually is directed to drive the wheels.
Electric motors rotate. They can be bulky and quite heavy, although the motors used by Tesla deal with this aspect quite well, using AC induction technology first patented in 1888. The motor used in Toyota's hybrid Prius (for example) is a synchronous AC motor, that has the more traditional copper windings and magnets. Both Tesla and Toyota use regenerative systems to recover some power (when braking) like Formula One cars.
Most cars powered by internal combustion engines, carry heavy lead-acid batteries: to start the car and provide a reserve for lighting and other electrical devices when the generating system is insufficient. Internal combustion engines also need fuel tanks. The Prius used Nickel-Metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries when introduced, but is expected to switch to Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) batteries this year. Tesla has used the lighter Li-ion batteries since the cars have been available. A lighter weight has benefits in terms of fuel consumption and range as well as handling and steering. Li-ion batteries are used in many electric devices and Apple has considerable experience in battery technology.
There is a problem with regard to the size of the motor and its power source. An internal combustion engine requires fuel and a place to store it: storage and engine affect range. For electric vehicles, range is related to battery capacity and the motor. An electric motor requires a battery as source of power, a place to store it; and it needs to be recharged. While some recharging may be effected by regenerative systems, when the battery is empty recharging may take several hours, as opposed to the minutes with the fuel tank for an internal combustion engine.
Despite the advances in battery technology, the range of electric cars is generally limited to the city, until effective recharging stations are available. This was a problem initially in the introduction of Natural gas-powered vehicles (NGV) in Thailand, but once sufficient gas terminals had been established, sales of the cars and trucks grew considerably. Almost all taxis in Bangkok are NGV powered along with most buses and major parts of truck fleets. Tesla however, feel that they are able to overcome the problem and their siting of charging stations in the US and Australia, should make such cars more attractive to consumers.
Passenger CapacityA required feature of all cars is the size and shape of the area dedicated to passengers. While there are single-seat road cars, most configurations are for 2 or 4 passengers, with some variations. Many larger cars can accommodate 3 passengers in the rear seat. With the shape of the human body, there also needs to be space for legs and feet. Rear seat passengers are provided for in the shape of the seats and their positions; those in the front may use a footwell which will take some space from the (front motor) engine compartment.
Along with passenger accommodation, most cars provide space for luggage. With shopping and travel being the major uses for most cars, few manufacturers apart from those who build supercars could offer a car without some luggage capacity. This may be at the rear (front engine, mid engine) or front (rear engine).
DesignWith the engine, fuel, passenger and luggage space needed, as well as the four wheels, design of a car is always a compromise that also includes aesthetics, aerodynamics and fashion.
When I started planning this article (over a year ago) my main thought was, "What would Jony Ive do?" That is not really a fair question as his tastes run to the Aston Martin and Bentley marques. However, the question was prompted by the ugliness and unnecessary appendages that adorn many of the cars on the roads today, especially the rear end design of the Toyota Prius.
Some of those designs are limited by the second of the problems: aerodynamics. A description of a rather powerful racing car in the 1970s, that it was as "aerodynamic as a brick" indicates some of the problems that exist in car design. A Formula One car, for example, needs two basics: a slippery shape to allow it to be driven through the air at high speeds; and downforce to keep the wheels firmly attached to the ground. Solutions for downforce are sometimes likened to an upturned aircraft wing (which needs lift).
The Apple FactorApple is not a company that rushes to publicise its achievements before they are realised. As with the recent Apple Watch (and the 2007 iPhone announcement), there is considerable speculation about this supposed project. Both Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler-Benz and Dan Aversion, former General Motors CEO, have expressed doubts that Apple would be successful in the industry.
Apple has spoken to BMW about its i3 model. Some reports suggest that Cupertino is interested in using the body of this electric car for its autonomous vehicle. Negotiations did stall and it is unlikely BMW would give away the family jewels. However, BMW has the experience in development and manufacturing cars that Apple lacks. It also fuels the speculation that an Apple car could be built under licence. This is as unlikely as it is unprecedented: there is no point in Apple badge-engineering an already-existing product just to enter a market it has no experience in, even if the autonomous technology sets it apart.
What is more likely is that Apple has learned about the industrial engineering techniques required for making vehicles and will apply its own design standards (and selection of materials) to that, with help from those already recruited for the project (and perhaps BMW).
What is needed is someone to build a car, if the project does go ahead. It is unlikely that Apple would set up new facilities on their own, although this is not unprecedented. BMW or another major manufacturer would be of great assistance in such a case. Whether Apple would open a new factory in the USA or have parts assembled in another plant, perhaps in Asia, is open to considerable speculation. BMW is one of several companies that have premises in the USA, Germany and elsewhere: politics and economics will play their parts in any decisions.
Apple has much to bring to the table, especially with its work own battery technology in recent years. Tesla's own use of Li-ion batteries, and the expectation that storage (hence driving range) could increase within the next few years, is a useful marker. What could also improve range would be the inclusion of fuel cell technology, such as that developed by the Canadian company, Ballard. Earlier in the year, the company signed a deal with Volkswagen so that Wolfsburg now has the right to the technology for automotive uses (Ballard retains the rights to the technology for buses).
The question remains, despite all the rumours, would Apple benefit from such an entry into a market it has no experience in? A number of reports have suggested that Apple is well-advanced with Project Titan and might be able to bring a car to market in 2019. Comment by Arnold Frisch and Neil Cybart on Seeking Alpha in the last day or so, look at the question of a car with slightly different perspectives: Cybart outlining some of the skills Apple brings to bear; while Frisch has doubts about the viability.
Google however is not alone in developing such a vehicle and academics have been examining the problems for several years, with some cars already tested, at least off-road. Related to this is the information that Apple has met with the California DMV: a necessity in light of the construction and use regulations that abound. However, the idea of a driverless car on the roads carries much risk. It is known that Google autonomous vehicles have had some accidents, but these were all blamed on human error: the other driver was said to be in the wrong. Elon Musk does not think driverless cars will be able to use the roads until at least 2018 (probably later) when regulations could be changed, which would fit the suggested timetable.
Also strongly rumored is that Apple has acquired a former naval base near San Francisco which is deemed a probable location for a testing facility. Its 2,100 acres is several times larger than the Millbrook automotive testing facilities in the UK, for example. Despite its size and isolation, no doubt photo journalists are reserving their telephoto lenses already.
ConclusionsApple could be well-placed should there be a cultural switch away from the diesel engine, which does seem possible at present. However, would the brand be enough to swing the vote; and what would the headlines be when the first Apple car is in an accident? There are many questions concerning Project Titan which are open to speculation, including vehicle size and type; power source; and whether the rumored vehicle would be autonomous or driver-controlled.
A city car would be more likely as the market for fast, sports style vehicles already seems to have been reserved by Tesla. However, the small car for the urban environment has a similarly small market and a four-seat design is more practical, avoiding Apple entering a limited market, that already has Google positioned as a player.
The major question hangs over the idea of driverless as opposed to driver-controlled cars. Google and others have made some progress here; but Apple is often able to throw considerable resources at a problem to come up with an interesting solution that makes the product a must-have. While the fairly open roads of Cupertino might be a good location for use of a robot-driven car, cities like San Francisco or New York would stretch its capabilities; while it would probably not be at all workable in Bangkok, where I am.
Apple has had considerable success with smaller computing and communications devices, some of which have been integrated into cars as entertainment systems. I have considerable doubts that the leap to creating larger products for an industry that has lost many of its manufacturers in the last 50 years is possible with what we currently know about automobile making. Unless Apple has an ace up its sleeve, Project Titan could prove expensive.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.
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