Future cars: The word from GM at IDC’s Smart Technology World conference

Last month, IDC ran a really interesting conference called Smart Technology World. One unusual presentation was about energy use for transportation, given by Byron Shaw, Managing Director of Advanced Technology at General Motors of Silicon Valley. That’s right, GM has a toehold in Silicon Valley. Far, far away from Detroit. Shaw gave such an interesting presentation that I’m going to review it here in depth.

Shaw started with two photo montages. The first was filled with images of GM’s famously styled vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s: Cadillacs, Corvettes, GTOs, and (gulp) Buicks. These images are from the days when cars were rolling metal sculptures on basically similar chassis.


GM Cars of the mid 20th century

GM Cars of the mid 20th century


Then came the dark ages for GM, said Shaw. The time when GM was “stylistically challenged.” Shaw displayed another photo montage of GM’s stylistic creations of the 1970s and 1980s. To save you from feeling slightly ill, I’ll not reproduce that montage here. You really don’t need to remember those days.


Finally, said Shaw, we come to today and the future. It is and will be a world quite different from that of the 1950s and 1960s that spawned the land yachts and muscle cars of the mid 20th century. By 2030, said Shaw, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities and 80% of the world’s wealth will be concentrated in those cities. As a result, you can expect even more traffic congestion that we have today. (Although it’s hard to envision what’s more congested than the gridlock we often see in today’s large cities.) Parking will also become an even bigger problem.


Although petroleum products supply 35% of the world’s energy needs at the moment, they supply 96% of the world’s transportation energy needs. And petroleum is not a renewable resource. Although we actually have more proven or estimated reserves today than in 1980, as the oil companies like to point out, we also use petroleum far faster today than 30 years ago. (Somehow, that part of reality doesn’t get emphasized as much as the first part about the reserves.)


The rise of the middle class in emerging markets coupled with unchecked expansion of transportation as it exists today means that we must reinvent “personal mobility” for the 21st century, continued Shaw. The challenges are many including energy, safety, congestion, materials, and manufacturing.


Electricity is the number one candidate for the energy needs of future vehicles. However, the energy needs of all vehicles are not equal. Heavy hauling and long-distance transport are likely to continue to depend on chemical energy storage: petroleum products and alternative fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas. The lighter the vehicle load and the shorter the distance traveled, the more likely that electricity can supply all or most of a vehicle’s energy needs. Candidate energy technologies to supply this electricity include fuel cells, energy-recovery, and batteries.


Electrical power is an attractive alternative to chemical energy because of its relative energy efficiency, said Shaw. The energy efficiency of internal-combustion engines isn’t great and it’s not going to get a whole lot better. By throwing a ton of technology at existing internal combustion engines and power trains—such as cam phasing, cylinder deactivation, flexible valve actuation, stratified-charge ignition, friction reduction, stop/start augmentation, and regenerative braking—the best that GM’s technologists hope to achieve for internal-combustion engines is an additional 20-30% efficiency improvement.


Stored electrical power is more attractive, except for those pesky batteries. GM has been working on battery technology for transportation since at least 1997, back in the days of the EV-1 electric vehicle. There are lots of alternative battery chemistries to investigate and all have problems scaling to automotive sales volumes at commercially viable prices, said Shaw.


One way to improve energy efficiency for personal transport is to make the vehicle lighter. A lot lighter. However, light cars don’t withstand collisions as well and therefore subject passengers to more injury in a crash. So you have to design cars that won’t crash, said Shaw. It seems so logical, the way he said it. However, to make cars that won’t crash, you need drivers that don’t get distracted or fall asleep.


You need autonomous vehicles.


Although autonomous vehicles have been a favorite science-fiction topic since the 1940s and 1950s, the track record for autonomous vehicles isn’t great—so far. Today, some high-end cars can park themselves but only a few experimental vehicles can drive themselves. Here’s a list of technologies you need to create a self-driving vehicle:


  • Collision Avoidance (Steering)
  • Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication
  • Vehicle-to-Infrastructure Communication
  • Steer-by-Wire
  • Lane Keeping
  • Forward Collision Avoidance (Braking)
  • Driver Performance Monitor
  • Lane Sensing/Warning
  • Active Roll Control
  • Forward Collision Warning
  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Vision Enhancement
  • Near Obstacle Detection
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Adaptive Variable-Effort Steering
  • Semi-Active Suspension
  • Traction Control
  • Anti-Lock Braking Systems


That’s a lot of technologies and we’re currently about half-way up the list with commercial technologies.


Now there are vehicles that drive themselves and do so successfully. GM’s “Boss” is one such example and it won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. However, take a look at the vehicle to get an idea of just how many sensors “Boss” needed to be the boss of the road:


Autonomous GM Boss, competitor in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge

Autonomous GM Boss, winner of the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge


There are a lot of sensors on the roof of that car. That’s not to say that we can’t add sensors to vehicles sold commercially. Ultrasonic distance sensors are quickly becoming commonplace (look for the little donuts in the rear plastic car bumpers) and rear-view video cameras appear to be on their way to becoming mandatory in the near future because we Boomers can’t turn our necks like we used to. But a self-driving vehicle needs 360-degree sensing capability, as shown below:


Autonomous vehicle sensors 

That’s a lot of sensors that will require significant cost reduction to become commercially attractive for high-volume automotive applications. That’s also a lot of opportunity.


Next, Shaw turned to the congestion problem. If you’re making autonomous vehicles that are light to save energy and autonomous to prevent accidents, then you can make the vehicles small too. GM has done exactly what with the experimental EN-V program conducted jointly with the 2-wheeled electric scooter company Segway. The resulting EN-V vehicle prototypes are enclosed, overgrown Segway scooters.




Although they look different, the EN-V vehicles are all based on the same propulsion skateboard: a 2-wheeled platform based on now-familiar Segway technology. One difference between the Segway scooters and the EN-V skateboard platforms (besides scale) is that the EN-V platforms have a sliding mechanism that projects a couple of caster wheels so that the vehicle can rest in a stable position without the need for power to balance car when parked. By the way, EN-Vs can drop you off and then park themselves. They can come back to pick you up too.


EN-V skateboard 

Finally, once you’re reducing the size of the car and making it “crash-proof,” you can start to consider a raft of alternative materials. This isn’t a new quest. Shaw showed two pie charts depicting the material used in a vehicle in 1977 versus today. In 1977, low-carbon ferrous materials and high-strength steel made up 74% of the vehicle by weight. Today, that’s down to 63%. More advanced materials can reduce the weight of a vehicle by another 35-60% compared to steel, said Shaw.


Vehicle Materials 

Towards the end of his talk, Shaw projected an image showing all of the applications for electronics in the modern vehicle. It’s a long, long list as you can see:


Vehicle Electronics


In the end, Shaw made it clear that future personal vehicles would be at least as much about technology as they are about sculpture. But residing in Silicon Valley, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

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One Response to Future cars: The word from GM at IDC’s Smart Technology World conference

  1. Pingback: Is “app crashes” headline news? It is when it’s driving a car from Google | EDA360 Insider

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