What drives forward R&D for passenger vehicles and powertrain systems?

In the automotive industry, the Research and Development (R&D) of new powertrain systems and vehicle architectures is driven by a combination of three main factors:

  • legislation
  • customer needs
  • fuel, raw material prices

The legislation is made up by a set of rules and regulations, defined by ruling bodies (European Union, governments, etc.), which describes the conditions that must be met when selling a vehicle, in terms of:

  • harmful emissions levels (HC, NOx, PM, CO)
  • greenhouse gasses levels (CO2)
  • on-board passive and active safety systems (airbags, ABS, ESP, etc.)

The customer needs are represented by a series of expectations and requirements, which shape the decision of a customer when buying a vehicle:

  • purchase price
  • dynamic performance (top speed, 0-100 kph acceleration time)
  • fuel efficiency
  • environmental impact
  • new technologies
  • multimedia (Bluetooth connectivity, internet)
  • total cost of ownership (TCO)

The fuel and raw material prices are playing a key role in the strategic decision of the automotive OEM’s. For example, the oil price has a big influence on the R&D budget for new powertrain development.

Oil price (WTI crude) at New York Stock Exchange

Image: Oil price (WTI crude) at New York Stock Exchange
Credit: nasdaq.com

The oil price has a major influence on the TCO of a vehicle. Higher fuel prices can play a key role in the decision of a customer to buy a conventional vehicle, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) or a pure electric vehicle (EV).

On the other hand, depending on the type of vehicle, the fuel price criteria has a bigger or lesser impact on the overall decision of the customer. For Economy and Family class vehicles, the fuel price, combined with the fuel efficiency of the vehicle, could be a decisive factor when purchasing a new vehicle. For Luxury and Sports class vehicle the fuel price and fuel efficiency are less important, other factors being decisive: performance, comfort and brand image.

Automotive Council Technology Group Roadmap

The Automotive Council is an automotive organisation established in 2009 with the main focus of improving and strengthening the dialogue and cooperation between UK government and the companies from the automotive sector. The Technology Group is part of the Automotive Council and it’s main focus is to advise the Council regarding the future trends in automotive technologies. The latest Technology Roadmap publish by the Automotive Council dates from September 2017.

Passenger car low carbon technology roadmap (2017)

Image: Passenger car technologies roadmap (2017)
Credit: automotivecouncil.co.uk

The technology roadmap is a key factor to consider when designing a new powertrain or a vehicle architecture, because it estimates if the market will be ready for a particular technology. “Market ready” refers to: availability of the infrastructure for the new technology (e.g. charging stations for PHEVs and EVs) and customer awareness of the technology.

Hybrid electric vehicles are an intermediate step towards full electric vehicles. Due to better efficiency and ideal traction characteristics of an electric motor, it makes sense to adopt electric powertrains for vehicle propulsion. The only drawback of an electric vehicle (which is very important) is the energy storage system. Currently, state of the art battery technology offers inferior range and recharge time when compared with an internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicle.

Mega-trends in automotive industry towards new technology

Vehicles are becoming more and more “intelligent”. Also, the need for safer and more comfortable vehicles has led to the development of several technologies:

  • advanced driver assist system (ADAS)
  • interconnected vehicles
  • autonomous vehicles

ADAS consists of hardware systems (RADAR, LIDAR, GPS receivers, video cameras, parking sensors, etc.) and software algorithms, which enhances the safety and driving comfort of a vehicle. A vehicle equipped with ADAS technology is capable of performing, for example, these functions:

  • Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Blind Spot Monitoring
  • Collision Avoidance Systems

ADAS systems have also the potential of improving the fuel efficiency of the vehicle, by increasing the usage factor of particular driving modes of the vehicle (e.g. Coasting, Sailing).

By interconnecting vehicles (exchanging road, infrastructure and traffic information between them) the vehicle driving experience can be further improved. A vehicle equipped with ADAS technology can detect hazardous situations of the road (e.g. damaged road, oil spills, etc.) and inform other vehicles about it. This way the driving conditions (e.g vehicle speed) can be adjusted in order to avoid possible accidents.

Based on these technologies (ADAS and interconnected vehicles) the development of autonomous vehicles is possible. In an autonomous driving scenario, there overall control of the vehicle is managed entirely by electronic control units, there is no human driver, just passengers.

Mobility is the new trend which is shaping up, in which a vehicle is just a mean of transport. The perception of humans relative to car owner ship is changing dramatically.

If for the generations born between 1950 – 1970, turning 16-18 years of age and having a drivers license was a proof of passing to adult life, for newer generation (after 2000) having a car is no longer a priority. In 1978 approximately 50% of the 16 years old and 75 % of the 17 years old had a driving license in the USA. By 2008, the figures dropped to 31 % and 49 % respectively.

Younger generations, used with smart phones and game consoles are not found in owning a car. For these people vehicle are seen just as a mean of transportation and not an achievement in life.

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