Navigant: Self-Driving Vehicles Require New Architectures

Source: Sam Abuelsamid, Navigant Research.

DETROIT, Mich.–Shift, the mobility magazine from Automotive News, recently hosted an event at Waymo’s Mountain View, California headquarters. This meeting marked the 10-year anniversary of the Google Self-Driving Car project.

Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen countless companies emerge trying to emulate the work done at Google and other companies by veterans of the DARPA Grand Challenge. Raising some venture capital demonstrating a self-driving car around Silicon Valley is the equivalent of a baby learning to crawl. Winning the Boston Marathon requires far more work; some of the results of that training are now emerging from Ford, Volvo, and others.

On the same day as the event at Waymo, both Ford and Volvo announced new generations of vehicles to support automated driving development and eventual deployment. Ford has built up a third generation fleet of Fusion hybrid sedans that are being equipped with Argo AI’s automation stack. Volvo has an upgraded version of its XC90 plug-in hybrid SUV that will be used for both its own internal work and supplied to Uber for its development. 

Redundant Actuators for Automated Controls

Like the Chrysler Pacifica hybrids used at Waymo and the Chevrolet Bolt EVs used by GM Cruise, these new models are all equipped with redundant actuators for both braking and steering. On traditional vehicles, these actuators are only meant to act as driver assists, reducing steering effort, enabling automatic parking, managing stability, and so on. If any of these systems fail to function, the driver is still present and able to control the vehicle, though perhaps with a greater required physical effort. 

However, in an automated vehicle that might not have any controls for a human to take over or may not have anyone onboard at all to act as a backup, multiple actuators are needed. These heavily modified current production vehicles are only expected to be used for the first few years of commercial service, if at all. Ford and Argo AI are only using the Fusion for development testing a purpose-built vehicle to be launched in 2021. GM and Honda are also actively developing purpose-built automated vehicles Waymo has likely had talks with one or more automakers to do the same. 

New Electronics and Hardware Have to Be Durable

Another area being addressed in each of these vehicles is the electrical system. These vehicles have as many as 40 new sensors and powerful computers. Those systems all require redundant power supplies for the same reasons as the actuator duplication and upgraded cooling to vent the heat generated by a supercomputer in the trunk. 

All new hardware must also go through a battery of durability testing before it can deployed broadly. The equipment used for much of the initial development work has generally not been designed to meet the durability standards of the auto industry. Typical big city cabs are a great example of the abuse these machines take. Between potholes and shunts of varying degrees of energy when operating in narrow urban canyons, the sensors and computers need to be able withstand the impacts. Parts of the test fleets have been dedicated to exactly this purpose. 

Crafting the software that will become the virtual driver of the future is the equivalent of early childhood education. There’s a tremendous amount of hidden work that goes into becoming a champion that we are only now starting to see.

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