Carmakers of the world unite! Fiat Chrysler joins the party
Hello, automated driving community! Fiat Chrysler makes friends in high places, Ford hedges its bets for driverless design and Waymo patents the ‘cushion car’: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!
There’s always that one guy at rock concerts who loiters on the periphery of the entourage: he has the pass and hang outs with the big boys backstage, but nobody really knows his role. On the surface, the recent announcement that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) will join BMW’s existing alliance with Intel and Mobileye has a similar feel.
Last week, all parties signed a memorandum of understanding for FCA to join them in their quest to develop a world leading, state-of-the-art autonomous driving platform. While FCA isn’t totally new to the AD game – Waymo uses Chrysler Pacifica mini-vans to test its driverless car technology – in terms of getting in on the more technology-oriented side of the business (digital mapping, ride-hailing), so far it hasn’t particularly been known to be one of the front players. Being left behind for too long in the current landscape might mean that producing cars for Silicon Valley giants, where they take the lion’s share of your profits, could become your only means of survival. And that’s probably where FCA was heading.
It seems then, that this alliance has swooped in at just the right time for this straggler. But if Fiat Chrysler is not bringing any self-driving know-how to the party, then why was it invited?
The official word is that by including FCA, the alliance gains “engineering and other technical resources and expertise to the cooperation, as well as its significant sales volumes, geographic reach and long-time experience in North America.” Fiat Chrysler, on the other hand, gets a golden ticket to join what could become the most important front in the industry.
At a time when traditional automakers’ lead in the race to automated driving is under threat, it seems the troops are being rounded up. It will be interesting to see what exactly the FCA contribution is. More likely, the alliance has just found a reliable supplier of mini-vans on which to test the new tech and they’re taking it along for the ride. Still, even if that is the case, you won’t hear FCA complaining – but it shows how the value chain might be distributed in the future.
Steering wheel or no steering wheel, that is the question…
And Ford’s answer? Let’s do both. In a patent, originally applied for in February 2016 and recently awarded, the Dearborn-based carmaker sets out its design for completely removable steering wheels and pedals. It’s something the designers had clearly thought of before promising self-driving cars with no steering wheels by 2021.
It seems that every driverless concept car these days is devoid of any control elements, such as steering wheels, pedals and gear-sticks, and more closely resembles a living space rather than a traditional car interior. Yet concept cars are…well…concept cars. They don’t have to adhere to any legal restraints that might affect the design. Ford, on the other hand, must think about a world where lawmakers might insist on a steering wheel being present in the event of a driver having to take over. It also, in the interest of sales, has to think about regional differences in such legal requirements. And what about the drivers? Maybe it also covers the eventuality that drivers might just want to do the driving – if so, just pop the pedals and wheel on!
Although this screams Demolition Man (with the retracting steering wheel) it is in fact a real solution to what could be a very real problem: the transition from Level 4 to Level 5 automation. It’s by no means a perfect solution (where would the airbag go for example?), but it’s a start.
Waymo softens the blow
Still on the subject of patents, Ford wasn’t the only firm to receive one this week. Google’s Waymo was granted a patent for what is essentially a cushion car! Think bumper cars at the fairground: a cushioned exterior that softens the blow of any collision.
The idea is that sensors on the car detect imminent collisions and on doing so, trigger a mechanism that “reduces the surface rigidity of the vehicle” (in the exact words of the patent). How? By using tension cables attached to the surface which can then be relaxed, or a grooved surface that softens on impact.
Ok, so exactly how it works might not be clear – but nor is the reason why it is required. If the primary goal of automated driving is zero accidents and the system uses a series of sensors to ensure this, then it doesn’t exactly instill the public with confidence when firms start literally bracing for impact.
So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),