AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES – THE NEXT "BIG BUSINESS"
Tires for self-driving vehicles
Premium automotive companies, IT giants and now also tire makers are all focusing on self-driving vehicles
It finally happened! Well, It had to eventually if we take into account the Law of Large Numbers. Write down this date: 14 February 2016. This is the day of the first officially recognized accident caused by a self-driving car. The streets of Mountain View, California, were the theatre of the "crime", where the Google car - which, incidentally, until then had covered something like over 1.6 million kilometers without ever having an accident - was carrying out a routine test.
According to Google managers and supervisors, the self-driving car was traveling on the right lane and, finding the road blocked, stopped waiting for an opportunity to move onto the middle lane where a bus was approaching at a speed of 24 km/h. At this point, “thinking” that the bus would slow down or stop to give way, the car tried to get onto the lane moving at 3 km/h hitting the bus on its side without causing any harm to the passengers. "The fault is clearly ours. If our car had not moved, there would not have been an impact", Google staff candidly admitted. "From now on, we will make sure that our cars understand that busses, as well as other large vehicles are less likely to give way compared to other vehicle types. We hope to better handle similar situations in the future".
Eagle 360: only for Robocars?
The accident has not remotely affected Goodyear plans, in fact, a few weeks later, at the Geneva Motor Show, the American tire maker presented the Eagle-360 concept, a spherical tire produced through three-dimensional printing and connected to the vehicle by magnetic levitation which, according to the management of the Akron based manufacturer, will be necessary to develop the tires of the future. Still according to Goodyear, these will have to meet four key elements (maneuverability, safety, connectivity and bio-mimicry) all critical in meeting the needs of self-driving vehicles which, according to a study by Navigant Research, will number around 85 million worldwide by 2035. And here we come full circle: autonomous vehicles will have to be equipped with special tires which, apparently, will be very different from those we know and use nowadays.
The peculiar spherical shape of the Eagle-360 has been designed, for example, to provide maximum maneuverability, thanks to multiple orientation, allowing the car to move in all directions. This should provide greater safety to passengers, reducing slippage in case of wet or icy roads and easily overcoming sudden obstacles. Not to mention the fact that due to its ability to turn 360 degrees, Eagle-360 facilitates parking in tight spaces. Another important feature is its high connectivity: wear and tear is regulated through sensors lodged inside the tire, able also to detect weather conditions and the state of the road surface, communicating all of this information to the vehicle’s on-board computer.
This "concept tire" has been developed using the latest innovations in the field of bio-mimicry, the science that takes inspiration from nature, and largely used by Goodyear in the Eagle’s development process. The tread reproduces the shape of a particular type of coral (brain coral), with tread blocks and multi-directional grooves helping to ensure a large contact patch. The groove bottom has the same elements as a natural sponge, which stiffens when dry yet softens when wet to deliver adequate driving performance and aquaplaning resistance. A set of innovations that go far beyond the specific use on a self-driving vehicle.
Autonomous vehicles: needed or just trendy?
Why then so much focus on self-driving vehicles? The feeling is that everything related to autonomous driving is trendsetting and is generally identified with technological development in the world of four wheels. The US president has announced an investment of 4 billion US dollars to speed up its development. Carlos Ghosh, number one of the Renault-Nissan partnership, announced that "by 2020 we will launch more than 10 self-driving vehicles”.
At Bosch, on the other hand, opinions are slightly more cautious (“difficult to see this technology in our cities before 2030, "says the CEO, Volkmar Denner), at the same time Kia foresees a wide use of “partially” autonomous vehicles by 2020, while for all the rest we will have to wait until 2030. Gill Pratt (Toyota Research Institute of Palo Alto) cautiously states: "If autonomous vehicles can save each year, in the US alone, more than 30,000 lives, then there is a real need to speed up the process, but on the other hand, in order to make this technology totally reliable, it must be tested for trillions of kilometers while today we are still in the order of thousands".
Continental experts conservatively state that from 2025 it should be possible to drive in fully autonomous mode, but only on motorways, allowing the driver to take over on all other roads.
Do we really need it?
Among the many authoritative views collected over the years on the subject, the only one lacking, in our opinion, is the most important one: the public. Would people be really willing to spend (inevitably) something more to be driven around by a car with no driver? Some point out the convenience of using it to send grandma to the doctor or the kids to school. But, would you do it? Not to mention all the possible legal implications. If the car you are travelling in causes an accident, who is to blame? The manufacturer? The owner? The garage responsible for service and maintenance?
Self-driving technology is not fully available as yet, and at the end of the day it might still not be so even in the future, but could lead to a series of specific solutions. Think, for example, of cars for the disabled, or "platooning" technology, currently being developed by Kapsch TrafficCom able to interconnect a convoy of 10 trucks where those who follow automatically copy the behavior of the leader, accelerating, braking and turning in exactly the same way, traveling at a fixed distance and at a constant speed. In this framework the Goodyear Eagle-360 “concept tire”, designed for self-driving vehicles, could also be applied on ordinary motor vehicles representing an important turning point in the way we drive and work.
First, self-parking technology
Self-parking technology could be available long before fully autonomous vehicles. Bosch’s automatic park assist, already in production, and remotely controlled via smartphone, is able to independently park a vehicle even in tight spaces. "For us self-parking starts in the vehicle, but goes far beyond," says Dirk Hoheisel, member of Bosch’s board of directors. Sensors installed in the car floor can recognize whether a space is occupied or not, and pass the information in real-time to a map that can be accessed via the Internet.
This allows drivers to choose an available parking space and take the car there. Moreover, through a partnership with Daimler, Bosch is developing what can be considered a real revolution in parking systems. Motorists will not have to worry about parking and then finding their cars again, because the car will independently head towards a free car park and return with a simple command. To achieve this, Bosch is developing all the necessary infrastructures as well, including occupancy sensors, cameras and communication technologies.
Håkan Samuelsson, President and CEO of Volvo Cars also shares a similar opinion. "Autonomous driving has the potential to transform road and vehicle safety forever. This technology is able to save lives. Furthermore, autonomous driving can streamline traffic, improve the quality of the air we breathe and help us all to save time. This technology should be introduced as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is to involve all the parties able to contribute to this process at the earliest opportunity and stimulate them to work together”, says Samuelsson,who then goes on to point out: "Self-driving technology is not something that concerns only vehicles. We need the right kind of roads, proper regulations and the right laws. We also need to ensure that the all the relevant technologies are standardized as much as possible so as to avoid unnecessary development costs and make a self-driving vehicle in the United States just as safe and legal as in Europe or Asia”. In other words, fully autonomous driving technology involves many other aspects that go far beyond the automotive industry along with its satellite sectors, and this could therefore take much longer than one might suppose, and in the end, we will probably have to settle for "partially autonomous vehicles".
Accident !? Whose fault is it?
Sooner or later the arrival of these robocars on our roads will make an update of the Vienna Convention of 1967 necessary, according to which a vehicle is a vehicle only when driven by a human driver. How, then, should a self-driving vehicle be considered? Is a traditional driving license still needed and what about age limits? Should the car still be insured? And if so, how should accidents caused by such vehicles be handled?
The issues that need to be addressed are many indeed. Currently, at least if you listen to the experts, insurance should still be necessary because some possible risk factors still exist. It is a question of civil liability. Apart from other vehicles, self-driving cars, busses and trucks will still have to share the road with pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. And one cannot rule out the possibility that the sophisticated hyper-connections equipping these vehicles might still experience some flaws, especially in the long transition phase in which robocars will have to co-exist with traditional vehicles.
In short, someone will have to take on responsibility for an accident. In theory, if there is an evidence (a likely source of endless debates) that the damage has been caused by a malfunction of the system or the in-vehicle safety devices, the responsibility should rest with the vehicle manufacturer. The latter will have to protect themselves with a special policy (with, you can bet, consequences on the final price of the car). Nevertheless, even the owner of the car will have to be insured if it appears that the accident must be attributed to a sub-standard vehicle maintenance practice. Not to mention the unexpected. Whose fault is it, if a self-driving vehicle, while traveling without anyone on board, should, for any reason (a hole, for example), swerve and cause damages to persons or property?