Tech at the wheel

  • TECH
  • Monday, 11 Nov 2013

Mercedes-Benz's S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE which allows you to autonomously drive through country roads and inner-city traffic. FOR BYTZ USE ONLY.

Bytz looks at how technology is adding more brains to our vehicles.

IT’S the stuff that movies, novels and comics are made of: A hi-tech car that understands its driver perfectly and can intuitively react as required in each situation that it faces.

Perhaps, in the past, this may all have seemed like just a figment of make-believe science fiction, but the truth is that we have come so much closer to making such technologies a reality today than many may actually realise.

Mercedes-Benz's S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE which allows you to autonomously drive through country roads and inner-city traffic. FOR BYTZ USE ONLY.

Intuitive: Autonomous cars can self-navigate against any obstructions, including a stalled truck on the road.

Intelligent vehicles

“The automotive industry has entered the most significant innovation phase since the rise of personal automobiles… the evolution from basic transportation to smart mobility,” says Thilo Koslowski, vice-president and lead automotive analyst at Gartner Inc.

“Analogous to the way telephones have evolved into smartphones, during the next 10 to 15 years, automobiles will become connected, smart vehicles that are self-aware nodes on networks — and eventually even autonomous.”

In the context of cars, the word “autonomous” here refers to what some also call “driverless car technology.” This term brings out a varying set of expectations in different people, as Bytz found out from some of the interviews it recently conducted.

Some, such as Vijay Rao, research director of automotive and transportation practice for Asia Pacific at Frost & Sullivan, interpret it as the “end result” which provides drivers with “temporary relief from driving tasks”.

Others, like Datuk Aminar Rashid Salleh, president and chief executive officer at Perodua (Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua Sdn Bhd), view it as a “self navigating vehicle which utilises wireless technologies such as satellite guidance and sensors” to help it reach its desired destination.

Regardless of the contrasting opinions surrounding the term itself, one thing is certain: Nearly everyone in the automotive industry has started pushing the limits of what cars can do with minimal amounts of human intervention.

“In the recent IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung) 2013, Daimler introduced its S 500 Intelligent Drive. With the S 500, we were able to demonstrate that autonomous driving in rural and urban traffic is possible,” says Roland Folger, president and chief executive officer at Mercedes-Benz Malaysia.

The showcase was done in Germany on a route of around 100km from Mannheim to Pforzheim.

According to Folger, the car concerned proved that it could successfully cope with several highly complex situations involving traffic lights, roundabouts, pedestrians, cyclists and trams.

BMW Group Malaysia has reported similarly positive progress in its overseas driverless car trial runs, which have been conducted as early as 2011.

“The technology was so advanced that the BMW could even tackle very winding roads using detailed satellite navigation data and could also perform successfully under heavy urban traffic conditions,” says Dr Gerhard Pils, chief executive officer at BMW Group Malaysia.

However, Pils felt that driverless technology should be used to enhance a driver’s experience rather than to completely remove the human factor from the equation.

“It is not our goal to ultimately remove the driver experience altogether as we believe that the most important component of ensuring safe and responsible road behaviour rests with the driver,” he says.

“Furthermore, a shift towards introducing driverless vehicles would need to be implemented as a holistic approach as it would revolutionise how governments manage, legislate and enforce road regulations. As such, while we at BMW do not foresee that driverless technology will be the mainstream of the near future, we do recognise potential uses for it which would be of value to our customers.”

A chauffeur matter

Car manufacturers aren’t the only ones jumping on the driverless technology bandwagon.

Technology giants such as Google Inc are conducting research in this area as well.

“Google believes that technology is at its best when it makes people’s lives better, and we’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society. One of the things that Google aspires to do is solve the really big problems of the world using technology, and one such problem is car safety and efficiency,” says Zeffri Yusof, head of communications and public affairs for Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh at Google.

New horizons: Google hopes to help prevent traffic accidents, ensure better time usage and reduce carbon emissions through developing self driving cars under the Google Chauffeur project. FOR BYTZ USE ONLY.
Spotless record: Google’s driverless car trials have maintained a zero accident record so far.

Known as Google Chauffeur, the project is part of Google[x], the company’s top secret research lab which has been responsible for the development of cutting edge technologies such as Google Glass.

“Google’s goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use, ” says Zeffri.

Quoting statistics from the World Health Organization, Zeffri says more than 1.2 million lives are lost annually due to road traffic accidents. He says Google believes that technology offers the potential to reduce these numbers significantly.

According to him, the driverless cars tested by Google have maintained a zero accident record so far.

Around two dozen Lexus RX 450h SUVs (sports utility vehicles) were used and the vehicles were driven over a wide range of terrain and road conditions across the states of California, Nevada and Florida in the United States, chalking over 500,000 miles (807km) to date.

Zeffri shares that Google’s self driving cars function using a combination of sensors in order to size up the environment it is in.

“Lasers, radars and cameras act as the eyes and ears of the car, helping to determine where other cars and objects are and how fast they are moving. Computer algorithms then interpret this data by controlling the steering, acceleration and deceleration to keep the vehicle safe as it navigates to its destination,” says Zeffri

Before the vehicles were taken out for a spin, he says Google first created a detailed digital map containing all the features of the road it would drive on. Later on, when a car navigated the route sans driver, it combined the existing data it already had on its system with real time information regarding moving objects or obstacles that crossed its path.

“To know where it is on the road, a self-driving car relies on a combination of tools — its pre-built digital map, a GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes — to measure how the car is moving. These tools work together to enable the vehicle to understand its precise location, even when GPS would otherwise not work,” Zeffri adds.

However, Google did not disclose whether a commercially available version of Google Chaffeur would be available to the public anytime soon.

Local limitations

As exciting as all this may be, the reality is that it will probably take some time before we will start to see cars with such capabilities as being sold commercially in Malaysia.

“There are some car manufacturers out there saying this can be ready by next year. It’s a bit too soon, in my opinion,” says Wong Weng Wah, regional vice-president for application services at Fujitsu Asia Pte Ltd.

In 2011, Fujitsu developed the Spatiowl (pronounced “special”) platform, a location-based data analytics and management system which enables businesses to collect data through the use of sensors or probes. Although Spatiowl can complement the workings of a driverless car, the solution has so far only been offered to corporate clients for their internal purposes.

“Such technology (driverless cars) depends on the reliability of the network it is on because the sensors have to collect and capture information on the move. It really depends on the existing infrastructure,” he says.

In general, Wong feels that a lot of fine tuning is still required before driverless cars can become a truly viable option for consumers at large. “Nowadays, they’re putting a lot more soft-ware into cars to handle decision making. Software usually needs to go through a lot of stringent tests before it goes out to the market,” he adds.

Aminar from Perodua agrees. “These technologies are still in their development stages and we foresee that it will still have some bugs to be worked out, particularly when it comes to satellite technology,” he says.

On the whole, Rizal Nainy, associate director of Electrical and Electronic/Innovation National Key Economic Area (NKEA) at Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit) feels the time is not yet ripe for driverless cars to be marketed in Malaysia.

“The road system, the network and GPS systems here need to be at a higher system readiness,” he says.

Charged up for efficiency

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government is working on promoting greater energy efficiency amongst vehicles that are driven and produced locally.

This includes encouraging the sale of hybrid as well as electric powered vehicles (EVs).

“The first thing that we are looking at is how to create more demand for EVs, not only within Malaysia, but in the rest of Asia as well. The reason for this is that we want to lower local carbon emissions and reduce dependence on the government’s fuel subsidies,” says Rizal from Pemandu.

Pemandu’s initiative aims to have 100,000 electric cars and 2,000 electric buses on Malaysian roads by 2020.

The first electric powered bus in Malaysia flagged off by YB Dato' Seri DiRaja Mahdzir Khalid, deputy minister of KeTTA (Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water) for pilot trial run. FOR BYTZ USE ONLY.
Driving debut: The first electric powered bus in Malaysia flagged off by Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, deputy minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water for a pilot trial run.

EVs and hybrid vehicles are believed to be more economical in the long run as they have lower operating, maintenance, and replacement part costs. For example, the operating cost for an EV is estimated to be 75% lesser than that of a conventional car. Carbon dioxide emissions from both types of vehicles are also lower, thus making them more environment friendly options.

“We are targeting to become the regional hub for energy efficient vehicles by 2020,” says Asrulnizam Addrus, head of strategic research division at Malaysia Automotive Institute (MAI).

He says the government is looking into developing the manufacturing sector for electric vehicle components such as lithium-ion batteries, which comprise 40% to 50% of the total cost for EVs.

“Out of the 1.35 million vehicles we plan to produce per annum, we’re targeting at least 1.15 million to be energy efficient vehicles,” he says.

According to him, MAI is currently working on attracting more foreign investment into the country to fund the growth of this sector.

Meanwhile, in order to encourage more local usage of electric cars, 20 electric charging stations have already been set up throughout the Klang Valley through the initiative of private companies.

“The growth in the number of stations reflects the increasing awareness of Malaysia’s corporate sector. This clearly indicates that demand for EVs will continue to grow and there are opportunities for companies to provide the required infrastructures to support the rise of electric vehicles,” says Mohamed Azrin Mohamed Ali, vice-president (built environment) at Malaysian Green Technology Corporation also known as GreenTech Malaysia.

Besides this, he says that GreenTech is planning to introduce a solar powered fast charging infrastructure for EVs. It also seeks to implement additional incentives like providing free EV charging during off-peak periods and EV rental services to further boost domestic use of energy efficient vehicles.

Several EV pilot projects will also be carried out and this includes setting up public transportation systems which use EV buses. One such system is the upcoming Sunway BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) line, which will serve seven stations across the Subang Jaya and Bandar Sunway vicinity.

“We hope to see encouraging results coming out of these pilot tests,” Azrin says.

Driving force

Judging from the current circumstances, it is probably safe to say that we can only expect things in the automotive industry, be it locally or abroad, to grow even more sophisticated from here onwards.

“By 2016, the majority of consumers in mature markets will expect at least basic Web access in their next new vehicle purchase,” says Gartner’s Koslowski. He also anticipates that 20% of the cars in mature markets will have fully autonomous driving capabilities by the year 2025.

“Future trends will include the introduction of fuel cell vehicles (which are hydrogen powered) in 2015, utilisation of big data and cloud computing in vehicles, retina tracking, adoption of biometrics and the usage of carbon fibre materials,” says Vijay from Frost & Sullivan.

These are certainly intriguing trends to see, and the availability and affordability of such hi-tech cars on Malaysian soil is something we truly look forward to seeing in the near future.

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