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Research pushes towards next landmark in operation of cars

Worldwide research is focused on autonomous driving, alternative forms of power and vehicle connectivity

Vehicle connectivity is driving research and development worldwide, with a focus on smart technology integration. Photograph: iStock

Vehicle connectivity is driving research and development worldwide, with a focus on smart technology integration. Photograph: iStock


Designing the automobile of the future is a global pursuit, with research taking place around the world to push toward the next decisive landmark in how cars are operated, how they are fuelled, and how they can be connected.

Gathering much of the headlines, for both its potential and its pitfalls, is the quest for autonomous driving. In the past 12 months, every major manufacturer has been focusing on integrating self-drive technologies to various degrees.

In the US, Tesla and General Motors are at the vanguard of the automated driving movement, with the Tesla Autodrive and Cadillac Super Cruise technologies making waves with accessible level 2 automation. Cars at level 2 can assist with steering and acceleration and deceleration, but the driver cannot disengage and must still perform functions like indicating, and be ready to take control of the vehicle.

A far more hands-free approach is developing closer to home, with Renault’s Symbioz – the Symbioz is technically level 4 automation, meaning the driver does not need to use the wheel or focus on the road. The car will handle indication, lane changing, and turning. This is a significant achievement, and the car is currently operating in a heavily supervised prototype form on French roads.

The most concrete step in terms of automation has been taken in Germany, where Audi has a level 3-capable car that is already fully launched. “We launched the new Audi A8 back in September, which has the ability for level 3 autonomous driving” says Richard Molloy, head of marketing and product at Audi Ireland. The A8 comes with an array of advanced driver assist technology, but the feature that classifies it as level 3 automation is the Traffic Jam Pilot, which can take control of the vehicle in motorway conditions under 60km/h. “We are currently ahead of the legislation” says Molloy, “the technology is ready to go but we need it to be ratified by law.”

Global trend

A further global trend in the automotive industry is the focus on alternative forms of power. Electric vehicles are on the rise on Irish roads, with Society for the Irish Motor Industry statistics showing a 50 per cent increase in new EVs between 2016 and 2017. However, relative to traditional internal combustion engines, the figures are still low, with only about 3,000 EVs on the roads.

As part of KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey, about 1,000 automotive executives and 2,000 consumers were asked who they think will be the leader in electric mobility in 2025. For the second year running, BMW came out on top, with Tesla taking second place. In the US, Tesla is at the forefront of pushing EV technology, but production-line delays have stalled the roll-out.

BMW continues to develop its electric range this year, launching its new iX3 model, which will be built in China. The shift to China reflects its growth as a key player in the EV industry – a finding reflected by KPMG’s global survey: “China is no longer just a hub merely focused on volume growth in the automotive world. According to this year’s survey respondents, China is also outstripping mature markets in regard to new business model innovation launches.”

Vehicle connectivity is also driving research and development worldwide, with a focus on smart technology integration. As broadband becomes more widely available, the concept of an ‘internet of things’ that was first floated by innovator Kevin Ashton at the turn of the century comes one step closer to reality.

For the automotive industry, this means a focus on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, or how data can be sent from one car to another, or from an item or device to the car. Cars that can communicate are a key part of autonomous driving systems, and also open the door to integrations with smart technology at home and work.

Network providers

This is an area that network providers are already preparing for, according to Nicola Mortimer, head of business marketing, products and operations at mobile operator Three. The company currently offers machine-to-machine connectivity across its networks and has already acquired 5G spectrum to future proof itself for the next wave of technologies currently on the horizon. “Three plans to continuously enhance our transport solutions” Mortimer says, by “bringing additional products and solutions into the marketplace to create a connected car ecosystem to the benefit of the driver, road safety, car manufacturers.”

“Based on the emerging trends and technology advancements it appears that the car will be the first mass-market connected device” says Mortimer. This focus on the next wave of technologies is mirrored across the automotive world, with KPMG’s survey finding that “connectivity and digitalisation” was the second biggest trend among executives and consumers this year.

Such a boost in the technology sector has already presented some small opportunities for growth for Ireland, as manufacturers seek to team up with software engineers. Earlier this year, Jaguar Land Rover announced plans to open a research station in Shannon to develop software for EV and autonomous cars in its range. And Dublin firm Cubic Telecom, a global connectivity platform company, has partnered with Audi to supply the SIM technology that powers Audi’s infotainment and connectivity systems.

In global terms, however, the KPMG poll suggests that as in previous years, the three great centres for automotive innovation globally are China, the US, and Germany. “Execs are very confident that these three countries are the most attractive to launch any kind of innovation,” the report concludes.