Automation Revolution

For more than 100 years, people have driven cars and trucks to get to work, move freight, or enjoy a vacation. In the next few years, autonomous vehicles will be doing all of the work.
Volvo autonomous vehicle concept
Volvo 360C: The Swedish automaker’s proposal for a standardized autonomous vehicle includes space designed for sleeping.

On a recent Friday morning, before fine-tuning the slides he planned to use during a speaking trip to London, Larry Burns took his family’s two dogs to the vet. Like a lot of people, Burns, who lives in Franklin, didn’t know dogs get the flu — but because of an outbreak in Oakland County, he needed proof of his pets’ vaccination just for grooming.

Although Burns, the former head of General Motors’ R&D efforts, admits he was preoccupied with squeezing in the trip to the vet, he was still able to plan how he intended to promote his new memoir, “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — And How It Will Reshape Our World,” co-written with Christopher Shulgan.

“Autonomy” shares with the reader a personal account of the development of robot vehicles, starting with the GM Autonomy concept car that, in 2002, offered a “skateboard-like platform similar to what underlies today’s Tesla models.” Batteries or a hydrogen fuel cell filled the platform’s inner cavity to provide power for electric drive. In turn, the lightweight body easily could be swapped; any number of variants could be created.

The self-driving future involves lighter cars with, he estimates, only 10 percent of a current vehicle’s parts. Electric drive — suitable for fleet managers’ predilections for low cost-per-mile and regulators’ zero-emission objectives — locates motors inside the wheels. The combustion engine, transmission, driveshaft, differential, and axles are discarded.

Furthermore, there will be no radiator, exhaust system, starter motor, gas tank, lead-acid storage battery, or other heavy and expensive parts. Autonomous driving means there’s no need for a steering wheel, an accelerator, or a brake pedal. The traditional dashboard will change, as well.

For auto suppliers that craft today’s parts and components, it could be a tough future. The whole auto industry may downsize.

Yet in dense cities, as Burns experienced on a family trip to Lima, Peru, he sees opportunity. “I think an autonomous six-person to 12-person vehicle that’s demand-responsive could be a very, very interesting way to move people around,” he says.

Although he didn’t say so, he was referring to the Autonom Shuttle. The sleek, autonomous navette, or shuttle, made by Navya, a 6-year-old French company, is an inch shorter than the Chevrolet Camaro but 8.5 feet tall. It has the same headlights, grille, LiDAR pavilions, and badge on both ends, making it a bidirectional vehicle. (A single-direction version also is available.) As on a subway car, a set of retracting double-doors allows people in and out.

Even without leaping to autonomy, but following a restrained step-by-step process, the minds of transportation designers are afire.

There’s also a 15-inch screen with route information for passengers (11 sitting and four standing), and two big 38-inch screens to display the destination to onlookers. With a battery-electric powertrain, the Autonom Shuttle goes up to 25 mph — fast enough for first- and last-mile applications.

Four-wheel steering lets the shuttle turn around in just 14.7 feet, like a seal when bait spills from the boat. The vehicle bristles, of course, with cameras inside and out, complemented by eight LiDAR units (light and radar) to detect obstacles — whether it’s on the MCity self-driving course in Ann Arbor, part of the University of Michigan’s campus, or the Las Vegas strip, where it’s billed as the first autonomous shuttle in the United States to run in open traffic.

In July 2017, with assistance from a $435,000 state grant, Navya announced its $2-million North American assembly plant, a 20,000-square-foot facility in Saline, near Ann Arbor. Production started in May 2018. Each unit is built to order, and has a base price of $325,000.

In addition, May Mobility in Ann Arbor, which builds and operates a low-speed autonomous shuttle, began service in downtown Detroit in summer 2018. The six-seat electric shuttles also operate in Grand Rapids and Providence, R.I.

Even without leaping to autonomy, but following a restrained step-by-step process, the minds of transportation designers are afire. Every week, it seems, these Galileos show off new concepts meant to ease the commute or solve the riddle of the last mile. Their ideas extend from updates on sedans and crossover vehicles to solutions for heavy trucking.

GM made a ripple in 2017 with an imaginative, upsized adaptation of Burns’ skateboard chassis. The Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure, better known as SURUS, deserves wider attention. With a tinted wraparound windshield, the forward-control cab looks suave, shades flipped down, as if it’s heading for a slick Hollywood party. But General Motors shows SURUS with and without the cab; the platform alone is capable of autonomous convoy missions.

The vehicle’s platform mounts on the superstructure above the chassis and can accept a variety of cargoes or bodies. The fuel cell produces electricity for export to tools and equipment. Because water-vapor exhaust is the byproduct of electrolysis, SURUS even acts as a drinking-water source. With off-road-driving capability and 400 miles of range, SURUS has obvious military as well as commercial applications.

Mercedes-Benz autonomous vehicle concept
Mercedes-Benz Vision Urbanetic: The German automaker’s concept features an integrated swapbody system that can switch between a people mover and a cargo van. The Big 3 automakers have similar plans for multi-use vehicles.

The Volvo Vera concept is another mind-bender. Because no driver is needed — and, therefore, no cab — this battery-electric drone semi-tractor has a swoopy profile like a sports car’s. In overall appearance it resembles a shaver’s charging base-on-wheels more than a heavy-duty truck.

“(It’s) nothing similar to what you’ve seen from us before,” says Mikael Karlsson, Volvo Trucks’ vice president for autonomous solutions, in a video. “In fact, it’s impossible to drive. When we see a Volvo Vera back up to a trailer, hooking with a thunk, and pulling away, it’s easy to imagine a fleet of cloud-connected trucks working together in a network at a port, a truck terminal, or a supplier park.”

Meanwhile, Renault has revealed the EZ-PRO, its startling concept for last-mile delivery. Rather than the Vera’s voluptuous form, the EZ-PRO is an android pod-van with faired wheels, like the GM Autonomy. The concept calls for an EZ-PRO platoon to set out from a retailer or a warehouse with a human “concierge” in the lead vehicle. This concierge, who occupies front cabin space, uses a joystick controller. Like the Navya and the SURUS, four-wheel steering enhances maneuverability. When a pod arrives at its destination, the customer opens a locker by using a smartphone app. Ford will offer a similar service using its Transit vans sometime in 2021.

From a regulatory position, the U.S. Department of  Transportation has released a new guidance, “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0,” announcing, among other things, a revised definition of  “driver” to include an automated system.

In a related development, Shaoshan Liu, co-founder and chairman of Perceptin, a parts-maker for autonomous systems in California, aims to bring down costs and has proposed a modular system that would let people assemble and modify their own vehicles using what he calls a “Lego-like” approach.

From the same platform, people could address diverse purposes ranging from agriculture to mobile vending in much the same way the Ford Model T was adapted for everything from a produce station to a 10-passenger bus, or the Volkswagen Beetle morphed from commuter car to a Baja 1000 racer.

Apart from industry efforts, there’s plenty of mobility activity underway on campuses across Michigan. For example, Paul Snyder found himself puzzling over a couple of concept cars. “Wait till you see this Mercedes-Benz — it’s called the Vision Urbanetic,” says Snyder, chair of the College for Creative Studies’ undergraduate transportation design program in Detroit. “I can’t say it’s particularly elegant, but it certainly is striking. I wouldn’t mind seeing it on the road. (It’s) a huge departure for the Mercedes brand — it’s very playful, actually.”

The Vision Urbanetic is an integrated swap-body system for people movers and cargo vans. The people mover looks like the aftermath of misdeeds in a sheet-aluminum factory, “and then somebody hit it with a flamethrower,” Snyder says.

GM SURUS concept
Future Wheels: GM’s SURUS concept can transport cargo as a flatbed or can include a cab.

He also liked another recent reveal, the Volvo 360c concept. The autonomous electric vehicle has interior space designed for sleeping, office, living, or entertainment purposes. For sleepers, Volvo has devised a safety-blanket restraining system.

“To me, it’s one of the first real explorations of the possibilities that can be achieved when you take driving, or the requirement to drive, out of the equation,” he says. An example of opportunities in transportation as a service: Based on anticipations, the service subscriber would summon whatever setup suited the need. Although further details weren’t clear, Snyder found the 360c “a seriously cool-looking little thing.”

Among other innovations, the 360c proposes exterior lighting that Volvo Cars calls “a new, global standard in how autonomous vehicles can safely communicate with all other road users.” Snyder took up that thread, observing that pedestrians should indeed be notified, especially by a quiet EV.

“The external lighting also offers an opportunity for interactive design. It’s not just the car indicating to a pedestrian on the corner that, ‘Hey, I’m going to turn right,’ but, ‘Please go,’ which is something people now do with eye contact and a gesture of their head,” he says. “It’s also saying, ‘I am your car. Please step in.’ It could have anything on there. There’s also an opportunity for rolling billboards, but that’s something I don’t want to promote.”

Operators of ride-sharing fleets might want to promote advertising, though. Writing for Fortune, Carsten Breitfeld, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Byton, posited that LED displays could replace front grilles. It’s easy to foresee how those displays could carry ads. An individual user could personalize the display of a dedicated-use vehicle with a home screen, or maybe try to unload Red Wings tickets. Snyder elaborated on the idea, saying, “You could do anything you want at that point. It becomes a blank canvas for an artistic statement. It’s kind of  limitless.”

As dreamers fantasize about the future of transportation, Nicholas G. Evans, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, notes the mass adoption of ride-sharing will result in a downsized auto sector. “What do these cars do to our society, and what should we do in response to what these cars are going to do to our society?” Evans asks.

Evans received a National Science Foundation grant to study autonomous vehicles. Yes, a few philosophers work with engineers and programmers to improve self-driving algorithms. “I think many philosophers don’t know that philosophers are involved with autonomous vehicles,” Evans says. “A lot of what philosophers are interested in when it comes to autonomous vehicles, the hot topic of the day, is what decisions should we program a machine to make on our behalf, and how do we program those machines to perform acts that are morally significant?”

May Mobility shuttle
May Mobility’s autonomous shuttle is now operating in downtown Detroit.

For example, if a family of raccoons is picnicking in the traffic lane just beyond the crest of a steep hill, and the only choice is to swerve into a tree, what should the car do? Moral decisions far beyond this quandary have been under consideration.

Evans cited a recent collaboration among Ford, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which researchers plan scenarios and, as a Ford press release says, imbue the autonomous car with “common sense.” Evans referred to value-sensitive design, a school of thought pioneered by Dutch philosophers, defining it as “this idea that we embody values in the machines and devices that we make, so ethics is really a design question, and design is also an ethical question.”

It’s clear the moment to break with tradition, as many have longed to do, is here. Snyder spoke of the nearly complete optimization of current production cars for powertrain efficiency and crashworthiness. Little else can be done to get more than incremental improvement in performance or styling. Burns put it a different way: “We could free ourselves from this regulatory box that we’ve been in that defines what people have to design to.”

Burns credits GM leadership with three forward-looking moves: purchasing Cruise Automation in March of 2016, gaining self-driving expertise, and engineering the 2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV “so that Cruise’s self-driving system could be factory-installed equipment and built-in high volume when ready.”

In addition to LiDAR beacons and coded light bars to indicate driving intentions, the autonomous car could be fitted with one more exterior component — namely, a warning sign. It would signal the disruption autonomy causes to manufacturers, dealerships, municipalities, retailers, public transit, rental car companies, fee-based parking lots, gas stations, and the insurance industry. Even housing could change; if you don’t own a car, why have a garage?

Assuming the visionaries are right, forthcoming advances of the autonomous future will include the dwindling of highway deaths, reduced congestion, transformed cities, and the preservation of petroleum resources. From a car guy’s point of view, the GM EN-V might be the worst thing ever invented.

But the gloomiest prognostications about autonomy may be shortsighted. Recent design concepts suggest cars will continue to be a source of joy and comfort (as they must be for a family’s dogs). Branding and status will still signify accomplishment. And opportunities for innovation throughout the auto industry will extend along new avenues yet to be opened.

Factory of the Future

Industry 4.0, where every piece of plant equipment is wired with data-sharing sensors, is the next wave of manufacturing.

autonomous factory illustration
Illustration by Alexander Shammami

A harbinger of Industry 4.0, AI research got started with a conference at Dartmouth College. Attendees proposed to “make machines use language, abstractions, concepts, and forms to solve all kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.” The name “artificial intelligence” was coined at this time.

More than 60 years and a couple of developmental pauses later, AI is infused in every aspect of manufacturing, from product design to prototyping, assembly, distribution, and logistics.

“In many cases, AI is freeing up time, creativity, and human capital, essentially letting people work more like humans and less like robots,” write Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson in “Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI.”

Enter Industry 4.0, the next generation of manufacturing.

While a “lights-out” factory operating on its own with just occasional checks by humans might still be a little far out, FANUC, which has its American headquarters in Rochester Hills, has had robots building robots since (fittingly) 2001.

Another manufacturer “well down the lean journey” is Brembo North America, a large brake manufacturer that operates a 750,000-square-foot operation in Homer, southwest of Jackson. Brembo, which was formed in Italy in 1961, makes brakes for the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette and other high-performance production vehicles.

Brake rotors are heavy, of course, so Brembo has robots to do the lifting. Raw materials go in one door and precisely finished products get loaded onto trucks outside another. “We sensor almost the entire line operation. A single machine may give us 15 to 20 items that we’re tracking,” says Dan Sandberg, president and CEO of Brembo North America, who has had responsibilities at the Homer plant since 1999 and now oversees operations in Mexico, as well.

At the plant in Homer, Brembo accumulates and evaluates data to efficiently control such assembly factors as vibration, temperature, weight, and cutting dimensions.

What’s more, by using AI, human judgment about adjustments and replacements is removed from the equation. “Based on data that we give it that shows the variation in our machining process, the machine will automatically adjust to the pressure of the tool when it sees the process is deviating,” Sandberg says. “You don’t want people making a change in the tooling process just based on how they’re feeling that day.”

Sandberg explains the advanced manufacturing process includes lots of technical tools to improve the flow and flexibility of the plant. “The automated process flow is very well-drawn-out, so you don’t have a lot of wasted movement,” he says.

In fact, with Industry 4.0, workers have a new array of tasks, along with added authority. A tablet computer is essential for many station operators, who collaborate with AI robots in customized production.

“That robot is working side by side with an employee in doing some of the things that a person may be doing,” Sandberg says. “We don’t like our employees to be loaders and unloaders. That’s terrible work. It’s work that’s boring and not very challenging.” Instead, the operator is managing robots and doing maintenance on the systems.

Predictive maintenance is especially crucial for Brembo because, as Sandberg says, “All of our capacity is pretty precious for us.”