It’s been a decade since General Motors finally gave up on trying to stake out a claim in the minivan market and then trying to recast its vans as pseudo-SUVs. In 2006, GM launched an all-new platform for full-size crossover utilities that was known internally as Lambda and ultimately spawned four nameplates, Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and the now-defunct Saturn Outlook. Having achieved some notable success with the platform with steadily growing sales of more than 200,000 units annually since 2010, an all-new second-generation Lambda is now ready and hit the streets in 2016 under a redesigned version of the Acadia.
The launch of the second-generation XC90 marked the beginning of a new era for Volvo a couple of years ago. The XC90 is the first model to ride on the company’s all-new scalable product architecture (SPA), the first all-new platform to come from Gothenburg since Ford sold the Swedish brand to China’s Geely in 2010. After initially being available only with boosted four-cylinder engines, the XC90 is now the first regular production plug-in model Volvo is offering in America and I recently spent a week driving one.
Mapmaking used to be the domain of a select group of cartographers that would gather, review, and plot out data onto sheets of paper. The chances that you actually knew a cartographer in the past were probably pretty slim—but not anymore. Today and in the future, virtually everyone is or will be a contributor to the increasingly detailed maps that represent the world we live in.
As our vehicles become increasingly automated, they need ever more detailed maps, and not just the maps we get from Google or Apple on our smartphones. The self-driving car will need much more information. The basics of street names, directions, and building numbers are just the beginning determining a basic route from where a car is to where its user has asked it to go. This data set already exists in every vehicle with a navigation system and a GPS receiver.
Limits of GPS
However, if you’ve ever tried to navigate around urban canyons in places like Manhattan or Chicago, you’ve no doubt experienced the limitations of GPS as the signals orbiting more than 12,000 miles above the Earth’s surface bounce between skyscrapers. Looking at the navigation display and realizing that the car thinks it is several city blocks away from your actual location is not exactly confidence-inspiring.
Even when it works correctly, GPS is only accurate to several feet, not nearly precise enough to safely locate where a car is on the road. Then there’s the problem of navigating around on streets when you can’t actually see the road, such as when it snows. If you can’t rely on GPS for precise positioning and you can’t see lane markers, you need other data to calculate location.
That’s where the future of crowdsourced mapping comes in. If you use smartphone-based navigation apps like Waze, Here, TomTom, or Google or Apple maps, you are already contributing to augmenting the map data that is also collected by fleets of sensor-equipped vehicles that drive the world’s roads.
In the near future, the cameras and other sensors that power lane keeping systems and other driver assist features will be feeding information to datacenters where it is aggregated with information from other drivers. In addition to real-time traffic and road conditions, they will be looking for landmarks like bridges, signs, buildings and more, and anything that isn’t already in the high-definition map will be uploaded.
Mobileye is the leading maker of image processing and recognition systems used by automakers for driver assist. In January 2016, the company announced a new product called Road Experience Management that processes images captured by car cameras and sorts out new information. This data is then transmitted and collected in order to update maps. Earlier this year, Ford invested in a startup called Civil Maps that is developing a similar system using cameras and any other sensors on the vehicle that can provide relevant data.
Even when the vehicle sensors can’t see the road, if they can see landmarks, they can triangulate and calculate position to within a few inches. Last winter, Ford demonstrated the ability to do precisely this with its autonomous prototype using a high-definition map generated using LIDAR. The future ability of autonomous vehicles to successfully operate in varied conditions will depend in large part on the contributions that we all make toward improving the quality of maps.
Cars, like the people that create them have distinct characters. Some of that comes down to the individuals responsible for the design and development and the corporate culture they work in. Other aspects of automotive ethnicity come the places where they were created. Despite the differences between the various German brands, they all share some common DNA, in particular, the way they behave at elevated speeds on highways like the Autobahn. Such is the case for the latest generation Audi A4 that arrived on American shores earlier this year.
In case you missed it, Dan Roth and I have launched a new podcast called Wheel Bearings where we talk about the cars we’re driving and the news and topics that we think are important in the world of transportation and mobility. We’ll have guests and interviews with experts and interesting people too. You can find the show at http://wheelbearings.media/
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Earlier this year, nearly eight years after Ford started divesting its controlling interest in Mazda, the Japanese brand finally replaced the last of the products that shared hardware with the Dearborn brand. Mazda’s biggest vehicle was also its oldest with the original CX-9 lasting nearly a decade before a complete redesign. Now that the CX-9 is new and fresh, does it finally fit in with the rest of the family from the brand that says “driving matters?”
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Back in September 2014 as the ITS World Congress gathered in Detroit, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced that in 2016, a new Cadillac model would become available with the semi-autonomous Super Cruise system. With only a handful of weeks left in 2016, we now know that the Super Cruise will debut on Cadillac’s flagship CT6 sedan, but it won’t be arriving until sometime in 2017.
A lot has happened since that announcement, and GM has put a much greater emphasis on ensuring safety as a result of the massive ignition switch recall that began early in 2014. Those process changes have led to some significant upgrades to Super Cruise in an effort to avoid the issues caused by human interactions with Tesla’s similar AutoPilot driver assist system. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2020, approximately 13 million vehicles with these so-called Level 2 automation systems will be sold annually.
In the process of evaluating the safety of Super Cruise, one of the key differences that GM has implemented is geofencing. Since Super Cruise is designed primarily as an advanced highway driving assist system for use on limited access roadways, GM is not relying on customers to understand where it does and does not function. Instead, the system will check the navigation map—if the vehicle isn’t on a suitable road, the driver will not be able to activate it. In contrast, Tesla’s operating instructions state that AutoPilot should only be used on divided, limited access roads, but there is nothing in the system to actively prevent a driver from using the system in an urban area or any other roadway that it’s not designed for.
Similarly, Tesla doesn’t really take measures to prevent operators from taking their attention away from the road. Countless videos have been posted by Tesla drivers as they take a nap, read, or even climb in the back seat while using AutoPilot. The research conducted by Bryan Reimer and the Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reinforces the idea that even informed drivers will get distracted while using systems like AutoPilot or Volvo’s Pilot Assist.
Cadillac is installing an active driver monitoring system in the CT6, which will include more prominent alerts if the operator does not remain engaged while using Super Cruise. If the driver does not respond, the car will pull to the side of the road and come to a safe stop.
GM safety engineers have also addressed the issue of the inevitable mechanical failure. When fully autonomous vehicles arrive, they will require systems that can maintain control during a failure mode until the vehicle is safely stopped. One of the key safety failure modes for a system like Super Cruise is the electrically assisted steering.
One of the optional features on the currently available CT6 without Super Cruise is the Active Chassis Package, which includes a rear-wheel steering system to aid low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability. This rear steering system will be included on the CT6 with Super Cruise. While the rear steering is not designed to provide the same full maneuvering capability of the normal front steering, it will be sufficient to safely steer the car to the side of the road in the event of a front steering failure.
We won’t have an opportunity to fully evaluate the capabilities of Super Cruise until sometime next year, but it does inspire some confidence that GM is at least thinking about and trying to address both human and mechanical failure modes before putting the system into customer hands.
While the SUV in its various flavors is quickly expanding its hold on the American driver, the car isn’t quite dead yet. In fact, at Hyundai, its two best-selling models remain the Elantra and Sonata. With nearly 173,000 sold in the first ten months of 2016, The Elantra certainly appeals to a significant portion of the market and Hyundai wants to expand on that with a new variant for 2017, the Elantra Eco. Despite continuing cheap gas across the U.S. the Eco is definitely a car that consumers should consider.
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Photo taken at: Los Angeles Convention Center