Computers on Wheels

By Michael Wayland

Forget everything you know about Henry Ford’s auto industry with its oil changes, fossil fuels and even steering wheels. The auto industry of the future is taking shape and it looks more like an industry suited for Steve Jobs than the founding father of the assembly line.

Engines, transmissions and miles per gallon are taking a backseat to connectivity, automated features and zero-emission powertrains. Automakers are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on new technologies and partnering with Silicon Valley tech companies in an attempt to transform the auto industry into a mobility hotbed.

“The scale and breadth of the changes of the industry are so broad,” says 2016 Society of Automotive and Aerospace Engineers President Cuneyt L. Oge. “It’s the way we power our vehicles, the way we drive our vehicles, the way we own our vehicles and perhaps even the way we are going to make our vehicles.”

Total R&D spending among global automotive companies rose 5 percent in 2015 to a record-setting $110 billion globally, according to a comprehensive study from Price Waterhouse Coopers. That spending doesn’t include investments from tech pioneers such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc. that have been making waves in the auto industry.

The fruition of that spending is center stage at events such as Detroit’s North American International Auto Show and the increasingly important International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas — an event that has become a must for automakers and wannabe-auto companies to show off their latest and greatest technologies.

“Autonomous vehicles and many other things — content, electronics, fuel efficiency — all these things are forcing people to spend more money to create new generations of product,” says Barry Jaruzelski, leading practitioner in technology and innovation strategy for Strategy&, Price Waterhouse Coopers’ strategy consulting group. “Whether it’s competition or it’s regulation, the bar keeps going up.”

The traditional purpose of cars to get people from point A to point B will remain, but there’s expected to be a fundamental shift in the way we travel and think of the horseless carriage.

Today, we have cars that can detect and avoid a crash before it happens, turn a vehicle into a mobile Internet hotspot and ultimately drive and park by itself in certain circumstances. In the coming years, we’re expected to add cars that can adapt and learn driving habits, even be fully autonomous, remind you when you’re low on milk when passing a grocery store and other technologies that we can currently only dream of.

“We are moving from an industry that, for 100 years, has relied on vehicles that are stand-alone, mechanically controlled and petroleum-fueled to ones that will soon be interconnected, electronically controlled and fueled by a range of energy sources,” General Motors Co. CEO and Chairman Mary Barra has said. 

“I believe the auto industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50, and this gives us the opportunity to make cars more capable, more sustainable and more exciting than ever before.”

Connected interiors
The most noticeable changes consumers should expect when hopping into a new car or truck are in-vehicle technologies that resemble features of a smartphone more than a car’s traditional radio dashboard.

“It’s about more than just getting little bits of data into the car or getting a telephone call, it’s how do we really touch every part of the car in order to give a significant improvement in what we can do?” says Tejas Desai, Continental AG head of North America Interior Electronics Solutions. “When I look at my cell phone, that’s really what’s happened. I’ve been able to transform that one device into so much more. That’s what we want to do with the car.”

Continental’s solution, called eHorizon, is a holistic systematic roadmap that eventually leads to a vehicle being able to communicate and analyze its surroundings. In its most advanced phase, known as “dynamic eHorizon,” the car receives updates based on data from other vehicles’ sensors and from other sources in real time. This enables the system to factor in changes to the route such as traffic jams, accidents, weather conditions and other relevant information.

But before we get to essentially humanizing vehicles, companies — including Denso Corp. and Visteon Corp. — at CES are advancing in-vehicle technologies that enhance the way people interact with their vehicles, and the way vehicles interact with us — also known as human-machine interface (HMI).

Denso showcased a concept dashboard that utilizes software that can track a driver’s eyes to detect what part of the display they are looking at and assigns control to that function.

Visteon demonstrated a high-end configuration called SmartCore, with two fully digital 12.3-inch color thin film transistor (TFT) displays and an additional head-up display, all driven from a single integrated unit.

“SmartCore is a game-changing technology that offers significant and unique advantages over traditionally separated and non-connected infotainment systems, instrument clusters and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) controllers,” says Visteon President and CEO Sachin Lawande.

On the move with EVs
Although electrified vehicles haven’t caught on as quickly as most thought they would, automakers are offering the vehicles to significantly boost fuel economy and meet federal fuel economy requirements. The vehicles feature some of the most advanced powertrains and technologies available on roadways today. 

“As an engineer, you can’t help but be driven toward electric powertrains, and I don’t mean only battery-electric, necessarily,” SAE’s Oge says, adding that it could be plug-in hybrids, fuel cell electric vehicles and even some day solar powered vehicles. “Today, the battery electrics are really taking off as battery costs are decreasing sharply.”

Oge says with a traditional internal combustion engine, you only get about 20-25 percent of the energy in the gas tank delivered to power the vehicle’s wheels. With electric powertrain vehicles, it’s upwards of 95 percent.

Every auto brand — from Ferrari and Aston Martin to Chevrolet and Ford — are developing their first- or next-generation of electrified vehicles. GM, shortly after unveiling its new 200-mile, all-electric Chevrolet Bolt, even changed the name of the department that designs, engineers and manufactures engines, transmissions, castings and components for its vehicles from “GM Powertrain” to “GM Global Propulsion Systems.”

“The new name is another step on our journey to redefine transportation and mobility,” says GM Executive Vice President of Global Product Development Mark Reuss. “Global Propulsion Systems better conveys what we are developing and offering to our customers: an incredibly broad, diverse lineup — ranging from high-tech three-cylinder gasoline engines to fuel cells, V8 diesel engines to battery electric systems and 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-speed to continuously variable transmissions.”

Although electric charging infrastructure is still needed in states across the country, battery technology is significantly improving and costs are falling.

Tesla Motors Inc. has done the best job of drumming up hype for its $70,000-plus, all-electric Model S sedan.

The California-based electric vehicle manufacturer has made moves by updating major aspects of its vehicles wirelessly. Telsa’s 7.0 software update allowed the car to use its unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes and adjust speed in response to traffic. It can scan for a parking space and parallel park at the driver’s command.

But Tesla isn’t the only new auto company looking to drive an electric revolution.

Faraday Future (FF), a California-based electric carmaker that’s financially backed by Chinese billionaire Ding Lei T, unveiled a futuristic-looking, 1,000-horsepower electric concept racecar at CES, which it referred to as a “car of concepts” rather than a concept car. 

“The FFZERO1 Concept is an amplified version of the design and engineering philosophies informing FF’s forthcoming production vehicles,” says head of design Richard Kim.

The car includes a carbon fiber shell, “soon-to-be signature ‘UFO line’” that runs around the center of the vehicle and a phone dock in the steering wheel. Conceptually, the company says, the steering wheel setup could enable the smartphone to serve as the interface between the vehicle and the driver in — and outside of — the car.

Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Akshay Anand, says Faraday Future as well as several other automakers really pushed the idea of user-centric features that seamlessly connect drivers to everything their phones do and more. 

“At CES people were talking about a car eventually becoming a device. Who would have thought that five years ago?” he says. “The concept Volkswagen (VW) showed, which I thought was really striking, was basically a device.”

VW unveiled its BUDD-e microbus concept at CES, calling it the “new gateway to the future.” The all-electric vehicle is capable of communicating with a person’s smart home or office functions from the car while driving — everything from a smart fridge that tells you what groceries you may be low on to automatically turning on lights in and around the house through home net automation.

“Completely and thoroughly networked, BUDD-e is a mobile interface which connects the vehicle with the world around it,” the company says. “With the BUDD-e, Volkswagen has developed a vehicle that is more thoroughly connected with its surroundings than any car before it.”

Detroit 3 Mobility
Outside of companies such as Tesla and Faraday Future, so-called ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are changing the way automakers look at the future of the automotive industry.

GM appears to be at the forefront of the ride-hailing and ride-sharing game in the United States. The Detroit automaker invested $500 million in Lyft and launched its own personal mobility brand, Maven, which includes a new citywide car-sharing program in Ann Arbor, MI. The Detroit automaker also purchased assets of Sidecar Technologies Inc., a ride-hailing company that ceased operations in December 2015.

Others, including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne, are a bit more pessimistic of automakers becoming mobility companies.

‘’This industry in its current state is not in a position to withstand the capital requirements associated with running the business. It just can’t,” Marchionne said during the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “I am very weary of all this incredibly enthusiastic view of the world of the fact that we’re transitioning a car business into a transportation business.”

Marchionne has said automakers will not magically become mobility companies that can become Silicon Valley, despite what Barra and other rivals continue to tout. 

Ford Motor Co. has been speaking about personal mobility for years, including announcing a host of new initiatives at CES: increasing the company’s driverless car fleet to 30 Fusions, which are being tested in California, Arizona and Michigan; exploring the use of drones with its F-150 pickups; and partnering with to connect home and car using its SYNC infotainment system.

The initiative with Amazon involves linking smart devices like Amazon Echo and Wink to its vehicles to allow consumers to control lights, thermostats, security systems and other features of their homes from their car, and to stop, start, lock, unlock and check their vehicle’s fuel range from the comforts of their couch.

“Connecting homes and cars is all about making life easier and convenient for our customers,” says Ford Executive Director of Connected Vehicle and Services Don Butler. “As smart homes and smart cars continue to evolve, SYNC technology makes it easy to implement features that will make life better and more convenient for our customers.”

AUTOnomous as the end-goal
The end-goal for all of the auto industry’s emerging technologies is self-driving vehicles that make the roadways safer, more efficient and allow so-called “drivers” and passengers to get from one place to another.

Autonomous vehicles use intricate systems of radars, cameras, sensors and advanced LIDARs (laser radar that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light) to continuously provide data about the vehicle’s surroundings to processing systems with complex algorithms — essentially super computers on wheels.

And those super computers could even be considered “drivers.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration U.S. vehicle safety regulator earlier this year said the artificial intelligence system piloting a self-driving Google car could be considered the driver under federal law.

However there is a litany of other legal, legislative and safety matters to work out before bringing self-driving vehicles to the masses. 

“Are there going to be glitches along the way? Are we going to work through that from a legal perspective and legislative perspective? Absolutely,” says attorney James Giszczak, McDonald Hopkins vice chair of the Litigation Department and chair of the Data Privacy and Cybersecurity Practice Group.

Cybersecurity is an emerging issue for the auto industry. It was especially brought to the public’s attention in 2015 when a 2014 Jeep Cherokee was remotely hacked.

“No matter what you do or how much you secure your home, there’s still going to be somebody who wants to break into it,” FBI Detroit Division’s Cyber Squad Supervisor Tom Winterhalter told a group of journalists in Detroit.

Security researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller, who shared their information for months with Fiat Chrysler, conducted the hack of the Jeep. This enabled the company to release a fix to close the door to other hackers.

The men manipulated the vehicle through a vulnerability in a chip that provides a wireless and a cellular network connection. That allowed access to another component for the vehicle’s Uconnect 8.4-inch infotainment system and allowed them to rewrite the car’s firmware and send commands through the car’s internal computer network — everything from controlling interior features to disabling the SUV’s engine functions.

“When we start talking about connectivity, we’re talking about more than in-vehicle tech connectivity,” says Elaina Farnsworth, CEO of Troy-based Mobile Comply, an international leader in Connected and Autonomous Vehicle certification and training. “We’re talking vehicle to infrastructure (V2I), we’re talking about vehicles to vehicles.

The experts disagree on when autonomous vehicles will be available to consumers. Depending on who you speak with, predictions range from the next few years to mid-century, even if the technologies are available today. But there’s one thing industry insiders can agree on: The auto industry is driving on a new connected road with no exact road map just yet.

“The world as we know it is changing,” says Kelley Blue Book’s Anand. “Where’s it going to be in 10 years? There are going to be things that I don’t think you or I could imagine.”

No. 12 Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power and race engineer. Photo by David Faustino  LAT USA

No. 12 Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power and race engineer. Photo by David Faustino  LAT USA

Racing ties that bind

Crossing the finish line first at more than 200 miles per hour as the black and white checkered flag waves is a sensation all Verizon IndyCar Series drivers want to experience at every race.

It’s a culmination of countless hours of hard work and dedication on the part of the driver and the entire racing team. But one team member who particularly shares that unique feeling of accomplishment with the driver is the race engineer. 

The partnership between driver and engineer has been compared to a marriage — a delicate relationship based on trust, respect and admiration. The two spend a lot of time together both at the track and away from it, as they strive to win a championship. 

“Your relationship with your engineer is everything because you really have to understand each other’s language,” says No. 12 Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power. “After a few years, you have your own lingo.”

That common language helps assess issues and make changes effectively during the course of a race weekend that can mean the difference between winning and losing, according to Power and his race engineer, David Faustino.

“Relationship and work ethic go a long way here,” Faustino says. “We have such high expectations for ourselves. Every time we’re at the racetrack we expect to win. And when we don’t, it’s tough.”

Power and Faustino have been together since 2007, excluding the 2009 season. They won the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship for Team Penske and pulled off a victory at the 2014 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix’s Dual in Detroit — a feat they hope to repeat when IndyCar racing returns to the Motor City June 3-5. 

But they’ll have to outrace and out-communicate fellow Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves (No. 3) and race engineer Jonathan Diuguid. Both also believe teamwork is key to their victories, including a win in the second race of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit in 2014.

“These days, everybody has the same equipment,” Castroneves says. “So if you’re able to find that advantage, it can make a huge difference.”

And the relationship between the drivers and crew chiefs has evolved over the years, as data analytics and analysis have entered IndyCar. A racecar can have hundreds of sensors that create gigabytes of data every race weekend.

“We generate massive amounts of data off and on the track that we have to be able to reduce to use in a timely manner on the race weekend,” says Diuguid, adding that gut feelings remain an important part of racing. “It’s still 50/50 because the conditions of the racetrack change so drastically.

“You can make very informed decisions, but a lot of the guess work has been taken out of it.”

Both teams say they hope their relationships and unique lingos drive their teams to victory not only on Belle Isle but also to an IndyCar championship.

“We’ve been close to winning a championship,” Castroneves says. “And I feel that we’re going to get it this year.”