Industry blogs, news media, equity analysts, politicians...the state of the automotive industry is a trending topic across a wide spectrum of voices. This is not at all surprising, as the disruption created by multiple converging innovations arguably rivals the importance of the internal combustion engine itself.
Make no mistake, the concept of electrical propulsion for vehicles is not new. In the early days of the automobile, Porsche was experimenting with hybrids long before making sports cars. In fact, 28% of the vehicles on the road in America were electric in 1900.
Of course, the superior range of the internal combustion engine and rise of mass production made it far more competitive than the electric vehicle technology of the time. Several efforts to revive it were unsuccessful, until recently.
That said, vehicle electrification is a misunderstood term. It is not exclusive to electric propulsion. It is a term used whenever any electrical system is used to extend the efficiency or reduce emissions of a vehicle. It includes technology ranging from regenerative braking, electric power steering and electric oil and water pumps.
With governments world-wide imposing limits to carbon emissions and encouraging efficiency, the business case for electrified components is strong. Right-sizing the components and designing for performance and durability have been critical factors in balancing cost-effectiveness with improved efficiency. Electrification yields unique failure modes, often due to mixing fluid/hydraulics with electricity, which have made component testing even more important than before.
In China, electrification is happening at a rapid pace with strong government incentives. Investment in emissions controls to bring Chinese-market vehicles in line with other markets is being forfeited in favour of electrification. Automotive OEMs and suppliers cannot ignore the importance of a strong product portfolio addressing the global electrification market need.
The Role of the Autonomous vehicle
Despite the growing pains of the technology, it hasn't stopped the largest automotive and technology companies in the world from backing their AV projects in big ways. For example, Ford has announced the establishment of a new $338 million research centre.
What are industry experts saying about the market? In a recent paper on the topic, a professor of civil engineering wrote that, "the mere existence and use of autonomous vehicles (AVs) can, impact societies, the economy, cities and the environment at many levels". A report from Intel predicts that as much as $7 trillion will be invested in the new “passenger economy” by 2050.
For the automotive industry, the autonomous vehicle creates a new set of scenarios. Beyond the technical challenges involving the interaction between mechanical subsystems and artificially intelligent software, autonomous technology may accelerate the car-sharing economy. On a time-basis, an individual's usage of a vehicle is only a fraction of it's useful lifespan. A dramatic increase in utilization can be achieved if the vehicle is autonomous, reducing the need for the individual to own the asset and enhancing the potential cost efficiency of electric propulsion. Some are convinced cars will ultimately be a commodity.
This shift in duty cycle will create many challenges for vehicle design and development. Similarly to the challenges posed by electrification, autonomous vehicles will require instantaneous and lasting performance from it's components across demanding duty cycles. Component test systems will have to emulate these conditions with creative test profiles, ensuring the durability of new component designs. For example, the throughput of thermal endurance tests will have to dramatically improve to adequately simulate the conditions an oil or water pump in an autonomous EV will experience over it's lifetime, within the shortening product development cycle the automotive industry demands.
So, are we ready for the shift to electric and autonomous driving? Only time will tell, but at the rate the industry is moving, we will soon have a clearer picture.