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Electric and Autonomous Vehicles Demand Constant Innovation

Today, electric and autonomous vehicles are the main focus of car makers and suppliers. Innovation, though not spectacular, is part of the design, testing and production on a daily basis; it is a must rather than something that provides a competitive edge.

Nissan says it is working on how to harness unused EV baterry energy to help power national grids.

The expansion of electric vehicles has brought about a number of issues engineers need to solve, László Naszádos, department leader at ThyssenKrupp Presta Hungary told the Budapest Business Journal. Because of the high-power wires in the cars that “fuel” the electric motor, all electronics need to be less sensitive to electromagnetic disturbances to avoid interference with other electric devices. The noise emitted by the steering system also needs to be reduced, just to name two problems ThyssenKrupp engineers need to deal with. 

Another focus of innovation is self-driving vehicles. With time, vehicles have had ever more autonomous features added. What began with parking radars, lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control is gradually being widened to features that allow drivers to let go of the steering wheel, for example, when inching in a traffic jam. Steering systems need to adjust to these changes; the ultimate aim is to eliminate the need for a driver’s interference. 

“The system can no longer count on the driver taking over as they do now. To achieve that, we need to build more redundancies/backups into the system. Should anything happen, the steering assist must operate. Carmakers also prepare for that by incorporating multiple batteries or double generators,” Naszádos says. 

These functions may require more work from developers, but the driver likely won’t notice anything as the functionality of the car won’t change. Unless there is no steering column at all, of course, as is in some self-driving models.

Innovation at the assembly line

Operation in the company’s new, state-of-the-art factory at Jászfényszaru starts in the fall. Currently ThyssenKrupp is fine-tuning the production lines. These are crucial to improve the so-called “takt-time”, the pace at which a product rolls off the line. Automation here is key. To improve efficiency, the use of robots is becoming more widespread. “A robot won’t get tired, won’t lose concentration. As a result, their work is more predictable,” Naszádos says. Robots can take over more simple tasks – but experts are still needed to control machines.

Cost is another key consideration. These cars are expensive, they cost thousands of euros, and millions are produced of a model during its lifecycle, the expert says. “So if a part costs just 20 euro cents more than necessary, we have wasted a million euros. What is needed to ensure safety cannot be spared, that’s out of the question. Independent auditors make sure that safety is not compromised at the expense of price. But there are many ways to optimize the design. It may require a few months’ more thinking, but it is worth it if we can save a million.”

Competition between companies is tough: in this field, no one shares knowledge with their peers. “If a car maker sees a new or better solution on the market, they demand us to apply that as well. We can deliver that, though we may not get there the same way the others did,” Naszádos says. The need to come up with something better at a better price places constant pressure on companies but that’s not a problem, according to Naszádos, as such competitive pressure keeps them “fit”.

Legislation has a huge impact on the pace at which innovation appears in vehicles. Car makers often say that the technology for driverless driving is already available; it is regulations that are missing. As a result, autonomous features are introduced gradually. 

“Today, Leaf drivers cannot take their eyes off the road and the steering wheel,” Levente Reizer, electric vehicle product manager at Nissan Sales Central Eastern Europe told the BBJ. “With time, this will change as our car will start using one lane on a highway, then two lanes and will be able to change lanes and also keep a distance.” Then come urban driverless models, and the final step is to reach full autonomy, for which a 5G network is needed to allow communication between cars. This it is unlikely to take place before 2025.

Road Blocks Ahead?

Even then, there can be situations when the car cannot decide what to do. For example, when there is a temporary road block or a police check ahead. Together with NASA, Nissan has developed a system to solve such problems. “When the car encounters an unfamiliar situation, it sends data to a control center where, after a quick assessment, the staff sends the new route plan to the car and notifies other cars as well,” Reizer says.

There are other reasons why fully autonomous cars are not yet on the roads. Being a pioneer may not be the best strategy here. “If we are the first to launch a self-driving vehicle, we may risk pricing ourselves out of the market,” Reizer notes. Components and technology such as lidars (distance measuring devices) are quite expensive right now, so it may not be profitable until economy of scales is achieved. 

Automotive innovation is not reduced to driving – the “fuel” cars run on may be changing; saving on consumption remains just as important as is in the case of internal combustion engines. 

Nissan’s energy services department in Europe focuses on how to integrate the growing number of EVs in today’s changing energy environment. Carbon-dioxide emissions are a main culprit for global warming, which can be reduced via smart energy solutions, Reizer says. The integration of renewables in the grid can help achieve climate goals. However, due to their intermittent nature they need to be stored, otherwise we get stuck at roughly 20% penetration, he adds. 

EV batteries may be part of the solution. Although battery capacity and range continues to grow – the current Leaf is capable of covering 500 km on one charge – most owners won’t drive more than 25-30 km per day. The remaining capacity can be used to store and transmit energy, for example, charging the battery with electricity from nuclear energy at night, and send it back to the grid during daytime.

“If drivers can tell ahead how much energy/range they are willing to use, they can sell the rest to transmission system operators. This way we don’t need to switch on expensive spare power plants during peak consumption times – they can use the energy stored in the car’s battery,” Reizer says. With such vehicle-to-grid solutions, drivers can earn as much as EUR 1,000 per year, according to Nissan’s data based on some research in Denmark.