Canadian Manufacturing

‘Technology is there’ for autonomous cars, GM scientist says

Working toward packaging technology in affordable ways for consumers



TORONTO—My car is probably smarter than me.

And according to an automotive technology expert, it’s only going to get smarter.

Intelligent features are driving today’s industry—from electrification to connectivity and autonomy—and linking drivers and their vehicles in a symbiotic way never seen before.

Justin Gammage, chief scientist with GM Canada, couldn’t get into specifics of what the future holds from the automaker’s perspective, but said the possibilities seem limitless.

According to Gammage, who leads GM Canada’s research and development department, while consumers are still after aesthetics, there is now a two-fold approach to bringing new vehicles to market.

“Really, what the focus now is design (coupled with) vehicle features,” he said. “If you want to be successful you have to have vehicles that people really want to have.”

And what those people want to have is technology—and lots of it.

Automakers are no longer able to focus on matters like regulatory demand, climate change and fuel prices alone, as the connected consumer is demanding more innovative features from their vehicle.

“Technology innovation is one of the trickier parts to really stay ahead of in terms of making sure you’re ahead of the technology that is desired,” Gammage said.

15 years ago, cruise control and a CD player were in-demand features in the new car market.

Today, CD players are supplemented by hands-free cell phone connections and satellite radio, and cruise control is evolving into semi-autonomous driving thanks to technology like GM’s ‘Super Cruise’.

“The DNA of the vehicle is changing,” Gammage said.

That changing genetic makeup has evolved to include massive amounts of control modules to manage all the features available in the modern automobile.

In fact, according to Gammage, in 2000, passenger vehicles were packed with an average of 20 engine control units (ECUs) worth about $400.

Today’s cars now house some 75 ECUs worth about $1,200.

That number only gets increased with the advent of the electric vehicle due to the software utilized to monitor and control charging and power output.

Gammage also said intelligent vehicles aren’t limited to just software.

“It (includes) things related to smart materials,” he said.

Case in point: the new 2014 Chevrolet Corvette.

According to Gammage, the latest rendition of the age-old performance car includes an intelligent material that reacts to heat and opens a vent in the back of the car to release pressure, making it easier to close the Corvette’s deck lid.

Smart materials like the heat-activated alloy wire used in the ‘Vette are also lightweight, something automakers like GM are exploring along with intelligence.

“If you design a car that doesn’t crash you can theoretically lightweight the car, because you don’t need as many crash-related features,” Gammage said.

“Really, what we’re trying to move to is a system of vehicles that don’t crash, and doing that (through) a variety of sensors and new communications technologies.”

Communications technology is also being combined with powertrain technology and public infrastructure in the GM labs, according to Gammage, with the automaker working toward having vehicles “speak” wirelessly with the electric grid in order to optimize things like charging battery systems during off-peak hours.

Individually, they all sound like neat gizmos that could be marketed as convenience features, but bundled together in one tidy package is the recipe to autonomy.

And according to Gammage, the future is bright.

“The technology is there,” Gammage said. “There is a path to autonomy, and really it’s now at the point where (we’re) asking how we can get the consumer to accept that (and) how do we drive the cost of those systems down to a place where it’s affordable to the mass marketplace.”

Now that’s smart.

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