MONTREAL – Self-driving cars, alternative fuels, transit, and travel: there’s an awful lot to the future of transportation. And how we’ll get to that future is the idea behind the Michelin Movin’ On summit.
Organized by the tire manufacturer in conjunction with numerous partners – including governments, universities, and private companies – the three-day event consists of panel discussions, workshops, and technology demonstrations.
It was originally held in various global cities, but it seems to have found a permanent home in Montreal, as this was its third year in this city. While there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to attend everything, here are some of the highlights of the 2019 edition.
Riding without air
Michelin held the world debut of its Uptis prototype tire, an airless, puncture-proof, all-in-one tire and wheel that it plans to put into production by 2024.
Two years ago at Movin’ On, it introduced its Vision concept tire, a 3D-printed tire-and-wheel unit with the potential for printing new tread when the tire is worn, or when switching from summer to winter. However, the printing process is proving to be the toughest part of developing it for market.
While the Vision remains just a concept, the Uptis is a working prototype. Michelin has partnered with General Motors to test the tire in real-world conditions on a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt electric cars. The Uptis is a direct descendent of Michelin’s Tweel, an all-in-one tire and wheel that also started as a concept, but is now sold for light-duty, low-speed applications such as golf carts and grass mowers.
The Uptis was developed in North America, but will probably first go on sale in Asia and India, according to Eric Vinesse, Michelin Group’s executive vice-president of global research and development. “Puncture damage is important,” he said, citing road conditions as a primary cause. “In China, people puncture their tires about every six months. In North America it’s every two to three years, and in Europe it’s four to five years.”
The Uptis contains several proprietary materials and production methods, including bio-sourced materials, and resin-embedded fibreglass for lightweight rigidity. Since it won’t puncture, there’s no need for a spare. There’s also no issue with improper tire pressure, which can cause premature wear. That’s the environmental benefit: Michelin says about 200 million tires are prematurely scrapped each year worldwide due to puncture and pressure issues.
Vinesse said the company is currently focused on the Uptis for passenger cars and small SUVs, but as it gains test experience, the tire might be adaptable for larger vehicles. It will also be looking at how to adapt the aspect ratio and spoke design for different ride and handling characteristics.
Renewable and alternative fuels
Electricity was a major focus at Movin’ On, and several companies brought versions of their battery-powered cars, light- and heavy-duty trucks, shuttles, and bicycles and scooters, both prototypes and currently-available consumer versions. Event participants could also drive the Toyota Mirai fuel-cell vehicle, an electric car that makes its own power using on-board hydrogen, and which is available for sale or lease in limited markets in Canada and the United States.
But while tractor-trailers are usually low on the list for “green” fuels, there was a Freightliner with some in its tank. Fleets in Quebec are gaining access to renewable natural gas (RNG). It can be made from a wide variety of waste materials, and at the moment, Quebec’s is produced primarily from household garbage and agricultural leftovers.
If a truck’s been converted to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is a fossil fuel, it can run on any percentage of RNG. Unlike fuel with a high percentage of ethanol or biodiesel, it doesn’t require any additional alterations to the engine.
RNG can be blended into the natural gas stream, and Quebec has regulated that distributors must include one percent RNG into the total quantity of gas they distribute in 2020. This will progressively increase to five percent by 2025. RNG is pricier, but as volumes increase, the relative cost should go down.
Almost every automaker is working on autonomous vehicles (AVs), as well as freight and transit partners, but there’s a lot more to it than just leaving out the steering wheel. I rode in Navya’s fully autonomous shuttle, which used a variety of cameras and sensors to determine what was around it (including me, when later I stepped in front to see if it would stop – which, of course, it did).
But before it went into service, its handlers had to extensively program it to recognize its route, from which it couldn’t deviate. For AVs to operate as personal transportation, they’ll need “smart” infrastructure that continuously communicates with them, and cities that use technology to reduce congestion and keep everything moving smoothly.
“Across Canada, when we poll residents on what they’d like to see addressed, (in) the top two or three (is) commute time,” said David Telka, Managing Director, Cities and Digital for Accenture Digital in Ottawa. “They want municipalities to address roadways and infrastructure to get to where they need to go.”
Accenture is involved in a government-operated test facility in Ottawa that’s a first-of-its-kind in North America for the number of technologies it features. It’s working on everything involved with V2X – Vehicle to Everything – which includes GPS, DSRC (direct short-range connectivity), 5G broadband, and other tools that self-driving cars will require.
Electricity appears to be the “fuel of choice” for AVs, and a smart city will enable that as well. “If you equip the vehicles with AI (artificial intelligence), they can predict the demand, and charge during off-peak hours,” said Jürgen Reers, managing director of Accenture in Germany. “And a lot of urban dwellers aren’t interested in owning a vehicle, but in using it, so it’s about shared mobility. Those are the perfect applications, because they’re only going short distances in a confined area, so it’s very easy to build the charging infrastructure.”
To make transit attractive, smart cities have to focus on “first and last mile”, getting users to and from the transit hub – because if it’s not convenient, people will drive to their destinations instead. Options might include AV ride-hailing, peer-to-peer car sharing, or bicycle and scooter programs.
In addition to telling AVs where to drive, smart cities will also tell them where to park. In some cities, 30 percent of all inner-city traffic is related to drivers looking for parking, Reers said. “Parking infrastructure can be connected, but it’s not happening because there’s no incentive. Cities should say that if you want to operate a parking structure, it must be connected. When a city starts to regulate traffic and take a more active role, you can improve the life of that city by far.”
But how smart do you want your city to be?
One of the topics that’s become increasingly important is the issue of data and privacy. Making the self-driving car is relatively easy; figuring out how to handle the information is going to be tough. It’s going to be so essential to mobility that many forums and workshops at Movin’ On were devoted to it.
AVs operating in smart cities will communicate in unprecedentedly large chunks of data. They’ll broadcast your location, your route, and your destination. They’ll use facial recognition, including those of pedestrians and cyclists. It’s estimated that by 2030, this information may be worth $750 billion. So who owns this valuable data, how long will they store it, what will they do with it, and how do they keep it safe?
Municipalities can’t fund smart cities on their own. They’ll partner with private corporations, all of which will want return on their investments. This could include access to you – for example, your autonomous car might choose a charging station that’s beside a store that paid to advertise to you.
There will be terms and conditions – the stuff you agree to, without reading, whenever you download a new app. But what happens if you don’t hit “yes” in your car? Could it refuse to take you to your destination until you do?
Hackers will have a wide stream to attack. There will be connections everywhere: car to phone, car to infrastructure, car and infrastructure to cloud. Someone breaking into the automakers’ diagnostic network could insert code. When a technician plugs in his computer to see why your air conditioning isn’t working, he could be downloading that code, giving someone access to critical autonomous functions such as brakes or steering.
Another piece of the puzzle is how we’ll deal with all that computing. It’s going to eat up a lot of computing power and require a lot of electricity, putting even more pressure on the grid as all these battery-powered cars recharge. There will be too much information going to the cloud, according to Kulveer Ranger, senior vice-president at technology company Atos, requiring advancement of in-car technology. “The cars and the roads send it up, analyze it, and send it back, but that’s the challenge. We won’t do these intelligent things in the cloud. It’ll be about edge computing, where it has to happen in the car. That will be the shift for us to manage the data.”
The challenges ahead
One of the things you quickly learn at Movin’ On is why the future is taking so long. Back in the day, Henry Ford poured raw materials from his own foundries and forests into one end of his factory, and a Model T came out the other.
Today, it takes a village to build a self-driving car. Dozens of companies can be involved in creating a single component. As automation progresses, retailers and service providers will have to adapt. Every advancement has learning curves; before the autonomous shuttle could run on-site, first responders had to be shown how to manually move it in an emergency. Every technology has thousands of tiny details to work out.
There are issues like integration, and the what-ifs. When AVs start trickling onto the roads, how well will they integrate with human drivers? How long will it take for technology to progress, so those in remote communities can use AVs? Will automakers continue to make conventional cars until everyone has access to AV infrastructure, or will some – such as those in the Far North – be left even further behind?
What happens when cars with artificial intelligence learn to think for themselves in different circumstances, such as rural versus urban? Just as with human drivers with various levels of experience, will there be issues when they meet? The Movin’ On Summit didn’t have the answers to questions like these, but it brought together the people who will have to work together to figure them out.