Off-Highway Driverless Vehicle Challenges

In the realm of driverless vehicles, the automotive sector is generating the most buzz among the general public. Even with the recent advancements made in driverless car technology, there are still many bugs in the system that must be worked out before cars drive on public roadways, free from human intervention. While road travel may need to be worked out, vehicles operated privately or off the roadways face their own challenges. Vehicles that are operated off of public roadways, sometimes referred to as off-highway vehicles, are used in many industries. Some of the biggest industries that utilize off-highway driverless technology are the mining industry and the agricultural industry. Vehicles in these industries benefit greatly from being driverless, and these industries have taken advantage of driverless technology for years. Off-highway vehicles that are outfitted with driverless technology face a different set of challenges than those faced by vehicles operated on public roadways. Some of the challenges are easy to overcome, and some are not. For example, mining equipment must remain in a relatively well-defined area while operating. The area, or mine, is an area that can be properly defined by the driverless vehicle, providing easy navigation and reduction of unknown obstacles. Second, dynamic obstacles, such as humans or other car drivers, are minimized resulting in a decrease to unknown variables. Other challenges pose unique risks to the driverless off-highway vehicle. For example, many off-highway vehicles operate in a very specialized manner, such as agricultural tilling machines. While tilling machines may operate in a defined path, knowing the conditions necessary to properly till a field are much different than the conditions required for roadway travel. Thus, the controls and operations of such off-highway vehicles are more customized and taylor-made for the particular sector of industry. As many experts in these industries will relate, there is not a “one-size fits all” solution to off-highway driverless vehicles. -taken from www.sae.org

Limousine Crash Raises Questions About Safety

The recent limousine crash in Schoharie, New York raises some safety concerns for large modified vehicles. The accident, which took the lives of 20 individuals, involved a large modified version of a Ford Excursion that had been essentially cut in half with the middle extended, then re-assembled to form a larger vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, otherwise known as NHTSA, stated that this was the most deadly transportation disaster in almost 10 years. The issues that surround the case include whether or not the limousine driver was properly licensed, and the shoddy inspection history held by the subject limousine company and failed inspection results. The history of the vehicle involved in the accident is not completely known to the public, but it is evident from the details that have been released that the vehicle began its life as a 2001 Excursion. While many limousines start out as a normal passenger vehicle, it is common for the limousines to be completely custom made by a third party, lengthening the vehicle to accommodate more people inside. In fact, the term “stretch” limousine appropriately defines what these vehicles are: stretched versions of a vehicle that have extra-long wheelbases, multiple windows in a row between front and rear, and have the capability of holding 10 or more passengers. Sometimes these custom modified vehicles are termed “Frankenstein” vehicles However, simply stretching a vehicle to turn it into a limousine has some very serious side effects. Most importantly, when a vehicle is modified with new custom parts and components, some of the original safety systems may be left out. Things like airbags and seatbelts, which were originally part of the vehicle, are removed from modified limousines. Unfortunately regulations on seatbelt requirements for rear seat passengers, just like those paying customers who hire a limousine service, are not regulated the same in every state. In fact, in New York, where this accident occurred, rear seated passengers are not required to wear seatbelts. Ultimately this accident indicated that there is a significant gap in regulation around the limousine industry that will likely be addressed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration soon. -taken from www.npr.org

Plastics And Composites Are In Demand

Aerospace and automotive industries are increasing their usage of plastics in aircraft and vehicle design. Specifically, high performance plastics, such as composites, carbon fiber, and similar carbon-based materials usage is on the rise. High performance plastics are being used more and more to replace current steel, aluminum, and even titanium components. High performance plastic components are increasing in popularity because they provide a good strength to weight ratio for many components and can be manufactured easily. In addition, many new automotive and aircraft designs, which are migrating towards advanced material applications, may use high performance plastics in emissions reducing goals, as lightweight components require less energy and fuel consumption to propel them. In high-production markets, the usage of high performance plastics is expected to increase from now until approximately 2024, when it will become a $3 billion dollar industry. The rise of high performance plastics allows manufacturers to produce vehicles and aircraft that are lightweight. The goal of light weight and superior strength is not new; however achieving levels of strength not previously achieved and keeping the vehicle’s weight down has reached new levels due to the usage of high performance plastics. In addition, internal combustion engine-powered vehicles may soon be replaced to some degree by electric vehicles, which will utilize composites and high performance plastics in many different and challenging ways. Battery production and energy storage are two areas of electric vehicles that may benefit from the development and usage of high performance plastics. Manufacturing processes that produce high performance plastics are also diversifying. Plastic components can be made through additive manufacturing quite easily. Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, produces much less waste than traditional manufacturing processes and can create intricate parts while maintaining tight tolerances. High performance plastics can take advantage of additive manufacturing to produce parts that ultimately cost much less to make than current metal components.   -taken from www.sae.org

Autonomous Aircraft To Help Fight Fires

Wildland fires are currently destroying many natural forested areas of the United States. These huge fires spread over natural terrain very rapidly and are difficult to control because they occur in remote areas, often burning everything in sight. Many people have lost their mountain homes due to wildland fires, and firefighters are having a difficult time controlling the fires from spreading further during the hot summer months. One weapon used against wildland firefighters is the heavy air tanker aircraft. Air tankers are designed to carry heavy payloads and when air tankers are used in wildland firefighting, they are equipped to carry enormous payloads of water or fire retardant to the location of the wildland fire and then drop their payload on the area of the fire as they fly overhead. Air tankers are invaluable in the fight against wildfires and are in high demand during fire season. Two companies, Thrush and Drone America, have teamed together to develop an autonomous air tanker that can be used to drop water and fire retardant on wildland fires while being piloted robotically. The autonomous air tanker is an enhancement of other drone-like aircraft currently in use by law enforcement and fire fighters. Current autonomous aircraft are used to monitor wildland fires from an aerial viewpoint, search for hot spots that may reignite, and photograph the spread of fires over time. Dropping a payload autonomously has significant benefits for emergency workers, however. Primarily, keeping pilots out of dangerous situations and flying over dangerous terrain is beneficial from a personnel standpoint. Also, autonomous aircraft have the benefit of being able to fly during the night time and navigate terrain successfully using onboard sensors. Since temperatures are usually lower at night, fires tend not to spread as quickly when the sun goes down, allowing autonomous air tankers to drop water and fire retardant on fires when they are less prone to spread. Plans for development are still under consideration, and teams from both companies are exploring other uses for autonomous aircraft as well. -taken from www.dronelife.com

EV Battery Technology Shows Promise

A French company is currently developing a new energy storage device that may potentially see itself in electric vehicles. The company, called NAWA (short for NAno technology to fight against global Warming), is currently developing “ultra-capacitors” for use as storage devices that can be rapidly charged and discharged to match demands from electric vehicles. The ultra-capacitors are aiming to help some of the current limitations put on electric car batteries such as poor energy density and limitations on charging and discharging. The ultra-capacitors will be designed to be extremely efficient and may eventually have energy densities that rival current lithium celled batteries. Currently, the ultra-capacitors have superior energy density to current capacitor based energy storage and much better efficiency. NAWA is developing the ultra-capacitors using a state of the art technique that aligns series of carbon nanotubes in rows to allow the electrons to pass through the capacitor with limited resistance. A good analogy to the alignment of the nanotubes is to consider the uniform positioning of bristles on a toothbrush, providing a direct route for the electrons to travel through the ultra-capacitor. Two current issues with electric vehicles that are concerning for would-be consumers deal with the allowable range that electric vehicles are limited to, and how to charge the vehicle when the battery is drained. The new ultra-capacitors aim to help these two issues by allowing for current electric vehicle batteries to be lighter in weight, more efficient, and able to take a recharge more quickly. To deal with vehicle range limitations and rapid recharging, the carbon ultra-capacitors will supplement current lithium batteries with superior energy density and the ability to regenerate charge through vehicle decelerations, otherwise known as regenerative braking. Current regenerative braking is not very efficient, mostly because the battery cells cannot recouperate from such rapid recharging. New carbon ultra-capacitors will be able to accommodate the rapid recharging that occurs by regenerative braking, thus recollecting otherwise lost energy. Rapid charging will also be possible when using batteries enhanced with the new carbon ultra-capacitors, therefore reducing the amount of time spent waiting for an electric vehicle’s battery to be recharged. NAWA’s ultra-capacitors are still under development, but plans for testing in automotive applications is scheduled within the next five years. -taken from www.sae.org

NASA Developing Supersonic Flight

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a new supersonic aircraft for use as a passenger plane. The project is put in place to test new supersonic technologies in an attempt to reduce the noise levels of sonic booms from these large aircraft. Supersonic aircraft development is nothing new. In fact, early X prototype aircraft were developed in the 1940’s and 1950’s and these aircraft were capable of traveling above the speed of sound. However, using supersonic flight for passenger planes has had a much more troubled history. Concord airplanes, used in the 1970’s for over thirty years in all areas across the world, were capable of reducing trans-continental flight times significantly. The problem with Concord planes was not the speed at which they traveled, but the significant sonic boom that the aircraft created when traveling at or above the speed of sound. In fact, the sonic boom from aircraft has been known to break windows and cause minor structural damage to buildings. Despite the drawbacks to supersonic flight, the appeal of short flights from continent to continent is very appealing. This is why NASA has awarded a new contract to Lockheed Martin in an attempt to reduce the effect of sonic boom caused by aircraft flying at the speed of sound. The new concept aircraft, dubbed the “Low Boom Flight Demonstration”, will be used to test new technologies that are aimed at reducing the effects of sonic booms. New aircraft hull designs are theoretically supposed to reduce the sound of a sonic boom to acceptable levels. In fact the aircraft being designed by Lockheed Martin will theoretically only produce a sonic boom that is as loud as a car door slamming, or repeated doors slamming over a period of time. Supersonic flight technologies are gaining rapid attention in many sectors across the world and NASA is not the only group to be focused on improving this mode of flight. In fact, DOD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also looking into supersonic flight technologies to counter the recent efforts that have been made by China in supersonic flight. -Taken From www.sae.org

BMW Developing Carbon Fiber Components

The use of carbon fiber in vehicle applications is not a new concept, however the cost of manufacturing components made from carbon fiber is typically the limiting factor in its usage. Carbon fiber is a very strong, stiff, carbon based material that can be molded into complex shapes. Once carbon fiber is formed into its end shape, it is very lightweight and can surpass the strength to weight ratio of many competing metals, such as many grades of aluminum and steel. BMW has used carbon fiber in their vehicles and motorcycles throughout the years because it provides obvious engineering advantages for strength and weight, and it is also considered a premium material with a history of usage in motorsports racing. BMW recently ceased production of carbon fiber components for undisclosed reasons. This decision was met by the automotive industry as indicating that BMW’s carbon fiber production was not profitable. However, BMW insisted that carbon-based component production would continue through other avenues. One such avenue that was recently unveiled was the development of a carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) motorcycle swing arm. The swing arm was developed with seven joint partners as a demonstration of a new manufacturing process termed “resin transfer molding”. The swing arm is incredibly light and strong, and has won 2018 JEC Innovation Award for its production method and end result. BMW stated that they chose to model a swing arm using resin transfer molding to demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology on a part that sees continuous stress during normal usage. The motorcycle swing arm utilizes short carbon fibers in locations on the swing arm that require localized strength. For location of the swing arm that requires elongated stiffness, long fibers were incorporated into the mold.  According to BMW, the cost saving techniques that they learned from development of the swing arm will be directly attributable to other motorcycle components. In the future, BMW will also begin incorporating the same carbon fiber reinforcement for automotive applications.

Uber’s Autonomous Vehicle Crash Shakes Industry

Last week’s accident between a testing autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian has shaken the automotive industry. Uber, the ride sharing company and their fleet of autonomous vehicles manufactured by Volvo, have all but stopped any further autonomous vehicle testing until further notice because of the crash. The crash involved a Volvo XC90 autonomous vehicle that was occupied by a human backup driver, and a pedestrian. While details on the accident have not been released, preliminary analysis of the available evidence shows that the pedestrian likely entered the oncoming path of the XC90 without sufficient time for the vehicle’s driving systems to properly avoid hitting the pedestrian. In addition, the backup driver did not have sufficient time to react to the situation or to avoid intervening with the driverless system before the vehicle collided with the pedestrian. This was thought to have been the first ever fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle since testing had begun, including tests undertaken by other companies, such as Google. Right after Uber suspended their autonomous vehicle testing, Toyota announced that they would also be suspending all autonomous vehicle testing until further notice. In a statement provided by Toyota, the company informed the industry that they feel that the fatality has caused an emotional response from the backup test drivers and has shaken the confidence that autonomous vehicles can effectively prevent accidents in everyday scenarios. A similar response has reverberated throughout the automotive industry. Most companies are concerned about the backlash caused by the accident and how the thought of autonomous vehicles as being completely safe may now be gone. Autonomous vehicle testing relies on sensors placed around the vehicle that “see” the environment around the vehicle in an attempt to perform the act of driving at the level of a human, or even better. The system of sensors used by autonomous vehicles is dependent on being able to correctly identify the surroundings in the event of an emergency, and respond appropriately by navigating the autonomous vehicle away from the emergency. It may be difficult for the public to regain trust in such systems after they have been shown to be fallible. -taken from www.sae.org