Holden Test Drive Challenge

Holden has launched a new 'Test Drive Challenge' where the customer receives a $500 prepaid Visa card if they test drive a Holden, but end up purchasing a competitor vehicle. Here's why I think such a scheme is flawed:

  • The key tagline behind this 'Test Drive Challenge' is that Holden engineers have ensured their cars 'perform just like a Holden should.' The problem with this is that Holden's portfolio over the last 20 years has been a cacophony of products sourced from all over the global GM empire. For example, Holden's small car offering has ranged from the Opel (GM's former European arm) sourced Astra, to the Daewoo (GM Korea) sourced Viva, then the originally Korean (and later 'Australianised') Cruze, and now back to the European Astra hatch and North American sourced Astra sedan. Although Holden has recently developed a tuning program to adapt imported vehicles to Australian conditions, these vehicles have fundamentally been developed for different markets, with different driving tastes, and thus do not share 'family-wide' driving characteristics in the same vein that vehicles from Mazda, or even BMW, do.    
  • The campaign in general simply reeks of a desperate attempt to move dealership stock as quickly as possible. Rather then sell cars on their inherent quality, this campaign paves the way for dealerships to convince customers to go for a test drive, and then try to sell the vehicle through heavy discounting, to the extent the customer would be silly to buy a competitor car, even with a $500 benefit. Moreover, such heavy discounting has a detrimental flow-on effect to the residual value of Holden vehicles.

Is anything short of full autonomy really autonomous?

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is the pre-eminent standards development organisation for the automotive industry. Currently, the SAE classifies vehicles into six different levels of autonomy. Paraphrased, these are:

  • Level 0: No driving automation. The driver is responsible for all tasks.
  • Level 1: Driver assistance technologies. Technologies such as adaptive cruise control can control either acceleration/braking or steering, but not both. These are assistance technologies only, and the driver must control the vehicle.
  • Level 2: Partial driving automation. The car can sustain control of acceleration/braking and steering only within specific environments (e.g. a motorway with clearly marked lanes). The driver is expected to remain alert and able to intervene at any time. The driver is also expected to supervise the automation system and to handle any hazards or other adverse events that may occur.
  • Level 3: Conditional driving automation. The car can sustain control of all driving tasks (acceleration/braking, steering and other driving tasks such as changing lanes) only within specific environments (e.g. a motorway with clearly marked lanes). However, the driver is expected to respond and take control of the vehicle if the car warns the driver, or if the automated driving system fails.
  • Level 4: High driving automation. The car can sustain control of all driving tasks (acceleration/braking, steering and other driving tasks such as changing lanes) only within a specific environment (e.g. a motorway with clearly marked lanes). Within this specified environment, there is no expectation that a driver will intervene.
  • Level 5: Full driving automation. The car can sustain control of all driving tasks in all environments, unconditionally. There is no expectation that a driver will intervene.

The SAE standard provides the following table for autonomous driving (paraphrased above):

The main problem with this system is the terminology. In the ordinary sense of the word, 'autonomous' means having the ability to independently control oneself, free from interference. When applied to Level 2 and Level 3 vehicles, this is clearly not true, as both types of vehicles can function with only limited independence, in specific environments, and operate with the expectation that a driver can intervene if things turn awry.

This has consequences in relation to how the automotive industry markets autonomous vehicles, and how customers perceive them.

Audi's misleading description of the A8 having 'Level 3' autonomy

Audi's press materials describe the A8's autonomous driving system as follows:

World debut for highly automated driving: the Audi AI traffic jam pilot

With the Audi AI traffic jam pilot, the brand with the four rings presents the world’s first system that enables highly automated driving at Level 3. The car takes over the task of driving in certain situations. Unlike at Level 2, the driver no longer needs to monitor it permanently. They must merely be capable of taking back responsibility whenever the system prompts them to.

The driver activates the traffic jam pilot with the AI button on the center console. On freeways and highways where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways, the system takes over the driving task if the car is traveling at less than 60 km/h (37.3 mph) in nose-to-tail traffic. The traffic jam pilot manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking. It can also handle critical situations such as vehicles cutting in closely in front. The signals that the traffic jam pilot needs for highly automated driving are supplied for instance by the central driver assistance controller (zFAS).

With the traffic jam pilot active, the driver can relax. They can take their hands off the steering wheel permanently and, depending on national laws, focus on a different activity that is supported by the car, such as watch a TV program on the 10.1-inch display in the center console. In this instance the Audi virtual cockpit supplies abstract representations that symbolize the motion and surroundings of the new A8.

During highly automated travel a small camera in the driving area detects if the driver tires or falls sleep. If that happens, a multi-stage warning is given. As soon as the speed rises above 60 km/h (37.3 mph) or the line of vehicles breaks up, the traffic jam pilot informs the driver that they need to take charge of driving once again. If they ignore this prompt and the subsequent warnings, the new A8 is braked to a standstill. The introduction of the Audi AI traffic jam pilot means the statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market, along with the country-specific definition of the application and testing of the system. The brand’s high quality standards are equally applicable in the realm of highly automated driving. In addition, a range of approval procedures and their corresponding timescales will need to be observed worldwide. Audi will therefore be adopting a step-by-step approach to the introduction of the traffic jam pilot in production models.
— Audi A8 press release

The errors in this press release begin with the description of the A8's capability for 'highly automated driving.' As per the SAE standard, high driving automation is classified as Level 4. Whilst the term 'highly automated driving' has an element of subjectivity to it, and Audi is free to market the A8 as it sees fit, it's misleading to obfuscate the subjective 'highly automated driving' with the term 'high driving automation', that has a defined meaning that the A8 does not meet as per the SAE standard.

Another error lies within Audi's substantive description of the A8's autonomous driving capability. Let's break down Audi's description, according to the SAE criteria:

  • Driving tasks performed (Dynamic Driving Task, or DDT): "The traffic jam pilot manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking. It can also handle critical situations such as vehicles cutting in closely in front."
  • Operational environment (Operational Design Domain, or ODD): "On freeways and highways where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways, the system takes over the driving task if the car is traveling at less than 60 km/h (37.3 mph) in nose-to-tail traffic."
  • Extent of human driver involvement required (DDT fallback): "During highly automated travel a small camera in the driving area detects if the driver tires or falls sleep. If that happens, a multi-stage warning is given. As soon as the speed rises above 60 km/h (37.3 mph) or the line of vehicles breaks up, the traffic jam pilot informs the driver that they need to take charge of driving once again. If they ignore this prompt and the subsequent warnings, the new A8 is braked to a standstill."

For a car to have Level 3 automation, the SAE suggests that it must have control of all driving tasks within the specified operating environment. Audi suggests the A8 manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking, on dual-carriage highways with a separating physical barrier, when the car is travelling at less than 60 km/h. However, the company makes no mention of other DDTs such as changing or merging lanes that are often necessary in the operating environment that Audi describes. Furthermore, whilst the SAE standard doesn't prescribe any suggestions for the type of ODDs that Level 3 vehicles should be able to operate in, the operating environment of Audi's autonomous driving system is remarkably limited. 60 km/h is a very low operational speed limit, and effectively means that Audi's system works only in stop-start traffic jams on highways. In light of the very limited scenarios that Audi's system can actually work in, it is not significantly different from existing adaptive cruise and lane-keep assist systems widely available today.

Technical image showing the architecture of the A8's claimed autonomous driving system

Conclusion

The SAE should rephrase the six levels of autonomous driving, such that terms such as 'autonomous vehicles' and 'driving automation' apply only to Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles. The technologies offered in Level 2 and Level 3 vehicles are, for all practical purposes, driver assistance technologies rather than autonomous driving technologies. Categorising these vehicles as having 'driving automation', when in most practical situations they require human supervision, can create the potential for misleading marketing, as evidenced by the Audi A8 above, and consequently create customer confusion and overconfidence in the technology available today. Ultimately, there is no commercially available autonomous car on sale today.

Alfa Romeo's new product strategy

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) recently unveiled a new product strategy for its Alfa Romeo brand, as outlined in the slide below:

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 8.01.39 pm.png

The slide makes clear that Alfa Romeo plans to launch 3 updated ('MCA', or 'Mid-Cycle Action') versions of existing models (Giulietta, Giulia, and Stelvio) along with 4 completely new models ('C UV', 'E UV', GTV and 8C). If we take the (admittedly unrealistic) assumption that the product lineup of competing brands will remain the same as today, how does Alfa Romeo compare?

This table should be treated as a guide only, rather than a holistic appraisal of market segments in the industry that are set in stone. Certain vehicles, such as the Range Rover Velar, straddle segments and are difficult to classify. Infiniti has not been included as it is popular only regionally (North American market), whilst Genesis is an emerging brand that is still in the process of rolling out a full product range. Ultimately, the focus should be on developing great cars rather than filling market segments just for the sake of having a complete vehicle range.

The table above demonstrates that were Alfa Romeo to produce the vehicles outlined in their 2022 strategy, they would merely be matching the product lineup of competitors today. Alfa Romeo's European competitors, along with Tesla, already have several plug-in hybrid options available. With several of these manufacturers planning to introduce more battery electric vehicles in the near future (such as BMW's iX3 and an electric Volvo XC40), Alfa Romeo should also ideally target producing a battery electric vehicle by 2022.

Electric vehicles and brand DNA

Alfa Romeo describes its brand DNA as follows:

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 8.31.50 pm.png

It's important to dispel the notion that battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are incompatible with Alfa Romeo's brand DNA, or that they represent a necessary dilution of the brand to meet ever-tightening emissions regulations. In fact, the opposite is true. Electric motors and plug-in hybrid technology represent the most advanced powertrain technology available today. The 'skateboard' vehicle chassis (commonly used in battery electric vehicles), with a long, flat rectangular battery, sandwiched at the bottom of the vehicle, offers better opportunities for a 50/50 weight distribution than a bulky combustion engine positioned at the front or rear of the car. Likewise, the packaging opportunities offered by such a chassis enable greater stylistic freedom for designers. Although battery electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model S weigh more than their combustion engine counterparts, forthcoming advances in battery technology, such as solid-state batteries, with higher energy densities, promise to reduce this disparity. Thus, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicle technology especially, can act as an enhancement, rather than a dilution, of Alfa Romeo's brand DNA.

  Above: The skateboard chassis used by Jaguar's i-Pace. Such a chassis incorporates a flat, long and rectangular battery pack at the bottom of the vehicle to lower the centre of gravity and optimise packaging and interior space.

Above: The skateboard chassis used by Jaguar's i-Pace. Such a chassis incorporates a flat, long and rectangular battery pack at the bottom of the vehicle to lower the centre of gravity and optimise packaging and interior space.

Dyson to produce an electric car by 2020

Jimi Beckwith, reporting for Autocar:

"Dyson has confirmed plans for an all-electric car that will enter production in Britain by 2020 and has received support from the UK Government.

The car will be funded by £2 billion from Dyson and is currently under development at Dyson's Wiltshire headquarters by a team of 400 people. 

Dyson is keeping specific details, such as performance, range and production numbers, secret but it will not be a mass-market car akin to the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf; instead, it will be aimed at a more tech-oriented market. This suggests that it might be a rival to the Tesla Model S in terms of market position."

It's great to have more competition in the electric car space, as it pushes everyone to innovate that much more, and so Dyson's announcement is very welcome.

I think that their decision to apparently focus on a more 'tech-oriented' (premium?) market is a good one. Dyson is a brand renowned for its innovative household appliances, and developing a premium vehicle is in line with their current brand positioning.

I can see Dyson innovating in the electric car space in two key ways: technology and design. It wouldn't be surprising to see a Dyson electric vehicle powered by their digital motor technology, currently used for their vacuum cleaners, and using a HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning) system incorporating their Air Multiplier bladeless fan technology.

What is more interesting to speculate about is how Dyson's design will translate to a car. Dyson is one of the few companies today with a unique, but consistent, design language across products that have entirely different purposes. The company is a strong proponent of the 'design is how it works' approach, and is notable for its use of bright colour accents to visually highlight key parts of its products. It will be fascinating to see how this approach will apply to the exterior and interior design of its vehicle. Perhaps important controls could be colour coded according to their function? Autocar's subsequent interview with Sir James Dyson is very illuminating in this regard.

Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive

Al Jazeera:

"In a reversal of a longstanding rule, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will now allow women to drive.

In a royal decree signed by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the order said it will be effective immediately but the rollout will take months, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday.

A high-level committee of ministers has been set up to examine the arrangements for the enforcement of the order."

Finally.