If Nissan Motors has its way, there will be no auto accidents involving the Japanese company’s vehicles by the year 2050. At Toyota Motors, a similar initiative has the eventual goal of achieving “zero casualties from traffic accidents.” In the years ahead, those companies – along with other major automakers in Asia, North America and Europe — will be rolling out more and more vehicles that promise to do no harm to the environment – because they are battery-powered – or little or no harm to their occupants and pedestrians because they are loaded with safety features developed in the disruptive world of digital high-technology.

What are some of these technologies, and how are they being introduced into the tightly integrated systems of the automotive sector? What fundamental challenges are involved in achieving a smooth process of integration? These questions, critical for the future of the automotive sector, were discussed recently at the Mack Institute Fall Conference 2013, whose theme was: “When Disruptive Technologies Meet Integrated Systems: Who Captures the Value?” 

‘Less Integrated, More Modular”

The automobile is about to undergo its first fundamental change in dominant design since the late 1920s, according to John Paul MacDuffie, director of the Mack Institute’s Program on Vehicle and Mobility Innovation (PVMI) and a Wharton management professor, as he led off the conference. While the automotive sector is “quite tightly” integrated, more and more technologies are arriving from the high-tech sector, which is structured in a different way.

The automobile is about to undergo its first fundamental change in dominant design since the late 1920s.

Automotive product architecture, industry structure, and supplier and dealer relationships are all still highly integrated, he noted, despite increased “deverticalization” in product design and assembly (i.e., greater reliance on partnerships involving the outsourcing of design and assembly.) But IT and digital industries are “less integrated, more modular, more disaggregated” and “less dependent on one overarching system integrator,” added MacDuffie, noting that with the introduction of disruptive digital innovations, “the auto industry will have ever more in common with emerging industries” such as information and communications technologies.

Each disruptive change in technology faces the challenge of dealing with the automotive sector’s tightly integrated systems, said MacDuffie. Thus, electric motors and batteries need to be integrated into vehicle steering, braking, suspension, safety and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems in order to meet regulatory requirements and customer expectations. When it comes to marketing, Internet sales made directly from manufacturers are illegal in all 50 states due to franchise laws, so vehicle dealers will remain central in the sales process. But the infrastructure for fueling vehicles is quite distinctive and varied: While well established for such fuels as gasoline and diesel, the infrastructure is quite limited for other fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, and “virtually non-existent” for the newest energy sources – such as the recharging of lithium ion batteries and compressed natural gas (CNG), noted MacDuffie.

Exactly what kinds of IT-based innovations are automotive companies integrating into their latest product lines? In a panel discussion entitled, “When Clockspeeds Collide: Integrating IT into New Vehicles,” Takeshi Yamaguchi, vice-president, Nissan Technical Center North America, said that Nissan has directed its innovation efforts toward two sorts of products: first, environmentally focused innovations that will lower – or totally eliminate – vehicle emissions; and second, innovations aimed at improving the safety of passengers as well as pedestrians and others who are at risk. Looking beyond the battery powered Nissan Leaf, powered entirely by electricity, Yamaguchi surveyed the line-up of Nissan’s “safety shield” innovations, including sensor rear end; lane departure prevention; direct adoptive steering; active engine brake and zero-gravity seats.

In recent years, such innovations have been gradually rolled out in such vehicles as the Infiniti Q50 and the Altima, which are not electric vehicles. For example, Nissan rolled out lane departure prevention in 2007; blind spot prevention in 2009; back-up collision intervention in 2012, and forward collision avoidance assist in 2013. (At Toyota, similar recent roll-outs include such innovations as rear-end collision; pedestrian accident avoidance assist; night view detection system with pedestrian detection function, and lane departure prevention. At VW, safety innovations include park assist, remote control parking, trailer assist, construction site assistant, blind spot monitor and the pre-crash occupant protection system.)

Takeshi Mitamura, general manager, mobility and service laboratory, Nissan Research Center, added that Nissan researchers are focusing on three distinct aspects of “intelligence” in each of these products. First, recognition – by electronic tools of other vehicles, drivers and obstacles along the road; second, judgment – automated analysis of the data collected by these electronic instruments; and, third, action – automated, rapid-fire responses that minimize or eliminate the risks identified by those electronic tools.

The logical, ultimate upshot of these efforts is the autonomous, driver-less vehicle. Last August, Nissan demonstrated prototypes of such a vehicle in a closed environment in central Tokyo alongside similar battery-driven prototypes developed by Toyota and Honda. The demonstrations attracted a great deal of attention, in part because of the presence of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

How much will consumers be willing to pay for trouble-free, hands-off vehicles, or for safer vehicles that still require someone to sit in the driver’s seat?

A major component of such vehicles is a high-speed camera that can process images at speeds up to 100 times faster than the brain of any human driver. “Everything can be seen in slow motion,” Mitamura said. The “action” functions involved in these prototypes are known at Nissan as “autonomous lane change; autonomous highway exit; autonomous stop at stop sign; autonomous car parking; autonomous remote parking” and so forth. The key goal, said Mitamura, is “how we can replace the human driver” by integrating each of these separate innovations into the vehicle seamlessly.

In this brave new world of driverless cars, information collected by such cameras, laser scanners and other electronic devices will “identify multiple objects in a complex, rapidly changing environment” and take action “to avoid accidents faster than a driver could,” Mitamura said. These vehicle prototypes not only incorporated advanced microchips throughout each chassis, but integrated such data-gathering tools with cloud-based data that reflected “collective intelligence about customer data, design data and manufacturing data,” Mitamura noted, without providing additional details.

For all that, Mitamura cautioned against getting overly excited about the prototypes revealed at that public demonstration. The Nissan vehicle “is still a very initial prototype,” he said, adding that there exists a substantial “mismatch” between the clock speeds of automotive assembly firms, “which have long development times,” and the clock speeds of information technology firms, which can test and approve new ideas and products much more quickly.

“IT clock speeds change fast, but the IT in a vehicle stays on the market for 10 years after it is launched,” said Mitamura. While advances in computer simulation tools have reduced the time it takes for auto designers to develop new models, it can still take years for a new vehicle to move from the drawing board to showroom, far longer than it takes to develop a new info-tech product or upgrade an old PC with new software. “The complex integration of multi-domain components” in the production of such vehicles, he added, has created a new challenge, or new vehicles would likely be brought to market even more quickly than they are currently.

Another thorny issue concerns how to measure the value that these innovations add to new vehicles. How much will consumers be willing to pay for the promise of trouble-free, hands-off vehicles, or for safer vehicles that, nevertheless, still require someone to sit in the driver’s seat? Mitamura noted that there are two ways to measure value: Objective value is something that can be measured by technology and performance specifications. “It can be measured precisely,” such as in the case of acceleration rate or fuel economy. Subjective value, however, cannot be measured; for example, “driving pleasure or ride comfort are subjective values…. How can we supply these different values at the same time?”

Various kinds of drivers are likely to have different perceptions about how much value they derive from autonomous (self-driven) vehicles – or from more conventional drive-yourself vehicles that are nevertheless laden with electronic safety features. Are male drivers more – or less – likely than female drivers to purchase a self-driving vehicle or one with all sorts of electronic safety gadgets? In response to this question, Yamaguchi said that “almost every male driver thinks that an autonomous car would be good for his wife,” but not necessarily for himself.

There are also legal issues to be considered. In the event that a self-driven vehicle malfunctions as a result of the failure of an innovative electronic component, will the human being who sits in its driver seat be held responsible for the damage that results – despite the fact that he or she did not actually drive the vehicle? Or will the liability fall on the manufacturer who claimed that the vehicle could safely drive itself? Yamaguchi noted that “we will still design the car based on the concept of human liability.”

The Road to Zero Accidents

In 1995, Nissan set a target of reducing the number of fatalities and serious injuries involving Nissan vehicles to half of the 1995 level by 2015, not just in Japan, but also in the United States and the United Kingdom. This target has already been reached ahead of schedule. By 2020, said Yamaguchi, the firm hopes to reduce these fatality and injury numbers by an additional 50%, and to “virtually zero” sometime later in this century.

Nevertheless, Yamaguchi identifies four kinds of challenges for the long-term sustainability of Nissan’s new technologies: continued road congestion; the danger of traffic accidents; energy prices and global warming. Nissan’s approach, he noted, is to focus on electrification, on the one hand, and on building electronic intelligence into all of its vehicles — not just those that are battery powered.