The Road to Autonomous Vehicles
Can auto recycling avoid a crash?
At the SAE World Congress in 2012, I attended Anthony Levandowski’s keynote speech on the Google Self Driving Car project. Mr. Levandowski was the business lead of the project which had outfitted a Prius with GPS, real-time positioning along with a million various sensors for traffic, pedestrians and intersections. They were already to the point where Mr. Levandowski was taking (not driving) the Self Driving Car back and forth to work every day. It astonished me to realize that this wasn’t just a project that Google was working on, but the technology was already in use! As of today, these vehicles are licensed in Nevada, Florida, and California. Let’s first look at how we got this far and just exactly how far along we really are with this technology.

The early days of autonomous driving started with traction control; the ability to redirect torque from a slipping wheel with no traction to another with traction available. Although Ferdinand Porsche used a mechanical limited slip differential in his 1932 Grand Prix Racing car, it wasn’t until 1971 that Buick developed “MaxTrac,” an electronic system that used a computer to electronically send power from one slipping wheel to another with better traction available.

Again in 1971, the Chrysler Imperial added “Sure Brake,” the Lincoln Continental added “Sure-track,” Cadillac and Oldsmobile had the “Trackmaster” and Nissan had the “Electro Anti-Lock System.” All were variations of Anti-Lock Braking Systems (ABS) –  electronic wheel sensors, computers and fluid diversion valves. ABS is now standard on almost every vehicle and it is said that it can reduce multiple vehicle accidents by 18%, and run off road accidents by 35%. ABS enhances the braking control of the driver by ensuring that the vehicle is threshold braking (static friction) rather than sliding braking (kinetic friction). 

The next revolution in accident prevention through electronic intervention was Electronic Stability Control (ESC). This started mainly with Mercedes Benz and BMW in 1987. Using a centralized yaw sensor combined with a steering sensor and other vehicle metrics, when a vehicle is experiencing a loss of steering control (ie: understeer or oversteer) the ESC computer can individually apply the brakes to one of the four wheels to stabilize the vehicle. For example, a sharp left turn with the accelerator applied could lead to an oversteer condition. Applying the left rear brake in this case could prevent the slide, and in the case of an SUV a strong potential for rollover. As of 2012, U.S. legislation requires that all passenger vehicles must have ESC. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims that ESC will reduce vehicle fatalities by up to a third.

Adaptive cruise control was introduced to the U.S. on the Lexus LS430 in 2000, using radar to scan the speed of the vehicle in front and maintain an appropriate distance at highway speeds, applying the brakes when necessary. Mercedes’ Distronic system (and many others, now) will even bring the vehicle to a complete stop if needed, making it easy going in stop-and-go traffic. Now, vehicles use this as crash avoidance and will make an emergency stop if it senses that the vehicle will have no choice but to stop or be in a crash.

It is becoming more difficult to keep up with the autonomous safety features being introduced on the market today. There are blind spot assist systems, warning a driver of a vehicle present in their blind spot when they toggle the turn indicator.

The new Honda Accord has a blind spot camera. There are lane departure warning systems that scan the lanes ahead and will alert the driver if the vehicle is drifting out of the lane without previously indicating the change. Lexus developed self-parking technology to aid in parallel parking, and many other vehicles have back up cameras. There are also pedestrian detection systems which will use night vision to flag pedestrians and present them on an LCD display to the driver. And now, many vehicles have collision warning systems using radar, IR and camera fusions, some of which will even detect whether the driver is looking ahead at the time.

The next real big step will be vehicle-to-vehicle communications (V2V). Imagine if all vehicles were communicating with each other, information about their position and speed, and therefore could decipher their proximity to one another and their likeliness to be in an accident.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has partnered with University of Michigan’s Transport Research Institute to implement Phase Two of their V2V research. They have outfitted 3,000 vehicles (cars, trucks, and buses) with vehicle-to-vehicle communications. They will use this data combined with various OEM and aftermarket safety technologies, to understand the potential benefits of this type of communication. This will help NHTSA pave the way for future potential legislation and understanding of V2V benefits towards crash avoidance.

Now what does all this mean for the auto recycler? In my opinion, if there is a decrease in salvage due to the decrease in collisions, we should focus on maximizing the dollar value of the parts on the vehicles we do have. Keep your parts estimating software (Mitchell, PartsView, etc.) on hand and understand the value of some of these products. A good example is the brake master cylinder, maybe worth $100 at best these days. Add an ABS unit on that, $200. Add ESC and the computer, $250, $300, $500? These are technologies that didn’t previously exist.

In the next five to ten years, we will certainly be seeing an increase in vehicle parts’ technology. What can you usually sell the fog lamp out of a Mercedes M-Class for? Now embed a sensing camera in the bezel of that fog lamp. What’s that worth? We’ve already seen mirrors start to increase in price depending on options – heated, puddle lamp, LED signal – now add blind spot camera. How about the blind spot monitor itself? Continental supplies a small black box that is mounted down on the quarter panel (near the vent louvers) that uses radar to sense if a vehicle is in your blind spot. These are already an option on many vehicles; we just have to know what we can sell them for.

In ten to twenty years, things may be interesting. There may be some areas where self-driving cars are starting to become mainstream (urban areas), but more likely we will just see the increased use of V2V communications. There will always be the need for someone to maintain control in the event of a failure of any one of the multiple sensors the vehicles will be outfitted with, at which point there are two potential outcomes: The first is that the driver is human again and there is again potential for a collision, the second is the potential to sell them a sensor, or computer, or whatever it is that malfunctioned. We also can’t forget that a large portion of our sales come from mechanical and electrical part failures and that these vehicles will not be significantly different underneath just by changing who is driving.

Necessity breeds invention. So, as we have always done in this business, let’s continue to reinvent our business as the market demands change. These new electronics certainly will present some new challenges and opportunities. We are lucky as auto recyclers – we can see the future since our market three to five years from now is the existing new OEM market, just so long as we have the senses to avoid a crash! 

Andrew MacDonald, formerly an engineer with Toyota, returned to the family business, Maritime Auto Parts, Glenholme, NS, Canada, in 2012 as a second generation owner. He is also the Chairman of ARA’s Technical Advisory Committee.

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