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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Density batteries for EVs

The company claims world leadership in ZEV technology following the 2010 introduction of the Leaf EV, the first modern-era battery-electric passenger car. The second generation Leaf will make its premiere in September.

As previously reported in Automotive Engineeering(, Nissan Europe  is leading a U.K. consortium to research and develop future generation batteries via the High Energy Density Battery (HEDB) project. Its aim is to deliver multifunctional battery systems for EVs and HEVs. Nissan manufactures EV battery packs at its Sunderland, U.K. plant.

The consortium will embrace pilot projects, product diversification and process improvement. A key member is Hyperdrive Innovation, whose founder and Commercial Managing Director, Stephen Irish, spoke recently with AE. He noted that while substantial improvements in cell chemistry have been made in recent years, “there is no magic solution regarding enhancing energy density.” However, he sees potential for pack-level improvements through the consortium as well as the Battery Management Systems (BMS) developed by Hyperdrive to ensure cell longevity and efficiency while accommodating “opportunity charging.”

Vital to battery development work is understanding the duty cycles of specific vehicle types as well as cost, said Irish: “We ask ourselves where best value will be achieved—how, and how frequently, a vehicle or machine is to be used, how it’s charged, where the energy comes from.” Making that energy go further concerns vehicle weight and power electronics and how they work.

While Hyperdrive’s focus is BMS development, novel chemistry solutions need to be considered, too. The company has recently worked with lithium sulfur which, in theory, can deliver specific energy density that is five times that of lithium-ion. However, Li-S is still in development “and in the real world it could be less,” Irish said.

“We are not chemists but we do need to know about these developments to spot trends and to be able to develop our technologies and absorb them into our products,” he explained. “For us, just as for an OEM, there has to be a clear route to market.”

Battery size matters

Sometimes, that market is complicated by what Irish terms “extreme outliers”—users who care less about a battery’s life and just want to max up-time and extract as much energy as possible from it and also charge it as quickly as possible. The other extreme concerns users who require optimal longevity for the battery and its associated electronic systems, to achieve best possible value over time.

“Personally, I would argue for the smallest battery possible for a daily commuting vehicle, saving weight and cost. Most people do not drive as far in a week or month as they think they do,” Irish said. “However, it is still the market barrier of increased range that end-users want. It has to be overcome.”

Typical EV battery life expectancy is 5000 to 6000 cycles at consistent 80% discharge rates, Irish noted. Taking it to 100% discharge cuts its life by two-thirds, he said, adding that secondary re-use applications will help harvest maximum value from the cells.

Getting battery and BMS costs down is a constant battle. Achieving economies of scale is significant; supporting this is designing for commonality. “If we do bespoke systems we have to pass on non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs, which can be substantial in terms of tooling and validation testing,” Irish explained. A more standard suite of products, as Hyperdrive has created, allows on-costs to be reduced while enabling faster time-to-market.

Hyperdrive also has designed a modular universal battery suitable for commercial vehicles and some off-highway applications. Together with Douglas Equipment, part of Textron, the company has developed a push-back mild hybrid tractor.

Virtual automotive engineerin

That’s one reason Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies—often shorthanded to VR and AR—are emerging as immensely useful development tools.

“Using these technologies helps in the decision-making process,” explained Joe Guzman, Engineering Group Manager for Global Virtual Design for General Motors. “You are able to quickly mock up digitally and in 3D what the physical product will look like two years later,” he said.

Creating a VR prototype takes hours or maybe days—compared to weeks or months for a physical prototype, Guzman said.

But why the extra expense of VR or AR technologies when two-dimensional screen renderings of the CAD data are easily accessible? Although CAD renderings are good, they are lacking when it comes to human interactions: the ability to walk around, sit in, or understand how to access a part. Virtual reality and AR provide a sense of how a product will interact with humans who use and build it, how it will live in a three-dimensional world.

“It is especially useful for executives and program management, people who are responsible for the whole vehicle or the line of vehicles, but make no mistake, this technology is useful for every part of the business,” stated Guzman. This includes trainers for the assembly plant, D&R engineers trying to understand assembly and serviceability, or marketers creating brochures. Physical effects include how well flush-and-gaps show up against lighter or darker paints. “People use this from well before program kickoff all the way through to Job 1 and sometimes longer,” he said.

Guzman related that GM finds the company’s four-sided, six-foot CAVE environment (see photo) particularly useful, where any number of individuals can move and observe a 3-D projection of a entire vehicle. He was also quick to point out that the company takes advantage of all levels of available VR, including the less-expensive mixed-reality headsets aimed at individual users.

“We are looking for strategic partners to help us,” he said, noting that a technology developed for the home market might have limitations in durability or safety in a work setting, hence the need for further development.

Collaboration and systems engineering

What currently fuels excitement in this area is the growing pace of development, especially for head-mounted systems. “I have been working in this technology for a long time and improvements were steady but small until about five years ago,” remarked Elizabeth Baron, Virtual Reality and Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist for Ford. “The big leap has been in headsets from companies like Oculus with its Rift and HTC with its Vive. Developed for gamers, those two headsets started this next revolution.”

While acknowledging the usefulness of 3-D VR and AR to any single individual, the contribution to systems engineering and collaboration are what make the technologies special for her. “It allows multiple disciplines in the company to communicate effectively,” she stated. An expert working on ergonomics and visibility can effectively talk to body structure engineers worrying about crash and safety as well as, say, an electrical engineer concerned with wiring-harness placement and clearance.

But increasing reliance on VR and AR for systems engineering requires careful selection of the CAD data to use, according to Baron. “By taking as much information from all of the engineering areas as we can, aimed at systems engineering, we get this immersive environment that crosses all of those disciplines,” she explained. Collaboration reaches across continents as well as disciplines: a Ford employee in Australia can interact through the VR room in real time with a colleague in Dearborn, MI.

The data also can include manufacturing processes and tolerances; users can see in 3-D the visual effect of GD&T tolerances from part-to-part at their extremes, or twist deformations from assembly. In the mathematical world of tolerance stack-up calculations, it is difficult to understand those effects as a customer would see them.

“The user experience is the centerpiece of our VR technology,” Baron stated. “We believe that Ford is leading in the use of real-time ray tracing (a computationally-intensive technique that creates scenes with realistic reflections and other specular effects) for immersive VR reviews.”

The motorcycle’s future

In this office, a team of Honda R&D Co. engineers and computer scientists are developing autonomous machines and robotics. Officially called the Honda Innovation Laboratory, the independent think-tank is more commonly referred to as “Center X.” It is an open laboratory collaborating with outside research and academic institutions, as well as with venture enterprises and individuals and is linked with Honda Xcelerator open-innovation programs based out of the company’s Silicon Valley Lab.

Honda has been researching automated driving and related technologies for more than 30 years, noted R&D President Yoshinobu Matsumoto. He cited development of “Gyro-cater,” the world’s first in-vehicle navigation system offered for the Accord in 1981. Knowledge from that program eventually led to Honda’s extensive bipedal (two-legged) locomotion studies—which in turn led to ASIMO, the now-famous and beloved robot that has become an icon of Honda’s controls and artificial-intelligence expertise.

Technology developed at Center X for ASIMO and for the racetrack now is helping Honda develop two-wheelers that can stand up by themselves, Matsumoto told Automotive Engineering. The small gyro sensor originally used in ASIMO inspired development of sensors that recognize the attitude (lean angle) of a racing motorcycle, helping to govern engine power under extreme G forces while the machine is leaned hard in a corner. The technology was incorporated in Honda’s factory RC-V series MotoGP bike in 2011, he explained.

Engineers’ analysis of the rider’s thoughts and movements, rather than the behavior of the bike, led to the new electronic attitude controls that make the rider’s work easier. On the opposite end of the performance spectrum, Honda’s Uni-Cub self-balancing, two-axis personal mobility device first demonstrated in 2013 enables the seated rider to control speed, move in any direction and stop, all by simply shifting body weight.

The next step is software that can control the Uni-Cub via an “app” from mobile devices—expanding the machine’s value and functionality. Uni-Cub creator Shinichiro Kobashi has indicated the compact little two-wheeled unit may be released in time for demonstration at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Toward the autonomous motorcycle

An obvious technology pathway from the MotoGP and Uni-Cub learnings is toward the autonomous motorbike and the ‘personal transporter’ capable of being summoned from their parking areas and sent back after the day’s riding/mobility duties are finished. More sensors and control technologies like those being integrated into passenger vehicles (cameras, radar and obstacle detection, lane keeping, etc.) are required, of course. And challenges related to packaging such hardware within the limited space on two-wheelers are significant.

Earlier this year, at CES 2017, Honda showed its latest step in the autonomous-bike journey: Riding Assist ( The excitement it created among CES show-goers always began with, “Did you see the motorcycle that can balance itself? That’s cool!” and “Honda has a robo-bike!”

And the machine, based on a production NC750S [a sporty 750cc twin-cylinder commuter bike sold in Europe] does just that.

Riding Assist is particularly effective and useful in such taxing situations as stop-and-crawl traffic or the common parking-lot fall when the rider, perhaps fatigued or distracted, is caught off-balance and lets the bike fall onto the ground. The Riding Assist prototype stands upright when stopped and at speeds less than 3 to 4 km/h (about 1.9 to 2.4 mph) with no manual input from the rider. If the rider dismounts the motorcycle, it remains standing as long as the balancing system is engaged.

The Riding Assist program’s chief engineer, Hiroyuki Nakata, is a veteran engineer-development-rider (with specialist background in braking) at the Honda Motorcycle R&D Center at Asaka. Nakata also is responsible for advanced-safety technologies. He acknowledges that it has for several years been an ongoing project at Honda to enhance motorcycle safety by combining robotics research with the company’s championship-winning motorcycle technology. He reasons that the formidable combination could realize “dream technologies for new mobility.”

General Motors cyber-boss cautiously

 If your unit is doing particularly effective work, conventional corporate culture almost demands you “promote” that success.

It’s a little different with cybersecurity. Brag too much and you’ve potentially painted a target on your company’s back. And the back of General Motors, the world’s third-largest auto company, already is exceptionally broad.

Jeff Massimilla, who has been chief product cybersecurity officer at GM since the company initiated his unit in 2014, conceded in a recent interview with Automotive Engineering that although “you never want to go out there and say you have this all figured out,” he is convinced that GM—and the broad industry—has learned enough through an intensive few years of research and a variety of collaborations to feel as confident as is reasonable when your world is an ever-changing threat environment.

And here’s one you don’t hear much from big-company managers in the post-Recession era: “We’re very well-resourced and well-funded,” he added. “We have the right people and personalities on the board of directors to understand the importance of this.” The company’s investment in cybersecurity is deep and serious he said, because “you can’t separate cyber and safety.”

Massimilla said he has regular access to and interactions with GM’s board of directors regarding cybersecurity. He is the leader of the global group of about 90 in GM charged with of every aspect of cybersecurity related to the company’s vehicles. The role is an expansive one as GM, like many automakers and suppliers, is embarking on a multitude of new mobility business models—most of which invariably involve a communication conduit to the internet, cellular networks and satellite data streams.

An electrical engineer who started with GM in 2001 and served in a variety of posts that included global validation, Massimilla said there’s even another aspect his organization must consider: an increasingly aware and concerned customer. “Cyber is something customers are making purchasing decisions on,” he said, adding that the customer’s notion of a particular company’s cybersecurity proficiency is likely to become like many other competitive metrics when it comes to winning a spot on a buyer’s consideration list.

Massimilla’s group, like many others in the industry, doesn’t rely solely on its own expertise. The cybersecurity landscape is vastly too multifaceted to believe that any band of individuals, regardless of their spectrum of expertise and experience, can cover all the bases. So GM’s product cybersecurity group works with outside researchers, the military and yes, so-called “white hat” hackers, in an effort to stay up to speed with the latest developments in the often shadowy alleys that blend cyber and corporate espionage.

A formidable asset in this vein is AUTO-ISAC (Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center), formed in 2015 to assemble industry-related companies and entities in a collaborative, non-competitive effort to develop and share cybersecurity best practices. AUTO-ISAC currently has about 30 global OEMs and suppliers working to parry the black-hat element that continually probes, said Massimilla, for individual or structural weaknesses that may lead to serious or large-scale exploitation. Massimilla said awareness of the potential to disrupt automotive security probably came to a head in 2015 in the widely-publicized remote hacking of a Jeep Grand Cherokee’s major and minor controls.

The industry also collaborates in the traditional sense by forming new standards once a certain cybersecurity need is fully understood and agreed upon, he added. Standards, he said, remain the vital framework in which to deploy collective findings.

“And we have our own (internal) ‘Red Team’ to test and hack our system,” he said.

Non-traditional talent and short of it

It takes engineers and other trained and experience personnel to research, collaborate resources, share learning, develop standards. Depending on your perspective, an organization of 90 may seem like a lot or a little to be devoted to cybersecurity, but Massimilla said one the auto sector’s chief problems is finding those qualified people. Not only are traditional engineering and technical schools only now starting to develop cybersecurity-related curricula and students, “Some of the best cyber experts are not the people who go through college and get a four-year degree,” he almost wryly reminds of the computer-expert stereotype that to a meaningful extent is based on reality.

“There’s a lot of activity to create more talent,” he said. Major universities are beginning to “work (cybersecurity) into engineering programs,” but accreditation of those tracks takes time, he lamented—and meanwhile, countless other industries are under the same pressure to find immediate solutions to for cybersecurity’s maddeningly indeterminate threats.

For now, Massimilla said, he sees the “multi-layering” approach to automotive cybersecurity as the most effective structure available. “I think it’s a standard cross-industry approach—but how you deploy it across the connected ecosystem,” is where differences are injected, he contends.