DETROIT — Anyone with reservations about the future of autonomous driving, can toss those doubts out the window of their personal vehicle. The wheels of autonomy are turning, and the building blocks for the technology enabling it have been stacked by auto supplier powerhouses like Magna International Inc.
As Swamy Kotagiri, Magna's chief technology officer and president of its electronics division, told journalists during a Jan. 15 presentation at the North American International Auto Show, the question of autonomous driving is not if, but when and to what extent.
"Full autonomy is coming," Kotagiri forewarned.
Magna, a $45 billion (US$36 billion) enterprise with more than 163,000 employees in 328 facilities across 29 countries, is in a relatively stable position to assist automakers with their visions of future mobility.
"From Audi to VW, we touch every automaker in the world," Paul Spadafora, global vice president of product development for Magna's exteriors division, said Jan. 16 during a discussion at the Plastics in Automotive conference in Detroit. "There's a good chance that whatever you drove in here today, we have some significant components on that."
He is probably right. From 2017-19, Magna is supporting 67 per cent of global vehicle launches. The company, based in Aurora, Ontario, has 58 OEM customers.
PLASTIC CONTENT GROWING
With vehicle autonomy and electrification in mind, Magna is focusing on several key areas, including lightweighting, improving aerodynamics, achieving aggressive styling and integrating sensors.
"Lightweighting will continue to increase in importance as it enables the future technology and trends," Spadafora said, noting today's corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirement of 25 mpg will jump to 54 mpg by 2025. In Canada, that’s means dropping to 4.3 litres per 100 kilometres, down from 9.4.
"To get there and meet regulations and gain aesthetic benefits at the same time, we will be able to do that with an increased use of plastics," he added.
By 2020, the average vehicle could have up to 317 kilograms (771 pounds) of plastic content compared with 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of plastic in 2014 — "a dramatic increase," Spadafora said.
In 2015, Magna manufactured what it said was the auto industry's first volume production of carbon fibre hoods, launching on the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V and CTS-V high-performance models. The use of carbon fibre enabled a 27 per cent mass reduction over aluminum and a 70 per cent reduction over steel, Spadafora said.
"These kinds of applications will continue and will become more significant as we start to see a rise in the global automotive consumption of carbon fibre,” he said. "It's predicted to triple between 2013 and 2030."
In collaboration with Ford Motor Co. last March, Magna developed a prototype carbon fibre composite subframe, reducing mass by 34 per cent compared with a stamped steel equivalent.
Altogether, use of a carbon fiber subframe resulted in an 87 percent reduction in the total number of components on the vehicle.
"We replaced 45 steel parts with two molded parts and seven subcomponents," Spadafora said.
The prototype subframes are currently being produced by Magna for component and vehicle-level testing at Ford.
On production vehicles today you can also find Magna's active grille shutters, active air dams and composite liftgates, enabling better fuel economy and lightweight benefits and improving aerodynamics.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
"All these advancements will help to enable autonomous vehicles. Magna has been a leader in this area, vision-based autonomous features," Spadafora said. "Starting with cameras in the early 2000s, we led a full range of advanced driver-assistance systems — things like lane departure, adaptive cruise. We've produced over 30 million of these types of systems since 2005."
Today — and for the future — Magna is taking radar another step further with its unveiling of a high-definition radar system at the Detroit auto show.
The company said its Icon Radar — evolved from advanced technology used by the U.S. military in collaboration with Austin, Texas-based startup Uhnder Inc. — can scan the environment in four dimensions: distance, height, depth and speed.
Magna's Kotagiri said during the Jan. 15 announcement that it is the first phase-modulated continuous wave (PMCW) radar being used in the automotive industry.
"Some of the key differentiators of this technology are range, resolution, immunity to interference — that is, being able to coexist amongst millions of transmitted signals — and, most importantly, the economic viability of this technology to bring [it] to production in mainstream automotive today," he said. "This is not just a concept, but a validated technology that can be put in vehicles moving forward."
Unlike radar on the market today, Icon Radar can classify objects and distinguish between smaller objects, such as a bicyclist riding near larger objects, such as a moving truck, Kotagiri said. It has a range of more than 300 meters — nearly a quarter mile — and can scan its full environment "50 times faster than it takes a human to blink an eye," the company said in a news release.
Kotagiri said Magna is working with about six automakers on testing the system and is aiming to bring the technology to market in 2019. Icon Radar is designed to help "close the gap" between Level 3 and Level 5 to reach full autonomous driving.
In a follow-up interview directly after Kotagiri's presentation, Boris Shulkin, vice president of research and development for Magna's corporate engineering and r&d group, said the radar offers "much more flexibility" in terms of packaging and doesn't have the same limitations as lidar or cameras.
"[Icon Radar] brings capabilities to radar that were never there before," Shulkin said. "Things like object specification, things that were traditionally attributed to camera or lidar only, now you have these capabilities as part of the radar."