Detroit — The autonomous driving future is already here.
At least partially.
Elements of assisted driving already are on the road, and that doesn't just refer to a few thousand Tesla sedans. Think more about adaptive cruise controls or lane departure warning systems in higher end vehicles, rather than a complete Jetsons' style flying car for current examples. And the presence of those products and new ones on the horizon are presenting new opportunities for plastics suppliers to the auto industry.
“It is everywhere,” said Han Hendricks, chief technical officer for Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, which is working closely with automakers to envision how a future autonomous vehicle cabin may look. “We have a pretty good indication of the implementation and cadence of the different driver assistance technologies.
“It will not be an overnight change, obviously, but the increased amount of drive-assist technologies will make its way into the interior.”
When? As soon as 2021, just a few vehicle model years removed from the new 2018 models introduced at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit's Cobo Center, just one flight down from Yanfeng's own booth at the show.
Some regions will adopt autonomous vehicles more quickly. China's government, for instance, has been outspoken in its interest in bringing self-driving cars, electric vehicles and shared vehicles to market faster. Yanfeng, with a global headquarters in Shanghai, has an inside track to be part of that growth.
That shift to autonomous vehicles will come through a series of steps, from Level 1, which includes adaptive cruise control, parking assistance and lane avoidance detection, to Level 5, which requires no human input other than starting the system and setting the destination.
Most automakers will have a Level 3 car on the market by 2021, Hendricks says, which means that the car can operate without a driver's input in certain areas, but a human still must be ready to grab the steering wheel at any time.
If those definitions seem confusing, you're not alone.
“I really struggle with the definition of autonomous drive,” said Doug Patton, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Denso North America, the Southfield, Mich.-based U.S. arm of Japanese auto supplier Denso Corp. “It's going to be an evolutionary process. There's going to be a step function to get there.
“My definition of autonomous drive is that I get to sleep in the back seat, just like the Jetsons, and that's a long way away,” he said.
Both Denso and Yanfeng, along with other suppliers ranging from Adient Ltd. — a U.S.-based seating supplier and partner in Yanfeng whose thin profile seats are used in Chrysler's latest autonomous vehicle concept — to ZF Friedrichshafen AG — a maker of radar sensors used to scan for obstacles and electronic control units which can then apply brakes to avoid collisions — provide examples of the range of new businesses cropping up from autonomous vehicles and how they all depend on each other.
“Our aim is to enable vehicles to see, think and act, and be the one-stop shop for these systems,” said ZF CEO Stefan Sommer.
All those sensors and cameras are packaged in plastics, since metal interferes with their function.
Sometimes that packaging is visible, such as a plastic box located between the rear view mirror and windshield, which house forward-viewing systems to scan the road ahead.
Other times, they're hidden.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s new Rogue Sport, introduced at the Detroit show, places its radar behind an acrylic decorative shield placed at the front grille, disguised with a Nissan badge and styling cues to mimic the grille.
“The front is where the challenge is because that front facing camera for forward emergency braking and ground view monitor, it does have to have clear plastic — non-painted plastic — in order to be able to work,” said Robin Moreo, senior manager in product planning for Nissan. “Some styling integration is required.”
“For the Rogue Sport, we've opted to make it a shield.”