Can Edison2 Refine the Driverless Platform and Change the Auto Industry
Kyle Maxey posted on March 21, 2015 |

Edison2, Oliver Kuttner, autonomous car, I just got off the Phone with Oliver Kuttner, head of the X-Prize winning Edison2 project. During an hour long talk Oliver told me what he believes the future of the auto industry will look like. If he’s right, we’re in for an industrial transformation the likes of which we haven’t seen in a century.

The State of Play

Today, the auto industry operates in much the same way that is did in beginning of the 20th century. The mass production of cars has undoubtedly improved over the last century. Autos of all shapes and sizes roll of the line efficiently, and promise consumers anywhere between 150 - 250,000 mile lifetime.

That’s quite an achievement.

But, truth be told, it’s still remarkably difficult and energy intensive to build an auto.

Take, for example, the chassis of a generic mid-sized sedan. To build the skeleton on which all of the car’s other parts will rest, dozens of employees and robots spend an enormous amount of energy welding together the thirty-plus panels that make the chassis whole.

By the time that very same car rolls of the line almost 20% of the total energy that will be used in that auto’s lifetime will have been consumed.

That’s astonishing.

Now think of that process happening over and over. Day after day. The word “unsustainable” comes to mind.

So Where’s The Disruption?

Edison2, Oliver Kuttner, autonomous car, Now, it’d be a bit unfair to continue to beat up on the auto industry and not propose a solution.

In Oliver’s mind the solution is driverless cars.

And how exactly will driverless cars up-end a century worth of mass production innovation? Well, first they’ll eliminate the human element.

Put simply, today’s cars are designed for people. Most importantly, they’re designed to protect people who’re barreling down the road at high rates of speed. Think of the airbags, the crumple zones, the steel frames and the other myriad features that make your car safe to drive.

Now, imagine them gone.

Though it’s still a way off, Oliver’s idea rests on the notion that driverless cars will not only be ubiquitous, but magnitudes safer than human-piloted cars.  Without the need for as many safety features cars can become lighter, more efficient, less energy intensive to build.

Moreover, without the need for human pilots, cars will be able to take on new shapes and designs to better suit our immediate needs.

Think about it, if you don’t have to drive your car, doesn’t that mean that your vehicle can transform into a room that barrels down the highway?

Maybe that room looks like a boardroom. Or maybe its looks like a spa.

While the idea of luxurious, carefree travel is a bonus of the driverless auto age, the “coupe de grace” that Oliver envisions for today’s auto industry is born from a bit of analytics and the autonomous car’s innate abilities.

If you own a car today it’s likely that it spends anywhere between 95 and 98% of its lifetime just sitting around. In fact, in some places you have to pay for the privilege to let your car sit idle. In essence, that means that one of the most capital-intensive objects that most of us will ever own sits around useless.

Edison2, Oliver Kuttner, autonomous car, What a waste of money.

But one of the nice things about driverless cars is that they can act when a human isn’t present. That means that a car can be running 24/7 looking for people to serve. We’re already seeing models that serve a similar function. Think Uber, or Lift.

In Oliver’s opinion, these types of on-demand transportation services, when combined with driverless cars, could bring a wind of change across the automotive landscape.

I think he might be right.

If transportation is on demand, then not everyone needs a car. If not everyone needs a car then mass-production will likely draw back. Without mass production can big auto companies stay viable? Of course the can. They’ll just have to rethink the way they build and distribute cars. 

But, wait. You’re likely thinking, sure this autonomous, on-demand transit idea is all well and good in theory, but it’ll only work in dense urban areas, and possibly even suburbs.  What’ll happen to the people living out in rural areas?

Well, if you think of the world’s population dynamics as being static, then the idea of on-demand, ownerless, autonomous auto service is likely a non-starter. However, according to UNICEF, over the next 35 years there will be a dramatic migration of the world’s population to urban areas. In fact, UNICEF believes that up to 70% of all people will live in urban areas by 2050.

Now, if that projection is correct then it might be possible for autonomous cars to make a huge impact, possibly changing the auto industry for good.

Edison2’s Part to Play

If driverless cars (and possibly on-demand transport) is the future of the auto industry then what role does Edison2 have to play in what lies ahead?

The idea behind the Edison2 was always to build a machine that could respond to surging gas prices and rising costs of materials. To build a car that could meet those objectives the Edison2 team set out to engineer a machine that was a complete departure from the heavy, labor-intensive Detroit model. Built light and with an eye to simple construction Edison2’s Very Light Car met its objectives and was a resounding success.

But progress didn’t stop there.

According to Kuttner, Edison2 has been working on, and is coming close to completing, a Universally Adjustable Platform for auto bodies. With an eye to the future Kuttner believes he’s building a model that can support the various body structures that complement a driverless car paradigm. Whether it be a two seat sedan, a vehicle built as a meeting room or a luxury party cruiser meant for road trips, Edison2’s new platform (which may debut this summer) could facilitate all of those designs, with simple reconfigurations.

But how could his company arrive at such a design? Aside from relying on their in-house engineering expertise, Edison2 has always said that their CAD tool, Siemen’s Solid Edge, has been critical to their progress. “We’re not just designing a car, we’re designing a way to build a car. Solid Edge has been critical to making that idea come to life.” Said Kuttner.

While a universally adjustable auto platform is pretty impressive on its own, what astonished me was that Edison2’s found a way to build this platform in a way that doesn’t require a ton of machinery or energy. As Oliver put it, “Two people can put this car together (the car consists of no more than 30 parts) with adhesives in 1-2 hours. Once it’s cured for 24 hours, it’s ready to drive.”

That’s mind-boggling. And it’s also critical to changing the way that the auto industry behaves.

So, do Oliver Kuttner and Edison2 want to be the architects of the traditional auto’s demise? Maybe but it’s not without good reason. 

But, in the end, even the inventor that may be behind the traditional auto’s demise isn’t finished with the industry’s products. When I asked Oliver if he’s considering getting rid of all of his rides he replied “No, I want to keep one around so I can show my grandkids how we used to get around in the old days.”

Oliver Kuttner will outline his ideas about reinventing personal transportation at TEDxUVA on March 21, 2015. The show begins at 10am Eastern. Tune it to here to learn more about Oliver’s vision.

Disclaimer: Siemens has sponsored promotion of their design software solutions on ENGINEERING.com. They have no editorial input to this post - all opinions are mine.

Kyle Maxey

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