Snow highlights the sunny side of autonomous vehicles

Neale Phillips is Thatcham’s Strategy and Development Director. He recently outlined why autonomous vehicles may mean more work for repairers at IBIS Middle East.

By Mike Davey

Hamilton, Ontario — February 17, 2016 — The advent of autonomous vehicles may have an upside for the collision repair industry according to Neale Phillips, Thatcham’s Strategy and Development Director. Thatcham is an automotive insurer research organization headquartered in the United Kingdom.

Phillips delivered his remarks during the third IBIS Middle East, held in Dubai earlier this month. Collision Repair magazine is the exclusive Canadian Media Partner for IBIS. “One of Thatcham’s key roles is to try and predict what the crash of the future will look like and then inform insurers and bodyshops,” said Phillips.

During his presentation, Phillips outlined what he sees as the three major trends impacting collision repair: autonomous vehicles and associated technology, vehicle construction and materials and car connectivity. Phillips noted that autonomous driving technology will certainly lower the number of high-impact and rear-end collisions, but the upside is that it may help to reduce the number of total write-offs.

The idea is simple. The increasing technological complexity of vehicles has directly led to an increase in vehicles being written off. In general, the more advanced the vehicle, the more it will cost to repair. Significant damage often means that repairs to the vehicle exceed its value. It’s more cost-effective in this case for the insurer to simply cut the policyholder a cheque.

However, Phillips believes that autonomous vehicles and associated technologies such as autonomous emergency braking may lead to fewer total write-offs. While autonomous vehicles may have better reaction times than human drivers, they can’t change the laws of physics. Velocity cannot be cancelled without consequences. In other words, a collision that may have resulted in two or more cars being written off may instead result in two or more vehicles that are repairable. This translates into work for the collision repair industry. However, the work itself may not be quite what we’re used to seeing.

“We think there will be a different type of accident repairer in the future,” said Phillips. We’ve seen enormous increase in high-strength steels and the uptick in aluminum, but it isn’t just materials that will drive the change. Phillips believes that collision technicians with electrical and electronic skills will be in high demand going forward. We’ve already seen the proliferation of sensors in today’s vehicles. This will only increase as we see more driverless tech and associated technologies make its way on to Canada’s roads. Advanced electronics require scanning, both pre- and post-repair, to make sure they’re functioning correctly. In addition, technicians will need the skills to locate and recalibrate all of these sensors when needed.

Canadian repairers may have more time than our American counterparts before autonomous vehicles start to hit the road. Collision Repair magazine has reported in the past that self-driving vehicles have trouble navigating in the snow. A recent story published on bloomberg.com highlights this issue.

“It’s really difficult, especially when you have the snow smoke from the car in front,” said Marcus Rothoff, Director of Volvo’s autonomous-driving program according to the report from Bloomberg. “A bit of ice, you can manage. But when it starts building up, you just lose functionality.”

The sensors in driverless cars include cameras, lidar and radar. Snow and ice can cause havoc with both camers and lidar, which uses lasers to determine the shape, location and velocity of other objects. Radar does not have these difficulties, but it can be difficult to depend on radar alone in these situations. Ford believes it has found a solution, but it depends on building an accurate 3D map during ideal conditions, then using it in inclement weather.

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford Technical Leader for Autonomous Vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions.”

Ford has also reportedly found a way to cancel out the “noise” caused by falling snow. According to the company, the combination of these things mean a Ford-built AV can known exactly where the lane is and hence where the car should be. At least in theory. Lane lines aren’t very meaningful in the middle of a snowstorm. People tend to follow the ruts in the snow made by the vehicles before them.

Ryan Eustice is an Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan. He has been working with Ford on testing the company’s AVs in snowy conditions. “For us to barrel down the road in our lane and ignore the ruts would be unnatural to the other drivers,” Eustice said, according to the report on bloomberg.com.

Ford, therefore, has to come up with a way for the onboard computer to figure out where those ruts and navigate them like a person would. This isn’t easy, and may require more sophisticated computers.

Autonomous vehicles may in fact mean more work for your facility, not less, but it’s up to you to ensure that your technicians have the skills needed for the new type of work. 

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