Delphi Automotive was the first car company to complete a cross-country road trip using autonomous technology, driving from San Francisco to New York in April 2015. Next, the company will test the technology on an international stage.
Executives said Monday the company has entered into a strategic partnership with the government of Singapore to test autonomous vehicles. Over the course of the three-year pilot project, the global automotive supplier will conduct trials of low-speed, mobility-on-demand vehicles along predetermined routes, gradually introducing systems with greater capability.
Starting this week, the same Audi SQ5 that crossed America will be begin driving in Singapore’s “one-north” business park. Early next year, Delphi intends to transition into a second phase of the project, which will involve six electric vehicles outfitted with autonomous technology operating in ride-hailing operations. Then in 2018 or 2019, executives say they intend to test fully self-driving vehicles—with no drivers as fail-safes—on Singapore’s streets.
Should all go as scheduled, Delphi says it would then move onto grander plans for production of driverless vehicles capable of shuttling on-demand customers or cargo by 2022.
We believe it will come from one of the delivery methods
for a big logistics company. They’ll absolutely be looking
at how to take advantage.—Glen DeVos
With Apple’s plans in the realm of self-driving cars still a secret, Google’s ever-evolving, and other automakers offering nebulous timelines toward full autonomy, the Delphi announcement marks a milestone by offering a concrete time frame for reaching Level 4 autonomy, in which cars can complete entire journeys without human intervention, for mass-market purposes.
Singapore selected Delphi via a closed-bid process. “This is an exciting opportunity for us,” Glen DeVos, the company’s vice president for engineering, tells Car and Driver. “We think this is an important but appropriate step in developing automated mobility on demand. It will be in specific areas, so think of it as geo-fenced. That limits the complexity of the deployment. We expect we will learn a tremendous amount, and by the end of the project, we can move onto the next phase, which assuming success, is to operationalize.”
DeVos isn’t saying which brand of electric cars the company will utilize for the initial part of the project. Going forward, he sees a symbiotic link between autonomous technology and electric vehicles. The self-driving technology itself can be used in any vehicle, from cars, buses, and taxis to trucks and purpose-built mobility pods.
Singapore may be most interested in the latter. The city-state’s Land Transport Authority, in the process of expanding its rail network by 2030, wants to examine how autonomous cars could help transportation planners solve the so-called “first and last mile” dilemma—how to help commuters get from their homes or offices to and from mass-transit options. Government officials hope they can reduce overall traffic congestion and vehicle pollution by encouraging more people to use public transit. Delphi will design vehicles tailored to that purpose.
“From a user-experience standpoint, that’s a very specific use case and a very different expected experience than using your own car,” DeVos said. “So we need to make sure we design that experience so it’s enjoyable, safe, and effective. On one hand, the technology has to be there. But it has to be a really enjoyable experience for the end customer, so they get really excited about it.”
Beyond evaluating the technology itself, the other component of the project both Delphi and Singapore are focusing on is the cost of autonomous operations. In city environments, the cost of operating a vehicle with a commercial driver can exceed $3 per mile, according to Delphi estimates. Autonomy offers the potential, the company says, to reduce those expenses to as little as 90 cents per mile. Such savings could offer tremendous potential for a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft, not to mention delivery services like FedEx or UPS. As the pilot project develops, one key question Delphi will attempt to answer is which will be ready for autonomous operations first: the passenger fleet or the cargo-hauling market.
“That’s part of what the market is sorting out right now,” DeVos said. “Some OEMs are making investments in one area and not the other, necessarily. There’s a real divergence of opinion. We believe it will come from one of the delivery methods for a big logistics company. They’ll absolutely be looking at how to take advantage.”
Whenever Delphi is ready to move into a stage of producing driverless pods, it says it’s open to an alliance with an OEM or another company.
The pilot project in Singapore is one of several concurrent steps toward testing autonomous technology for Delphi. The company says it plans two similar pilot projects for North America and Europe, but details on those aren’t yet firm.