Electromobility and autonomous driving: Where are we heading?
Electromobility and autonomous driving: Where are we heading?
After some initial hesitation, electromobility now seems to be picking up speed. We asked the experts at AMF-Bruns and Sodermanns about the challenges of vehicle conversion. Aside from different drivetrain systems, PARAVAN continues to push the boundaries of automobility. REHACARE.com took a look behind the scenes.
Is the automotive future electric? The number of registrations of electric vehicles is gradually increasing. However, the charging infrastructure in particular still needs to be expanded. And there is a problem with the permissible gross weight, especially with conversions.
Modern mobility looks nothing like the concepts creative filmmakers or writers envisioned in the past. And while we are collectively still a long way away from flying or hovering transportation in futuristic cities, specialists are nevertheless working diligently to change the mobility of the future. While it may not resemble what we have seen in movies or read about in books, it is still wonderfully exciting.
The racetrack is a research laboratory
Mercedes, BMW, and Audi – they all have one thing in common. Starting this season, each manufacturer sends one vehicle from their German Touring Car Championshipfleet (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft, DTM;) onto the track, equipped with the Space Drive technology developed by PARAVAN GmbH. The vehicle conversion specialist has entered into a joint venture with Schaeffler Technologies. The developers and experts at Schaeffler Paravan Technologie GmbH & Co.KG take their technology to the racetrack – with the goal to advance it under extreme conditions. This turns the DTM into a test track. Racing drivers Maxi Buhk, Timo Glock, and Sophia Flörsch are delighted and attest to a different driving experience that eliminates the physical connection between the steering wheel and the wheels of a car. The test pilots noticed less vibration when they drive over curbs, yet still have complete feedback that can also be fully adapted to the driver’s needs. Whether there is poor traction, full traction, rain, or shine – drivers can adapt Space Drive to match their personal driving style. The initial skepticism of the racing drivers has given way to excitement. Janis McDavid also fulfilled his childhood dream thanks to Space Drive: he lapped the Schaeffler Paravan racing car around the motor racing circuit Zolder (Belgium) using a 4-way joystick.
The system is not new and has been tested over a billion kilometers on public roads around the world. Space Drive is a steer-by-wire and brake-by-wire system that electronically performs steering and braking operations in a vehicle. "Steering takes place digitally (electronically) using special controllers – a joystick, for example – via wire. The same applies to the accelerator and brake for the brake-by-wire solution," explains Mathias Koch, general sales director at PARAVAN GmbH. Originally designed to enable people with disabilities to control a vehicle, the technology has now become the foundation for semi-autonomous or autonomous driving. "We use our development vehicles to test autonomous driving on our test tracks and already have a street-legal autonomous vehicle," says Koch. He refers to the Tesla Model 3 without steering wheel and pedals that can be driven autonomously using a small joystick in the center console.
For Janis McDavid a dream came true – he lapped a racing car around the motor racing circuit Zolder using a 4-way joystick.
Having said that, self-driven cars are still a long way off. "There are some technical obstacles to overcome before we see widespread use in private transport. We need to develop improved high precision sensors and more intelligent algorithms. Advancements in artificial intelligence will also play a key role in this setting but we expect to see big improvements in the next ten years," Koch adds confidently.
Yet autonomous driving hinges on more than just advancements in technology: "Settling the legal and ethical issues will be the most difficult task, especially since they must comply with an international, globally accepted standard. And this will probably take some time, which I estimate will take between 15 to 20 years."
However, we might already see some of these vehicles in certain applications in the coming years. Examples include public transportation in rural areas. The required law on autonomous driving recently came into force. It states that vehicles with an autonomous driving function no longer require a person to drive the vehicle during operation. Self-driving technology has proven safe and shows effectiveness every day. "The key to success is the system’s unique safety architecture, which features three control circuits that are completely independent of one another and constantly operate in parallel. It is a triple-redundant (fail-safe) system that meets the most stringent requirements for the critical components of the system," the sales director explains. The three independent control circuits not only forward the signals but also monitor each other, making it essentially impossible for all three to fail at the same time.
Electric transportation in our future? We need (creative) solutions
Although public transport is presently far from being autonomous, there are an increasing number of electric vehicles on the road. Cities and communities start to rely on electromobility more and more. A trend AMF-Bruns GmbH & Co. KG has picked up on. Anne Holtz says: "Most Requests for Bids include the conversion of zero-emissions vehicles to make them wheelchair accessible. Cities like Hamburg, Berlin or Munich have support programs to fund the purchase of electric cars for passenger transport."
The manufacturer in Apen, Lower Saxony has converted electric cars for the past three years. Holtz says the number of vehicle conversions for private consumers is still low and adds, "right now, the percentage of converted electric mobility vehicles is still small compared to the total number, but we identify an upward trend. In a few years most of our conversions will be electric vehicles."
Transport companies in cities and municipalities in particular are now relying on e-vehicles. For them, charging times can best be planned into everyday business.
F. Sodermanns Automobile GmbH is another expert with years of experience in vehicle conversions. The company from North Rhine-Westphalia shares the observations of its peers: "Both demand and model options on the market are growing. We see everything from small cars perfect for city driving, SUVs to electric buses," reports Frank Sodermanns. His company is presently converting a Tesla Model X to make it wheelchair accessible. Eight years ago, the rehabilitation and mobility center started training its employees to manage the special requirements pertaining to conversion and maintenance. "The high voltage equipment of electronic vehicles generally requires additional training," attests PARAVAN sales director Mathias Koch.
Apart from extra training, electric vehicle conversion also comes with challenges that combustion engine models don’t have: The battery is a "problem". It cannot be relocated because it is an integral part of the supporting structure in the car’s underbody. When it comes to modifying the floor structure – to increase the interior size of the vehicle to provide enough space for people in wheelchairs to maneuver – or when installing cassette lifts, "it is important to find creative solutions or switch to another vehicle," says Sodermanns. He adds that "these aspects must be clarified before the purchase to make sure everything works as expected after the conversion has been completed."
The battery is also an issue when it comes to the maximum gross vehicle weight. Thanks to the weight of the battery, large, spacious EVs are heavier than comparable combustion models in the van or transporter categories. Once you add lifts, driving aids, (power) wheelchairs and passengers, the maximum gross weight of 3.5 tons that is applicable to a full EU driving license is quickly exceeded. However, "one solution could be the creation of a comparable regulation that has already been approved for commercial vehicles since 2019 (Driving License Regulation, FeV, §6): in Germany, you are permitted to drive alternatively-fueled (electric or hydrogen powered) commercial vehicles up to 4.25 tons on a Category B license. PARAVAN has already written corresponding proposals to the Federal Government and the European Commission," says Koch.
No matter how much parties or groups campaign to ban cars from city centers, for people with disabilities, having their own car is an important point for their mobility. Vehicle converters make this important point of participation possible for them.
Choosing an electric vehicle largely comes down to a financial decision
All in all, electric conversions differ little from internal combustion car modifications. "The conversion options are as unique as the disease patterns of our customers. We must always tailor the vehicles to the needs of our customers," says Frank Sodermanns.
For the moment, users should also take other unique features into consideration. This includes the driving range. Koch points out that "there are advances in electric car technology, both in terms of the vehicle – thanks to battery technology – and the charging infrastructure." Despite an expanding charging network, it still takes too long to charge the vehicles. Accessibility is another issue, as PARAVAN noticed. "The current charging infrastructure only features limited accessibility. At the state and federal level, PARAVAN asks for clarification of the current legislation, which stipulates that a percentage of charging stations in charging parks must be accessible."
That being said, charging times do not necessarily play a big role when it comes to wheelchair accessible transportation. "Most of our customers are driving services and taxi companies, which means the driving range can be easily integrated and calculated in their everyday business," says Anne Holtz from AMF-Bruns. What applies to autonomous driving also applies to electromobility to some extent: Companies, public transportation, municipalities, and federal states could be trailblazers in this setting.
Against this backdrop, more electromobility benefits everyone both as it relates to reduced car noise and environmental sustainability. This is an important factor to consider, especially in cities with traffic congestion. When it comes to private use of a vehicle, finances play a role. Legal requirements must be met to ideally have the funding agency pick up 100 percent of the electric vehicle conversion costs. "It is always a case-by-case decision where many factors need to be considered," explains Frank Sodermanns. Employment and commuting to work play an important role and would very strongly argue in favor of covering the total costs.
However, "luxury is not being subsidized. You must choose the model that meets the economic imperative of being necessary, sufficient, appropriate, and economical." That means if a combustion engine vehicle is cheaper, users have no entitlement to an electric car. In this case, the additional costs are considered an out-of-pocket expense for users they must cover on their own.
This also means it will likely be several years before most means of private transport are electric-powered – until electromobility becomes economically viable on a large scale. It remains to be seen whether cars in the future will be autonomous and electric. Until that day comes, the conversion experts at AMF-Bruns, Sodermanns, and PARAVAN will make sure that everyone has access to mobility without barriers.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com