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Automakers’ Tech Transfer

Automakers’ research and development efforts don’t just benefit the auto industry.

Besides their high-profile work to integrate the creations of CT firms and app publishers in vehicles, they have forged partnerships to share engineering and design prowess outside their normal business spheres and the beneficiaries range from blind and visually impaired people to pharmaceutical researchers and astronauts.

Boosting Human Abilities

In many of the undertakings, automakers’ goals have centered on helping people.

Case in point: Toyota’s Project BLAID is developing a wearable device that helps blind and visually impaired people virtually see and navigate around their surroundings. While Toyota is an auto- The Audi Lunar Quattro motive company, “we think of ourselves as more of a mobility company,” says Doug Moore, manager of the partner robotics group at the Toyota Research Institute.

In 2011 Project BLAID was charged with taking existing robotics technology and adapting it for the blind and vision impaired community. But through involvement with the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired advocacy organization in 2012, it was determined that developing a robot assistant would be wrong for this community. Instead, Moore says his team concluded that the task was “about trying to provide information for the user in their space.”

Real differences between robots and blind people were at the root of the change. A robot knows nothing intrinsically and must be taught and enabled to move and interpret what it sees. It is slow and heavy for a blind person to tote around town. By contrast, “a blind person is amazingly functional” and “can move as fast as anybody else,” Moore explains. “We need to think about making this a wearable device and filling in the gaps of things that currently aren’t happening.”

The result: a wearable with environmental awareness that fills the utility space between a cane or a guide dog and a smartphone with GPS — a necklace-like device that can identify a building feature such as an exit sign, a stairway or a door from afar, and process the image to guide the user. It leverages the same computer vision technology used in a vehicle’s pedestrian detection or road sign recognition system, merging a camera and a processor running an algorithm that works with “a limited subset of images that are important for the blind and visually impaired community.”

Project BLAID is in the research and prototyping phase, and there is not a timeline for its commercialization, Moore says.

On the other hand, BMW Group’s Designworks has completed major projects for physically disabled people: the professional athletes of Team USA who competed in the 2016 Summer Paralympics, held in Rio de Janeiro. One project was designing a racing wheelchair for both sprint and marathon competitors in track and field. “These athletes are equally superior to regular Olympians. They just happen to have disabilities, so they need a bit of extra equipment to allow them to compete,” explains Brad Cratthiola, associate director of BMW Designworks.

The work began with an aerodynamic analysis of a three-dimensional scan of the athlete in his or her own existing chair (using computational fluid dynamics). Then they designed a new chair form to improve the aerodynamics. They also produced a stiffer chassis, because chassis fl ex steals energy, “and what you want is the most efficient transfer of the athlete’s power into wheel rotation,” Cratthiola says. Finally, to achieve customization and fit, BMW Designworks took inspiration from auto racing and made a custom mold of each athlete sitting that became the cockpit of the chair. “That allowed the athlete to lock in and become one with the wheelchair,” he declares.

BMW Designworks also devised custom gloves for each athlete, used to spin the wheels, from an ABS-like plastic that is more durable than the putty-based gloves used in the Paralympics.

Cross-fertilization is at the core of BMW Designworks. “In leveraging these projects with outside industries, we take best practices and expertise gained from BMW and use it to help our clients, but we also learn new technologies and trends from other industries and then bring that back to BMW and see how that might affect future auto designs,” Cratthiola says.

Land Rover has also brought its expertise to sports, allying with the Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) team in the 2016-17 America’s Cup sailboat races. In a venture named Land Rover BAR, it shared machine learning technology to analyze and improve performance patterns of the team’s racing boat; technology to improve the structure of the boat’s wing (used instead of a sail) and how it responds to aerodynamic influences; and human-machine interface technology, to improve how data about the boat’s behavior (such as speed and navigation) and tactical information (such as the boat’s position in the race) is displayed to the sailors.

Engineers from Land Rover say it is valuable to see the use of their know-how in a different field. Hopkirk says, “They are learning from us as much as we’re learning from them. They’re particularly keen to help us on the research side. Because we’re small we tend to be focused on the here and now, whereas they’re a large organization with longer horizons developing technologies five to 10 years into the future, and they would very much like to find out where we could develop over that timescale.” In long-term work with BAR, Land Rover engineers may be involved in developing the racing boat’s architecture and structure beyond the wing, working on data architecture and further enhancing the business’s sustainability.

BAR’s boat for the America’s Cup Finals in Bermuda next July will be the first to benefit from Land Rover’s contributions in the alliance. It will be launched for in-water testing in December. Land Rover is benefiting from its work with BAR because it’s expected future SUVs will be shape-shifting as they drive on the highway to boost fuel economy, though they may still resemble today’s models while parked.

Three years ago Jaguar Land Rover worked on racing bikes with Team Sky, which was entered in the Tour de France, to optimize the bikes’ aerodynamics, by testing them both with and without the cyclists aboard in the automaker’s wind tunnels, Harper recalls. “But what we’re doing with the boats is at a whole other level” of sophistication, he says.

Since 2006, supercar maker McLaren has been helping pharmaceutical companies to formulate new medicines techby leveraging its data analytics, simulations and modeling technologies used in Formula 1 racing. Those technologies, named Atlas, collect information from the 400-500 sensors aboard an F1 race car and process it hundreds of times per second, enabling race team officials to make near-real-time decisions about a car during a race. About a decade ago, the company founded a new technical solutions business around Atlas, to bring its value to other industries, says Adam Hill, chief medical officer at McLaren Applied Technologies. Hill says, McLaren was approached by Pfizer Inc., which needed a way to measure, visualize, interpret and drive decisions from human trials data. In 2011 McLaren started working with GlaxoSmithKline, its “next most prominent relationship,” he says.

“Today we have a fourth generation of that highly configurable prototyping platform” for testing the effectiveness of a drug or a device, in a defined period of time and with a defined outcome, “in a scalable fashion,” Hill explains. “It has supported different clinical trials with a number of different pharmaceutical companies.”

Robotics Looms Large

A key tool in both manufacturing vehicles and making them self-driving is robotics, and automakers are sharing their know-how here, too.

”There are a number of industries that are heading down the robotics route,” says Land Rover’s Harper. “Automotive robotics is the direction of autonomy that helps enhance human performance. If you think about what that might do in terms of dissolving some of the boundaries between sectors that we think are currently unrelated, then that gives you a clue as to where the opportunities are.”

General Motors collaborated with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2007 on a robot named Robonaut 2 to help astronauts at the International Space Station orbiting Earth. A team of seven GM engineers were in-residence at the JSC in Houston until their work was completed in 2009, and Robonaut 2 was transported to outer space in 2011, aboard a Space Shuttle.

“NASA has continued on without us, looking at other versions of Robonaut, and going off in their space, no pun intended,” says Marty Linn, principal engineer of robotics and manager of advanced automation technologies at the General Motors Technology Center and the leader of GM’s Robonaut 2 team.

Then on its own, GM turned to adapting the idea of Robonaut 2 and its technologies in new “collaborative robots” for its vehicle assembly plants, Linn says. A related concept was taking the actuation system from Robonaut 2 — the motors, controls, the ball screws, the gears…that make the fingers of this robot work — and adapt it to a wearable robot, integrated into a glove that allows the user to get additional grasp strength.

After searching for a partner to make the RoboGlove for it, GM hooked up with Bioservo Technologies AB of Sweden, a leader in the field of robotic gloves, he says. Bioservo describes the category as “wearable technologies based on soft robotics” and sells its SEM (Soft Extra Muscle) Glove in Europe, North America and Japan, for use by anyone who has a weak hand due to illness, injury, stroke or old age.

In July, GM and Bioservo announced a licensing agreement, where Bioservo will combine aspects of its SEM Glove technology with aspects of RoboGlove, and sell the new creation as its own product. But first, the Swedish manufacturer will incorporate the combined technologies in new industrial robotic gloves that GM will issue to workers in its manufacturing plants. The goal is to reduce the amount of force those workers exert with their hands, to curb repetitive stress injuries. According to Linn, the RoboGlove technology gives the user an additional 20 pounds of hand strength. GM expects to test the first prototypes early next year, he says.

Robert E. Calem