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SA’s roadmap to premium electric mobility

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South Africa can do more to create market access and deliver on an operating environment which makes for good business, says TREVOR HILL – Head of Audi South Africa.

Competition in the premium automotive market is fierce but there is an elephant in the room. The demand we create for alternative mobility technologies (be it fully electric or hybrid) brings with it a very real infrastructure gap. Not addressing this today, will unfortunately prevent any meaningful ability for the local automotive sector to competitively participate in global trends. Doing this right would mean that we can deliver on local customer demand while still operate globally as a competitive automotive investment destination.

There is a firm reality; staying ahead of the pack means constantly innovating current technologies that, to a large degree, progresses the automotive segment as a whole. The downstream benefit of product innovation is clear, but it cannot be the job of the automotive industry alone.  In the premium segment where the desire to drive ahead of the curve is expected, the introduction of new technologies around electrification and artificial intelligence creates real opportunity.

What the South African automotive segment does not need is potential. What it does need is a practical and inclusive plan that supports the growth needed – and more importantly enables both education and adoption for a new world of mobility. To overcome the chicken and egg conundrum we suggest five key focus areas:

1)           We need increased investment in building an infrastructure footprint that actually supports alternative mobility solutions: The automotive industry, in partnership with government and other industry partners, must fuel the development and implementation of charging stations around the country.

2)           We need a deliberate product road map matched to our infrastructure reality: Electrification won’t happen overnight, so we need to build a road map that accommodates hybrid vehicles and that can accommodate any future shifts to fully electric vehicles as and when new technology is phased in.

3)           We need a policy environment that makes good sense and enables the product and infrastructure needs: Currently import duties on electric vehicles are high. Electric vehicles get charged a duty of around 25%, while conventional vehicle imports get charged 18%. Additionally, an ad valorem tax, which is usually charged on luxury items, is also applied to electric vehicles. So the tax on electric vehicle imports stands at about 42% in total. Government needs to look at this policy and reduce import taxes to make the future of mobility less expensive.

4)           We need to increase the size of the pie. A clear and consistent growth plan creates a more stable business environment and more importantly, stabilizes the currency fluctuation impact on the Rand:  Currently, the rand is the strongest it has been in two years. This is attributed to improvements in overall confidence because of increased political stability. However, what is concerning is the longevity of this stability and the resulting impact on the business environment.

5)           We need to make sure that we bring our customers and Dealer partners on the journey with us: Education of customers and Dealer partners is key. If a consumer doesn’t understand what an electric vehicle is, they won’t buy it, even if they have the means. However, if they are educated about the positive impact such vehicles have on the environment, issues of versatility, power output and the technology behind it; then they are more likely to purchase the vehicle. We appreciate that any investment in alternative mobility solutions must be geared towards the end users of these solutions. What is important to understand is that consumers buy electric vehicles for different reasons. For some, it’s a lifestyle choice, wanting to drive green, clean mobility. While other consumers buy electric vehicles to make a statement. Given the environmental benefits, the latter group sees the technology representing cutting edge innovation and they want to be at forefront of this. Customers also need the assurance and the necessary education to dispel any belief that electric vehicles lose the credibility and lack the quality of existing internal combustion engines. Also, a key credibility factor for a more future forward mobility offering is the pace of infrastructure investment that our Dealer partners would need to embark on in order to undeniably accelerate the adoption of alternative mobility. As a direct importer, we need to invest time and effort to ensure that our Dealer partners are willing and able to move their businesses in this direction.

So the road map is clear. Electric mobility means merging the demands of sustainability, everyday usability and performance. This implies integrating current technologies to advance what are often still seen as concept vehicles to cater for consumers in the premium market. It does also mean that parallel investments in infrastructure are needed, especially if we are to cater for the anticipated leapfrog in product line-ups.

Globally, Audi has made significant investments in driving progress towards alternative mobility solutions. This has seen investments in both technology and human capital to make advances in areas such as e-fuel, battery life, range, speed, general performance and aesthetic design.

With this in mind, from 2025 all Audi models will have an electrified drive. We will be launching more than 20 electric cars and plug-in hybrids– spread across all segments and concepts. Over the long-term, Audi plans to set the trend for the premium market, aiming to leverage and combine all of its technologies to reduce the emissions figures and develop sustainable, intelligent electro-mobility concepts.

Driving progress around innovation is a key aspect of our own DNA. Audi has an impressive track record for integrating benchmark technology into our vehicles. However, before complete electrified vehicle fleets are built, we need to ensure that we get a buy-in from government to invest in electric vehicles by showing the economic, environmental and social upliftment that these vehicles will bring to South Africa.

Development is as dynamic as the automotive sector. Once we show the need to introduce electric vehicles into the premium market for those who can afford it, we can focus on developing other areas – recycling batteries; developing battery options with superior charging performance; investigating renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, just to name a few. The future is exciting and it’s more than evident that electric vehicles will benefit South Africans at large.

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Project Bloodhound saved

The British project to break the world landspeed record at a site in the Northern Cape has been saved by a new backer, after it went into bankruptcy proceedings in October.

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Two weeks ago,  and two months after entering voluntary administration, the Bloodhound Programme Limited announced it was shutting down. This week it announced that its assets, including the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), had been acquired by an enthusiastic – and wealthy – supporter.

“We are absolutely delighted that on Monday 17th December, the business and assets were bought, allowing the Project to continue,” the team said in a statement.

“The acquisition was made by Yorkshire-based entrepreneur Ian Warhurst. Ian is a mechanical engineer by training, with a strong background in managing a highly successful business in the automotive engineering sector, so he will bring a lot of expertise to the Project.”

Warhurst and his family, says the team, have been enthusiastic Bloodhound supporters for many years, and this inspired his new involvement with the Project.

“I am delighted to have been able to safeguard the business and assets preventing the project breakup,” he said. “I know how important it is to inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and maths, and I want to ensure Bloodhound can continue doing that into the future.

“It’s clear how much this unique British project means to people and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of thanks I have received in the last few days.”

The record attempt was due to be made late next year at Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert, where retired pilot Andy Green planned to beat the 1228km/h land-speed record he set in the United States in 1997. The target is for Bloodhound to become the first car to reach 1000mph (1610km/h). A track 19km long and 500 metres wide has been prepared, with members of the local community hired to clear 16 000 tons of rock and stone to smooth the surface.

The team said in its announcement this week: “Although it has been a frustrating few months for Bloodhound, we are thrilled that Ian has saved Bloodhound SSC from closure for the country and the many supporters around the world who have been inspired by the Project. We now have a lot of planning to do for 2019 and beyond.”

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Motor Racing meets Machine Learning

The futuristic car technology of tomorrow is being built today in both racing cars and
toys, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The car of tomorrow, most of us imagine, is being built by the great automobile manufacturers of the world. More and more, however, we are seeing information technology companies joining the race to power the autonomous vehicle future.

Last year, chip-maker Intel paid $15.3-billion to acquire Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. Google’s autonomous taxi division, Waymo, has been valued at $45-billion.

Now there’s a new name to add to the roster of technology giants driving the future.

DeepRacer on the inside

Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing service and a subsidiary of Amazon.com,  last month unveiled a scale model autonomous racing car for developers to build new artificial intelligence applications. Almost in the same breath, at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, it showcased the work being done with machine learning in Formula 1 racing.

AWS DeepRacer is a 1/18th scale fully autonomous race car, designed to incorporate the features and behaviour of a full-sized vehicle. It boasts all-wheel drive, monster truck tires, an HD video camera, and on-board computing power. In short, everything a kid would want of a self-driving toy car.

But then, it also adds everything a developer would need to make the car autonomous in ways that, for now, can only be imagined. It uses a new form of machine learning (ML), the technology that allows computer systems to improve their functions progressively as they receive feedback from their activities. ML is at the heart of artificial intelligence (AI), and will be core to autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

AWS has taken ML a step further, with an approach called reinforcement learning. This allows for quicker development of ML models and applications, and DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to experiment with and hone their skill in this area. It is built on top of another AWS platform, called Amazon SageMaker, which enables developers and data scientists to build, train, and deploy machine learning quickly and easily.

Along with DeepRacer, AWS also announced the DeepRacer League, the world’s first global autonomous racing league, open to anyone who orders the scale model from AWS.

DeepRacer on the outside

As if to prove that DeepRacer is not just a quirky entry into the world of motor racing, AWS also showcased the work it is doing with the Formula One Group. Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director of Motor Sports, joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy during the keynote address at the re:Invent conference, to demonstrate how motor racing meets machine learning.

“More than a million data points a second are transmitted between car and team during a Formula 1 race,” he said. “From this data, we can make predictions about what we expect to happen in a wheel-to-wheel situation, overtaking advantage, and pit stop advantage. ML can help us apply a proper analysis of a situation, and also bring it to fans.

“Formula 1 is a complete team contest. If you look at a video of tyre-changing in a pit stop – it takes 1.6 seconds to change four wheels and tyres – blink and you will miss it. Imagine the training that goes into it? It’s also a contest of innovative minds.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy unveils DeepRacer

Formula 1 racing has more than 500 million global fans and generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2017. As a result, there are massive demands on performance, analysis and information. 

During a race, up to 120 sensors on each car generate up to 3GB of data and 1 500 data points – every second. It is impossible to analyse this data on the fly without an ML platform like Amazon SageMaker. It has a further advantage: the data scientists are able to incorporate 65 years of historical race data to compare performance, make predictions, and provide insights into the teams’ and drivers’ split-second decisions and strategies.

This means Formula 1 can pinpoint how a driver is performing and whether or not drivers have pushed themselves over the limit.

“By leveraging Amazon SageMaker and AWS’s machine-learning services, we are able to deliver these powerful insights and predictions to fans in real time,” said Pete Samara, director of innovation and digital technology at Formula 1.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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