A blog by Owain Davies – Vehicle Architecture Leader, Steel E-motive project

We are approaching a critical milestone in automotive history. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is going to significantly change the way we think about transportation, with the definition going beyond simply the movement of the vehicle from A to B. Instead the focus will shift from the vehicle itself to the wider concept of the movement of people and goods and how this is supported and facilitated by connected, autonomous electric vehicles and shared transportation platforms.

We are developing the Steel E-motive vehicle architecture with MaaS and autonomous applications in mind, targeting available technologies for 2030 deployment. Here, we are not only going to have to take into account the change in experience of owning and using a vehicle for the consumer, but also the impact on fleet operators as MaaS inevitably leads to an increase in demand for vehicle sharing, rental models and ride-hailing services over the next decade.

How will the consumer experience change?

We expect that, whilst the front-end user experience will undoubtedly change, customers will ultimately expect a safe, comfortable, convenient and affordable experience with minimal environmental impact as they do with current vehicle ownership models. The challenge from this perspective is to develop a solution which will cover these core end user-expectations whilst catering for the new passive passenger experience that vehicle autonomy entails.

From the fleet operator’s perspective things could look very different. As operating models are changed to, for example, payment ‘on use’ and with outright car ownership in decline, it is likely that vehicle OEMs will mainly be selling vehicles to MaaS operators by 2030.

As vehicle ownership declines, consumers will turn to fleet operators to fulfil their transportation needs which will vary across a whole gamut of user cases. Any given journey will vary on the number of passengers, the length of the journey, how much luggage and so on.

A modular vehicle architecture may therefore be of interest to the fleet operator. There could be the option to change the field configurations, for example, to customise vehicle range based on the length of the journey.

The provision of a flexible cabin environment will be a more major focus in the engineering than ever been before. As an operator it would be great to think that you had a base vehicle platform which carried the end user to its destination, but the next day it was converted to a van and was delivering goods to your door! Flexibility is therefore in our minds when we look at the overall vehicle integration and architecture. From a practical perspective, being able to customize the number of seats, the amount of trunk space and the level of accessibility will allow the fleet operator a greater choice in the types of journeys that they are able to cater for.

Passenger safety and comfort are also high on the agenda when considering the interior package for MaaS application. We expect that, following the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be an increased emphasis on ensuring adequate space inside the cabin and an interior which enables high levels of cleanliness and hygiene. Curb-side ride hailing management requires new solutions for ingress-egress, which will affect side-crash load management.

Vehicle manufacturing, maintenance and warranty costs are key considerations, along with a focus on vehicle range and charging infrastructure. When considering the cost-effectiveness of the vehicle fleet, uptime allows the vehicle to operate at a price point which will keep their service competitive. At the end of the day, total cost of ownership will be key as the mobility service providers seek profitable business models.

Autonomous vehicle safety is high on the agenda

The MaaS platform will drive a further level of connectivity and level 5 autonomy is high on the agenda for vehicle architecture developments. Putting aside the legislation and litigation of an autonomous vehicle, autonomous operation yields new options with the removal of driver and controls and reconsidering front-end interior space. A fully autonomous level 5 architecture has no pedalbox or steering wheel; which enables an alternative cockpit layout and the freedom on modularity in terms of the occupant layout and vehicle configuration discussed above.

It would be naïve to think that there isn’t the possibility of a level 5 vehicle being involved in an accident, especially given that, for the model year introduction that we are considering for the Steel E-motive vehicle, it will be sharing the road with non-autonomous vehicles. It is important that any vehicle architecture options that we consider must include consideration for this.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the crash architecture and targets; ingress egress areas are larger challenging the overall vehicle structure. The crash strategies we are considering are still centred around the occupants but if a variant had rearward facing seats, challenges such as bulkhead and wheel well intrusion in a crash scenario will require more volume space and an alternative structure.

Steel technology is key to meeting stakeholder expectations

We believe that the use of steel technologies will help us to develop an affordable, strong, durable and sustainable vehicle architecture for the Steel E-motive project which will overcome the variety of challenges outlined above.

We are pushing the boundaries of steel material grades such as Gen3 AHSS (high strength and high formability), steel material fabrication process (e.g. 3D roll forming) and joining methods to ensure we have a durable lightweight and cost-effective architecture. This enables MaaS fleet operators to provide the safe, comfortable, convenient and cost-effective transportation service that customers will expect, with the view to minimizing environmental impact.

Owain Davies
Steel E-motive logo

Owain Davies

Vehicle architecture lead, Steel E-motive and Ricardo