The talk of the motor industry at the moment is the inevitable march towards autonomous cars. How much can cars do, how fast can we get make them do it?
Make that most of the motor industry. At Mazda, there’s nothing in future product plans that will encourage customers to take their hands off the wheel.
The Japanese maker set out its future research and development plans for media during a Global Technology Forum at its centre in Oberusel, Germany this month.
Plans up to “2021 and beyond” were outlined, including 2019’s SkyActiv-X engine (which combines petrol fuel with diesel-like compression-ignition) and new-generation platform, full-electric vehicles (also 2019) – and new automated-drive technology called Mazda Co-Pilot, which will undergo testing from 2020 and become standard in 2025.
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But Mazda won’t be making a car that will drive you to work, says Kiyoshi Fujiwara. He’s Mazda’s “big-picture” man, with oversight of research and development.
“In our Co-Pilot concept, the driver must always grab the steering wheel,” says Fujiwara-san. “Always. No release.”
Where does the co-piloting come in, then? Mazda’s system will only take over when the driver has made an error or suffered a serious health issue.
“If a driver suffers a heart attack [for example], then they cannot operate the car,” says Fujiwara-san. “In Japan, unfortunately we have a lot of these types of accidents, especially because our ratio of automatic-transmission cars is quite high. When drivers are suddenly ill, they often put their foot on the accelerator and have a big accident.
“In that case our system will operate the car to avoid the accident and will go to a safe location. It’s autonomous technology, although we are also adding [human] sensors so we can instantly judge driver-health. That is our concept: we co-pilot.”
Fujiwara-san says there are no immediate plans to extend autonomous driving beyond this point, even though the company could: “Of course we could do normal autonomous driving technology, but we don’t want to offer that to our customers. The car should always be operated by the driver.”
The same philosophy of driver-involvement informs the company’s choice of powertrain technologies. Key to Mazda’s model range going forward from 2019 will be the new SkyActiv-X engine, which employs proprietary petrol-compression-ignition technology to drastically improve efficiency. Indeed, Mazda claims that on a “well-to-wheel” basis (everything from fuel extraction to driving) a SkyActiv-X car is actually cleaner than its EV equivalent in many parts of the world.
New Zealand enjoys at least 80 per cent renewable power-generation. But in many other countries, electricity is often produced by burning fossil fuel. On that well-to-wheel calculation, Mazda says a SkyActiv-X petrol car is responsible for emissions of 142g/km, compared with 200g for an EV powered by coal-fired electricity or 156g if the charge comes from petroleum-produced power.
So fuel-efficiency remains the number one priority for Mazda’s next-generation engine. But there’s no suggestion the company will rethink its transmission strategy, which is focused on conventional automatic technology – widely thought to be less fuel-efficient than the gearless Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT) favoured by so much of the Japanese car industry.
“To generate a good fuel consumption number, CVT is very convenient,” says Hichiro Hirose, Mazda’s executive officer in charge of powertrain development and product planning. “But CVT also makes the driver feel strange; it’s very unintuitive.
“We like to give the driver the right information during acceleration and gearchanging, for it all to be harmonised. CVT does not give customers that feeling – the sound is often different to what is happening with the car. It doesn’t fit our philosophy.
“But we want to make fuel-economy gains with our automatic – that’s the sticking point. So if we raise the efficiency of the combustion engine, we can achieve that with no compromise [for the driver].”
Mazda is also committed to continuing with a manual-transmission option for at least some of its cars.
“We will definitely continue to have manual transmission,” says Hirose-san. “In Japan, this is very unusual and people think we are strange. But we always claim our cars are fun to drive so we need to maintain the manual.”
Also contrary to common opinion, Hirose-san believes a manual is still more fuel-efficient than even the latest-generation automatics… in the right circumstances.
“If the driver is very experienced and utilises the transmission correctly, it’s definitely more efficient. But on the other hand, when a driver is less experienced, automatic is better.”
There’s another reason to continue with manual, says Hirose-san: “We refine the finish for that transmission, then apply those same techniques to our automatic. The manual gearbox is the origin for the important mechanisms in our automatic transmission.”
Mazda says its human-centred engineering approach even extends to the next-generation SkyActiv platform – the first major architecture upgrade since the first-generation CX-5 was launched in 2012.
The company claims to have studied human motion and tried to replicate that “dynamic balance” in its platform configuration. Example: as you walk the motion of your pelvis is regular, with the upper body moving in the opposite direction and the legs transferring reaction force from the ground. The new platform, due in 2019 in conjunction with SkyActiv-X, works towards replicating this human state.
There’s a new front-seat design shaped around the “gravity centre” of your rib cage, a new multi-directional “ring structure” in the chassis to better control diagonal force from the suspension and redesigned vibration damping that is not only supposed to reduce noise, but also control the direction it comes from to increase what the company calls the “quality of quietness”.