Author: Su Qingtao
On March 3rd, Shanghai Ecarx held the “2023 New Product Launch Conference”, announcing the release of 7 autonomous vehicle models and 3 service scenarios, including 3 autonomous patrol vehicles covering multiple scenes such as patrol, data collection, and comprehensive management, 3 autonomous sweeping vehicles covering scenes such as non-motorized lanes, parks, and alleys, and 1 autonomous transport vehicle suitable for high-capacity industrial handling and urban distribution scenarios.
Based on its 4-year technical accumulation in the field of autonomous logistics vehicles, Ecarx developed new products using a platform-based and modular approach, combined with the characteristics and operational requirements of new scenarios, to complete the migration of platform capabilities. This will help drive the implementation of unmanned driving applications in various scenarios towards a new stage.
In the following sections, we will briefly summarize the speeches of Ecarx management and some invited guests at the launch conference, as well as media communications.
Why Choose the Line-Controlled Chassis Track?
As early as its establishment in 2018, Ecarx focused on the end-to-end logistics scenarios. Starting from the needs and characteristics of logistics scenarios, Ecarx took the lead in researching and developing line-controlled chassis for autonomous logistics vehicles, and customized the upper-layer operation units for customers.
Why did they choose the line-controlled chassis instead of more “glamorous” algorithm? Ecarx Co-founder and R&D Director Li Fei explained that in the early stages of unmanned driving development, everyone’s focus was indeed on algorithms. However, in the last few years, algorithms have basically become “competent” in low-speed scenarios, and vehicles have become the bottleneck.
For example, low-speed unmanned vehicles are not only smaller and narrower than passenger cars but also have a higher center of gravity. When passing over a speed bump, a passenger car can pass through at 80 kilometers per hour with just a slight bounce, but a low-speed unmanned vehicle, even at 20 kilometers per hour, may overturn. This means that the difficulty of tuning small cars is completely different from that of passenger cars.
Therefore, to truly implement unmanned driving technology in low-speed scenarios, it is necessary to value hardware such as line-controlled chassis and engineering.
What to Do and What Not to Do
In order to focus on producing quality products and avoid conflicts of interest with partners, Ecarx will firmly not engage in perception and decision-making algorithms or scenario operations. Rather, the company will only be responsible for the line-controlled chassis, providing mobility capabilities, operation integration capabilities, and supporting service capabilities throughout the vehicle’s full life cycle.Of course, in terms of specific delivery strategies, YiKa has maintained a considerable degree of flexibility – customers can choose only chassis services or choose integrated services, which means that YiKa will complete the integration and calibration of sensors. According to Shu Liang, CEO of YiKa Smart Car, currently more than 90% of customers choose the “turnkey solution” because it is the most worry-free solution for them.
Core technology self-development
For highly standardized components such as wire-controlled motion and wire-controlled steering, YiKa chooses to purchase from suppliers such as Tongyu directly.
However, YiKa’s positioning is not an integrator of wire-controlled chassis. If it only does integration work, then YiKa only needs to give different function modules to different suppliers. However, the application scenarios of unmanned vehicles are particularly fragmented and diversified. This means that there are many functional versions of the product, and the iteration needs of different versions are also different. Therefore, YiKa must master the technology related to functional points and iteration.
In view of this, YiKa has chosen to self-develop the software and hardware of the charging logic, distribution logic, power-off logic, vehicle control, and chassis domain controller.
Regarding the benefits of software and hardware of the chassis domain control, Li Fei, the head of R&D at YiKa, further explained:
1. Shortened the product iteration cycle. That is, after receiving the customized requirements of customers, it is not necessary to waste a lot of time negotiating development costs and delivery dates with suppliers, but to focus on the product.
2. It is more conducive to the coupling of software and vehicle functions, and it is also more conducive to the decoupling of the physical architecture of the whole vehicle.
Shu Liang said: We are a technology company integrated with software and hardware, not a pure integration and assembly company.
In Shu Liang’s view, the self-development of some core technologies by YiKa actually lowers the threshold for suppliers, so more suppliers can be absorbed.
Building a platform and modular development model
Different from the traditional “standard hot-selling” development model of passenger cars, the end-use scenarios faced by YiKa Smart Cars are diverse and fragmented. Scene and customer customized development are inevitable. However, YiKa Smart Car is still able to develop 7 products in one year and can create a new product according to customer customization needs within four months. How is this achieved?
In the media group sending event after the press conference, many media were curious about how YiKa can “release” 7 products at once. One of the questions was: What are the differences in demand for wire-controlled chassis for different scenarios? And how does YiKa make its products adaptable to various scenarios with ease?## Li Fei gave an example: in the retail scenario, the unmanned vehicle may stop in a square for a long time after running for a period of time, while the security patrol vehicle may keep running. Therefore, the technical requirements for batteries in these two scenarios are different, which requires vehicle manufacturers to have multiple technical solutions to adapt.
If each battery technology solution requires a lot of technical changes and redesign when integrated into the chassis, the R&D cost and time investment in the early stage will be very high, which is unacceptable. Therefore, Ecarx adopts a platform-based, modular solution, which achieves a scenario-oriented and customer-oriented modular customization.
A platform can be reused in multiple products, and a universal module can be reused in multiple platforms. Behind the building-block style development is the restructuring of the entire vehicle architecture and the polishing of platforms and universal modules. Combined with self-developed core components such as chassis domain control, the platform-based, modular development mode can increase the reuse rate of universal modules to more than 80%, and more calmly face different customization needs.
Taking the battery solution difference as an example, whether it is a battery swap or a long-endurance version of the battery pack, it is first completely universal in terms of external structure. Moreover, the system encapsulation of self-developed power distribution PDU by Ecarx is fully adapted to the communication and control strategy of the entire vehicle. Therefore, whether the scenario is retail or security patrol, the chassis platform of the unmanned vehicle can be the same, and the battery solution can be designed as a plug-and-play switch, without the need for secondary design.
Bai Junbo, co-founder and VP of Ecarx, said: Although there will be a lot of differentiation in the demand for chassis from logistics vehicles to cleaning vehicles, the modularization of core components such as CCU, BCU, and intelligent power distribution units ensures that the entire product system can have more scalability. Therefore, their chassis does not need to do too much customized development when expanding from logistics scenarios to environmental sanitation scenarios.
In addition, another great advantage of platform-based, modular development is that it can further reduce production costs by jointly promoting the mass production scale of common platforms and modules across multiple product lines.
Cooperation with Guokefushi to make line-controlled chassis simpler and easier to use
In order to reduce the usage threshold for customers in various scenarios, Ecarx has also cooperated with Guokefushi to develop middleware and tool chains.
Unlike middleware on general-purpose operating systems (connected to the OS kernel and upper-layer application software), the middleware developed by Ecarx and Guokefushi is software that “intermediates between vehicle hardware and autonomous driving systems”.The Vice President of Research and Development of China National Basic Research, Chen Yongbo, said: Yika provides services for scene terminals, but not all scene terminals have the full-site R&D capabilities of platforms like JD, Meituan, and Ali. Therefore, combining our software with Yika’s hardware provides some load for scene terminals, which can develop applications for scenes more quickly based on this software.
Eliminating Functions Unrelated to Efficiency as Much as Possible
Bai Junbo believes that the entire process of unmanned driving has passed the stage of market education. People may pay more attention to the stability of the operation process, the cost and cost-effectiveness of vehicles. Therefore, we need to forget our high-tech identity and return to the attributes of production materials and production tools, and serve the scene wholeheartedly.
Bai Junbo introduced that as the application scale continues to expand, unmanned vehicle products are evolving towards functionality and practicality, mainly manifested in: Firstly, the vehicle pays more attention to the attributes of production materials and tools; secondly, cost-effectiveness is the top priority; thirdly, maximizing operating efficiency; fourthly, eliminating functions unrelated to efficiency as much as possible; finally, qualitative indicators and grading are tailored to the characteristics of unmanned vehicles.
Among them, “Eliminating Functions Unrelated to Efficiency as Much as Possible” is a point that is easy to be overlooked by many manufacturers. That is to eliminate the exterior parts, interactive screens, aluminum alloy tires, etc. that are designed for aesthetics.
Bai Junbo believes that when talking about cost reduction, everyone generally focuses on how to reduce material costs. However, it is more important to reduce costs from the product definition and design stage than to reduce material costs.
Low-speed Unmanned Vehicles in the Field of Security Patrol Applications
At the Yika product launch event, Deng Yi, Deputy General Manager of Zhongke Tianji, a partner in the field of security patrols, gave a speech and participated in interactions in the subsequent media group send-out session. Through Deng Yi’s shared content, we can briefly summarize an example of the application of low-speed unmanned vehicles in the field of security patrols.
Strictly speaking, Zhongke Tianji does not belong to the automatic driving industry. Its main business is to deliver smart city solutions. In the process of developing this business, it was found that there is a strong demand for automatic driving in the field of security patrols.
Taking Karamay City in Xinjiang, where Zhongke Tianji is located, as an example: Anti-terrorism and stability maintenance are important political tasks in the local area. In June 2021, there were 305 police stations in the city, and the annual operating cost of each police station was 3 million yuan. Calculated altogether, the annual financial expenditure on this amounts to as high as 1 billion yuan. Therefore, the government hopes to reduce the number of police officers through technological means.Last February, Zhongke Tianji deployed two driverless cars to carry out patrol testing instead of police officers in Karamay. In the following months, the company deployed four cars in Urumqi and two cars in Tacheng, and the trial operation had a good effect.
During this process, Zhongke Tianji mainly developed several major applications for unmanned vehicles in the field of security patrol:
Evidence Collection via Perception
There is a high-definition video camera on the car, which can achieve 4K high-definition video and transmit it to the back end in real-time. In addition, there is voice collection, which can send the on-site voice to the big data platform in the back-end. In addition, there are infrared and low-light night vision devices on the top of the car.
The video on the car can be used for structured and simple intelligent analysis. In case of abnormal behavior, it will issue a warning message to the back-end. In addition, there is a snapshot camera on the car that can snap faces and license plates, and transmit them to the public security feature library for comparison to form warning information.
The extreme weather conditions in Xinjiang are not conducive to police officers going out for patrols, but unmanned vehicles can help.
The car has a one-click intercom function. For citizens who need emergency assistance from the police, they can use the intercom to communicate with the remote police officers to obtain support.
At the car end, face scanning can be used for face recognition to confirm the identity of citizens. There is a 5G channel on the car that connects to the big data platform of the municipal convenience end. If citizens need business such as printing temporary ID cards, checking water and electricity bills, they can be processed on the touch screen of the car where there is a printer, face recognition equipment, and a large touch screen.
In June of last year, Zhongke Tianji held a seminar with the vice-chairman and the head of the public security department in Xinjiang, where it was proposed that 1-2 cars should be placed in each village. It is evident that the demand for low-speed driverless cars is gradually being explored.
Deng Yi, the deputy general manager of Zhongke Tianji, said that currently, one car can basically replace 2.5 police officers.
In the field of security patrol, there is a key indicator called “police visibility rate,” which refers to the probability and frequency of the people seeing the police and police equipment in their daily lives. With the use of this low-speed driverless car, the urban public security department can achieve the goal of reducing the number of police stations by half while guaranteeing a high police visibility rate.Currently, the police stations in Karamay city have been reduced from 305 in 2021 to over 150. As it has been proven to be very effective in Xinjiang, the Ministry of Public Security has already conducted on-site investigations in three locations.
So far, Zhongse Tianji has a total of 30 vehicles, which have been regularly deployed in Karamay, Bazhou, Tacheng, Urumqi, and other places for security patrols. Deng Yi, the deputy general manager of Zhongse Tianji, said: “According to the plan, we will deploy between 1000 to 1500 vehicles this year. We have already obtained the first commercial service contract – 200 vehicles are operating in Karamay city”.
This article is a translation by ChatGPT of a Chinese report from 42HOW. If you have any questions about it, please email email@example.com.