Accelerating towards autonomous autos - inteview with FISITA's Paul Mascarenas

The automotive industry, technology wise, is motoring along quite nicely, but is the industry, or the public, ready to take the next step towards autonomous vehicles?

The International Federation of Automotive Engineering Societies (FISITA – that’s the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Ingénieurs des Techniques de l'Automobile) is the International Federation of Automotive Engineering Societies. Its president Paul Mascarenas oversees membership that comprises both member societies like the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Society of Automotive Engineers and the BDI in Germany, with around 200,000 individual automotive engineers around the world represented.

FISITA’s mission is to promote knowledge sharing among its members in a way that positively contributes to the development of safe, sustainable and affordable mobility solutions and guides the future direction of the automotive engineering profession. So what does he make of the UK and of the future of the automotive industry at large?

Firstly, Masceranas points out, the UK’s automotive sector has started to reverse the downsizing of the industry that started in the early eighties. “I think recently, particularly with the UK Government initiative around the Automotive Council, the availability of financial incentives and improved competitiveness in the UK, we’ve seen the start of a comeback both in terms of manufacturing and engineering,” he said. “And now with the drive towards intelligent and connected vehicles or autonomous vehicle development, including the infrastructure, and being on the leading edge of many alternative forms of mobility and next-generation mobility solutions, I think the UK is really very well positioned. It’s very exciting to see that coming back, and it gives me a lot of optimism for the future.”

There are many technologies that contribute to making a vehicle semi-autonomous, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist or automatic braking. Some of these features are starting to appear in premium models and even migrate down as standard features in more affordable vehicles. Some features, like advanced emergency braking, are becoming legal responsibilities for manufacturers – since November 2015 new heavy goods vehicles are required to have this fitted as standard.

“I think the rollout of semiautonomous or highly automated driving features is moving very quickly,” said Mascarenas. “And they really provide the building blocks, in a technical sense, for higher levels of automation because they allow you to control the throttle for powertrain controls and therefore the speed, and they allow you to control the braking, the steering and so on. So you’ve got both the sensing capability and the actuators on the vehicle to provide much higher levels of autonomous function.”

The two key component families are the actuators and the sensors. And while the technology behind the actuators is reasonably established and robust, the sensors, claims Mascarenas, do need to have the higher capability which then needs equally robust software algorithms.

“These combine to allow the vehicle to anticipate or predict what other vehicles, a cyclist, person or even what an animal might do, in much the same way that a human driver is able to,” said Mascarenas. “That is what starts to differentiate these very highly automated driving features, which are fundamentally based on line of sight type sensing – so cameras, radar, LiDAR – from the more advanced type of sensing that’s building an entire image in three dimensions of the world around it. And starting to use predictive algorithms to anticipate what others might be doing as opposed to just controlling the path of the vehicle.

“The fundamental technologies are there. They need advancement in terms of cost because these sensors are at a development level and are extremely expensive. They need to be driven down to levels where they would be affordable on regular vehicles. But also, they need a lot of development in terms of being able to ensure the statistical reliability of those systems in terms of detection and vehicle behaviour.”

The building blocks, then, are there but need further refinement before the fully autonomous vehicle becomes a regular sight on our city streets. But how long will this take?

“You’ve already got companies like Tesla providing a very advanced level of automation on the vehicles that they have in production,” said Mascarenas, “But I think we’ll go beyond that in the next, five to 10 years. I think it’s still going to be a long time before vehicles that, for example, don’t have steering wheels, don’t have pedals and so on, are available to the general public, if ever. I think they are more suited to public transportation networks.”

Which brings into question the reason for having autonomous vehicles in the first place. Is it for safety, for efficiency, or is it about mobility for the masses?

“They’re all motivators,” said Mascarenas. “With safety, there’s the vision of cars that can’t crash or at least are very unlikely to. That’s driven by the number of fatalities around the world, still well over 1 million a year are killed in automotive related accidents. Just in the US alone, it’s still something like 35,000 people a year are killed in vehicle accidents. So we can use, either full automation or high automation to significantly reduce the number of fatalities.

“Secondly, efficiency, which is really two things. One is more efficient operation of the vehicles in the sense of energy usage, whether it’s fuel economy and emissions on petrol engine vehicles, or whether it’s better utilisation of battery electrical energy on an EV. Or we can mean efficiency in the sense of reducing congestion.

“And then thirdly, just from a pure mobility perspective, being able to deliver to the end user a mobility experience which is more relaxing, more convenient, more comfortable than driving oneself. Now you can use the time when you’re in that vehicle in either a more productive or entertaining way.”

Indeed, the notion of directly replacing our existing, personally owned vehicles with autonomous ones is not the way forward according to Mascarenas. Currently people use their cars typically for maybe an hour in the morning to go to work, an hour coming back and for recreation at the weekend. Maybe 10% of the time.

“The advantage of an autonomous vehicle is if you can put it into a public or shared service, you can really significantly increase the utilisation of those vehicles,” he said. “You imagine if you pushed it up to 80% or 90% as opposed to 10%. That reduces the number of vehicles in total that are on the roads. So you get a compounding effect in terms of reduced congestion, reduced environmental concerns and so on.

“If you just think of population growth, density in terms of urbanisation, the numbers of vehicles for congestion that we see, I think anything that can actually reduce the number of vehicles in operation, whether those vehicles are driven by a human driver or whether they’re driven by computer, has to be a good thing.”

Beyond the direct technology required to create autonomous vehicles there are other issues that will inevitably need to be looked at. This will include privacy, as passengers will be entering a network when they get into the vehicle, and also security of that network from hackers. And liability issues if there is an accident is something that will cause potential operators and manufacturers sleepless nights.

“So as well as the involvement of engineers around the world, clearly the legislators and regulators are equally involved,” explained Mascarenas. “The ability to win the race is totally dependent on the technical community and the regulators coming together to provide the necessary ecosystem. And I think actually the UK is doing all of the right things.”

He highlights the work of organisations such as the Transport Systems Catapult developing the infrastructure and the Automotive Propulsion Centre looking at the vehicles themselves, pulling on resources of other initiatives like the Digital Catapult. Despite this there remains a problem that affects many other parts of the engineering sector; getting the right skill set to take advantage of the opportunities.

“Historically automotive engineers have been mainly mechanical engineers,” said Mascarenas. “But if you look at the technologies [for autonomous vehicles], there’s a rapid need for a different skill mix. There’s more dependency on electronics, on controls engineering, on software, on information technology. So when we talk about suitably qualified and experienced people, we’re sort of casting the net broader than just the traditional definition of largely mechanically qualified engineers.

“It’s a very competitive time because the auto industry is competing with other industries for those types of skills. You’ve got the obvious consumer electronics industry for the software engineers, you’ve got aerospace for the controls engineers, and in fact industrial applications as well. One of the things that we do at FISITA is to help promote a career in automotive engineering as an attractive, challenging, engaging, rewarding career for young engineers to consider.”

It could be that this new generation of engineers will be ideal for the task as they may well be the ones who embrace this different route for the transport sector. It could be, after all, that young people may be the most open to change when they are currently faced with the expense of learning to drive, buying a first car and then having to insure it.

As Mascarenas concluded: “They might actually not want the hassle of owning a vehicle. I think that generational change is where it’s more likely to drive the adoption of these types of technologies than it is a shift of today’s existing drivers into something different.”


Paul Mascarenas is President and Chairman of the Executive Board of FISITA.

Previously, Mascarenas served as Chief Technical Officer and Vice President, Ford Motor Company. In that role, he led Ford’s worldwide research organization, overseeing the development and implementation of the company’s technology strategy and plans. He also led the establishment of Ford’s Silicon Valley Research and Innovation Center, which supports the company’s vision to provide uncompromised personal mobility for people around the world.

A fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Mascarenas was elected a fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers in 2009. He served as general chairperson for the 2010 SAE World Congress and Convergence and has served on the FISITA board since 2012.

Mascarenas holds a Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of London, King’s College. In 2015, he was awarded an OBE for his services to the automotive industry.