SF Technotes

Snap-together Autonomous Vehicles

By Michael Castelluccio
December 12, 2017

Snap on the road_web

One of the more interesting tech expos each year is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which leads off the calendar in Las Vegas, Nev. And among the 2,000+ companies at the 2018 expo in January will be Rinspeed, a Swiss automotive manufacturer noted for its concept cars. They will be on the Convention Center floor with an autonomous vehicle called Snap.


The Snap isn’t especially noteworthy because of its electric power train, nor the fact that it’s autonomous. Self-driving vehicles are on the horizon and/or assembly lines of many manufacturers already. What puts Snap in a future classification by itself is the fact that it’s modular. It’s assembled from two separate, replaceable units that are snapped together.


Snap combines several technologies in a unique mode of snap-on manufacture that adds a recycling dimension to let you keep the cabin assembly when it’s time to replace the part more likely to wear out sooner—the power sled. The technologies include the all-electric power train, autonomous control, full network connectivity, and four-wheel steering that gives you a turning radius so tight K-turns can become U-turns.




The four-wheel chassis, which Rinspeed calls the “skateboard,” has the power train and all its connected systems. On top of this, a “pod” is attached—snapped on. For this unit the options not only include color choices, differently decorated interiors, and features like Sirius radio. Those are the choices with cars now. Snap will have pods for different uses.


Images courtesy of Rinspeed
Images courtesy of Rinspeed


The freedom of design for the pod space is wide open at this point. Some early, obvious options might be for shuttle pods, minibus, or commuter cabs. Then you might imagine a mobile shop pod for the locksmith or Geek Squad crew and their mobile computer repair service. The Postal Service and utility companies might have their own ideas for pods with especially customized interiors, networks, and tools.


It’s reasonable to assume that the skateboard module would have the shorter lifespan, so any expense lavished on the pod could be saved when it comes time for a new vehicle. With Snap, a new vehicle or just an upgrade might be only half a vehicle—a new skateboard.




Although the full details about the Snap won’t be revealed until next month in Las Vegas, Jake Groves, staff writer at carmagazine.co.uk, has offered a glimpse of the surprising amount of tech that will be included in the concept vehicle. He describes four personal monitors inside, and to cut down glare or reflection in daytime, the front and rear panels on the pods will be dimmable as seen on the Boeing Dreamliner commercial jets. Network connections will be 5G supplemented with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Car-to-X communications will allow vehicles to talk to each other, and Tom Tom will provide HD mapping for the autonomous driving system, which will depend on Lidar sensors.




Lidar (light detection and ranging) is the laser 3D-scanning method that’s been borrowed from other vehicles such as satellites that depend on exact position mapping. It’s become an essential part of many autonomous systems, and you might have seen one of these operating as a spinning fixture atop a self-driving test car. It’s a technology that can measure distance to a target by sending out pulsed laser light and then measuring the reflected pulses with a (Lidar) sensor.


The light that bounces back to the sensor provides differences in the return times and wavelengths, and these differences allow the system to create digital 3D representations or maps of the target. To understand how Lidar sees the street and the surroundings from its position on board a traveling vehicle, look at the map below. It’s a Lidar image that displays the road contour, elevation, and trees and vegetation alongside the road.


Lidar street view_web
Image courtesy Oregon Transportation Department


Over the years, Rinspeed has created a number of concept cars. The Snap is their 24th model. Last year’s design was called the Oasis, and it was an autonomous vehicle with an actual on-board garden.


The company’s announcement of the Snap on its website offers the reason for this year’s design. “Self-driving cars, stuffed full of short-lived IT components, will help solve the transport problems in urban areas in the foreseeable future—and not just there. To this end, Swiss powerhouse of ideas Rinspeed has designed an elaborate and unparalleled mobil.”


CES opens on Tuesday, January 9, 2018. The Snap will be there, and it will be interesting to see what the response is. The show is billed as a venue for consumers, but the developers and investors also show up among the thousands of international attendees.


Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 24 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 21st year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.

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