The traditional golf car industry, despite its extension into the off-road utility segment, is still much like the embryonic chick, pecking its way through its shell of confinement. However, major changes in mobility, on the high winds of hardware and software development, are in the offing.

These changes in mobility revolve around electronics, in particular, artificial intelligence software and complementary sensory hardware, which are the primary component systems of self-driving vehicles.  The question is, whether, in the maelstrom of the enthusiastic embrace of this burgeoning technology on the part of major automobile manufacturers the world over, there are crumbs from the table that golf car manufacturers might bite into, devour, and digest, which could result in an order of magnitude leap into new products and expanded markets.

Below is a review of PGA Show highlights in the vein of new technologies and markets on display.  Such is the substance of near term prospects in new directions for the industry. This discussion is followed by the outlook for really new technologies, based on a series of interviews with major golf car manufacturer representatives–specifically regarding the prospects of artificial intelligence and sensory system applications. While not on display, these systems could well be the focus of near term product development. Are companies presently looking into AI and self-driving vehicle technology?

Golf Car Advisor also queried company reps regarding potential expansion into non-traditional global markets. The global market for small vehicles is quite varied and in terms of unit production substantially larger than the U.S. market for golf car-type vehicles. What are company plans with regard to these diverse markets?

Developments Shaping the Market in the Near Term

A traverse of the 2017 PGA Show, gave strong evidence of encouraging, forward-looking changes in the strategic perspectives of the major golf car manufacturers and a number of smaller manufacturers, as well as components manufacturers. Concerning what was on display and being touted, three principal new directions stand out:

  • Lithium power, embraced by one major manufacturer, E-Z-GO Textron, involving Samsung-manufactured lithium batteries, packaged with a proprietary battery management system and charger;
  • The clear embrace of the non-golf market as a focus of corporate resources and direction;
  • The emergence of component platforms lending themselves to personalized accessorized build-outs and power trains.

A fourth new avenue of product development is the fully enclosed, fully integrated vehicle enclosure, most dramatically exhibited by two Chinese companies, Evolution and Brue&Yin. The companies exhibited LSV-certified vehicles, fully enclosed and appointed with on-road vehicle features (e.g., power windows, heat, A/C, power steering and brakes).

E-Z-GO Textron Mainstreams Lithium

E-Z-GO is putting lithium power into its fleet vehicles, which has first priority. Lithium batteries and the custom battery management system will also be available in the consumer market, initially on a more limited basis. The implications for fleet market are significant. Not only does lithium greatly reduce the weight of the vehicle, thus extending the number of average rounds a vehicle could be used before recharging, but the recharge itself takes much less time compared to lead acid systems. The lithium-powered vehicles, which E-Z-GO calls its Elite™ Series, come with a 5-year warranty, suggesting that fleet recycling will tend to occur every 4.5 to 5 years, rather than 3.5 to 4 years which is now fairly standard for lead acid-based fleets. Clearly a game changer.

There are also, clearly, new worlds to conquer beyond the fleet market. Textron’s Specialized Vehicle Division, headed by Kevin Holleran, provides a dynamic organizational platform for exploiting new markets and products.

It should be noted that it is very likely that Club Car will follow suit over the coming year with its own lithium battery packs.

Component Platforms

Another trend may be in the making with component platforms, similar to knock-down kits, but more amenable to two aspects of the market: 1) personalized vehicle build-outs; and, 2) a diversity of products specially designed for work requirements or for fleets.

Parts and accessories giant, Nivel, featured accessory upgrade packages, capable of transforming the plain jane recycled fleet vehicle into the individual customer’s dream machine. The upgrade packages come in 11 different build-outs, given names such as Baja, Rebel Alliance, and Sons of Niches. Each named package comes with a promotional theme to fit a category of envisioned buyers. The concept is going to be attractive to buyers and to dealers who assemble vehicles.

The NexGen/SmartCart booth featured a simple, steel frame, about the size of a standard golf car, including the suspension and steering system. Add a custom body and a drive train, and an individualized small, task-oriented vehicle is born. The approach could well prove to be an exportable concept to a highly diversified global market for small vehicles.

These and similar component (and accessorized) concepts could be a significant factor in the market for both new and used vehicles, in the growing category of personalized mobility.

Self-Driving Technology Is on the Near Horizon for Golf Car-Type Vehicles

Turning now to more exotic technologies and products. Without question, the self-driving golf car will be part of the product mix in the not-too-distant future. Despite the reticence of representatives of the major golf car manufacturers exhibiting at the PGA Show to disclose specific plans and strategies, the evidence is overwhelming that this is a technology in which all three are likely to be participating.

It should be noted that self-driving golf car-type vehicles have already been appearing in demonstration projects at various locations, the efforts of small, start-up companies. For example, Varden Labs, based in Waterloo, Canada and Silicon Valley, demonstrated a self-driving shuttle vehicle on the main campus of the University of Waterloo in August 2015 and followed this up with a similar trial run at Fresno State College campus, California in February 2016. The vehicle involved in the second trial was a GEM four-seater and the LiDAR device, the Velodyne PUCK™. (LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging.  LiDAR systems typically use a low-power, eye-safe pulsing laser, which illuminates a “target”, and associated software calculates the time it takes for the laser to reflect back from the target. Direction is then given to the vehicle’s braking, accelerator, and steering systems.)

Michael Skupien, co-founder and lead mechanical engineer at Varden, explained that the Velodyne hardware used in the company’s demonstration consists of 16 lasers spinning 10 times per second in a 360-degree arc and capable of reaching 200,000 points in the operating environment per second. The system can detect objects at a distance of 100 meters. The video clip of the demonstration shows the vehicle in a fluid navigation of the typical objects and human activity found on a college campus.

Another start-up, Auro Robotics, is currently testing its version of a self-driving GEM at Santa Clara University, also in California. While this system appears somewhat limited in its capabilities, founder Nalin Gupta and his colleagues foresee more sophistication in the system and a ready market in campus-type environments.

Yet another company, a manufacturer of high-end golf cars, is testing a self-driving light electric delivery vehicle on the busy streets of London. (The company did not want to be named at this time.)

Cost of the self-driving systems is, of course, a major factor, especially when the application relates to a small, task-oriented vehicle, such as a golf car-type vehicle. It appears that the hardware costs are, and will be quite literally, plummeting. Two years ago, a large, bulky Velodyne device mounted on the roof of a vehicle, cost $75,000.  The Velodyne VLP-16 or Puck system now goes for $7,999 and sits easily on the palm of your hand. The company is projecting its near-to-completion VLP-32 model at $250! Velodyne and other developers see such devices as costing as little as $100 within 5 years.

Based on these examples and the declining cost of the technologies, the critical question remains as to whether the major golf car manufacturers are, in fact, investigating self-driving technology. With regard to Yamaha and Club Car, the answer is certainly, yes. Interviews with company executives at the PGA Show indicated that they were moving forward to see whether a self-driving technology made sense for their product line and the markets in which they are involved. E-Z-GO was unresponsive to this inquiry, but it is unlikely the Specialized Vehicle Division of Textron has not joined the other two majors in exploring this avenue of product and market expansion.

Manufacturers Link to MIT’s AI Expertise

Golf Car Advisor spoke with Professor Daniella Rus of MIT at the suggestion of Tom McDonald, President of Yamaha Golf Car, regarding self-driving technologies. Professor Rus is Director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and is Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. She is a well-recognized international authority in the field of artificial intelligence.

Golf Car Advisor directed the following four questions to Professor Rus:

1. Are you working with any of the major golf car manufacturers working toward such [driverless vehicle] applications? She replied,

–Indeed, there is a great opportunity to create autonomous self-driving golf carts to help seniors and other golf cart users with mobility. We are in discussions with golf cart companies and I will let you know more details about this after the agreements are in place. (Emphasis added.)

2. With regard to self-driving technology in general, where are the major cost barriers that need to be overcome, in your view?”

–Perception remains a challenge. This includes (1) the cost of the laser scanning sensors used by most self-driving solutions and (2) the robustness of the perception algorithms. (By perception, Professor Rus is alluding to the complexity of the environment in which self-driving systems operate.)

3. Is standardization of the software and/or hardware likely, and would such developments result in significant cost savings?

–Standardization would have many benefits but we are not there yet. The technology is still evolving.

4. Is the hardware (and maybe the software) scalable in terms of its complexity and cost, so that it might be adaptable to the more moderate driving environment of the typical gated community?

–The current self-driving solutions work well in low complexity environments at low speeds — so yes gated communities would be a great place for deploying the solutions. (Emphasis added.)

Non-golf market—Local and Global

All the major traditional golf car manufacturers have officially embraced the non-golf market as the segment where company resources must be focused, if any sort of growth is to be realized. Small Vehicle Resource, LLC has been pointing out the need for significantly more diversity in market focus and product development for well over a decade in its biannual reports on the industry. Traditional golf car companies have, indeed, been changing their product line and expanding into utility and non-golf consumer vehicles. At the same time, however, the golf market remained the bread and butter of company revenues. But, the 2017 PGA Show marked the definitive departure from a golf focus. Almost all company officials, including their communications executives were talking alternative, non-golf markets.

The further question to be raised at this fork in the road is, will the new, official direction incrementally expand on what companies have been doing over the past half-decade or so with regard to non-golf segments, or will they take a leap of faith and rise to the challenges of self-driving technologies and a global market far greater than that found at home (i.e., the U.S.)?

Club Car has recently expanded its plant in Wujiang District, Suzhou, Jiangsu province. Four- and six-passenger transporters are currently produced at the plant, destined for both local Chinese markets and the Asia Pacific market in general. In ceremonies celebrating the plant expansion in March 2016, Club Car CEO, Marc Dufour, stated, “The success of the transporter, a series of domestic green energy electric cars, [will] not only..further enrich our local product line, but also enable us to better meet the needs of China and the Asia Pacific market for high quality, high efficiency green energy electric cars.”  Thus, while the product is fairly conventional, the target market is quite expansive. Market segments include airports, campuses, and industry complexes. There is also a hint of expanding the product line into “green energy, electric cars” which may ultimately result in new designs and power trains that will sell well in the Asia Pacific region.

E-Z-GO’s vehicle manufacturing plant is located in Wuxi, Jiangsu province and company representatives at the PGA Show affirmed that the company is looking to the full range of mobility needs of China.  Yamaha’s global strategy seems mainly focused on motorcycles. On the other hand, the company is looking into self-driving technology, which could lead to other markets in pursuit of the overall goal to exploit the “growing world of personal mobility.”

As yet, among the major golf car companies, there does not seem to be a shift into three- and four-wheeler commercial fleet vehicles which are prevalent across the mobility landscape of the Asia Pacific region, and, as model types, vastly exceed in market size that of golf car type vehicles.

Bringing Non-Golf and Self-Driving Mobility Together in an Urban Fleet

Singapore and MIT have forged a technology collaboration called SMART (Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology), which, among other things, has resulted in company which provides a driverless taxi system for Singapore. The company is nuTonomy and its co-founder and chief technology officer, Emilio Frazzoli, is MIT professor of aeronautical and astronomical engineering.

In an article published in MIT News, Professor Frazzoli sees the possibility of reducing the number of vehicles operating in Singapore’s dense urban environment from a 2013 level of 780,000 privately-owned vehicles to 300,000 units, via the fleet of self-driving, on call vehicles, nuTonomy envisions. Currently the company is in a real-world trial run with its fleet technology on the streets of Singapore.

The success of this and other similar projects could have a huge impact on urban transportation systems, with numbers of units certainly in the millions as the market develops over what is likely to be several, if not many decades. It is, however, a near-at-hand market that is going to develop over the next 5 to 10 years, particularly if Singapore buys into the system and becomes the model for other densely populated urban environments.

It appears the industry is at a threshold of new developments and directions that could radically change traditional perceptions of the golf car and its derivatives and small electric vehicles in general.