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The Evolution of the Autonomous Vehicle

Assessing the critical role that electronics components will play in the development of the autonomous vehicle over the next 10 years.

The buzz around the fully autonomous vehicle has never been louder than it was in 2016, the year that nearly every auto manufacturer threw its hat into the ring and made at least some type of investment in the self-driving car. For now at least, most of the buzz surrounds the role that the autonomous car will play in the transportation network of the future and exactly what components will go into making it run as intended.

To get the answers to these and other questions, Global Purchasing spoke with Justinas Lasinskas, an industry analyst with Euromonitor. Focused on the electronics markets, Lasinskas predicts that it will take about 10 years for autonomous cars to become commercialized (i.e., used by and available to the general public). The main reason for the delay, he points out, is “zero tolerance” for error, as car buyers want 100% safe autonomous vehicles (consequently, car manufacturers are step-by-step building and testing new technologies).

So far, Lasinskas says patent data of autonomous vehicle technologies reveals that car companies and suppliers—not technology companies—are investing the most money and time in autonomous vehicles. Car companies have an advantage in this case, he adds, because they have decades of experience building and testing new cars and new car technologies, as well as experience managing complicated logistics and supply chains.

“However, autonomous cars will significantly boost demand for electronic components (such as sensors, lasers, and microchips) as well as IT services,” says Lasinskas, “in turn changing the automotive supply chain in favor of technology companies.”

Busy R&D Departments

In 2017 and beyond, Lasinskas expects the R&D departments of both car manufacturers and technology companies to invest in autonomous systems research. Although, he says the commercial launch of electric vehicles is still set to “remain a priority due to intensifying pressure to offer viable options.”

Regarding electronics for autonomous vehicles, sensor equipment, in particular, is one of the major obstacles to the official “launch” of the autonomous vehicle. “Sensing systems currently can operate in a calm environment, such as when parking (when no one around is moving),” says Lasinskas, “but fail when it comes to massive loads of data from changing surroundings.”

In addition, he predicts that equipment for machine-to-machine communications (for vehicle interaction), signal transmitting, and receiving equipment will all grow in relevance over the next few years.

Of course, sensors can’t operate adequately if they aren’t supported by cutting edge software—a fact that makes 5G Internet a particularly vital aspect of self-driving car development. “5G not only provides faster and less interruptible connections, but also copes with extensive amount of data that the autonomous vehicle systems acquire when in operation,” Lasinskas says. “Autonomous vehicles cannot be based on simple sensing and must operate confidently in different weather, road conditions (whether lines are drawn or not) and so on.”

This, in particular, means that technology companies are well positioned to become an “inseparable part of the auto industry,” says Lasinskas. “They will have to serve all data acquired by the vehicles in data center, process it, store it, and ensure constant communication between the vehicle and the database.”

Finally, Lasinskas says autonomous vehicles will require some type of machine learning. “Global positioning of the vehicle must be very accurate and vehicle security ensured,” he says, “all of this being a challenge for tech companies to [address] over the coming years.”

Heading to 2020

It may be a full decade before consumers are using autonomous vehicles to get to work, school, and soccer practice, but that doesn’t mean the underlying technologies won’t be tested extensively and advanced during that period of time.

“At this point, the entire infrastructure is still in development and is unlikely to be near functional until at least 2020,” Lasinskas notes. “This means that for the years to come autonomous vehicles will mostly be developed for use in limited areas, such as trucks on highways or machinery in mining facilities or similar.”

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