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Full Speed Ahead: Autonomous Car Development

A concept once reserved for science fiction movies and vintage cartoons like “The Jetsons” has very quickly come into focus not only for the technology and electronics industry, but for society as a whole.

Autonomous vehicles, defined by Gartner as “automobiles that can drive themselves from a starting point to a predetermined destination in autopilot-mode using various in-vehicle technologies and sensors,” have become a focal point for nearly all auto manufacturers in 2017. In fact, in 2020, automakers are expected to produce 85.9 million vehicles equipped with collision-avoidance systems, up from 10.8 million in 2016, according to Gartner.

Relying on technology and sensors that include adaptive cruise control, active steering (steer by wire), anti-lock braking systems (brake by wire), GPS navigation technology, lasers, and radar, autonomous cars have been under development for years. When Apple officially threw its hat into the development ring earlier this year, the picture of the “driverless” car came into even clearer view.

“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said in an interview on Bloomberg Television that amounted to his most detailed comments yet on Apple’s automotive plans, Supply Chain 24/7 reports. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.” He likened the effort to “the mother of all AI projects,” saying it’s “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”

From Laptops to Driverless Cars
If the idea of a laptop- and device-makers jumping feet first into autonomous vehicle development sounds out of character, the notion doesn’t seem quite so far fetched for the average consumer. “A new [Inrix] study finds American consumers have slightly more faith in tech giants such as Google and Apple than in traditional automakers to build autonomous cars,” Fred Meier reports in Tech Giants Most Trusted to Build Self-Driving Cars.

"A new battleground is emerging between automakers, tech companies, and ride-sharing companies in the race to develop connected and autonomous vehicles," said Bob Pishue, Inrix senior economist, in the article. "With hundreds of millions of connected cars expected to be on the roads within the next 15 years, the market share will be owned by companies that can educate drivers and gain consumer trust."

The prospect of self-driving cars has seen a slew of technology companies push into the auto industry, according to McKinsey & Co. Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo unit has signed partnerships with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Lyft Inc. to develop the technology. “Car makers from BMW AG to General Motors Co. have opened sizable Silicon Valley offices and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire autonomous vehicle startups,” according to Supply Chain 24/7

Electronics Makers Go All In
Ford, Nissan, and Tesla are just a few of the auto makers that are investing in R&D, staffing up on software and artificial intelligence, and signing off on new partnerships intended to accelerate the race. “Just look at General Motors' $500 million investment in Lyft,” writes Lauren Helper in GreenBiz’s 7 companies steering the self-driving car craze, “launch of a new mobility-focused subsidiary called Maven, and $600 million acquisition of self-driving tech startup Cruise Automation.”

As the auto industry ramps up autonomous vehicle R&D and production, the rush is on to bridge the gap to “full automation” (i.e., lane assistance, autopilot, etc.). Getting there requires the help of third-party suppliers and/or technical experts in areas like manufacturing light detection and ranging (LiDAR), radar components, and other sensors, according to Helper.

For example, Waymo, Tesla, and Uber are all using products developed by Velodyne LiDAR. This company, which was founded in the 1980s just outside of Silicon Valley, “has carved out a niche as a go-to provider of off-the-shelf LiDAR systems for the kind of multi-directional sensing needed to operate vehicles without a driver,” Helper writes.

Larger electronics firms are also stepping up to the driverless car challenge.

Earlier this year, Bosch announced a new collaboration with TomTom.  The two companies are working on a new iteration of high-resolution localized maps that are equipped with a “radar road signature” that is generated by Bosch. This signature can be used by cars to help position cars with a fairly high level of accuracy, the company states, and the maps will be used to supplement the video data that were earlier used in trials of self-driving cars. 

More to Come
As the “commercialized” version of the autonomous vehicle continues to come into clearer focus, expect to see even more electronics makers getting into the auto manufacturing game. For example, in Samsung steps up its driverless car challenge, CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal highlights Samsung’s efforts to test its driverless cards on South Korea’s roads. The company acquired Harman International last year, thus positioning itself as a key player in the world of connected electronics for the automotive industry.

“The electronics giant is developing the sensors and computing modules required for autonomous vehicles and has embedded its technology into the Hyundai car,” Kharpal points out. “Samsung will not be developing a whole car, but instead, along with its sensor technology, will be providing its artificial intelligence to automakers.”

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