In recent memory, no topic has generated as much interest and enthusiasm among investors, entrepreneurs and engineers as highly automated vehicles (AV). Seemingly, almost everyone in the high-tech industry wants to climb onto the self-driven bandwagon — including robotic scientists, AI specialists, chip designers and sensor developers.
Equally significant, the promise of AVs has energized traditional automakers around the world.
Yukihiro Kato, senior executive director at Denso Corporation noted in his keynote speech at International solid-state circuits Conference (ISSCC) this year that the automotive industry is experiencing a “once-in-a-century transformation” — driven by advancements in connected, efficient and automated driving.
Notwithstanding the high interest, the progress of the electric vehicle (EV) has not matched the predictions made several years ago. The number of pure-electric and plug-in hybrid cars represented barely 1 percent of the 17 million cars and light trucks sold in the United States last year. Meanwhile the promise of automated driving – billed as “a lot safer than human driving” – is facing intense scrutiny after a fatality caused by a self-driving Uber in Tempe, Arizona.
Slow progress due to the charging infrastructure & battery concerns for EV. (Source: IHS Automotive)
Although it can be easy to dismiss the promise of EVs and AVs as marketing hype few in the tech, auto and semiconductor industries cannot afford to sit on the sideline as a wave of AV innovations unfolds before their eyes. A revolution is happening in big data, deep learning, AI processing on the edge and perception technologies enabled by advanced sensors. Similarly, on the EV front, companies like Infineon, Wolfspeed and Rohm are among many who see a pot of gold in the promise of Wide Bandgap (WBG) semiconductor technologies. They believe it will help downsize automotive inverters by increasing power density.
Where EV and AV meet
EVs, AVs and Connected Cars aren’t being developed in silos. Tier one OEMs are integrating the best of today’s technology innovations by developing electric cars infused with automated driving and connectivity.
The EV’s foremost virtue is a lot fewer moving parts. Its three major components are battery, inverter and electric motor. In contrast, an internal combustion engine contains thousands of tiny pieces that must be maintained. From an engineering point of view, the EV matches AV technology perfectly because an AV needs more electrical brainpower to manage vision, sensor fusion, mapping and path-planning functions while processing an ever-growing volume of software.
Electrification marks a radical transition – from mechanically driven cars to software-driven vehicles – for the auto industry. It opens the door for designers to develop apps that make EVs run more efficiently, for example.
NXP Semiconductors launched earlier this year what it calls “Greenbox,” a platform for car OEMs to develop new hybrid and EV apps.
GreenBox supports the development of HEV and motor control applications. (Source: NXP Semiconductors)
Ray Cornyn, vice president and general manager for NXP’s vehicle dynamics and safety product line, said designers can use Greenbox to create applications that boost overall energy efficiency in route-planning. One example is an HEV facing a long uphill grade. Cornyn noted that a piece of software using specific route knowledge – obtained by the AV – can enhance the HEV’s battery management up the hill.
Rapid AV advancement
Fueling investment and progress in AV development are new entrants in the field, especially tech companies like Waymo.
Egil Juliussen, director of research for infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) for automotive at IHS Markit, said, “Waymo has been quietly taking the lead [in the driverless market]. They are ahead of everyone else on the field.”
In a safety report published last year, Waymo explained its self-driving software and hardware, and how it tests vehicles. Citing the report, Juliussen noted that Waymo’s difference from competing robocars is “designing their own sensor systems from the software point of view.”
After eight years of work on driving software, Waymo has learned to “see what’s around the car far better than others,” he said. Waymo’s ability to tightly couple software mimics the Apple approach, Juliussen observed. This is something traditional carmakers, who lack software prowess of their own, have difficulty replicating.
In the United States, the AV is not a question of if, or even when. The first domino toppled when the state of Arizona in January granted Waymo a permit to operate as a transportation network company. Early in February, Waymo confirmed its plan to start charging customers for robo-taxi rides in 2018.
After the Uber accident in Arizona in March, Uber, Toyota, Volvo and Nvidia all announced temporary test-drive suspensions for their vehicles on public roads. But Waymo and GM appear to be moving forward.
Among all car OEMs, Toyota, one of the most conservative Japanese car companies, made the best argument earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show for why the society needs highly automated vehicles.
Rather than getting stuck in the perennial argument over who gets to drive the car (machine or person), Toyota steered its AV vision along a different road. Their idea is “e-Palette,” an automated vehicle for on-demand shopping and distribution, on-demand food trucks and hospital shuttles — a veritable on-demand city.
Toyota's e-Palette demo at CES 2018 (Photo: EE Times)
Of course, Toyota Motors CEO Akio Toyoda isn’t alone in defining his company’s challenge as changing from car-making to mobile service. By partnering with Amazon, DiDi, Uber, Pizza Hut and Mazda, Toyota, at least, advanced the idea that AVs and EVs aren’t just robo-taxis. They can create a “mobility platform” open to other developers.
In the global world of EVs and AVs, China is emerging as a big factor. Many analysts believe that Baidu, styling itself as “the Google of China,” could put a dent on the market. The company has shown an ability to harvest big data in China. Its commitment to Apollo, an open platform for highly automated vehicles, reinforces its case.
Built on the success of the original Apollo platform announced last July, Baidu has been moving to update the application. Apollo 2.0 will unite all four of the Apollo platform’s modules — cloud services, software, reference hardware and vehicle platforms. Baidu claims that Apollo — based on Baidu’s Duer OS — can now autonomously guide a vehicle through basic urban environments, even at night.