Autonomous vehicles: Why a different perspective is needed

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In our mind, future autonomous vehicles are often pictured as slick futuristic pods flying around with a complete living and meeting space.

Think of our already challenged road systems and then add on top of that the issue of mixing autonomous and human drivers. It would only take one driver error to create complete havoc.

Moreover, with the autonomous vehicle pretty much paying its dues in the trough of disillusionment right now, we tend to have a narrow view of the technology, that autonomous vehicles are the endgame.

But we’re thinking about them all wrong. Here’s why:

Thinking about an autonomous vehicle in isolation is like thinking about a car engine today without the rest of the vehicle.Secondly, it’s important to note the advantages of autonomous vehicle technology and how cities work in the other direction: increasing traffic volume is creating problems in cities around the world, such as congestion, poor air quality and less productive economies. Connected autonomous vehicles with electric drives could offer a solution.

But let’s step back. What’s the motivation for car makers to get involved in cities when they have their plates full with autonomous, connected and electrification R&D spending? If we take Elon Musk’s famous first principle thinking guidelines, what do car makers really care about when projecting toward 2035?

Their first priority is how to maintain and grow their revenues. They need to make money for stockholders and investors but their roadmap to these future revenue streams isn’t solely based on autonomous vehicles – it’s based on connected vehicles.

What car makers do care about is having a differentiated product, which probably means a combination of physical cars, ridesharing, trip-selling, last-mile delivery vehicles and who knows what other economic opportunities that we haven’t even thought about yet. Trip upgrades via your smartphone?

The point is, car makers are at the center of this logic diagram, and they have to solve the problem of integrating all the moving parts – from chip to city.

The autonomous vehicle is a building block of this transportation future, although a hugely complex one. But once we climb out of the trough of disillusion, we need to cross the chasm of integration, bringing all of the new mobility technologies together. This chasm is the step between Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy.

Once we get to full Level 5, with all road vehicles operating autonomously under all road conditions, we will have solved several challenges, including how to handle that messy time window with a mix of autonomous vehicles and human drivers; how vehicle infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle communications operate flawlessly; how cars integrate cleanly with other transportation modes to provide frictionless trip planning; and, how autonomous vehicles and pedestrians live together safely on our city streets.

If future autonomous vehicles are a building block and not the end objective, what does this mean for the car makers and their supply chain? It means a whole set of other challenges.

Starting at the micro level, how do they develop, protect and fully utilize intellectual property that will be the foundation of their differentiation? Things like high-level synthesis are powering the democratization of chip design for differentiated IP such as hardware accelerators for machine learning algorithms. We see car makers already investing in this area. Understanding the integrated circuits that power the sense, compute and actuate functions in future vehicles will be a crucial advantage for product differentiation and time to market.

It means the verification, validation and integration into the vehicle of embedded systems will require simulation tools and generative design methodologies for safe, secure operation. The vehicle behavior will also need to be modeled and proven robust long before taking the prototype to testing.

Talking about manufacturing, how do we move from today’s large-scale car production toward small batch, reconfigurable, customizable vehicle interiors?

So, what’s the point with all of this? There are two takeaways. Firstly, autonomous vehicles do not exist in a bubble. They are part of a wider transportation future that has many parts in play right now. Autonomous technology gets a lot of media attention because it’s cool, futuristic and relatable.

Secondly, to address these issues it would take technology companies to hold a broad perspective, with an active investment and a vested interest in influencing the standards bodies (for example safety and security). Even then it would only be one part of the necessary process. Local legislature would have to pull together alongside all parts of the supply chain in order to enable IP sharing, co-development and collaboration.

As we look to understand our customers’ challenges with future autonomous vehicles, we need context, broad perspective, and a deep understanding of how these often-conflicting elements can come together, creating value through collaboration.

Does it look daunting? From here, it just looks like the opportunity of a lifetime.

Lauzun started his role at Siemens PLM Software in July 2016. Prior to joining Siemens, he had more than 30 years of automotive and industrial experience in key strategic leadership roles, including Chrysler (positions in design, development, manufacturing, quality, program management, and vehicle development); EVP of engineering for Bright Automotive (an automotive startup developing an all-new hybrid-electric van); and the leader of customer engineering at Cummins Corp. (a leading diesel engine manufacturer). Lauzun has a BS degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State University, a master’s degree in ME from the University of Michigan, a master’s in materials engineering from MIT, and an MBA from MIT.


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