Autonomous Cars Taking The Driving Seat
Why self driving vehicles are the new buzzword in the tech landscape
Autonomous vehicles have been the centre of attention in the tech realm in recent months and a bastion of frenetic activity over the last six months.
In August, when Singapore based nuTonomy introduced the world’s first self-driving taxis for hire with Uber following with its own version in Pittsburgh, it only upped the ante. A technology which seemed a bit too futuristic until last year has now beaten several predictions by becoming a sooner than expected reality.
Automotive giants, the biggest stakeholders in autonomous vehicles, also started playing an active part in bringing this technology to reality. From a funding and acquisition perspective, automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and tier-1 players were at the forefront of technology collaboration with self-driving tech enablers, the new rock stars of the tech world.
It appears that the automotive industry is perhaps acknowledging a potential future where the model of car ownership is all set to change. In parallel, cab hailing firms like Uber and Lyft have been the chief proponents of this belief and hope that the introduction of autonomous taxis would only be complementary.
Naturally, cab aggregators who are also active in developing these technologies as part of their envisaged future offerings have also seen significant amounts of funding and collaboration from automotive OEMs.
Among the tech-enablers for autonomous vehicles, in vision-based systems and LiDARs ( Light Detection and Ranging) grab centre stage by virtue of being the core technology that would eventually be the controlling component when self-driving cars take off big time. Currently an expensive tech affair, experts hope that LiDARs technology will eventually become cost effective and will become as common as ABS (anti-braking system) in a car.
Also, tech startups that are working on providing complete autonomous aftermarket solutions (e.g. Cruise Automation and Otto) have been the preferred acquisition picks. Besides, high precision 3D digital maps, which are another crucial component have also been an eyeball grabber as many car manufacturers feel the need for more players in this space. Consequently, the likes of Japan-based Dynamic Maps and Nokia’s mapping business HERE, which was acquired Audi, BMW & Daimler are turning full throttle in this direction.
Status of Major Incumbent Players
Some interesting developments have been reported in the autonomous vehicle landscape. Mobileye, a major player in the Advanced Driving Assistance Systems (ADAS) segment has discontinued its partnership with Tesla for its autonomous driving program. This could perhaps be attributed to Elon Musk’s resistance in adopting Lidar technology for his autonomous cars.
On the flip side, Mobileye has announced significant initiatives including a 3D mapping initiative, soliciting partnerships with its automotive OEM clients. It also announced three major initiatives:
⦁ With Intel and BMW to develop self-driving car technology.
⦁ With Delphi to develop a low cost autonomous driving system by 2019.
⦁ In final talks with Volkswagen, a major 3D map making supply deal for self-driving cars.
Interestingly, automotive OEMs have now also struck partnerships with semiconductor companies. For instance, NVIDIA revealed its new artificial intelligence processors for self-driving cars while Intel also gave indications about its focus on this technology.
Bumps in the Autonomous Vehicle Route
There is always the flip side. . . While the idea of self-driving vehicles is nothing short of incredible, safety becomes a paramount concern. Reports that several test vehicles of Google and Tesla cars on Autopilot mode have met with accidents, thus leading to litigation and debate on the maturity of technology as well as assigning ownership. However, the technology is still nascent and evolving.
The Pioneer Takes a Backseat
Google, which was actually the pioneer in this space has ceded the initial dominance it had, after it lost its core founding technical team members including Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car project who quit in August. These ex-Googlers went on to pursue their own ventures (Otto and Nuro).
Google went into damage control mode after it hired a top executive from AirBnB in a bid to commercialise its technology, as it was perceived to be lagging behind players like Uber who are already coming up with new business models for their technology. There were also reports of Apple firing members of its stealthy self-driving car project and re-focusing its approach on this space. Apple has never officially accepted their self-driving car project.
New business models
Naturally, this gives rise to new business models where many automotive OEMs have now partnered with ride sharing and cab aggregator companies (GM and Lyft, Uber and Volvo, Volkswagen and Gett, while Ford bought Chariot).
In fact, there is a rising school of thought which hopes that self-driving cars would change the future transportation landscape. A testimony towards the high interest and investor attention in this space can perhaps be best explained from the funding received by Bestmile, a startup that only provides autonomous fleet management software has also received funding.
Autonomous vehicles would give rise to a ‘third transportation revolution’ according to Lyft’s CEO, leading to decline in individual car ownerships and possibilities of various in-car services. Currently, most of the development effort is focused on low cost vision systems, 3D maps and a robust AI system to provide a practical self-driving car. Once that happens, new business models and partnerships would emerge. New age companies like Google brought the autonomous driving technology to the forefront, but traditional car companies which were late to react to it seem to have regained a lot of lost ground.