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The seventh annual Auto Tech R&D Summit in San Jose highlighted the fast-changing nature of the automotive industry and incorporated thought leadership from key players such as Ford, Toyota, TomTom, BMW I Ventures, and Faraday Future. The focus was on innovations in technology for autonomous and electric vehicles, including startups that are changing the game and OEMs that are investing in moving the industry forward.
Panelists and speakers addressed several core challenges impacting the advancement of autonomous vehicles, including current limitations in technology. Many of these limitations create the challenge of moving from Level 3 autonomy to Level 4. Level 3 autonomy refers to a car having an automated driving system, although a human is still present and can intervene in controlling the car; Level 4 autonomy is when humans are completely out of the loop and the car is fully autonomous. Most autonomous vehicles we hear about on the road are currently Level 3, although Level 4 cars are being tested. Advancing from Level 3 to Level 4 is arguably the most challenging step in the process for many reasons, including connectivity and technology development.
One key component to greater autonomy is connectivity, which will help to usher in other new technological developments. In the future autonomous world, vehicles will need to share data with other vehicles. They will rely on this data, along with additional data from smart infrastructure, to map out safe and efficient routes and then successfully drive them. 5G, which will connect “Internet of Things” objects, and Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), ad hoc technology allowing vehicles to communicate with each other, roadside devices, pedestrians, bicycles, trains, etc., must be in place and work flawlessly. Cybersecurity will come into play here, as these networks will need to be unhackable to avoid deliberate erroneous messages which could lead to accidents. Additionally, crowdsourcing this data and allowing it to be shared freely and without interruption is an important element of advanced connectivity that will undoubtedly move autonomous technology forward.
Another element that must be in place to successfully move to Level 4 autonomy is development progress in technology such as cameras and sensors. These are used to detect objects, lanes, signs, and more, and will have to be extremely reliable. Currently, many have limited range and may not always function properly, especially in bad weather. Future cameras and sensors will also be used for cars to avoid hidden objects as data comes to be shared. This will go hand-in-hand with advanced connectivity, together making cars much safer. For example, if a bus heading east is blocking a pedestrian, and a car driving west is unable to see him standing behind the bus, the bus will be able to share data with the car, alerting it to the hidden pedestrian to avoid an accident. Dependable cameras and sensors with advanced connectivity features could potentially mitigate a majority of crashes, allowing for a more convenient and safer experience for riders.
There are still many stages of technology to adopt for electric vehicle evolution. One major breakthrough in development must be in battery quality and cost. Currently, electric vehicle batteries can only run for a limited number of miles before having to be recharged. Fast charging isn’t good for batteries, so charging may take hours, and most batteries don’t charge to 100%. Furthermore there are limits to charging infrastructure – in many places charging stations aren’t widespread enough to make driving an electric vehicle convenient. Manufacturers and, presumably governments, will need to work together to create attractive benefits, such as providing luxury model options and offering subsidies or tax breaks, for those purchasing electric vehicles. More electric vehicles in circulation will cause a demand for more infrastructure and create the need for better batteries and more efficient charge points too.
The auto industry is changing more now that it has in the past 100 years in large part because of connected, electric, and autonomous vehicles. In the future, cars will provide a mobility experience rather than just being a product purchase. If OEMs produce only commodity vehicles, there is a chance they will become obsolete in years to come. The companies which will come out most successful will find ways to stay relevant, incorporating new and niche technology into their core businesses. Innovation in technology is vital to longevity, and this can mean many things for OEMs – should they build new technology with their own R&D dollars? Should they acquire or invest in tech companies already focusing on becoming experts in niche industries? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but there is no doubt that new technology will be used to make cars better, smarter, and safer than the competition. In an industry traditionally known as being slow-moving, it’s now moving at start-up speed, and it’s imperative for OEMs to focus on what’s next.