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Innovators panel at SAE Convergence 2016 included high-level technology executives from Delphi, FiatChrysler, Ford, GM and Harman. (Lindsay Brooke photo).

SAE Convergence 2016: Automakers, suppliers firm that autonomous driving not decades away

For those who believe it unlikely autonomously-piloted vehicles will be coming in the foreseeable future, high-level technology executives from automakers and major suppliers have this response: autonomous vehicles are “going to be here very shortly.”

That’s the conclusion of Jeff Owens, Chief Technology Officer for automotive mega-supplier Delphi, a position supported almost universally by his fellow panelists on the opening day of the SAE 2016 Convergence conference near Detroit. Ken Washington, Vice-President, Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford, agreed with Owens.

“The evidence is all around us," Washington asserted. "I am very optimistic that [Ford’s] target of 2021 (for launching a fully-autonomous vehicle as defined by the SAE’s J3016 standard) is going to be achievable.”

Washington added that throughout automotive history, the speed at which technology matures never fails to surprise doubters. Blend in the famously furious pace at which technology companies innovate, along with Moore's Law, and the foundation seems prepared for a quicker-than-predicted adoption.

General Motors has accelerated its autonomous-technology development and partnerships with autonomous-related tech companies, said Jon Lauckner, GM Vice President, CTO and head of GM Ventures. He noted that GM has autonomous-vehicle testing underway on public roads in San Francisco, CA and Scottsdale, AZ.

“I can assure you our plan is not to test for the next 30 years,” Lauckner quipped in response to naysayers’ position that it will be a generation or more before autonomous vehicles are a fixture on U.S. roads.

Phillip Eyler, Executive Vice President, Connected Car at Harman International, generally agreed that autonomous vehicles are coming sooner than later, but the position of Harman—a supplier of in-car infotainment systems, driver-interface hardware and software and other cabin electronics—is that the date of introduction may be one thing, but wide adoption of autonomy will come on a more-protracted timeframe.

“I believe there will be a long transition to a high population of autonomous cars,” Eyler said.

Okay, autonomous—but at what level?

One of the automotive and tech industries’ chief talking points currently centers around which SAE level of autonomy is going to be most appropriate for initial—and eventual widespread—deployment.

The dialogue centers on the gap between SAE Level 3 automation—generally described as “conditional automation” that can necessitate a “hand-off” from automation to human driving in certain situations—and Level 4 autonomy which can pilot the vehicle even in a situation in which the system requests human intervention.

Many automakers, suppliers and tech companies now suggest that Level 3 autonomy is too difficult to engineer in relation to the risk (and payback), instead suggesting a transition from the Level 2 driver-assistance systems already available directly to Level 4.

High-level driving automation “needs to be approached top-down instead of bottom-up,” said Ford’s Washington. In the interim, he added, Ford is tripling its investment in Level 2 driver-assist technology. “Ford is skipping Level 3 at the moment,” he said. “The economics don’t make sense to us.”

Harman’s Eyler agreed.“Level 4 is a totally different set of technologies and investments,” he stated. However there will be a Level 3 transition at some OEMs, Eyler believes.

The cost of developing technology capable of accommodating SAE Level 3 automation is beginning to appear unproductive on several levels. First is the direct cost of the divergent Level 3 and Level 4 technologies. Economics of such development “are going to make Level 3 almost a moot point,” contended Delphi’s Owens. “You’re going to go right by Level 3.”

But the impetus for skipping directly to Level 4 also is driven by the desire of ride-sharing companies such as Uber, Lyft and others to eliminate the expense of human drivers. Given the potential enormous market for driverless ride-hailing vehicles, it seems all the more logical that development will not linger on the difficult and expensive-to-engineer conditional-automation aspects of Level 3.

Buy it or make it?

Panelists at SAE Convergence 2016 also discussed the strategy by which automakers determine whether to develop autonomous-related technologies in-house, seek partnerships with tech companies or, in some cases, to buy some companies outright. Automakers have for some time been underway with a spree of tech-company acquisitions.

GM’s Lauckner said “We can spend a lot of time working the ‘old model,’ which is build it ourselves.” But he added, buying companies with specific technical expertise “is a model we’re going to need to embrace.”

Thanks to a century of vehicle-development experience, automakers are ideally placed to be high-level integrators said Ford’s Washington. “It’s what we’re good at,” he said, while development of technology that is “not in our sweet spot of capability” will be partnered or potentially bought outright.

Delphi’s Owen’s pointed to another model that large suppliers and smaller automakers hope to exploit: suppliers as providers of turnkey autonomous-driving systems. He points to Delphi’s partnership, announced in summer 2016, with Israeli machine-vision expert Mobileye to develop entire autonomous-driving systems.

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