Under the hood: Lots of tech connecting self-driving cars

At CES, I not only rode in a self-driving car, but learned about a lot of the interconnecting innovations driving the market

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At CES earlier this month, I stepped into an autonomous car for the first time. Sure, there was a driver who was there in case something went wrong (it didn’t), but the most interesting part of the ride (other than when Sven, our driver, took his hands off the wheel and the car kept moving just fine) was learning more about all of the other connected technologies that will be needed or that will work along with the autonomous driving.

The “test drive” I took was part of a collaborative effort between companies in this space – Microsoft, NXP Semiconductors, Swiss Re, Esri, IAV and Cubic Telecom (see video, above). Each company provided some of their technology to showcase how human beings will interact with (and benefit from) autonomous, self-driving cars.

Microsoft – cloud and Cortana

Microsoft was showing off its Azure cloud platform to automotive OEMs as a way to deliver information to the car as well as passengers within the car. Scenarios suggested by Microsoft included predictive maintenance (the car would know when a part was due to be serviced) as well as real-time traffic information and pedestrian density (gleaned from the cloud) that could go to the car. This was done also with data from V2X, radar, on-board cameras and LiDar (see NXP contributions). 

For passengers, the Cortana digital assistant helped with the car’s navigation (it would notify passengers about other things to do along the route, and also ask where the passenger wanted to go), as well as calendar, dinner reservations, etc.

NXP - All about sensors

At the CES demo, NXP was showing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology, so things like collision warnings, interaction with intelligent traffic lights and “vulnerable road user detection” at intersections. All of this sensor data is then fed into the car so it can make decisions about what to do (for example, if it’s a ball or a child running out into the street), something that NXP is handling through its sensors, radar and camera technology.

Swiss Re – Insurance time

One of the first questions I get from people when they’re asking me about autonomous cars is “Who pays for an accident when the robot is driving?” Questions like this mean the insurance industry is going to get involved – and people will have to trust the insurers, not just for the answer to that question, but for the hundreds of other scenarios that might occur.

At the demo, Swiss Re was showcasing “what a future insurance solution in a highly automated vehicle” would offer both “drivers” and “passengers”. The scenario showed a dashboard display that offered insurance based on a person’s “risk profile”, as well as the vehicle’s safety rating. Coverage for passengers and drivers would then be provided on a per-ride basis, which should be appealing to ride-sharing services or rental car companies as they adjust to the new world of autonomous vehicles.

IAV – the automated driving part

Getting into a self-driving car wouldn’t be possible without the automated driving technology itself, which was being shown by IAV. The company was showing how it could tie everything together for high-volume vehicle OEMS, but also for mobility providers, suppliers and “solution manufacturers.”

Esri – mapping in real time

Esri was showoing off its mapping and spatial analytics technology, which then utilizes the Microsoft Azure cloud to provide geospatial context for cars and drivers. The data and analytics from this platform would then be able to help better understand driver behavior, road condition predictions, etc. This would also tie into smart city initiatives, giving municipalities better information on where unsafe potholes were located, or being able to quickly remove any hazardous objects on the road.

Cubic Telecom – network connectivity

The final piece of the demonstration was provided by Cubic Telecom, which provided network connectivity via its 4G network. Many of these cloud offerings, services and other technologies rely on an always-on network, especially those that require real time speed. Cubic Telecom was there to showcase its network, but also then show the additional “infotainment” offerings for passengers, such as the ability to provide Wi-Fi for guests so they could check email, do some work or even watch a movie while the car does all of the work. Another concept that Cubic Telecom was showing was the idea of “Connectivity as a Service” to the automotive industry, with the ability to split billing functionality for different data service provided to either the car’s owner or passengers (if they purchase Wi-Fi or streaming services).

A lot of the people I spoke with at the demonstration thought mass adoption of autonomous vehicles would occur within the next five years, as a lot of the questions around self-driving get answered by vendors and get accepted by users/consumers. At the moment, though, it’s good to know that a lot of new technologies are being created for this integration.

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