After CES 2016’s blockbuster announcement that Lyft had raised $1 billion to develop self-driving cars, the year turned out to be awash with news from the industry. Exceeding expectations, observers knew to expect a lot of news on the sector in 2017. That came, with a whole lot of riff-raff mixed in. Despite the avalanche of talks and announcements, these are five major developments (or sets of developments) that set the tone for which companies will advance quickly with their autonomous vehicle portfolios this year.
1. Intel and Kia: Without 5G, autonomous vehicles aren’t going anywhere
It might be cool to think about a robotic car cruising around the streets of San Francisco whisking you off to your morning Hyperloop commute between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but we aren’t going anywhere until we see a major communications infrastructure upgrade.
Henry Bzeih, Managing Director, KIA Connected & Mobility Division, said as much during a pretty critical session in Las Vegas called “The top use cases for 5G: Drones, autonomous driving, VR and more.” He was joined on stage by T-Mobile USA CTO Neville Ray, Sprint’s COO of Technology Günther Ottendorfer, Ericsson Senior VP (and Head of Business Unit Network Products) Arun Bansal, and Qualcomm Senior VP of Engineering Durga Malladi. During the session, he said that the full potential of autonomous autos would not be reached without those capabilities.
Intel made waves before, during and now after the conference with the release of the world’s first 5G modem, which it says is the world’s first that supports sub-6GHz bands and mmWave spectrum. Again, the company argued they were an essential for the self-driving vehicles of the near future.
“A deeper dive on autonomous vehicles show how they will be, in effect, data centers on wheels,” Aicha Evans, VP and GM of Intel Communication and Device Group, wrote in a press release, who also announced the Intel GO™ Automotive 5G Platform. “The vehicles themselves will generate massive amounts of data, but they will also need to take in large quantities of data to navigate and react to sudden changes. That’s where 5G comes in. It will deliver faster speeds, ultra-low latency and innovative technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) connectivity to usher in the autonomous future.”
Why it’s important: Especially because of Intel’s willingness to force the issue with a physical piece of technology, discussion about infrastructure upgrades might become inescapable. While talk about timelines for prolific IoT and smart city networks has produced some doubt about when they will be available, just having the communication capabilities wrought by 5G is a simple demand. Expect more companies to see this as a checkered flag to freely build more advanced (connected) products that more seamlessly gather and send data.
2. BMW-Mobileye-Intel alliance bearing fruit
Intel made more headlines by announcing a partnership with BMW and Mobileye confirmed they would test 40 self-driving vehicles on the road by the second half of 2017. The three their announced an alliance way back in July to pull the feat off. BMW also first announced 2017 tests for Munich back in December.
“This year our fleet of vehicles will already test this joint technology globally under real traffic conditions. This is a significant step towards the introduction of the BMW iNEXT in 2021, which will be the BMW Group’s first fully autonomous vehicle,” Klaus Fröhlich, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG for Development, wrote.
Why it’s important: It’s one thing when a private company like Uber says it is launching substantial self-driving car tests. It’s another thing entirely when three major public companies who have to be more transparent say they are doing it. While it might seem like the three companies are just trying to catch up with the Ubers and Googles of the world, the trifecta can quickly get their collaboration to bear fruit. Additionally, getting three major companies to cooperate is a logistical project in and of itself. This should be an encouraging sign for cross-industry collaboration and prompt similar or more comprehensive multipartner arrangements to be announced in 2017 and 2018.
3. Nissan-Renault announces Seamless Autonomous Mobility
Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) will pair cars’ machine learning with human support to add to the cars’ knowledge of what to do in unforeseen situations and thus add on to the AI’s accumulated memory. Utilizing all of a car’s on-board sensors like cameras an LiDAR, a real person will build a new route around an obstacle in the event the machine has not yet learned how to circumvent it.
The Franco-Japanese conglomerate said they wanted to have comprehensive testing of robotic cars on the streets of Tokyo by 2020, though they didn’t seem to have a software partner yet. They are apparently looking for a partner on autonomous vehicles, rather openly it seems.
“We invite others to join us, as well, from tech partners to e-commerce companies, ride-hailing and car-sharing platforms, and social entrepreneurs who can help us to test and develop new vehicles and services, and make sure everyone has access to the latest technologies and services that bring value to their lives,” said Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn during their CES reveal.
Why it’s important: In building the case for this flight-control-like arrangement, Nissan-Renault argues we still use the same sort of system with planes that are controlled by human pilots. The argument makes it rather obvious that we should not leave an unfinished technology to its own devices. Nissan sends a message with this, reminding the casual observer that we are far from a fully autonomous capability in cars that would leave human workers unemployable in the service driving industry.
4. NVIDIA reveals a car-specific GPU, moves forward with Audi and Mercedes-Benz
The company unveiled the NVIDIA DRIVE™ PX platform geared specifically for AI neural networks to power self-driving cars. Partnering with Audi (a VW Group company), the two companies created the prototype autonomous vehicle called the BB8 (which for branding purposes might not be the best idea, but that’s neither here nor there), showing a video demonstration of the car to crowds at CES.
“NVIDIA is pioneering the use of deep learning AI to revolutionize transportation,” said NDIVIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang. “Audi’s adoption of our DRIVE computing platform for AI cars will accelerate the introduction of next-generation autonomous vehicles, moving us closer to a future of higher driving safety and new mobility services.”
Audi of America President Scott Keogh also joined Huang and promised future models would include more of NDIVIA’s deep learning concepts.
They also have an ongoing partnership with Mercedes-Benz, which will have some mystery product rolling off the assembly line before the beginning of 2018.
“I am very proud of saying that within 12 months we are rolling out a product with NVIDIA,” Mercedes-Benz Vice President of Digital Vehicle and Mobility, Sajjad Khan, said at CES.
Why it’s important: There are a number of purportedly advanced prototypes already being tested by other partnerships that have not received as much public attention. This might raise major expectations on companies that have announced partnerships or deals but have produced no results yet publicly. NVIDIA’s open partnerships with two separate companies also demonstrates they are offering a service to multiple customers, exclusively. How different the two partnerships’ initial products will be remains to be seen, but it goes to show that agreements demanding exclusive partnerships aren’t stopping NVIDIA and which is building some of the core elements of these vehicles.
5. Amazon plants Echo and Alexa into Ford, VW
Ford was already raking up deals with other companies to build out its autonomous vehicle portfolio, but by the end of January it will now integrate Alexa into select models Focus Electric, C-MAX Energi, and the Fusion Energi. This one has implications for companies beyond Amazon as it opens Ford’s Sync 3 entertainment system to Samsung Gear S2 and S3 owners this coming spring.
You will be able to set reminders, look for restaurants, and control your smart home network from your car, or prep your car from your home. The same announcement came from VW, which Engadget reports would require owners to connect their VW Car-Net accounts with their Amazon accounts for Alexa to function.
“The expansion of machine learning is a natural step to making it easier to do the fundamental business that they do at Amazon,” Katherine Gorman, host of podcast Talking Machines, told Geektime, “any company that says ‘we need to be able to apply machine learning to our business because it will help us increase the fluency of our fundamental business.'”
Why it’s important: This announcement follows the announcement of new service Amazon Lex for AWS developers to build tech using automatic speech recognition. Adding personal assistants to self-driving cars is nothing new, but this constitutes a continued expansion of Amazon AI. Amazon will have a lot more catching up to do relative to Microsoft and Google, but that’s nothing new for a company that started off as an online bookstore and expanded to become the undisputed ruler of e-commerce.