Could this be the year the car starts ‘thinking’?

The next few years are expected to transform the auto industry as automakers begin to deploy their first self-driving vehicles. This will bring a number of dramatic changes in mobility that will ultimately shape the way people commute. However, there were a number of developments that occurred in 2017 – including major acquisitions and new AV legislation – that should not be overlooked.

“[The industry is] still evolving,” said US Senator Gary Peters. “It’s moving very rapidly, but we’re not there with all the technological challenges that have to be overcome. I think that’s why it’s important that Willow Run is a test facility here in Michigan. We’ve got to test these cars in all weathers, otherwise the technology is not ready for prime time.”

Peters, along with US Senator John Thune, introduced the AV START Act in September. The US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the legislation days later. It is now in the hands of the full Senate, along with the SELF DRIVE Act. Both acts are designed to pave the way for AV regulation that could eventually allow automakers to deploy self-driving cars in all 50 states.

In October, Peters spoke about AV technology at ADAS & Autonomous Vehicles USA 2017. He told reporters that Michigan is “uniquely positioned” to be the centre of AV development. “The idea is to let the technology evolve, not put any kind of brakes or make any kind of pronouncements as to where the technology should go,” said Peters. “The legislation before us creates that space for that innovation to occur. It’s wide open.”

Bridging the gap to collaboration

Automakers are slowly becoming more comfortable with the idea of collaborating on the development of certain technologies but the industry is still heavily focused on creating proprietary solutions. Radovan Miucic, technical specialist at

Changan US R&D Centre, said this has led to a number of redundancies as each company attempts to solve the same group of problems.

“I think the better way would be to organise a consortium where feature development wouldn’t necessarily be developed by individual companies but shared by all,” said Miucic. “That could provide a more efficient way to develop things. The behaviour of these vehicles would be more uniform and the research could tackle very challenging problems that would work within the consortium.” Even without a consortium, Miucic expects more synergies across automakers in the coming year.

Overcoming AV challenges

Dr. Oliver Rumpf-Steppat, head of product requirements, development and connected drive at BMW of North America, spoke about the ongoing process of designing driverless vehicles. He said that while there have not been any new hurdles that could impede development, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. Things as simple as road materials – which may differ from one country to the next – have to be considered when developing autonomous cars. “Same with the sunlight being different in California than in New Jersey or Germany,” said Rumpf-Steppat. “All these things. There’s always surprises but no big hurdles.” He added that with each new vehicle deployed, BMW learns more about how to deal with the environment, street signs and other familiar elements. He said: “We have vehicles equipped with the sensors and they’re recording all the data. We sent them to Munich; they do data analysis and try to extract scenarios, which are critical for automated driving.”

Marc Weiser, managing director of RPM Ventures, saw 2017 as a year where the barriers to autonomy continued to crumble. “I don’t fundamentally believe that we, all of a sudden, discovered new things that we didn’t know about,” said Weiser. “We recognise that infrastructure investments are required. We know that we have to figure out the edge cases: do we put LiDAR on stoplights and how do we actually get the cars connected? These are things we’ve been aware of for quite some time. I don’t feel like any of those things are new, I think the reverse is true. We’ve seen not just barriers drop but new policy that motivates and incentivizes people to move faster in positive ways.”

Not all challenges are the same, however. The path to autonomy presents different obstacles for each sector. Andrew Bremer, deputy director of strategic initiatives at the Ohio Department of Transportation, shared some of the challenges that he has encountered. “I think the biggest hurdle for us was identifying where the industry was in the development of communication standards,” said Bremer. “As well as standards for hardware and a lot of the data components – just where they are currently so we, as infrastructure owners and operators, can plan for that. That was a really big hurdle that we had to first identify and find ways to get over. We’re good at building stuff but not if we can’t figure out what exactly it is.”

Bremer had many informal meetings with automakers and DSRC manufacturers. Now ODOT is laying the groundwork for the next step toward connectivity. Said Bremer: “Here in Ohio we’ve got the first phase of our US-33 project substantially completed, putting fibre optic cables for 35 miles from Dublin to East Liberty through Marysville on that four-lane divided highway. That’s substantially completed. That lays the groundwork for all the other awesome stuff that will be happening in 2018 and operational in 2019.” ODOT wants to make the entire state – from Columbus to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and beyond – scalable for the smarter world of tomorrow.

Bringing cyber threats into focus

If you’re wondering where the car will be vulnerable, look no further than the rest of the Internet. The WPA2 crack means that just about any Wi-Fi device could be at risk – including automobiles. Sam Lauzon, a senior engineer in research at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), explained how it happened: “They figured out how to sniff the keys between the client and actual router device. That brings a question – how do automakers go about applying updates to maintain Wi-Fi security within a vehicle?”

Lauzon said that automakers had trouble updating the engine control unit (ECU) and now they have another layer to worry about. Worse yet, this is just one of many possible concerns. For example, he wonders what automakers will do with security if cars share the same 5G network as mobile devices. “From an attacker perspective, the network becomes an attractive target,” said Lauzon. “Now the attacker is going to be able to see personal information – people using applications, banking information, etc. Additionally, attackers may be able to impact the transportation infrastructure, pull data from vehicles, see where people actually are if their phone is not giving the data. They can see where they parked, see what kind of conditions are going on. Maybe even manipulate them into going into a different route or compromise their security in some sense.”

Cybersecurity has and will continue to be an ongoing challenge for automakers, which must stay ahead of any threats that could impact the safety of others. Joseph Buck, director of product cybersecurity for autonomous and urban active platforms at General Motors, said the company is learning more in this space every single day. Said Buck: “We’re applying the same techniques, the same focus, that we do with all of our platforms today but we’re learning a lot along the way. Those systems have more technology, more connectivity, more sensors that are going to be in place. A lot of the learning from, my perspective and my team, has been around that space and how we look at cybersecurity from this new technology perspective.”

Attracting more capital – and buyouts

This year has brought a number of notable investments, including nuTonomy (acquired by Delphi) and Argo AI (which received a $1Bn (£761M) investment from Ford). Those were interesting developments in the race to deploy driverless cars but RPM Ventures’ Weiser said the bigger story involves what comes next. “Is this setting a trend for the big established players?” Weiser questioned. “Are we going to see everybody start to jump into the game? Or have we already peaked? That’s a big, open question in my mind. We all like to believe this is just the beginning but there’s an argument to be made that we’re far enough along in the belief that autonomy is coming that everybody has made pretty significant commitments.”

Weiser added that it is now a question of whether or not those who are behind will catch up through investments and acquisitions. “After Cruise Automation, the question was: were we going to see more?” said Weiser. “Of course we have seen more – nuTonomy being acquired for $400M is pretty significant. Is this the first of many more? Or is this the last of the start-ups getting acquired for a big strategic value like that?”

Olaf Sakkers, a partner at Maniv Mobility, expects all Tier 1 players to follow Delphi with investments of their own. “I think the other Tier 1s are going to look to respond to that at some point, while Samsung, LG or Panasonic, who aren’t big Tier 1 suppliers right now, will look to move into the market,” he said.

Sakkers, whose Tel Aviv company focuses on early-stage mobility investments, added that carmakers and Tier 1s are especially interested in the technology coming out of Israel. He shared a few examples: “Cybersecurity, simulation for autonomous vehicles, data marketplaces, cellular technologies – a whole range of different things that are essential for the automotive sector. They’re all coming out of Israel right now.”

Karl Iagnemma, co-founder and CEO of nuTonomy, is optimistic about the future of M&As. He said it’s “very reasonable” to expect additional acquisitions in 2018. “The reality is, there are quite a large number of companies pursuing these technologies,” said Iagnemma. “I suspect some of those companies will get across the finish line at a pace that puts them in a good spot to win in the market. Others will see that their progress is slower than they anticipated or slower than their business models require. At that point I expect we’ll see some acquisitions.”

His optimism has not translated to a crystal ball, however. “It’s hard to predict who or when another start-up will be acquired,” Iagnemma added. “There’s a lot of companies out there that are developing interesting technical approaches that might someday be a good fit for larger organisations.”

What’s ahead in 2018

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, expects autonomous shuttles and ride-share vehicles to gain more traction 2018. “I think we’ll see a deployment of automated shuttles or ride-share vehicles in an urban environment,” said Steudle. “I also suspect they’ll have a person behind the wheel – or if it’s in a state that doesn’t require it, it could be without a wheel. And you’re going to see more demonstrations of truck platooning.”

Mark De la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation for the City of Detroit, also believes that autonomous shuttles will be a big part of 2018. Said De la Vergne: “I think you’ll begin to see more implementation around autonomous shuttles where there’s a definite use case, where a six to eight person shuttle can better serve the area than a 40-person fixed-route bus. I think public agencies are going to want to better learn the technology and how people are going to use it and how they can get integrated with regard to all aspects of public transit. And for the private sector, it’s getting beyond the technology and how you start to manage fleet, which is a different operation than building an autonomous vehicle.”

Grayson Brulte, co-founder and president of Brulte & Company, anticipates a number of mergers and acquisitions as the growing autonomous technology space consolidates. Said Brulte: “The technology is starting to mature. You saw a glimpse of 2018 with the announcement that Delphi is buying nuTonomy. That was a clear indicator going into 2018 that, in my opinion, will be the year of autonomous vehicle consolidation. That’s going to kick off a wave of mergers, acquisitions and consolidations.”

Brulte also expects driverless car developers to advance their technologies by implementing more complex driving situations. “You’ll start to see edge computing roll out in some of these test vehicles,” he added. “You’ll see these technologies being pushed in different elements than they were before. Edge computing will be one of the biggest technological factors going forward. With it, you can imagine what you can be done with AI and deep learning. We’re not there next year but we’ll start to lay the groundwork to where the vehicle can make an intelligent decision in 2018.”

The New Year could also bring a change in the way individual states regulate autonomous vehicles as they look to partner with each other. April Sanborn, driver programmes manager for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, said that she has already had conversations with California representatives about a possible partnership with the state.

Said Sanborn: “We had a conference and I met with California. Some of California’s restrictions are a little tighter than Nevada’s, and we said we’re happy to raise those to your level so we can create a reciprocal agreement.” Sanborn also expects more states to get on board and introduce their own programs for autonomous vehicle testing either by defining AV laws or by removing certain restrictions.

Big themes

Maniv Mobility’s Sakkers anticipates a number of noteworthy themes in 2018, including data and simulation. “It’s essential for autonomous vehicles,” he said. “I also think there’s going to be a big theme around teleoperation. People are going to realise that once you start deploying these, you’re going to need to tele-operate them and give them support.”

Sakkers expects auto technology to continue attracting capital for the time being but said it won’t last forever. “There’s risk on the macro level,” he warned. “I think the markets are pretty hot right now and there’s going to be a correction. It’s not clear if it will be next year or in four years’ time but that’s the structural risk for the market.”

Big risks

When UMTRI’s Lauzon thinks about the New Year, his thoughts immediately turn to the potential security risks associated with both connected and autonomous vehicles. He worries that something as simple as a cardboard cut-out could be used to stop an AV. If the car can’t differentiate between that and a real human, a whole host of problems could be introduced. The same might be true for V2V notifications, which are expected to inform drivers of upcoming hazards but could be manipulated if the security is breached.

“Could I then tell other cars to stop because I want a really nice ride to work?” Lauzon questioned. “Cybersecurity concerns are not only going to be the kids in the basement trying to a remote hack over some Wi-Fi network but even physical sensor anomalies that could be introduced. Could you fool a camera into thinking it’s blind and force a driver to take it over in unsafe circumstances? There are a lot of considerations that we have to take into account moving forward.”

Lauzon said the industry is doing a “reasonable” job of addressing these concerns but feels there isn’t enough data available just yet. He added: “We’ve seen a few autonomous vehicles on the road, but we still don’t have the data to say, ‘Are people going to try and manipulate them?’ It’s a hard prediction to make.”


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