Ford believes carmakers will map better than Google

Self-driving vehicles sound like a dream come true but the realities may prove to be more difficult than people realise because, even in the early stages, they require a large number of technologies, ranging from cameras to expensive sensors. Long-term they might be assisted by smarter cities and a whole host of V2V features that are not yet present in today’s automobiles.

Doug VanDagens, global director for connected vehicle and services at Ford, recently detailed the most important technologies that he believes are necessary to bring autonomous vehicles to market.

“Number one is security,” said VanDagens. “Two is internal processing capability. Autonomous vehicles have to be able to operate without connectivity. It’s just a fact of life. That means you’re going to need all that processing capability and the AI capability on board to do that.” Next up is mapping. He added: “AI isn’t going to get to where it needs to be for 10 or 15 years, so we need high-definition maps. And we have to have it for everywhere we’re driving, which is everywhere.”

VanDagens also wants better AI but he’s concerned about where it might be headed. Many have speculated about who the car will protect in the event of a collision with other vehicles or pedestrians. “How does that really work?” VanDagens questioned. “Will the car really run into a group of schoolchildren because you’re going to protect the passenger first? To what degree? I think those questions are incredibly difficult and trying to strike a balance between regulatory authorities, the legal system, and where you’re protected from getting sued, is going to be very difficult.”

Consequently, VanDagens expects autonomous vehicle adoption to occur at a much slower rate than many anticipate. “Those are the issues I think are difficult to manage,” said VanDagens. “The actual driving part, once you have a map and the advancement of ADAS, I think that’s probably less difficult.”

The tech giants are coming

It’s no secret that Google and Apple want to be in the cars of tomorrow. While they may not evolve into full-fledged automakers, VanDagens acknowledged an area where they are expected to dominate. “If OEMs are setting up app stores, get out!” said VanDagens. “It’s over once autonomous vehicles come in. Ford is not going to be able to serve up some music choices while you’re driving because you’ll bring your iPad or Android tablet into the vehicle instead.”

Dominating new areas

On the flip side, VanDagens expects automakers to deliver the best mapping data. He explained: “I’m telling you right now, because of the onset of autonomous vehicles and our need for sensors, the automotive companies are going have, at some point in time, the best and most accurate data from a mapping perspective. It’s required for us to release autonomous vehicles. Three years ago if you said, ‘Ford and GM and BMW and Toyota are going to have better map data than Google,’ people would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’ But it’s going to be true because of the size of our fleet.”

Autonomous vehicles could also bring unexpected changes to the insurance industry. “There’s a lot of dongles that plug in but with the vehicle architecture changing and things becoming more secure, you’re not going to be able to get that information anymore,” VanDagens predicted. “Progressive and all those guys that are taking advantage of that, Verisk and Octo, they’re going to be hurting.”

Maintaining a secure environment

VanDagens said that it is “incredibly difficult” to stay on top of security but it is a must if autonomous vehicles are going to thrive on open roads. “As we open up different transport mechanisms – the embedded modem versus Wi-Fi connectivity, versus cellular, versus whatever they’re going to do with DSRC and V2V – the problem increases exponentially,” he said. “I remember Microsoft and Google saying they can’t guarantee that people can’t break in. We just have to try and keep a little ahead of everybody else and, so far, we’ve done that successfully.”

Working together

There was a time when automakers tried to go at it alone but those days may be over. Between partnerships with rising tech companies and investments in start-ups, the auto industry is slowly realising that two heads are better than one.

Said VanDagens: “I don’t think a single OEM is going to have the economies of scale, nor can they offer multi-OEM solutions, which is what the market wants. So, you’ve got to change the structure. You can’t build it all yourself. That’s not a winning formula. I think it is important who you partner with and identifying your differential advantage.”

When searching for potential investment opportunities, VanDagens likes to see a management team that understands how and where it can compete – and where it cannot. “A lot of people are building empires,” he added. “That’s not what you’re looking for in a start-up. You’re sitting down and saying, ‘Why do you have an advantage and how are you going to build that?’”


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