Driverless cars are inevitable. When we complete the transformation from human to machine driving depends on your willingness to relinquish control—and your definition of "autonomous." If you’re looking for the fantasy—a Jetsons-like future where cars steer themselves while passengers sleep, watch movies on their tablets, or take care of business on the fly—then you’ll be waiting quite some time. But there is plenty happening in the autonomous space right now.
Driverless technologies are already appearing, in installments, in mass-produced cars. Some models can automatically slide themselves into tight parking spaces. Some can maintain a safe following distance and stay in lane in steady traffic. Some can even apply the brakes when they sense a collision is imminent. It’s easy to imagine how all these discrete systems can be combined, using sophisticated software, into a comprehensive auto-pilot. Experts estimate that partially automated cars will be on the road in significant numbers by 2016, and even more highly automated vehicles will be here by 2020.
We’ve put together a list of 10 companies, all makers of advanced driver assist technologies or systems, to watch now. Some you’ll know. Some you won’t. But all have been doing interesting things.
Yes, the superstar of search engines is also a pioneer in the autonomous vehicle space. In fact, it’s closer to delivering a working AV than any other developer. However, that doesn’t mean the Silicon Valley giant will become the next great American automaker. Instead, it seems content to develop the software (i.e., the complex set of algorithms) the machines need to think and react smoother and faster than a human driver. Otherwise, why would the hardware component of the company’s self-driving vehicles be so cost-prohibitive?
Canada's QNX Software Systems wants to turn your car into the ultimate mobile device, complete with apps, infotainment, access to all your movies and music, and, of course, control of the car itself. QNX Car Platform is a commercial Unix-like real-time operating system. Its hub-and-spoke architecture allows for many applications to run simultaneously, securely, and stably. That’s its key. It is the solution when you need an operating system that simply can't crash, fitting considering the potential consequences of a computer failure while traveling at freeway speeds. QNX does have the most experience in the automotive space, although other players (Microsoft, iOS, and Android) loom on the horizon.
Delphi is one of the world’s largest parts suppliers—or tier 1 suppliers as they are commonly known. Tier 1s tend to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to research and development, but rarely take any of the glory. Unlike some of its peers, Delphi realizes that any solutions it creates have to be cost-effective. Google can innovate and worry about creating a saleable product later, carmakers and tier 1s cannot. To this end, Delphi has been working on more affordable ways of reducing the complexity of these advanced safety systems. For example, it is working on a multi-domain controller designed to do the same work as multiple electronic control units. This will reduce the complexity of the system, cost and weight.
Cisco is known for making products that transport data, voice, and video around the world. Its products are designed to transform how people connect, communicate, and collaborate. Thus, it makes sense that it would play an important role in producing the security software and router hardware that would be used to deliver connected and autonomous car services. And it’s teaming with our next company on the list to do so.
Continental Automotive is Europe's second largest and one of the world’s largest tier 1 auto parts suppliers. It announced early in 2013 that automated driving would be at the core of its long-term business strategy. Its goal is to make fully autonomous driving reality by 2025. One of its first projects is connecting cars via wireless networks—a pathway toward better real-time traffic and navigation, more passenger entertainment features, safety-hazard warnings, and eventually driverless cars. The German company has already inked alliances with Cisco, IBM, and others to work on V2X communication systems, which many experts view as key in the development of autonomous vehicles.
This Detroit-based company was conceived early in the new millennium to develop a secure, online auto parts exchange that would make it easier and less costly for carmakers to manage their complex supply chains. Unfortunately, the automakers involved couldn’t agree upon anything and the project was almost scrapped. However, its core technology—helping people and systems to communicate and collaborate securely over the Internet—is very much in demand today as a way for driverless cars to securely communicate with external factors such as traffic lights and emergency vehicles.
Cohda Wireless designs the hardware and software for V2X communications; i.e., systems that will allow cars to form ad hoc mesh networks while on the road. Cars within those networks will not only be able to communicate critical safety information such as their speed and heading and whether they’re braking or accelerating, but they will also be able to link up with roadside sensor nodes and eventually a larger cloud-based intelligence—all of which would gradually take over the act of driving our vehicles. Cohda's chips enhance wireless communications to quality levels beyond commercial off-the-shelf IEEE 802.11p transceivers, allowing cars to more effectively see through obstacles or around corners.
Headquartered in Israel, AutoTalks has quietly become a world leader in V2X communication technology, just like Codha. Recently, it produced the world’s first automotive-grade chipset ready for series-production. The technology analyzes data transmitted by the on-board processing units of nearby vehicles in order to warn drivers of any imminent danger and communicate with transportation infrastructure. Autotalks claims the chipsets that power its system—a communications processor named Craton and a radio frequency transceiver named Pluton—are secure and hacker-proof. Its built-in security solution authenticates and processes every incoming packet received by a vehicle in less than a millisecond, which you know is life-critical time.
Also based in Israel, Mobileye offers monitoring technology that uses a single camera and a "system-on-chip" to warn cars of imminent dangers (a pedestrian collision, lane departure, or forward collision) as well as headway monitoring, intelligent high-beam lights, traffic-sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, and speed limit indications. The technology is intended to keep drivers and passengers safer and decrease traffic accidents. So what? It is the simplest, most cost-efficient ADAS out there at $tk.
This California-based silicon vendor believes that its years of crunching real-time image and spatial data in PCs and game consoles make its chipsets the ideal candidates to power future driverless car systems. And we think it might be right. Nvidia wants to make a car’s computing components upgradeable. That way you start with top-of-the-line computing components. And via periodic upgrades, you can boost the brainpower of your connected car. Consequently, the tech never becomes obsolete. As it stands now, the lead time on new car designs and manufacturing schedules mean that the technology you’re buying is probably old and nearly obsolete.
[Image: Flickr user Matt Biddulph]