Electronics Suppliers Preach Gospel of Openness for Autonomous Cars

Semiconductor companies want to build an open foundation for the autonomous vehicle’s solution stack. They just need automakers to accept the concept.
By: 
May 19, 2017

As the era of the autonomous car approaches, electronics suppliers are encouraging a culture of technological openness in the historically competitive arena of the auto industry.

The shift to open platforms, they say, would enable automakers to bring self-driving cars to the market more quickly, while saving on the extensive research and development costs that are sure to follow. “The more we align on a common platform, and not reinvent the wheel, the more automakers can focus on what really matters to them from a product differentiation standpoint,” Jack Weast, chief systems architect for autonomous driving at Intel Corp., told Design News.

To make that vision happen, electronics suppliers are teaming with automakers and Tier Ones, as well as rolling out new hardware and software platforms. On May 16, Intel announced a four-way partnership with BMW Group, MobilEye N.V., and Delphi Automotive PLC to “deploy a cooperation model” to deliver solutions. In April, Renesas Electronics America introduced an automated driving platform known as Autonomy, focused on openness and aiming to provide a programmable platform that would allow automakers and Tier Ones the opportunity to “plug in their own IP.”

 

Intel Corp., BMW Group, MobilEye N.V., and Delphi Automotive PLC are teaming up to “deploy a cooperation model” to deliver solutions for autonomous vehicles. (Source: Intel Corp.)

 

The key is for the auto industry to let electronics companies develop the base platform of the autonomous car’s solution stack. Intel, for example, wants to provide solutions for such technologies as 5G connectivity, data center infrastructure and cloud computing, all of which would be components of the autonomous car’s architecture. Automakers would then take their unique intellectual property for, say, automatic braking or collision avoidance, and layer it atop that foundation.

“They shouldn’t have to worry about, ‘What radio technology do I use?’ or ‘What frequency bands can be supported?’ or ‘What’s the Internet packet protocol?’” Weast said. “They should start their work at a higher level in the stack.”

The question is whether automakers will buy into that vision. In a recent blog on the Intel website, Doug Davis, general manager of the Automated Driving Group at Intel, bluntly stated that “there are plenty in the automotive industry who don’t understand how open collaboration can enable differentiation and innovation.” Davis argued that “technology best solves problems when it’s organized around common platforms and predictable interfaces.”

Indeed, there is historical precedence to support Davis’ point. When IBM built its first PCs using off-the-shelf parts and outsourced operating systems in the 1980s, the technology grew by a factor of 150X in two decades. Similarly, data centers took off when they adopted PC technology and wireless technology thrived after standardized hardware and software made it easier for users to set up connections.

“We’ve done this in a number of different industries,” Weast said. “It brings costs down, accelerates time to market, and allows the customers to invest in places where they’ll get the most return.”

Experts say the auto industry is open to such ideas, but its long, competitive history may be slowing complete acceptance of the concept. “Collaboration was not always the norm for the auto industry,” noted David Cole, chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research. Fifty years ago, Ford, GM and Chrysler never shared technology, he said, partly because collusion was viewed as a violation of antitrust laws. The hyper-competitive atmosphere even applied to the relationships between divisions within a single organization. At one time, Cole said, divisions of General Motors refused to share engines or employees. Thus, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Pontiac and Chevrolet paid for development of their own proprietary engines, and employee movement between those divisions was considered a violation of unwritten protocol. “They actually had a history of competing against themselves,” Cole said.

That’s changing, however, albeit not with great speed. King-type leaders, such as Jacques Nasser at Ford and Roger Smith at GM, were replaced by “coach-type” CEOs, such as Alan Mulally and Mary Barra, who focused on team values and collaboration, Cole said. Moreover, auto companies have begun to break down the walls between them. General Motors, for example, recently teamed with Ford Motor Co. on nine- and ten-speed transmissions and with Honda Motor Co. on fuel cells. Similarly, GM, Ford and Chrysler cooperate under the auspices of a research organization known as USCAR (US Council for Automotive Research), as well as the USABC (US Advanced Battery Consortium).

Self-driving vehicles built by Renesas use an automated driving platform known as Autonomy, which provides an “open platform” approach. (Source: Renesas Electronics America)

Continued cooperation will be critical in the case of autonomous cars, suppliers say. “As the industry moves toward Level 4 and Level 5 driving, vehicle architectures will fundamentally change,” noted Amrit Vivekanand, vice president of the Automotive Unit for Renesas. “Vehicle networks will change, too, because of the sheer volume of data that’s going to be running on the car.”

Vivekanand added that the move to openness is about collaboration, and not about the use of open source software, such as Linux. “That, perhaps, is where you’re seeing some pushback from carmakers, especially in the area of safety-critical systems,” Vivekanand said. “But that’s not what we’re advocating.”

Renesas, along with other suppliers, promotes the use of a building-block type approach in which they supply microcontrollers and mixed signal devices for chassis, steering, braking and other parts of the auto. “We want to supply Lego blocks that can be mixed and matched in different ways to fulfill the customer’s needs,” Vivekanand said. “Then the OEM or the Tier One can plug their IP into it.”

To be sure, that approach would benefit the suppliers, as well as the automakers, which is one of the reasons for the big push. Autonomous vehicle technology is so complicated – in some cases requiring hundreds of MCUs per vehicle – that the semiconductor companies simply can’t build vehicle-specific solutions for every automaker.

Suppliers say that intellectual property of the autonomous systems – automatic braking, steering, object detection and the like – will continue to be the responsibility of the automakers and the Tier Ones. “Individualization is the role of the Tier One or the OEM,” Weast said. “That’s their business. It’s what they do well and we’re not trying to change that.”

Cole contends that such collaboration will be necessary, given the complexity of autonomous driving. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

 

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