While everyone seems fascinated by driverless cars brought to us via Silicon Valley, established suppliers of advanced driver assistance systems are quietly doing a roaring trade
The automotive industry is going through some fundamental changes, mostly because of computer technology.
The changes include higher levels of computer processing, fully driverless vehicles, greater levels of autonomy, internet connectivity, and the switch from petrol-powered combustion engines to electric.
It’s probably inevitable that the combustion engine will be gone from most mass-manufactured cars within a couple of decades, and will eventually only be seen in antique cars and supercars, although even some supercars are going electric.
Which means the road-going vehicle of the near-future will essentially be computers with wheels, connected to the cloud, and largely autonomous – or, in other words, a robot. In fact, this is what is already happening because of advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS.
Upsetting the Apple car
Whatever previous plans the traditional auto industry giants had, they’ve probably all been updated because of their newly found Silicon Valley counterparts.
Starting most notably with Google’s driverless car project, one tech giant after another has become interested in autonomous car technology, the simple reason being that they think they can create computing systems which would enable road-going vehicles to drive themselves.
That said, the heritage automakers are no slouches when it comes to computer geekery. In an interview with Robotics and Automation News, the head of autonomous car tech for Mercedes – which built the first-ever car back in the 1800s or something – says, these days, “building cars still may be a mainly mechanical process, developing cars is not – neither by its tools, nor by much of its content”.
But Mercedes and all the others with a long history in automaking have some serious new competition, not least in the shape of a giant Apple.
Having sold literally billions of iPhones, iPods and other devices – and devoured entire markets in the process– Apple is rumoured to be interested in the car market.
The highly secretive company has been reported to have visited BMW’s factory in Germany, as well as set up a test track in the US. And most recently Apple has been linked by the Financial Times to McLaren, the maker of Formula 1 cars. (McLaren F1 pictured.)
In-car stealth technology in play
While not making as many headlines as the Googles and Apples of this world, some very well-known and old companies in the auto-parts sector have been making more than a pretty penny in the market.
While the general public may be familiar with terms such as “driverless cars” and “autonomous vehicles”, the jargon the industry seems to prefer is “advanced driver assistance systems”, perhaps because the public is understandably cautious about the idea of giving control of the car to a computer.
ADAS more or less means the same thing as autonomous vehicle technology. But it’s integrated into what are otherwise traditional, mechanical cars that people are buying right now in their hundreds of thousands around the world.
ADAS enables cars to autonomously brake in an emergency, change or stay within lanes, and perform complex manoeuvres such as parking – all with minimal or no assistance from the driver.
As has been said before on this website, fully driverless vehicles may not get here for decades, but autonomous vehicle technology is already on the roads.
Recently, Google integrated its autonomous car technology into Fiat Chrysler vehicles, marking the start of what could be the strategy for tech companies going forward. Essentially, they become like the component makers shown in the graph below. Even Apple – which tends to prefer to make its own integrated hardware-and-software product and generally doesn’t like licensing any of its tech to outside companies – offers CarPlay (pictured) to automakers.
Although it’s seen more as an in-car entertainment system, CarPlay is probably the iOS-based platform on which Apple will stealthily build its autonomous car project, which is believed to be caled Project Titan.
Apple describes CarPlay as “the ultimate co-pilot”, while another company, Tesla, has something it calls “Autopilot”, which is in effect an autonomous driving system.
Tesla’s Autopilot was reported to be active when a driver crashed his car a few months ago. The incident is thought to have made an already-sceptical public more wary than ever of driverless cars.
Tesla, it’s worth noting, is probably the first company to make electric supercars a desirable option, where before car fans may not have considered electric to be a proper way to power any road-going vehicle other than a milk float.
Five easy pieces
According to Semicast Research, Continental leads the ADAS electronics market, with an estimated market share of 18 per cent, followed by Bosch, with 15 per cent. Other companies it places in the top five are Autoliv, which has 14 per cent, Magna, on 9 per cent, and ZF TRW, 7 per cent.
Source: Semicast Research
Colin Barnden, principal analyst at Semicast Research and the ADAS study author, says: “From an electronics perspective, Semicast judges the building blocks necessary to support fully autonomous driving as now in place.
“Tesla’s experience with the Autopilot function demonstrates that, for now, ADAS remains firmly in the category of driver assistance rather than automated driving. However, the reliability, regulatory and legal issues which currently limit ADAS operation are all expected to be resolved steadily over the coming decade.”
The company which Semicast cast as the market leader, Continental, is expanding its ADAS business unit in Asia.
Karl Haupt, head of ADAS at Continental, says: “Advanced Driver Assistance Systems is our strongest growth area. This year we will achieve sales of well over €1 billion ($1.1 billion) thanks to our surrounding sensors. In 2020, we expect to exceed two billion in sales, which equates to a further doubling in just five years.
“Much of this sales growth is driven by Japanese manufacturers – but we still see strong growth potential in China and with Chinese OEMs. We expect to achieve around one billion in sales with Asian OEMs by 2018.”
Another company in the ADAS market – although not in Semicast’s top five – is Eaton, which targets commercial vehicles, such as trucks.
Eaton is showing off the latest feature of its ADAS – called Dock Assist – at the IAA Commercial Vehicles Show. The company says Dock Assist will initially allow self-docking of a commercial truck.
Gerard Devito, chief technology officer, Eaton’s Vehicle Group, says: “Dock Assist is a practical solution to an industry issue.
“In conversations we have had with a large fleet customer, they estimate an expenditure of $10,000 a month for repairs from damages that occur during the coupling of a tractor or trailer in the loading dock environment. That is money they would not have to spend using Eaton’s ADAS Dock Assist system.”
Meanwhile, another specialist ADAS provider, Autoliv, has established a joint venture with Volvo to create autonomous driving software, a development which may mean more market share for Autoliv.
In a statement, the two companies say their partnership marks the first time a leading premium carmaker has joined forces with a tier-one supplier to develop new ADAS and autonomous driving technologies.
Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Cars, says: “By combining our know-how and resources, we will create a world leader in AD software development. This means we can introduce this exciting technology to our customers faster.”
Jan Carlson, chairman, CEO and president of Autoliv, says: “This new company is a recognition of the fact that autonomous driving is the next step to transform road safety.”
ADAS could be the future of autonomous cars
Both the traditional automakers and the new tech companies have probably realised that the word “autonomous” makes potential car buyers more concerned than perhaps they need to be.
Moreover, crossing the line into autonomy would certainly mean automakers adhering to a different set of regulations set by government agencies, much of which is still being discussed and decided.
With that in mind, it’s probably likely that companies will invest more time and money in developing “advanced” rather than “autonomous” driver assistance systems.
Which is what Apple seems to be doing, according to a report on the PatentlyApple.com website.
And we haven’t even started discussing connected cars, ride-sharing, electric engines, or the other key technologies shaping the future of motoring. Maybe in another article. Here’s a McKinsey report into ADAS.