Exclusive interview with Bosch senior vice-president Arun Srinivasan about the growing levels of autonomy in today’s vehicles and the fully autonomous cars of tomorrow
It’s a small word. Bosch. Associated with so many things, most famously “bish bash bosch”. A meaningless phrase really, but according to the Urban Dictionary, it’s “used to describe the efficiency of a process you have just explained, often used if there are three steps to the process”.
For example, someone might say: “So there you have it. Clutch down, first gear, handbrake off and you’e away. Simple as that, bish bash bosh.”
If you want to be pedantic, the correct colloquialism is actually “bish bash bosh”. We made the other one up, although we only added one letter – c. We thought it would make a more interesting way open a feature about a company millions of people are already familiar with as being one of the largest industrial companies in the world.
Bosch’s revenue for last year was more than €70 billion, and the company was founded in the late 1800s by Robert Bosch. It’s still more than 90 per cent owned by the family trust.
It’s all about the letters
These days, to some people, €70 billion may not seem like a lot of money, what with so many dotcoms being valued at trillions. But Bosch is one of the 30 largest manufacturing companies in the world. Remember manufacturing? It’s where you make stuff. On a large scale. It’s becoming an increasingly rare activity in some countries that are considered “advanced economies”, manufacturing having at some point become a concept associated with developing countries which pay low or next-to-nothing wages.
Manufacturing tends to be thought of as labour-intensive, which means high costs. Hence the rise of China, with its 1.7 billion population, and other highly populated nations of the East. Meanwhile, the West has seen jobs and industry drain away, leaving vast areas of some countries decimated and entire ways of life and cultures diminished if not destroyed.
But things could be coming full circle. Manufacturing jobs may return to the West. Sounds strange, but dreams do sometimes come true. It’s not necessarily a flight of fancy. Some very knowledgable people believe in the possibility. Opinion is divided on the issue it must be said, but it’s better than being unanimous against the idea.
Those who believe there may indeed be at least steady growth in the manufacturing industry in Europe and America point to robotics and automation technology as the possible saviour.
Barclays Bank conducted a survey of the manufacturing industry in the UK and found that an additional £1 billion of investment into robotics would lead to a £60 billion increase in the nation’s economic output.
It might have been around a long time, but robotics and automation technology is only now becoming accessible to smaller business operations – the systems are getting cheaper and more capable of doing more things.
Moreover, advances in computing mean that a relatively small company could, for example, install robots around the world, connect them to some sort of cloud service using the internet of things and manage them to make whatever products it’s geared up for.
What’s in the name?
Take the Liam robot, recently unveiled by Apple. The 29-arm system can completely take apart an iPhone, right down to its constituent components and materials, in 11 seconds, according to the company. That’s eleven seconds. And it’s not like a smash-and-grab raid. Liam can save all of the components and materials for recycling, which is exactly what Apple designed it to do.
But imagine a robot called Mail, exactly like Liam, but in reverse. Mail is a robot that puts all the constituent parts and materials of a phone together. That is, if you give our Mail robot all the bits and pieces needed to make an iPhone, it could potentially make a smartphone for you before you can make a coffee.
So what’s the message here? Maybe you’d have to ask Apple for a fuller answer. But some of the implications are, needless to say, a lot of unemployed people in Asia, and potentially many more startup companies offering jobs for roboticists and other workers with relevant skills. The only other thing these companies will need to be globally successful is to build an image and product line as popular as that of Apple, which appears to have given a new meaning to reverse engineering.
Reverse-engineering the future
You can’t reverse-engineer something that doesn’t yet exist. Maybe you can. But the people we know can’t. Although, having said that, maybe engineers and inventors and creative people in many fields are doing exactly that – they are reverse-engineering objects and ideas of the future as they imagine them.
It would be interesting to know what the first examples of autonomous vehicles were. ComputerHistory.org seems to suggest that the flying carpet was the first autonomous vehicle. It might have some sort of mystical power on its side, but autonomous flying carpet technology was never really going to catch on – no seats, that’s the problem.
Whatever the origin of the species, the driverless car is combusting itself through science fiction writers’ highly imaginative mindscapes right down onto the very real roads of the cityscapes in today’s world. And many companies are betting big on the successful proliferation of the technology.
With more chips to play than most, Bosch is very much at the table, and seems to be playing its cards with the adroitness you might expect of a startup company. But then, everyone’s still at the drawing board when it comes to driverless cars.
Long in the making business
The vast amount of hype notwithstanding, autonomous vehicles are still not ready to take to the roads. But if any company has the resources and infrastructure to provide crucial technologies to bring autonomous cars into the real world, it would have to be Bosch.
The company has expertise in various markets, such as power tools, household appliances, security systems and thermotechnology; it makes drives and controls for the robotics and automation systems that themselves manufacture or package other goods; but perhaps most importantly, Bosch is said to be the world’s largest supplier of automotive components.
Its history includes innovative developments of the earliest forms of combustion engine, back in the early 1900s. The company itself was established in Germany in 1886, and today employs close to 400,000 people all around the world.
But far from allowing its illustrious history to lull the company into complacency, Bosch appears to be working hard to establish itself as a leader in this newfangled autonomous vehicle technology business. A number of new initiatives in the past few months would suggest a mixture of enthusiasm and perhaps a sense of anxiety on the part of Bosch. For no matter how big and venerable a company is, the world of technology moves so fast and so dramatically that no one can really stay ahead of the game unless they make it central to their plans to do so, and even then there’s no guarantee.
The very idea of AI- or computer-controlled, internet-connected and fully-autonomous cars has placed Silicon Valley tech companies in the driving seat, with all the world’s traditional car companies finding themselves playing a bit of catch-up.
The prestigious car marques of Germany, with more than a century of history behind them, are all exploring this newly forming vehicle sector and thinking about what they need to do in order to maintain their power into the next few crucial decades.
Bosch itself seems to have placed driverless cars front and centre of its plans going forward. It’s already Planet Earth’s auto parts supplier, and even present-day human-driven cars are increasingly becoming autonomous. But its empire was built on combustion engines and human-driven cars. How does it plan to evolve into one that may find that the electric engine and AI-driven robots are the biggest part of its business within the next 20 or 30 years?
The man who knows enough
In this exclusive interview, Arun Srinivasan, senior vice-president at Bosch, talks about the “big business” of car technology. We started by asking how Bosch is positioned in the autonomous vehicle technology market, how important this market segment is to Bosch considering how diverse the company is, and what competitive pressures it may be facing going forward. How, for example, can Bosch compete with tech companies with their background in computing, digital cartography, and artificial intelligence?
Srinivasan says: “Back in 2011, Bosch set up a team that has been working exclusively in the area of highly automated driving. Bosch prototypes are currently testing on public roads in Germany, the US and in Japan. We plan to make highly automated driving available in 2020. Driver assistance, which is the foundation of automated driving, is already big business for Bosch. We expect sales of €1 billion in 2016, just in that area.”
Stop in the name of AI
Many cars on the road today already feature a significant amount of autonomous driving technology, the best-known and perhaps most appreciated of which is autonomous emergency braking, fast becoming a standard part of the AI and electronics systems in many new models produced by leading automakers.
Srinivasan says: “Over the past 20 years, Bosch has been one of the drivers in bringing electronics and software into the car. As the car is fast becoming part of the internet, automotive technology is merging more and more with telecommunications and consumer electronics.
“Bosch is confident of making its mark in this area. We have extensive systems expertise relating to the car. We offer technology that connects the car to the internet, and are developing various service solutions around the car. For example, connected parking and a cloud-based wrong-way driver warning.”
Fully autonomous, or self-driving, cars may be 10 or more years away. It could happen sooner if lawmakers can devise a regulatory infrastructure that protects the general public from what would be an army of autonomous robots on the road.
One of the first fundamental changes in automotive technology since the invention of the combustion engine happened in the 1990s, when legislators required automakers to fit their vehicles with catalytic converters to reduce the amount of dangerous fumes they release into the atmosphere.
The move came after decades of growing concerns about pollution. Now, having moved from the margins to the mainstream, environmental issues will probably lead to electric cars becoming the most common form of motoring. But there’s no such life-saving imperative behind the interest in autonomous vehicles, although there are those who claim that AI systems would be safer drivers than humans.
Are we there yet?
But what is Srinivasan’s best guess as to when autonomous cars will become commonplace on the roads? He should have a better idea than most, so we asked him. We also asked him what the main hurdles are – regulations, cybersecurity, or something like that? In the meantime, while we wait for fully autonomous buses to arrive in batches of four or five, how does he see vehicle automation within the current human-driven cars developing, and how is Bosch doing in this market?
“In order for new features to be accepted by drivers, they must spark enthusiasm whilst being safe and easy to use,” says Srinivasan. “The behaviour of the features should be understood just as intuitively as their limits.
“Bosch currently focuses on highly automated driving on motorways. Full autonomous driving – also in inner-city traffic – is clearly more than 10 years away from now.
“The trend towards automated driving poses new technical challenges with regard to the surround sensor concept, steering and braking, and the electrical or electronic architecture in the vehicle. The communication protocols for data exchange between vehicles must also be standardised.
“However, the greatest challenge in the development of autonomous vehicle functions is still traffic in urbanised areas, where an extremely wide range of road users and obstacles must be taken into consideration, and all around the vehicle. The respective algorithms must work reliably, carefully and consistently in all situations.
“In addition to the technical challenges, the legal framework must also be clarified in order to pave the way for automated driving. We are confident this will happen, as the necessary legal changes have now been initiated within the European Union. Finally, cybersecurity is a prerequisite. Bosch has technical solutions that offer a high level of safety and security.”
Die hard sell
Bosch doesn’t need to sell itself much in some markets – it more or less dominates them. But autonomous car technology is an area where no company has a significant history, so in a way it’s all to play for. Perhaps this is why Bosch is increasing its prowess in this area.
But we asked Srinivasan, why autonomous cars? It’s an unfair question in a way, considering that so many companies are going into that business, and not many would question their motives. But Bosch has such disparate interests, how can it avoid being seen as not specialist enough? How does a company like Bosch build confidence in customers for a technology that Bosch – and everyone else – has no history in?
“Although it has advanced significantly, autonomous driving actually started with active safety systems and driver assistance,” he says. “Bosch clearly paved the way for the industry: Bosch was the first company to introduce an electronically controlled ABS – the Anti-lock Braking System – in 1978; it invented the Electronic Stability Control in 1995; and the radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control in 2000.
“Further safety and assisted driving functions followed and we are now leading in some of the connected technology too.
“Bosch has unique expertise in vehicle and systems technologies covering Powertrain, Braking, Steering and surround sensing.
“We invest heavily in R&D, €6.3 billion in 2015. Collaborating with a number of other companies, Bosch will research, develop and test new functionalities for cars and trucks, offering both partially automated and highly automated driving on motorways, in urban scenarios, and for close-distance manoeuvres.”
Bosch makes billions from autonomous tech
Bosch reported sales of €70 billion for the first time last year – a record. And part of the reason for the growth in revenues is that Bosch is actually making money from autonomous driving technology well before fully autonomous cars are on the roads – just partial autonomy will do for Bosch thank you very much.
We asked Sinivasan to give us some forecasts about how much Bosch expects to make in automated driving, or autonomous car, technologies going forward.
“Over 60 per cent of our turnover is in the area of mobility solutions and sales of automated and driver assistance technologies have been growing steadily over the past few years,” he says. “As the industry moves further towards automated driving, the market for driver assistance systems is expanding with the technology now becoming available in all vehicle classes.
“An important driver also is the Euro NCAP rating, which focuses increasingly on technology to make driving safe for everybody – for example, driver assistance systems such as the automated emergency braking. This is now a pre-requisite for passenger cars to receive a five star rating.
“Bosch is increasing its sales by a third each year, in this market. Last year was the first time that the company sold more than 50 million environment sensors for driver assistance systems. The number of radar and video sensors sold has doubled in 2015 – as it did the year before.”
Towards a safer, more automated world
Srinivasan is on the Bosch board in the UK, where he is based. Recently he steered the company into an autonomous vehicle technology collaboration project which will see smart mobility being tested on the roads and pavements of Greenwich, London.
The project is backed by the UK government, through an agency called InnovateUK, which is investing tens of millions in the future of autonomous vehicles, hoping to keep up with the rest of Europe and indeed the world. Srinivasan is an enthusiatic part of the project, partly because he believes autonomous driving is safer than purely human driving, and believes it will become ubiquitous technology around the world.
“Bosch works with all the major car manufacturers across the world,” says Srinivasan. “In the UK, we are leading a consortium that benefits from a £5.5 million grant awarded by InnovateUK. The project will see driverless technology trialled in real world conditions on roads in Greenwich, London.
“Automated driving technology in cars will help to prevent accidents, reduce congestion and emissions in cities, offering a more pleasant experience for motorists.
“However, automated driving is highly complex and requires extensive validation of functions and algorithms involving a large amount of data, to ensure that systems respond to all possible real world-driving situations and are safe.”
There is a growing number of people in the industry promoting the idea that fully autonomous cars are safer, but it’s unlikely that the general public will agree with them any time soon. UK politicians are aware of this and acknowledged it in a report on the issue.
In a document about autonomous vehicles, the Houses of Parliament says that the Department of Transport “will work to encourage the development and introduction of autonomous vehicles”.
However, it notes: “The main policy challenges involve verifying safety and reliability, and creating a legal framework to allow their testing and deployment.”
Since that statement, the Government has given the green light to a number of pilot projects, Greenwich being one of them. Others involve Jaguar Land Rover and other companies.
But while the public is sceptical of handing over total control of the steering wheel to the AI systems, increasing numbers of people seem keen on AI assisting them in their driving.
Fully autonomous cars may not be on the roads for another couple of decades yet, but they’re already part of the driving experience for many motorists today.