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On Electronic Advances

As people become more reliant on their smart phones and other devices, vehicle manufacturers are finding it necessary to make the in-car experience a seamless extension. Even to the point of working toward self-driving cars.
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“Customers told us they want Blue Link to work like their smartphone and we’ve worked with Google, Covisint and Station Digital Media to deliver this level of functionality,” said Barry Ratzlaff, executive director, Customer Connect and Service Business Development, Hyundai Motor America. Blue Link is Hyundai’s infotainment platform. According to a recent survey conducted by Gallup, 62% of all Americans have a smartphone (between 2005 and 2013, the ownership of non-smartphones fell from 78% to 45%), and 88% of those between 18 to 29 have a smartphone. So is it any wonder that the smartphone is the metric by which automotive electronics is to be measured?

Then there’s this: “It’s all about giving everyone an enjoyable, easy-to-use and intuitive experience. There is no point in filling a car with technology if it comes off as overwhelming, so our main focus is always to give our customers the best experience available and make it easy to digest.” That’s David Holecek, connectivity brand manager at Volvo Cars. He’s talking about Sensus Connect, an infotainment offering launched by Volvo. Note, again, the ease-of-use emphasis. Holecek also said, It’s not about offering a thousand apps; it’s about giving you precisely what you need, before you even knew you needed it,” with that last part of that sentence obviously being something of an exaggeration. Or perhaps not. One of the apps offered is Connected Service Booking: the car knows when service is due and will pre-book a service appointment at a Volvo dealership. Presumably, the car also knows what one’s calendar is and thereby doesn’t overbook one’s schedule.

Hyundai is offering a somewhat similar functionality with its Genesis Intelligent Assistant app (named for the 2015 Genesis, the first model with the new Blue Link), but in this case the car sends the driver a message on her smartphone (which, as has been established, the driver probably has). And the Assistant does much more. For example, by being synced with the smartphone, it has access to the calendar, so if the calendar includes a trip to a certain place at a certain time, it will calculate the estimated drive time and send the driver a message indicating that it is time to go, predicated on where the driver is in relation to the destination and traffic conditions. Remote start seems to be becoming de rigueur (although one wonders how that squares with a concern with fuel efficiency, given that idling isn’t the best thing for miles per gallon), and the Assistant will check the outside temp based on the zip code, and if it is determined that it is too hot or too cold outside, the driver will get a notification as to whether the car should be pre-started so it will be just right. Of course, if there is an issue with the amount of fuel in the car, the driver gets notified of that, as well.

And that’s just the start. Hyundai (like other OEMs) is working with Google. For one thing, its navigation system uses Google for destination information, which is a far more functional approach than traditional navi inputs (even when using voice recognition, which this does, too). But more to the point, they’ve developed the Hyundai Blue Link Google Glass app. It’s powered by the Covisint AppCloud API framework platform.

Google Glass appears to be a cross between eyewear worn by Elton John and Bono, but more functional than fashionable. It provides augmented reality. It is actually a headset rather than a pair of specs from Oliver Peoples. Input includes voice commands as well as interfacing with a touchpad along the side of the frames. It features what is said to be a 1.2-GHz Texas Instruments OMAP dual-core processor. It has a bone conductor transducer for audio. Its display is said to resemble a 25-in. high-def screen at a distance of 8 ft.

(When someone who is near-sighted (me) puts on a pair sans prescription lenses, the display actually resembles something smaller than a postage stamp.)

So those who are wearing their Google Glass and who happen to have a Hyundai with the latest Blue Link telematics system will be able to do such things as remote vehicle start, remote door lock/unlock, find one’s car, search for a gas station and have it sent to the head unit of the car, call roadside assistance, call a Blue Link agent. (Pretty much the same sort of functions that one has with a smartphone and an app like one from OnStar but more tech chic.)

There is a tremendous amount of emphasis on self-driving cars. IHS Automotive recently completed a study titled “Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Cars—Not If, But When.”

First, it is useful to see the stair-step approach that IHS takes toward the autonomous vehicle. There are six levels, starting with 0, which is no autonomous functions or just a lane-departure or forward collision warning. While this may be 0, there are still sensors and processors involved, so in this case zero is not nothing. Level 1 has one autonomous function, as in adaptive cruise control. It is autonomous because it adjusts its behavior based on conditions (i.e., if the cruise is set at 60 mph and the car is closing in on a vehicle ahead that is going less than 60, then it will automatically adjust its speed through braking or throttle adjustment). Level 2 has at least two autonomous functions. Level 3 is essentially auto pilot, but the pilot must be engaged. Then at Level 4, the vehicle can drive itself, but there are the interfaces needed for the driver to take control of the car (e.g., steering wheel, pedals). At Level 5, the car is completely autonomous, with no driver input when it comes to the driving, and not even the means by which to do so.

So, as for the “when” that IHS is anticipating: on a global basis, there will be some 230,000 self-driving vehicles (Levels 4 and 5) by 2025. This number will grow to 11.8-million by 2035. Of that total, 7-million will be Level 4 and 4.8-million will be fully autonomous, Level 5 vehicles. Of the combined number, the North American market will have the largest global share, 29%, or some 3.5-million vehicles. If one takes into account the cumulative number of Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles on the road, by 2035 IHS calculates that there will be some 54-million in the world.

But all of this raises a single question: Why?

So we asked Egil Juliussen, principal analyst for infotainment and autonomous driver assistance systems, IHS Automotive, a co-author of the study. He thinks that self-driving cars are “inevitable.” And innumerate the reasons why:

1. Accident avoidance. According to Juliussen, over 90% of auto accidents are driver error. And accidents are costly: “The U.S. accident costs are in the $300-billion per year [range] or around 2% of GDP.” Self-driving cars can address this.

2. Technology. “Essentially,” he says, “the self-driving car will be the result of 50 years of driver-assist technology advances. These technologies are done at the semiconductor chip and sensor level, at the module level from the Tier 1s and others, and at the auto OEMs at the system level.” Then add in advances from other fields, like robotics and autonomous drones. (The IHS study reckons that the price premium for self-driving electronics technology will add between $7,000 and $10,000 to the price of a car in 2025, $5,000 in 2030, and $3,000 in 2035. Interestingly, because the Level 5 vehicle doesn’t have any driver controls, it is expected that it will be less costly than Level 4 systems before 2035.)

3. Market. Juliussen says there are a number of groups that would benefit from self-driving vehicles, from senior citizens to people without licenses. He adds, “There is little data on how people with driver licenses would react to self-driving cars, but most would prefer self-driving for the tedious and boring drives in traffic jams.”

One of the original telematics systems installed in vehicles, OnStar, launched in 1996 as a dealer-installed feature; the 1999 Cadillac Escalade was the first vehicle with a factory-installed system. OnStar is integrated into the vehicle’s electrical architecture. Consequently, it can allow such things as “Vehicle Slowdown,” which can be used by law enforcement personnel in case of a stolen car or other circumstances.

Given that, one of the best explana-tions as to why an embedded system can be advantageous compared to using one’s own smartphone to drive in-vehicle telematics is provided by Phil Abram, GM Chief Infotainment Officer. He—perhaps somewhat facetiously—points out, “If a thief steals your car, vehicle slowdown can’t be performed unless he steals your phone, too. Then you’d have to call him and ask him to slow down.”

It’s not that GM is only about embedding. “We fully get and support brought-in devices,” Abram says. “We were the first to offer integration of Siri Eyes Free mode last year on the Chevy Sonic and Spark. We’re working with Google and Apple on integrating brought-in devices.”

But he thinks the embedded approach is advantageous, especially as the company announced that it is bringing 4G LTE into OnStar-equipped vehicles. While Audi has announced that it is bringing 4G LTE too, Abram notes that GM is doing it across its brands, so that there will be more than 30 vehicles—low-cost and lux—so equipped, whereas Audi is starting with the A3 only.

Abram believes that vehicle con-nectivity and technology are going to be the prime differentiators, along with styling, when it comes to decisions about what vehicles to buy. He points out that not only is bad quality less of an issue than in the past, in cases where there is bad quality, the ability for people to quickly and extensively communicate on line about that makes it difficult, if not impossible for any company to keep bad quality in the market. And when it comes to fuel economy, that’s being driven by regulation, so that’s not necessarily a competitive advantage, either.

And according to the J.D. Power 2014 U.S. Avoider Study released in mid-January, the data support Abram’s contention. According to the study, having the latest tech is a key factor for those who are buying domestic vehicles, with 38% of buyers saying that it is important (vs. 33% for buyers of import buyers). It also found that 40% of former import owners switched to domestic brands because of new technology and features. According to J.D. Power research director Jon Osborn, “Domestic brands in general are carving out a niche for themselves with the latest technological features, and it appears to be getting the attention of consumers.”

Abram holds up his smartphone and points out that the way it is used is “the absolute antithesis” to the behavior that should be part of the infotainment experience in a car or truck: In order to interact with the phone it is generally necessary to look intently at the screen and make selections. He says that he has iHeartRadio on his smartphone, and that it is an app offered through OnStar, as well. “But we’ve made it an experience appropriate for a car. We ran it through our distracted driving lab and made sure that the way people interact with it meet the requirements and our guidelines in terms of distracted driving. That took a lot of work between iHeart and us because people weren’t used to writing apps for cars.”

Abram is not a GM or auto industry lifer by any means. He joined the automaker in January 2012, having spent the previous 30 years in the consumer electronics industry: prior to joining GM he was the president and COO of Sonos (sonos.com), a wireless audio company. He explains that he went to GM because he saw the intersection between the consumer electronics world and that of auto, he saw it as being at “an inflection point.” 

(An interesting note vis-à-vis how one’s point of view can change whether one is working for a tech start-up like Sonos or a consumer electronics company like Sony Electronics (where Abram was prior to Sonos) or an automaker like General Motors. “I used to say, ‘Why does it take four years to make a car? I can get a product out in eight months.’ You get here and understand that a car is one large integration of things and that if you get something wrong, it’s very bad. If you get an app bad, it’s not as consequential.”)

One of the concerns that some people in the industry have is that young people are showing a marked disinterest in driving. One of the ways that they believe they’ll be able to increase interest is through the implementation of infotainment technology. Abram says that they’ve actually got data regarding the importance of connectivity, so it isn’t a matter of belief but fact. “We introduced MyLink [in model year 2012] in a number of markets around the world.” MyLink integrates with iOS and Android devices. “We had a model mix expectation. In some markets we figured that there would be a 30% take.” It turned out that it was just the opposite: a 70% take. What’s more, he said, “There was a much younger demographic coming it.” So apparently, infotainment does work to draw in those who are driven by connectivity.

A tour de force of electronics techno-logy on the market is the Mercedes S Class. Think of it as an electronics platform that can take you from A to B in comfort and luxury and more safely than other vehicles.

The car is fitted with a forward-facing stereo camera. To provide driving comfort, the camera looks at the road surface15 meters ahead of the vehicle. This information, combined with the driving parameters, results in adjustments to the suspension accordingly.

The camera has an aperture angle of 45° and because of its stereo capability, can generate a three-dimensional view of up to about 50 meters in front of the vehicle and 500 m overall. In addition to what’s called the “Stereo Multi-Purpose Camera,” there is an array of radar sensors mounted in the front, there is a veritable radar array, with long- (200 m, 18°) and medium- (60 m, 60°) range detection. There is also radar at the rear.

What is notable about the use of these sensors is that they’re used to provide data to algorithms that perform a number of functions, like determining what is ahead of the vehicle (car, pedestrians, etc.). While this is used for adaptive cruise control, it goes beyond that as there is what Mercedes calls “Steering Assist with Stop&Go Pilot.” Based on camera data of both traffic in front and lane markings, information is sent to the electric steering system so that at speeds up to 200 km/h (124.3 mph), the appropriate steering torque is applied to keep the S Class in its lane. At speeds up to 60 km/h (37.3 mph), the vision and radar data are integrated with the control units for the engine, transmission, brakes, and steering such that the car can operate semi-autonomously, tracking a vehicle in front or following lane markings. While arguably Steering Assist would allow the driver to do little as regards steering the vehicle in order to stay in his or her lane and would adjust the speed as required pedal-free, there are sensors in the steering wheel to determine whether there are hands on the wheel and if it is determined that the driver isn’t engaged and the conditions warrant it, then warnings are provided to bring the driver’s hands back to the steering wheel. Given, however, the right conditions (e.g., driving essentially in a convoy or in stop-and-go traffic), the driver can drive in a hands-free mode. 


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