Ericsson – The Seductiveness of Autonomous Vehicles


In the classic auto racing movie “Days Of Thunder,” Tom Cruise says to Robert Duvall, “Stock cars are built to run equal. – I won’t be beaten by a car. – Only by a driver.” Well, what if they are all self-driving cars?

Are we going to forsake one of America’s most popular sports (auto racing), along with driving tests, speeding tickets and other ingrained aspects of culture that all revolve around driving cars and other vehicles?

The Glide Path Towards Autonomous Vehicles

We ask this question seriously because we have come to believe over the past several months that we are on a pretty rapid glide path towards autonomous vehicles.

The U.S. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) defines the path to self-driving vehicles as having five levels – from No-Automation (Level 0) to Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4). Others use a six-level breakdown.

This might suggest that the progress to full automation is going to proceed one level or stage at a time. However, we believe there is likely to be a more mixed picture and that the process will evolve fairly quickly.

Are Governments Buying In?

Part of our conclusion is based on the enthusiasm of a number of governments for the concept of autonomous vehicles. Advocates of self-driving cars are constantly complaining and cajoling governments for not doing more to accelerate advancement and adoption of the changes.

However, a good example is the government of the Netherlands which is seeking to take the leadership in vehicle automation, including cars and trucks. They have apparently completely bought in to the need for self-driving and claim a number of benefits from automation, including:

  • Fewer tailbacks (i.e. traffic backups or congestion);
  • Fewer accidents (90% of which they state are due to human error);
  • Less fuel and lower emissions.

While the U.S. government is widely criticized as the least supportive of self-driving vehicles, we note the following recent developments:

  • In January, the Obama administration proposed spending $4 billion of the 2016 budget on development of self-driving vehicles.
  • In early 2016, NHTSA announced that it would “propose best-practice guidance” for “safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles,” i.e., Level 4.
  • On March 17, 2016 NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced an agreement with 20 automakers (over 99% of the U.S. market) to provide emergency braking which overrides driver action, as a standard feature by 2022.

How Long Before We Have Self-Driving Vehicles?

There are differences of opinion as to how long it will take for self-driving vehicles to proliferate. Some say, not until the 2040-50 period (e.g “Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions”, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 12/15). Elon Musk, in contrast, recently said, “We’re going to end up with complete autonomy, and I think we will have complete autonomy in approximately two years.” (“Elon Musk Says Tesla Vehicles Will Drive Themselves in Two Years” Fortune, 12/21/15.).

While the push towards autonomous vehicles goes on, other related developments are the increased mobile and cloud capabilities associated with vehicles and the growth of “ride-sharing” and “car-sharing.”

Ericsson’s Move Into Automotive

We spoke about some of these issues and the path to autonomous vehicles with Mike Kaul, Vice President, Head of IoT Software Solutions at Ericsson. Traditionally one of the world’s leading telecom equipment and services providers, Ericsson has broadened its scope, with business segments in: Transport, Media, Utilities and Public Safety and acquisitions in deep cloud analytics and other areas.

Kaul told us its automotive clients include Volvo, Porsche and Mercedes. “We’re taking data from the car and pushing data to the car,” he explained, “and looking for how to improve network coverage to the car and to improve the speed and efficiency of data delivery and transmission.”

“Connected Vehicle Cloud” – The In-Car Experience

Ericsson is seeking to combine various aspects of the driver’s and passengers’ experience, including personalization, identity and network awareness on an open platform that it calls its Connected Vehicle Cloud. “We can add useful applications from other parties,” he pointed out.

For example, Ericsson will deliver information, and capabilities such as conferencing and e-commerce, as well as knowledge of points of interest to the driver.

Ericsson and MIT – “Identity” and Other Key Issues

Ericsson recently announced a partnership with MIT’s System Design & Management (SDM) program, in which MIT grad students will be assisting in the design of Ericsson’s in-car “identity” technology. Kaul explains that the company is dealing with all of the issues from security to awareness to preferences of the individual. “We want to know, in a secure way that it is ‘you’ who is operating the vehicle. Then we can activate your preferences, which can include information, entertainment, points of interest, such as where you like to get your gas, etc.,” he states.

Kaul feels that the major needs, as far as technology goes, are improving the speed of data transfer between vehicles and the cloud; resolving issues as to what information is on the platform and what is on the device, the “device” being the vehicle; information security; and faster analytics. He believes that progress is being made in these areas and points to young Silicon Valley companies that are working on the data transfer issues. He also believes that AI (artificial intelligence) will have an increased role in the autonomous vehicle.

Self-Driving: From Trucks to Cars – Timing

When and how do we get to fully autonomous vehicles? Kaul had some interesting suggestions. He believes that fully autonomous driving will arrive “in segments.” As an example, he mentions a part of an individual’s daily commute.

We also raised the prospect that autonomous driving moves more quickly in the commercial trucking area. The argument for automating trucks is primarily an economic one. A recent article in Forbes stated, “Driver-free trucks and locomotives will soon become an economic imperative for freight railroads and motor carriers, changing the economics of shipping.” (“Self-Driving Trucks Could Rewrite The Rules For Transporting Freight,” Forbes 12/8/15). The first self-driving truck was introduced on a highway in Germany by Daimler in October 2015.

Kaul allowed that that might be very logical and offered that perhaps we could see a segment of an interstate where autonomous driving is approved during certain hours, say 12:00-4:00 AM when the road is dominated by trucks.

As for timing, Kaul offered that by 2018 he would expect segments of highways in Europe to be designated to permit autonomous vehicles. He felt it would likely take until 2020 for this to happen in the U.S. However, by 2025 he expects the autonomous driving area to “break open.”

As for the role of governments, he echoes the comments of most suppliers. “Governments will have to move along a lot faster,” he states.

Note: Vehicle Automation: From Level 0 to Level 4

Following is the U.S. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) definition of the five levels of vehicle automation.

No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.

Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.

Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.

Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.

Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

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