Manufacturers join hi-tech race to stay ahead

It's not just about having the car keys. There are now up to 70 small computers controlling functions in modern cars.

It's not just about having the car keys. There are now up to 70 small computers controlling functions in modern cars.

In a live address at the Wall Street Journal's WSJD Live event in California last week, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, made the ears of large car company executives prick up.

"It would seem like there will be massive change in that industry," Cook said.

"When I look at the automobile, what I see is that software becomes an increasingly important part of the car of the future. You see that autonomous driving becomes much more important."

What Cook said is familiar to anyone following the car industry - massive changes are already here.

You may have witnessed the transformation of the car into a more automated version of itself - intelligent parking assistants, in-car Wi-Fi hotspots and self-steering capabilities are all commonplace in high-end cars like the BMW 7 Series.

But the very core of the car, under the bonnet, has been profoundly transformed. Your car is no longer a mechanical vehicle, it is now a complex mega-computer.

"There are up to 70 small computers in a car, controlling different functions from brakes to acceleration, to the way the engine works, to door locks, "infotainment" systems, instrument clusters, radio - all these systems need a computer to work," said Luis Gargate, a computational physicist and business development manager at Critical Software, a Portuguese company that develops safety systems for cars, the railways and spacecraft.

"When you press the accelerator or brakes on a car, there's software in the loop that will brake your wheel. If it fails, it can be catastrophic because your car might be unable to stop."

If you layer on new systems required for self-driving cars - radars, Lidar (radar technology that uses light), cameras, sensors and memory to process the data from these sensors - cars are becoming one of the most sophisticated machines to have ever existed.

To put this in context: Apollo 11, the spaceship that took humans to the Moon, had 145,000 lines of computer code. The Large Hadron Collider has 50 million. The Android operating system has 12 million. A modern car: about 100 million lines of code.

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Connectivity and automation is the inevitable next step for automobiles. "The car has evolved so much comfort, that this is what customers now demand," said Gavin Ward, spokesman for BMW UK.

Apple has hired several car experts, while Uber has opened a robotics centre in Pittsburgh.

And Google's self-driving cars had driven over one million miles as of June this year. Autonomous driving software has existed for many years now outside the car industry.

A space satellite navigates itself in outer space and communicates with Earth independently. Aeroplanes, too, can land automatically on certain runways in good weather conditions.

The problem with cars is that the environment they are in is far more complex, with much more chance of human error.

"Companies like Tesla and Google can do this to some extent. They've proven the concept of driverless cars, but it is known that these systems are not fail-safe yet. You still need a driver to sit there and react if something goes wrong," Gargate said.

He has adapted stress test software originally used on the European Space Agency's Sentinel 1 satellite for carmakers like Volkswagen, Audi, Daimler and Mercedes.

The BMW 7 series uses head-up displays that fighter pilots use.

"We have a 40GB hard drive in this car just for the entertainment system," Ward, of BMW, said.

Traditional car companies, including BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Audi and Ford, are all investing heavily.

"Jaguar Land Rover has a software operation in Silicon Valley, they don't have the expertise in-house and face huge engineering challenges, so they are having to look outside the boundaries for innovation," said Prof David Bailey, a car industry expert from Aston University.

Mike Bell, global connected car director at Jaguar Land Rover concurs. "The biggest change is that we are taking greater responsibility for the software that operates in key areas - such as connectivity, infotainment and advanced driver-assistance systems - as a core commodity rather than purely sourcing electronic control units (ECUs) as a black box," he said.

General Motors will test driverless cars in Detroit next year, and Ford has opened a research centre in Silicon Valley.

Audi demonstrated its R8 e-tron piloted-driving, technical concept car, which has partial autonomous capabilities, at CES in Asia in May. Audi sees its car as a mobile device that lets its users "always remain online".

Its focus is on connectivity: how to programme your car to stream Spotify, run Netflix and call emergency services through Wi-Fi if you crash.

"Technically [BMW] could release our driverless cars now. We have tested them in Munich where the human engineer is completely passive, like a passenger," said Ward. "It's just a question of customer acceptance and legislation. We're a global car company, so there are a lot of legal challenges ahead."

Will the incumbents still exist, as cars become the domain of software engineers, rather than mechanical ones? Or be completely supplanted by the likes of nimble Tesla and giants such as Apple?

BMW's Ward says, bring on the competition. "We see Apple and Google as welcome competition, the motorcar revolution needs new blood, it stimulates the creativity of our engineers," he said.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler, agreed, speaking at Ferrari's public offering last week.

"Whether it is the Google car [or] the Apple car, this notion we are seeing with autonomous driving and assisted driving is going to change the traditional nature of carmaking," he told CNBC. "This industry in general has to open up to disruptors.

"I think we have been late to the party."


 - The Telegraph, London


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