In-Car Wars and the Rise of Driverless Vehicles

January 27, 2014

Cars are fast becoming fully-fledged computers-on wheels. The rapid shrinking of technology has meant that pretty much every modern vehicle now includes a plethora of microprocessors and management units. It used to be that an Engine Control Unit (ECU) would suffice, but with car makers striving to produce smarter vehicles that double as entertainment hubs, this is no longer the case.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), an event usually reserved for technology firms, a record nine vehicle manufacturers were present. The general consensus was that the future lays in driverless cars and seamless integration between Smartphone’s, tablets and in-car software.

Google shocked everyone by announcing the Android operating system would be incorporated into the infotainment systems of 4 major manufactures. One of the four proposed companies, Audi, demonstrated that technology firsthand by using an Android tablet that integrated directly into their vehicles. We also know that Apple is desperate to get their iOS operating system into vehicles, with their new ‘iOS in the car’ initiative gathering interest from 19 car brands including Ferrari. Rather than providing native iOS software within the vehicle itself, Apple are instead choosing to implement direct access to iOS devices via the manufacturers own in-car control systems. This should, on paper, be easier than trying to convince manufacturers to adopt entirely new software within their vehicles. These are all ideas which are expected to come into fruition this year, so this isn’t exactly the near future we are talking about. This is imminent.

Forget Apple or Android, Blackberry Rule the Car Infotainment Market

blackberry logo for in-car tech article

Regardless of this, new companies such as Google and Apple face an uphill battle to crack the infotainment market. Proprietary software is still the dominant force for in-car entertainment services and the market is almost exclusively taken up by two companies, Microsoft and QNX. Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive software carries a legacy dating back to 1998, spanning over 15 car brands such as Ford, Fiat and Kia. QNX, purchased by the now-defunct Blackberry in 2010, has been around even longer and is highly regarded as one of the first commercially successful microkernel operating systems. Its initial release dates back as far as 1982, with the QNX car software said to be running in over 20 million vehicles worldwide. To reiterate, Google and Apple are the new guys in town…

This is still only half of the battle which looms over the next 5-10 years, as manufacturers not only want to make their vehicles entertaining but also intelligent. The other technology which has actually achieved limited commercial availability is driverless cars. This year, the Navia marked the first commercially available driverless vehicle which could be bought in the United States. Built by small French firm Induct, it has a limited top speed of 12.5mph and costs $250,000 (£152,000). While it may not sound that impressive in principal, it’s still a clear sign that the technology is there and mostly ready.

nissan leaf for driverless cars articleGoogle has been pouring money into the tech, recently leasing 60 acres of land in California to create a new testing ground for the service. They have long been the pioneers of said technology, but plenty of new manufacturers are emerging which aim to challenge that. Tesla are keeping their options open, testing out various in-house driverless technologies while also discussing possible partnership deals with Google. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, says that he believes cars which can achieve “over 90 percent of the driving from someone behind the wheel” will be ready within 3 years. Rather than hedging bets on fully automated cars, he believes that an assisted autopilot only needing minimal driver input is the best option. Nissan has announced they aim to offer commercially available driverless vehicles by 2020 and has since demonstrated a modified Leaf electric car that uses laser guidance systems, radar sensors and cameras to drive itself around an obstacle course. The Leaf was then given a stamp of approval by the Japanese Government who granted it a license and a commemorative ‘20-20’ number plate.

Assisted or Controlled?

General Motors are also busy working on an optional package known as ‘Super Cruise’, which uses adaptive cruise control and lane centring to allow the driver to take his hands off the wheel at motorway speeds without ending up in a flaming wreckage. Various infrared cameras scan and measure the road for potential threats, cross referencing the data with the cars GPS location. Then there is BMW, who has already famously taken their 330i ‘Track Trainer’ onto the Top Gear test track, where they allowed a stunned Jeremy Clarkson to sit in amazement as it completed a lap at high speed. Even Ford, who was initially-on the-fence about driverless technologies, is now actively scouting Standford and MIT students for more advanced driverless tech research after their self-parking technology proved successful. You have to wonder just how many more large manufacturers are going to jump on the bandwagon.

rain for driverless car articleStill, even with all this we are only touching the surface of how our driving experiences could differ in the next decade. Realistically, it’s doubtful that driverless technology will take the world by storm anytime soon. Most driverless technologies, Google included, still can’t handle bad weather scenarios. Those that can, need even more sensors and hence raise the cost even further. It’s more likely that the lessons learned from this technology will be filtered into new driver aids that aim to help the driver rather than take complete control. As for in-car entertainment, it seems like a natural progression to integrate popular mobile operating systems into vehicles, but car markets are far more than just the entertainment in your centre console. When purchasing a phone, the operating system is usually a major selling point. With cars however, the entertainment factor is only a very small piece of a much bigger puzzle. People don’t buy cars just because they run Android.

Written by Tom Wellburn

Cover photo attribution: Nerds On Call

Blackberry logo attribution: in30minutes.com

Nissan leaf attribution: Janitors

Rain on window attribution:  ultimatekldevil