DX Week Visionaries: Driverless, Autonomous Vehicles Promise a More Mobile Future


No matter how far digital technologies evolve in creating virtual spaces where people learn, interact, and conduct commerce, we will forever need to get from one place to another using one or more modes of transport to meet our daily needs. Our fundamental need to move goods and people places an even greater premium on mobility as the world undergoes widespread digital transformation. The fifth and final session of TDK Ventures Digital Transformation Week (DX Week) explored the opportunities and challenges inherent in creating efficient, seamless, safe, and environmentally sustainable mobility.

Moderator Andrew Maywah, a TDK Ventures investment director, opened the session by observing that “the movement of people and goods from one place to another provides access to jobs, education, healthcare, and trade across the globe. Cutting-edge innovations in areas such as autonomous vehicles, electrification, wireless connectivity, drones, and shared mobility are creating opportunities to transform mobility by enabling innovative business models in addition to safer and more efficient mobility services for new and changing customer demographics.”

He invited the panelists, mobility experts from the worlds of academia, investing, aerial, electric, and autonomous vehicles, and vehicle guidance, navigation, and control for their predictions of the most impactful innovation to be realized within five years.

Ain McKendrick, founder and CEO of Faction, kicked off the discussion by defining terms. He said “driverless vehicles” are “what everyone is looking for when you think of a commercial application” such as delivering goods to a home or business. Development of fully autonomous vehicles, however, requires far more open-ended artificial intelligence research. He said his company works to develop commercially viable driverless vehicles.

“We do autonomy coupled with teleoperation, where a human can assist these vehicles,” he said. “This is how we will get fleets on the road in the next couple of years, as opposed to waiting for the next AI breakthrough.

He said self-driving will alleviate logistical challenges around shared vehicles and digital vehicle architecture.

“It’s about right-sizing the technology to the applications or the problems we are trying to solve. We need to get self-driving out of being a research project and into a product,” he said. “How to you move forward? That’s the kind of challenge we’re trying to tackle.”

Maha Achour, founder and CEO of Metawave Corp., said she is an early adopter of self-driving vehicles and has been disappointed in their “autopilot” features “because the driver needs always to hold the steering wheel and is always liable.”

She cited Daimler/Mercedes Benz’s willingness to accept liability for the Drive Pilot feature in its new electric vehicles (EVs). For her, only companies that follow suit deserve to have their cars described as “self-driving.”

“Who is going to be paying for it?” Achour asked. “Does the responsibility fall on the service provider, the component provider, the [automaker]? There will be a lot of consolidation across the value chain to deliver self-driving but it’s going to happen.”

McKendrick said this level of autonomy implies cars that are “making AI decisions, careening through downtown San Francisco, and differentiating between children and pigeons. That’s a research project that’s going to be going on for a long time. But if you can deliver a driverless experience with a combination of the technologies we have today — robotic driving, safety systems, [advanced driver assistance systems] — you can bring that experience to market in two to five years.”

Logistics, value chain, and scalability issues abound on the road to fully autonomous vehicles, said Linh Pham, CEO of Vin Energy Solutions and deputy CEO of VinFast, which develops EVs and the batteries to power them.

“There are challenges with data sets. It’s expensive. You need time to collect it, to train it, to validate it, and it has to be exhaustive enough to ensure safety,” she said. “Also, the redundancy, the safety system, how you deal with complicated and sometimes expensive sensors, the architecture, validation efforts.”

Sara Jones, senior vice president at New Vista Capital, picked up the safety thread, asking what level of safety is acceptable and how the industry will self-police in the absence of a regulatory framework. She cited the tie-in between development OEMs’ upfront development costs for safety measures and the backend benefit for achieving a strong safety record. She turned the discussion to a comparison of ground and aerial vehicle safety measures and concerns.

Florian Holzapfel, professor in the Department of Aerospace and Geodesy and director of the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at the Technical University of Munich, responded that functionality proofs in aviation require deterministic verification path while “more and more of those functions become non-deterministic because the state spaces are exploding and there is more interaction with the environment. This is an area where aerospace will be able to learn from automotive.

Pham expressed that chassis-up design and engineering are fundamental to the industry’s development.

“It is crucial for any EV to take that approach in building their brand name and quality, efficient products,” she said. “At VinFast, we are working on a smart electric vehicle, and for use digital design goes into the whole architecture of the batteries and the vehicle itself. We spend a lot of time looking into autonomy. We used to debate internally which direction we should take. Even though we’re crazy about technology, not just autonomy, but we spent a lot of time and investment in developing our autonomous vehicles.”

In the end, Pham said, VinFast determined to focus on building “small, practical products that can be enjoyed by customers comfortably. It’s not that we don’t believe in scalability; we’re working on it. But we feel that there are so many challenges and things we have to watch out for — safety, liability, dealing with different markets at the same time — that (driverless vehicles) will be materialized, just not in the near term. Our use case is different. For passenger cars, it’s going to be much more complicated. Redundancy has to be very sophisticated. In our opinion, radar is very important, but it’s not sufficient. It depends on the type of experiences you want to give your customers. For example, we believe in auto-parking and believe ultrasonic technology and cameras are still very much in play, as well.”

The Day 5 discussion continued with a focus on air taxis, safety, energy sustainability, and sensors, and what panelists believe will disrupt the mobility market over the next decade. We will recap those insights in future articles.

The discussion of mobility issues as contributors to the world’s digital transformation provided a fitting conclusion to TDK Ventures’ wildly successful DX Week. Like its previous Energy Week forum, TDK presented DX Week to stimulate discussion and provide valuable information for innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs as they accept the challenge of making mobility safer, faster, and more accessible.

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