Vehicle autonomy is a hot topic at MWC this year. An Intel insider has suggested that full vehicle autonomy could be achieved by 2020, but the consensus here seems to be that it’s a still a decade or longer away.
For the mobile industry gathered in Barcelona, there are a lot of questions to be asked at this point in the development of the connected car. Like, do we even want full vehicular autonomy? Peugeot say yes, and see a future in which driving could even be a crime. BMW meanwhile can’t conceive that people won’t continue to want to drive, and the questions are about when, and in what circumstances, people will choose to ‘co-pilot’ rather than take the wheel themselves.
Underlying those distinctions is a difference of attitude. Is driving just a skill that can become redundant like growing your own food when it can be bought in the supermarket, or is the driving experience so compelling that people won’t want to relinquish it? If most people decide that driving is a redundant skill, then the future for big car brands could be in question, at least in their current form.
What’s certain is that connectivity is part of the automotive future. Ford and Seat are both keen on the use of phone-based apps to enhance the driving experience. Most Fords already make use of them, and the company’s vision is of them all becoming voice-activated. There’s also the potential for integration with IOT applications – if it’s cold going back home, get your car to tell the house to put the heating on.
Autonomy is going to be incremental – the issue is just how far it goes. Qualcomm foresee regular drives such as school runs being programmable, while one-off events such as a weekend trip to the zoo are driver-controlled. They’re working with TomTom to improve real-time updating of maps. That’s one way to deal with the situation – we looked at the data and invested in Five AI, whose solution is a machine learning based approach to real-time mapping of road conditions in the here and now. Others are looking to embrace pre-existing maps, but then have the challenge of dealing with the present moment – HP is providing a data platform for BMW and VW with this intent. As was pointed out to me, the challenge will be to develop an AI smart enough to spot situations like a pedestrian stepping into the road.
Whatever happens, infrastructure investment is going to be an issue. Most involved see full autonomy as being reliant on 5G, which will enable cars to communicate with each other and with street furniture such as traffic lights and street lamps. Intel and BMW are keen on this direction, and demonstrated a 5G-enabled BMW at the conference. But such a development is dependent on government investment which may not keep pace with the industry’s needs.
As an investor then, Amadeus is taking a close look at companies that will bridge the gap before full autonomy is possible. The connected car, where entertainment and IOT applications are enabled for drivers and passengers, is the first port of call. The driverless future remains a way in the distance until 5G becomes a standard part of the urban environment.
Amelia Armour is the EIS Investment Manager in the Early Stage Funds at Amadeus Capital. She is based in Cambridge, UK.