Robo-taxis are coming – from suppliers, too

It’s no surprise these days to hear the CEO of an automaker talk about building a fleet of autonomous robo-taxis to move people around congested urban centers. Daimler, Renault-Nissan, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. all have said they are working on self-driving vehicles for ride-hailing services.
Now, Tier 1 suppliers are flexing their muscles in the robo-taxi world, with Continental even building an autonomous shuttle to move workers around the German giant’s sprawling campus here. The CUbE — a rectangular block of a vehicle — runs on electric motors and arrives on command from a smartphone app. Trials began this year.
But Continental isn’t eyeing a future where it produces fleets of the CUbE shuttle for customers.
“We are not an OEM — we don’t want to be an OEM,” said Alfred Eckert, director of advanced technology in Continental’s chassis and safety division.
Instead, Continental’s investment in the robo-taxi space is about opportunity. Autonomous-driving technology is about to explode in growth, and suppliers aim to grab a significant chunk of the business. Experiments in self-driving technology are rolling out at a rapid pace. Automakers and suppliers are teaming up in new collaborations. The flurry of investment suggests that these companies believe the day a self-driving pod shows up on a consumer’s doorstep for a trip to the airport is fast approaching.
$35 billion
Continental executives say supplying autonomous technology has huge market potential.

Degenhart: “Growing fast”

“Radar and camera systems, evaluation electronics, driver-assistance systems — we are growing fast with solutions for assisted driving and are paving the way for automated driving,” Continental CEO Elmar Degenhart said at the Frankfurt auto show in September. He had just shown reporters a video of him taking the CUbE shuttle across Continental’s campus.
That potential has Continental making serious investments to position itself for the growth. In July, Continental bought a minority stake in French autonomous driving company EasyMile. Continental’s CUbE test vehicle is based on an EasyMile shuttle. In 2016, Continental acquired the lidar business of California company Advanced Scientific Concepts Inc.
“By 2025, we expect a global market for automated-driving technology that is worth more than $35 billion — twice as much as for 2020,” Degenhart said. “Our share of the market for assisted driving alone is already around 15 percent. We see more clear potential here.”
Many of the industry’s top suppliers are jumping on board. Delphi — which plans to spin off its self-driving technology business into a company called Aptiv next year — is experimenting with an autonomous commercial taxi service in France and Singapore. This year, Robert Bosch said it will work with Daimler on a self-driving car partnership focused on speeding the production of robo-taxis.
Working together
Collaboration seems to be a key principle of autonomous driving advancement. In addition to the Daimler-Bosch tie-up, BMW is forging its own partnerships to develop an autonomous driving platform to be the foundation of its iNEXT vehicle planned for 2021. Continental and Delphi joined the BMW collaboration this year.
BMW can’t do everything alone, said Elmar Frickenstein, senior vice president of autonomous driving for BMW Group. That’s why the automaker invited Continental and Delphi — “the experts on the first-tier side,” Frickenstein said — to join its project. BMW expects Continental to share its knowledge in the areas of sensors, motion control, actuators and simulation.
And Continental will benefit in return.
“For them, it is helpful to join the cooperation [so] that they are able to have a full-blown offer to different other OEMs,” Frickenstein said. “They can invest on one side and sell it to different others.”
The expertise Continental is demonstrating with the CUbE project is a key reason BMW chose the supplier to join its platform development project, Frickenstein said. With BMW and partner Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, suppliers such as Continental and Delphi and technology partners Intel and Mobileye pooling their knowledge, he said, it becomes possible to create a scalable autonomous driving platform by the 2021 time frame that BMW has set for iNEXT.
Continental gave reporters a spin in the CUbE — the Continental Urban Mobility Experience — at the Frankfurt campus.
Andree Hohm, head of Continental’s self-driving car project, summoned the cheerful orange-and-black shuttle with his smartphone. The vehicle glides quietly along before easing to a stop and opening its doors. An external display can communicate to passengers or pedestrians.
Inside are six seats in an open cabin surrounded by large windows. An LED halo circling the passenger area can inform passengers of driving activities. There is no driver’s seat, steering wheel or pedals. Instead, a bank of displays and controls run behind one set of seats where the driver would be in a conventional vehicle.
Continental’s Frankfurt location includes roads with cross-traffic and typical city infrastructure: street signs, pedestrian crossings and curbs. It’s an ideal place — complex and therefore realistic — to test the array of self-driving technology in the CUbE.
Many of the CUbE’s systems are based on driver-assistance systems and sensors already being used in some of today’s production vehicles. But the vehicle also is a test bed for new technologies such as laser sensors and for protocols and algorithms to safely handle out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.
Coming to market
Hohm expects the first real-world applications for a self-driving shuttle will be in private locations — places such as airports, industrial plants and theme parks. The company expects to bring to market technology to support such uses in 2018, Hohm said, though initially it would be on a small scale.
Self-driving technology will come to market in two significant ways, Hohm said: the evolutionary integration of autonomous features into conventional vehicles that are privately owned and fleets of fully automated robo-taxis.
Continental’s approach is to be ready to supply both.
The technologies developed in the CUbE project can be used for conventional vehicles, too, Hohm said. Continental has spent several years working on that approach. In the U.S., Germany, Japan and China, the company has a fleet of vehicles outfitted with what Continental calls its Cruising Chauffeur function, which allows automated highway driving and will be ready for production in 2020.
Continental’s vision is to cover more and more of the technology puzzle pieces that go into autonomous driving and ensure they work together seamlessly, Hohm said. Continental can then offer automakers as much or as little of the technology as they want.
“There are customers who just want to buy a single component and make the whole architecture combination by themselves,” Hohm said. “Or you have customers who are not as interested in technology. They just want to say, ‘Hey, if I can buy your solution like a one-stop shop, I will do it.’ We are trying to be flexible.”
Fuente: Automotive News