Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen Tout Plans to Add Connectivity and Autonomy to the Family Car

Connected cars have become an extension of the smart home, but OEMs are now focused on a far bigger tech challenge: enabling autonomous driving.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

On Tuesday, Gill Pratt, TRI's CEO, revealed two of the 30 research projects the two labs are planning—both with curious names that Pratt cheekily said "only a genius professor could dream up." The first, called Uncertainty on Uncertainty, aims to crack one of the trickiest logic problems autonomous cars face: how to react to unexpected events. In describing this, he explained that a car, bicycle or other object veering into an autonomous car's path is, to some degree, an expectable event, insofar as the vehicle can be programmed to respond to the predictable series of events that would come next. But what if, for example, a truck traveling in front of an autonomous car were to lose part of its load? The resulting debris could break into smaller pieces and occupy a compact or very large area in the roadway.

The second project, dubbed The Car Can Explain, is a bit more esoteric. "We can't trust what we can't understand," Pratt said, by way of introducing this project's goal, which is to essentially translate software-based decisions that an autonomous vehicle makes into text that its driver can readily understand.

The BUDDe's dashboard includes connectivity to smart-home devices.
These projects might seem far removed from the sensors that control autonomous vehicles, but they reflect the importance of the millions of lines of code that are the true brains behind driverless cars.

Volkswagen Unveils BUDDe Concept Microbus
Early on Tuesday, Panasonic announced that it is bringing back a long-beloved product: the Technics turntable. Tuesday night, Volkswagen rolled out its own blast from the past: the highly anticipated electric version of the VW microbus. Dubbed BUDDe, this is only a concept vehicle, but it is being imagined with a long list of IoT features, including connectivity to smart-home devices. Such connectivity will essentially turn the van's large digital infotainment screen into an extension of the smart-home interface. From the vehicle, a driver will be able to adjust the home's temperature, view any alerts generated by the home's connected security camera, or see who is ringing the connected doorbell—all without having to dig for his or her smartphone.

It will take a pretty novel approach to infotainment as well, Herbert Diess, VW's chairman of passenger cars, told CES attendees. As riders enter the vehicle, the bus will wirelessly connect with each person's mobile device (perhaps via a Bluetooth connection, though he did not specify this). Then, using a special app, each rider will build a playlist for the trip based on the music in that person's phone or tablet, while a large digital display in the back of the vehicle will present photos.

CES Car Computer News
VW and General Motors both announced partnerships with Mobileye, an Amsterdam-based company that uses input from car-mounted cameras to create a highly detailed map of the roadway—based not just on lane markers, which is what semi-autonomous cars currently do, but on actual imagery of the road. These images are uploaded to Mobileye's servers via a cellular link inside the vehicle. With a critical mass of cars carrying these cameras and recording the roadway, Mobileye will create and continually update vision-based maps that should enable fully autonomous operation of vehicles.

Autonomous cars will also need especially robust computing power to operate safely, and on Monday night, Nvidia kicked off CES by announcing its latest automotive offering, the Drive PX 2. The liquid-cooled computer sports 12 CPU cores and four Nvidia-branded Pascal GPU chips. This computing power matches that of 150 MacBook Pro computers, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang told attendees.

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