The automotive industry today is on the border of total transformation. Just ahead lies digitalization, which promises to change everything for automotive technology, just as it did for mobile and the internet. Yet change alone can’t erase the worst pain point automakers endure: a 3- to 6-year lag from design to implementation, even as technology speeds from one innovation to the next. Innovation is leaving production in the dust.
Luckily, we’re on the verge of a new paradigm that will indeed change everything. Currently, every new feature added to a vehicle must be integrated separately, with its own software. Sensor technology combines the integration of every new feature into a single software upgrade, replacing multiple updates – and the gap between technology and production narrows down to months, not years.
A powerful sensing platform could even speed the time to market for the most dramatic development yet in automotive history – the autonomous vehicle.
A History of Innovation
The automobile has always been “a nexus for invention after invention,” James O’Brien writes, from electric starters (1911) to power steering (1956) and on-board diagnostics (1994). Today’s innovations feature the complex electronics found in safety-focused ADAS, adaptive cruise control and entertainment systems integrated with personal digital devices.
Nearly 60% of U.S. consumers value innovation, BCG research finds, while some 85% of automotive and technology companies make innovation a top priority. Plenty of new capabilities await car shoppers in 2019, among them automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warnings and exit warnings to protect cyclists.
But automakers still must grapple with “the distance between technical promise and genuine achievement,” Harvard Business Review writes. “For all the dollars spent by American companies on R&D, there often remains a persistent and troubling gap between the inherent value of the technology they develop and their ability to put it to work effectively.”
In-Cabin Sensors—a New Frontier
In-cabin sensors represent a new frontier in automotive technology. Implementing new capabilities through existing sensors, rather than adding new sensors and software, is a major leap forward. The dedicated sensors on a steering wheel, for example, could be used to introduce new functions without the complexity and cost of adding new hardware to the steering wheel. Or, interior lighting could automatically adjust to the environment (turning on headlights and brightening dashboard lights in a tunnel, say), without adding sensors to the dashboard. Sensors already installed to monitor seatbelts and airbags could do the job. In effect, sensor technology future-proofs car makers for five to ten years.
Even more significantly, interior sensors generate abundant data on driver behavior. Until now, cameras and sensors (lidar, for instance) were focused outside the car only, providing insight into the vehicle’s operation – not driver and passenger behavior. Now we can know whether the driver’s eyes are on the road and hands on the wheel, a depth of data never before available to automakers. With this perspective on in-cabin reality, automakers have advanced tools for implementing new capabilities more rapidly, enhancing the user experience and improving safety.
Lower Costs, Greater Control
Sensor technology results in remarkable savings. A car fully loaded with high-end features costs approximately $400 more per car to produce. Since sensors eliminate the need to implement each feature separately, they drop the cost to $150, a $250 saving per car. For some companies, that amounts to saving more than $2.5 billion a year.
At a strategic level, replacing many sensors with one multiple-purpose sensor ends the automaker’s dependence on various suppliers, thus returning control to them. Access to in-cabin data offers opportunities for monetization and building new revenue streams as well. Overall, in-cabin sensing represents a growth area for the industry.
What’s more, sensors could shrink the years-long gap between the dawn of an innovation and the day it’s actually powering cars.
The Power to Save Lives
Sensor technology serves another, larger purpose: saving lives. Automobile fatality rates in the U.S. dropped steadily from 2006 to 2011 (from 42,708 to 32, 479 deaths) and, after a 2.6% spike in 2012, declined again in 2013 and 2014. Sadly, fatalities increased once again in 2015 and 2016, by 6.5%. The downward trend resumed in 2017, decreasing 2% from the 2016 rate. Still, 37,133 died tragically that year.
NHTSA calls distracted driving a major factor in crashes, along with speeding and driving under the influence. With in-cabin sensors, driver-centered alerts and automatic driver assistance can counteract drivers who text and talk on the road.
A Matter of Time
Car buyers are technology users accustomed to fast-moving change. It’s likely they’ll applaud when implementation and production start catching up with the flow of new ideas. Imagine waking up in the morning to find that your car has acquired some new capabilities overnight. That’s a dream destined to come true.
As for the industry’s most exciting advance – autonomous vehicles – the technologies they require already exist for the most part. But they’re far from production-ready. “We need at least one more generation of some perception sensors,” predicts Walter Sullivan, head of innovation and incubation at Elektrobit. That remains to be seen. In any case, technology will take us there one day. It’s only a matter of time.
Gil Dotan is CEO of Guardian Optical Technologies.