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Qualcomm and the Promise and Problems with Autonomous Electric Future Cars

Several companies I work with help develop the automotive cockpit of the future. And it is clear; these booths will evolve a lot over the next ten years. Much of this evolution will be related to the changing nature of the driver – from always busy to occasionally engaged to never engaged as we develop cars into autonomous vehicles. Several new issues will crop up, making it increasingly risky to buy a pre-autonomous driving car, as you may not be able to sell it once autonomous driving reaches critical mass.

What got me thinking was a presentation from Qualcomm about their car cabin of the future. This update was also on their extensive program of helping cars evolve into autonomous vehicles coming later in the decade. The nice thing about Qualcomm’s approach is that they license them en masse, which means that – as with smartphones – they are in a much better position to drive and benefit from this transition than those who don’t.

Car cabin of the future

You like displays more because we’ll be up to our armpits for future cars. Virtually every company working on the future booth is talking about multiple displays, more elaborate displays, and even turning the windows into displays.

If you had asked me last year, I would have said that virtual buttons on the screen would replace physical buttons. However, the Ford Mach-e’s success and its physical buttons suggest that this won’t be the case for many cars.

Sensors in the car will go beyond what we have today to monitor alertness initially. Still, they will likely evolve into monitoring for health and health events such as stroke or heart attacks that can disable or kill the driver. Conversational AI (artificial intelligence) is improving to the extent that it should allow us to have conversations with our car to pass the time before the end of the decade. If you want to get a feel for how similar technology works today, follow this link to a video demonstrating Amazon Echo’s conversation mode. I’ve used it myself, and it’s much better than I thought it would be.

Other improvements include better sound management that can use active noise cancellation with sound generation to either create a better sound experience for in-car entertainment or tailor the car’s audio personality to your needs. For example, you can give your car a turbine engine sound or a steam train engine sound and broadcast that sound externally for effect. Considering how quiet electric cars are and how often people accidentally look at their phones, this should quickly move from an option to a requirement.

Over time, the cab will evolve from the driving-oriented designs that are now popular, to a more rolling living room design that is more suitable when it primarily drives itself. It gets a lot better to sleep in the car.

That’s all great, but I’m more concerned that we’re not adequately addressing the issues with the upcoming shift to self-driving electric vehicles.

Problems with the transition of vehicles

As we convert or eliminate gas stations over the next decade, ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars are also likely to become increasingly difficult to sell. This problem is in addition to the typical problems of converting a gas station to something else, thanks to the buried and toxic gas retention tanks. And today’s electricity may not be much better, as most today cannot handle the more advanced charging solutions, let alone tomorrow’s more powerful versions. For example, my 2019 electric Jaguar I-Pace can only handle a 100 kW direct charger, but new chargers deliver up to 4.5 times that charge level. The capacity of battery technology is expected to double in the next five years, potentially rendering existing cars obsolete. In fact, robotic chargers are arriving, which, to operate, may require a level of charging port standardization (like opening and closing an automatic loader door) and placement that we don’t have yet.

These problems are in addition to Elon Musk’s damage to the demand for autonomous cars. By convincing people, its current technology can be used for hands-free driving when not nearly ready, resulting in many avoidable deaths. Even Consumer Reports, which is constantly highlighting the security concerns with the technology, has asked him to rename the feature until it works as an autopilot, and he has refused. Currently, Musk is arguably doing more damage to the future demand for autonomous cars than anyone else. For me, and apparently for others, his behavior turns into useful negligence.

Wrap up: wonderful and difficult times are coming

We often get overly enthusiastic about new technology and ignore many of the critical and painful issues it takes to make it successful. On the positive side, the cars that come by 2030 should be much cleaner, much safer and much more reliable than today’s cars. But these huge differences bring problems because they require huge changes. These changes include how we fuel them, the amount of electrical power we generate, and how liability is assigned in an accident (making it currently unlikely that we will ever have a level 5 car or that city services will talk to cars).

There is a fantastic future in the automotive industry, but we are far from ready for it. That could be a problem for the rollout of new car technology, and for what we’re doing with the huge number of cars that are likely to become obsolete quickly. In short, we would need to model a lot more of this coming future to make sure that the buyers and the ecosystems around these fantastic new cars are both ready and able to make this massive hub.

Back to Qualcomm, thanks to their experience with smartphones and related regulations, they are arguably best positioned to guide their customers towards a safer, more complete and financially successful future for autonomous cars.

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