Autonomous Cars Have Far-Reaching Impacts

Beyond the obvious technical impacts of autonomous vehicles, the impacts on society are still being explored.


Within the semiconductor ecosystem, autonomous vehicle technology is already having a gigantic impact as far as chip and tool development, education about what this all means, new relationships and partnerships — among other things that hit closer to home such as how autonomous vehicles will impact our professional and personal lives.

Sundari Mitra, CEO of NetSpeed Systems has been closely observing the changes. About five years ago, when the automotive ecosystem was just starting to talk about why autonomous vehicles are needed, she recalls hearing some statistics on vehicle usage including the percentage of people in the US who own their own vehicles, the percentage of use of those vehicles in cities, and while they are being used, what percentage of the time are they sitting in traffic, and what percentage of the time are they actually roaming around looking for parking – all in the context of Uber just getting rolling.

“Why do people need to own cars when, A) they don’t use it all of the time, B) they keep getting stuck in traffic, and C) when they do manage to make it to the city they spend a lot of time trying to find parking? The statistics were startling. Almost 30% of the time, people are just driving around trying to find parking,” she said. “When this was going on the thought that occurred to me was, today it is about Uber but tomorrow it is going to be about something else: It’s going to be about cars that don’t even need a driver. This is essentially transportation becoming like a service pretty much like a public transport today.”

The question of whether to own your own vehicle is going to become reality – and likely sooner for some than others where infrastructure is already in place. “I wasn’t sure whether was going to take 20 or 40 years but I knew it was going to happen but what I’ve been surprised by is the rapidity with which it is coming at us,” Mitra said.

There is really no argument anymore that this is true, with autonomous cars and automotive in general everywhere you turn. When Mitra herself was working on automotive silicon, “this was way back when the qualification cycles to get into an automotive ASIC used to take 7, 8 or 9 years to even get qualified to be in a vehicle. Then, when you’re in there, you just assume that it’s going to be a lifetime of being in there because no one really changes anything in that industry. Then Uber happened, and Tesla happened. Tesla, really, on the hardware side has shown that there is no need for that conservatism. It has shown that we have now stipulated enough rules and regulations around driving that it’s possible to automate it. If we didn’t have the proper infrastructure, you could never automate any of this.”

She continued: “I go back to what I have always said about NetSpeed: If people were not using IP to design semiconductors, it would not be possible for NetSpeed to exist because there are no well-defined boundaries on an SoC. Something similar that I see on the autonomous side is if you had zero structure, it would be very, very difficult – I wouldn’t say impossible – but it would be a much harder problem to solve. But with what we have in terms of the infrastructure, it is possible and that’s where we are seeing the inroads into autonomous vehicles. And if you look at Tesla’s records, they’ve actually brought down accidents by adding the ADAS features.”

Interestingly, Mitra also mentioned there is a theory that runs around in some circles that Tesla has done what it has done, it has been the leader in getting us there but these big companies (the automotive OEMs) like the BMWs, the Mercedes, and the GMs of the world have so much power behind them that if they were to take the innovations that a company like Tesla has and start mass producing it, it would be difficult even for a Tesla to compete with their pricing and quality structures because there is so much infrastructure in place.

On the flip side, it is hard to turn the Titanic on a dime. But in spite of that a good amount of progress has been made. GM has shown quite a bit of agility in terms of the Chevy Volt, to be sure.

This is good news for startups because when there are disruptions in an industry is when companies like NetSpeed get a chance to show off.

Of its automotive customers NetSpeed can disclose, Mobileye and Denso sit at the top of the list. As well, NetSpeed is involved in the infotainment system for a Taiwanese company, and in second generation designs for two of the biggest automotive ecosystem players that can’t be named at this time. Still, Mitra has been telling her employees that in a few weeks, NetSpeed’s going to be driving around on the streets.

When it comes to other impacts on society and industry, while I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this article, there are some interesting considerations particularly when considering a dramatic shift of wealth to tech companies. The article suggests that software/technology companies will own more of the world’s economy as companies like Uber, Google and Amazon turn transportation into a pay-as-you-go service, and that without government intervention (or some sort of organized movement), there will be a tremendous transfer of wealth to a very small number of people who own the software, battery/power manufacturing, vehicle servicing and charging/power generation/maintenance infrastructure. Further, they say there will be massive consolidation of companies serving these markets as scale and efficiency will become even more valuable.

In any case, I’m on the edge of my heated car seat to see how this continues to evolve. What are you watching for?

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