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Autonomous Driving Revs Up the Supply Chain

Autonomous driving is a hot and it will only get hotter, as suppliers and their OEM customers rush to offer automatic pilot features that should eventually be available in mainstream cars in just a few years.

Demand for autonomous driving is also trickling down the supply chain for systems and components that allow cars to drive and brake without human interaction.

As a testament of the growth potential for suppliers; sales of laser, infrared, radar, image, and ultrasonic sensors, which represent essential components for autonomous driving, will skyrocket from $742 million worldwide this year to $1.1 billion in 2020, according to IHS Automotive.

“Any supplier that has a strong business in advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) is adding autonomous driving products,” Egil Juliussen, a principal analyst for IHS Automotive, told EBN. “There will be many new growth opportunities.”

On an OEM level, luxury car maker Mercedes has begun to offer models that automatically guide cars back onto the road if needed or offer hands-off driving, braking, and acceleration.

The Mercedes S-Class, for example, has the most advanced autonomous driving features on offer today and is estimated to have a two-year lead over the competition with 36 different autonomous driving technologies.

The S-Class' most advanced autonomous driving  feature is for traffic jam conditions, when the model takes over steering, braking, and acceleration at speeds lower than 40 mph (which means that you the driver can kick back and safely use your iPad or text when stuck in traffic). The model also offers lane changing, crash monitoring, animal and pedestrian warning, distance control, automatic parking, side wind steering adjustment, and sensors that raise the chassis' vertical distance from the ground when driving over bumpy roads.

Mainstream automakers will gradually begin to add autonomous driving features to cars beginning next year. By as early as 2020, it could be possible to purchase models that can go from point A to point B along city streets and highways with little or no input from the driver. OEMS that have gone on record to say they plan to sell models that could offer comprehensive autonomous driving by 2020 include BMW, General Motors, Google, Mercedes, Nissan, and Volvo.

Working prototypes of such driverless cars that can self-pilot themselves over distances of 100 or more miles already exist, which Google, Mercedes, and other carmakers have demonstrated.

“Partial autonomous driving systems are emerging in a 2016 to 2017 timeframe and will become very important in the 2020s,” Juliussen told EBN.

Sensors that monitor for situations when the car must shift into automatic pilot mode represent a key component for autonomous driving. The Mercedes S-Class, for example, packs 18 sensors and six cameras. 

The main tier-1 suppliers for OEMs include Bosch, Delphi, Continental, Denso, and Valeo. These firms procure components, select the chip technologies, and engineer the systems to fit automotive OEMs specifications.

Tier-1 suppliers are seeing autonomous driving emerge as their core businesses. In the case of Valeo, the head of innovation and research for Valeo, Guillaume Devauchelle, told EBN autonomous driving will replace CO2 reduction as Valeo's core “main growth driver” by 2020. “Autonomous driving will also drastically change with every single product line,” he said. “This doe not only include sensors, but wipers, clutches, wind drag dynamics, etc. will be affected. Everything will be different.”

On a chip level, Nvidia and TI will likely remain leading suppliers. “The chip suppliers are providing the enormous computing power that is needed for machine vision to interpret the surroundings of the car,” Juliussen said.  “Nvidia has been at the forefront in providing this computing power using its graphics processing. It is also likely that DSP cores can be used to provide this computing power and TI and other will have chips for automotive machine vision.”

For software, Google has the most resources for autonomous driving with its multi-billion dollar R&D budget as one of the world's largest companies. The search engine giant is also expected to partner (or outright purchase) companies for the hardware part of fully autonomous car production.

Valeo alliance partner Mobileye embeds its algorithms in STMicroelectronics chips; Cognivue partners with Freescale, and Delphi relies on software developer Ottomatika, which is a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off, for its autonomous driving systems, Juliussen noted.

“Autonomous driving will open the door for more high-tech companies to be suppliers of software, sensors, and chips,” Juliussen said. “Yes, they are here already, but there will be more opportunities.”

Let us know how you think the auto industry will open opportunities in the electronics supply chain in the comments section below.

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