How Europe can Help Move the US Autonomous Car Industry Forward

By Special Guest
Leo Clancy, Head of Technology, Consumer & Business Services, IDA
May 25, 2017

Cars are moving toward becoming large mobile devices with tremendous processing power and the automated driving enabled by this is surely as revolutionary in terms of road safety as the seatbelt was in the previous century. While estimates vary widely regarding when driverless vehicles will be on the road beyond their current early testing phase, virtually no one argues they don't represent the future of cars.

For the many American companies involved in this ultimately huge industry, the question becomes how to plot the most effective business strategy that will take these firms efficiently through the many incremental steps involved in developing, testing and selling these vehicles in the future. For example, a slew of major companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Ford, GM, Porche, Delphi, Continental, Bosch and others have set up research offices in Silicon Valley. But players of all kinds in this market should look for additional locales that offer technology expertise as well as existing infrastructure, friendly legislation and economic benefits.

There’s always been a strong tie between US manufacturers and German automakers. In terms of access to the 500 million person European market, US companies have long worked within the region. But the changing nature of the car industry means that auto makers need to consider different approaches than before and look to the approaches pure play tech companies have used. Top tech giants Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple as well as the traditional tech companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Cisco have long seen Europe as a source for helping boost tech talent and a way to help home companies discover and develop innovative technology to help business in the US. The traditional automotive manufacturing industry has been turned on its head as the industry moves towards the software defined car - it’s Silicon Valley not Detroit that’s leading the market and technology considerations like data and networks become more critical. Tesla is a case in point but now all the big manufacturers and the Tier Ones that supply this market have in the past five years gravitated towards Silicon Valley. It’s now time, to look to their new tech neighbors and use Europe to boost company growth on the home front.

Countries such as Ireland have emerged in the tech market as leaders in supplying talent, innovation and collaborative tech ecosystems. All ten of the Fortune Top 10 technology firms have a significant presence there. For the automotive market, Ireland has been quietly developing technology in the IoT and automotive sectors. For example semiconductor leader Intel designed its Quark chip in Ireland, in a fast-expanding group aimed at IoT and wearables and in 2016, Intel bought Irish company Movidius, which makes advanced computer vision processors, including for advanced drones.

The tried-and-true approach of working overseas has been employed by other ambitious companies such as Valeo, a multinational automotive supplier based in France that runs an advanced vision systems operation in Galway with the goal of producing the most fully autonomous driving solution available. Their test vehicles can be seen in and around the city.

One of the many reasons that the autonomous car industry has a slow ramp up is due to the extreme complexity of the many involved technologies. Artificial intelligence, deep learning, advanced vision, sophisticated engineering, next-generation sensors, cloud processing, powerful networking and the Internet of Things emerging on a parallel track are all demanding broader expertise than many sectors require. This is where Silicon Valley can only provide some of the technology, Detroit needs to begin reaching out and collaborating overseas as a way to elevate the US car industry. Some of the American and other firms setting up shop in Ireland are tapping into the existing talent base in these areas. For example, Accenture and IBM -- two big names in AI -- have Irish operations in this area of technology while Analog Devices develops advanced sensors at its center in Limerick.

The watchwords of the new world of automotive are technology and collaboration, which involves not just tapping into the expertise of tech workers and home-grown firms but exploiting the know-how found in the education and startup sectors. For example, Valeo Vision Systems -- the French firm's Irish operation -- has been teaming up with researchers at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway to create technology to make self-driving cars safer. Specifically, the Connaught Automotive Research (CAR) Group at NUI is researching the development of intelligent signal processing algorithms to aid the automatic detection of pedestrians and other vehicles using cameras and sensors.

However, Ireland's most compelling asset might well be its computer science and engineering talent pool. This is a hallmark of the Irish tech sector, which in addition to a great pool of talented Irish engineers, has also become a nexus for talent from and beyond Europe with a visa program that encourages such skilled workers to come to Ireland. Designing the driverless cars of tomorrow depends on just such resources and in the new world of autonomous cars run by software, security and cloud technologies, Ireland may well be an undiscovered jewel for the US automotive market. 

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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