Autotalks Teaches Cars to Speak a Common Language

Feb. 7, 2018
Autotalks Teaches Cars a Common Language

You flip on your left turn signal, stop your car at a four-way intersection, and at almost the exact same moment, another car pulls up across the way. You and the driver in the other car pause uncertainly for a moment until one of you waves the other on.

Two human drivers can get through the intersection relatively easily. But what about when the other vehicle is an autonomous bus or the person in it is sleeping while the car drives to a predetermined destination?

“Today human drivers wave someone on with our hands or use the horn because we need some form of coordination,” said Hagai Zyss, chief executive of connected car chip maker Autotalks. “In five years or less, we will have a hybrid environment of manned and unmanned vehicles, which cannot exchange information through these gestures.”

These gestures, he said, are less important if the cars can tell each other their intentions. Autotalks makes chips that support dedicated short range communications, or D.S.R.C., which allows cars to broadcast their location and speed so that other cars can automatically avoid crashes at night and in inclement weather, react to cars speeding around blind corners, and contribute to local traffic reports.

Autotalks has been in business for almost a decade, but the company has reached a turning point as more companies invest in autonomous driving. It has agreed to supply chips to Denso and is in talks with other Tier 1 automotive suppliers. Several major production programs using its chipsets will begin next year, Zyss told Microwaves & RF.

D.S.R.C. could also be used in roadside units – so that cars can leave alerts about slick road conditions for cars out of its 1,000-foot range – and smartphones – to create a local map of pedestrians – as well as motorcycles and bicycles. It could also enable truck platooning, in which caravans of autonomous trucks travel close behind each other on highway.

But the technology has run into bureaucratic road spikes. The Trump administration, in keeping with its hostility toward business regulation, has allegedly shelved a federal mandate for D.S.R.C. Trump has still not appointed a commissioner for the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, which has denied that the rule it proposed is dead.

The failure of the mandate could cool the fervor that allowed Autotalks to raise $40 million in an oversubscribed round of funding last year to prepare for mass production of its second-generation chipset. If the mandate is enacted, it would require half of all new cars to ship with dedicated short-range communications by 2019 and all new cars by 2023.

With or without the mandate, manufacturers are gravitating toward D.S.R.C. Last year, General Motors installed the technology in one of its Cadillac models. Volkswagen says that its cars would be equipped with it in 2019. Toyota has been piloting D.S.R.C. based hardware in the trunks of around 5,000 cars in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I want to say something simple,” Zyss said. “If you want to put something on the road in the next few years, D.S.R.C. is the only technology [capable of that]. You may want to talk alternatives but if you want to put life-saving technology on the road and you want it now, there is only one technology that exists today.”

The urgency of the Obama administration to impose the mandate has accelerated the development of D.S.R.C. in other parts of the world without mandates. That could improve its chances against cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology to allow cars to talk with each other directly, which is part of the 4G standard but could also be included in 5G.

The European New Car Assessment Programme, the top vehicle safety testing organization in Europe, said that it would review vehicles based on short range V2X communications from 2024. Many countries have already installed equipment along roads and highways using 500 million euros of funding from Europe’s C-Road program.

D.S.R.C. allows cars to broadcast anonymous messages to other vehicles and infrastructure 10 times per second and with two milliseconds of latency. Last year, transportation officials stated that these little missives would prevent – or at least reduce the severity of – 80 percent of accidents in the U.S. not involving drugs or alcohol.

Autotalks declined to disclose how many chips it has sold. Zyss said that D.S.R.C. technology could start saving a significant number of lives once installed in only around 10 to 20 percent of vehicles. To understand what that means – around 17.2 million cars were sold in the U.S. last year as opposed to 94.5 million globally.

A potential wrinkle to getting to the 10 to 20 percent target: The average vehicle on U.S. roads is almost 12 years old.

Experts say that the technology is vital for improving safety on American roads, but the opposition to the proposed mandate has been growing over the last year. Qualcomm has argued that the rule favors D.S.R.C. over cellular technology that it says can provide the same functionality. At the same time, cable companies are imploring regulators to let Wi-Fi share the same wireless spectrum as D.S.R.C.

Other complaints of overregulation have come from Nexar – whose smartphone dashcam app can detect accidents and then send alerts to other vehicles over a cellular network – and Tesla – the first car manufacturer to send wireless software updates to vehicles. Some companies are not against the mandate but are looking to delay the deployment deadline.

Many companies contend that 5G will provide the latency and reliability required by cars. They say that the same network could be used for V2X communication as well as to stream music, patch collision avoidance software, and send photographs from cameras to the cloud to update digital maps. It would also have longer range to anticipate collisions sooner than D.S.R.C.

But Autotalks calls into question the latency and reliability of any technology pulling double duty for safety and infotainment. Since the international 5G standard is still not finished, it could take more than five years to rigorously test the technology for cars, said Zyss. 5G could also be susceptible to dead zones in cities and on stretches of rural highway.

D.S.R.C. could be added to vehicles more quickly since it has been in development since 1999. The technology could also be installed at dealerships with aftermarket devices embedded with chips from Autotalks, NXP Semiconductors and Qualcomm, which recently released a chipset that supports both C-V2X and D.S.R.C.

On Tuesday, Autotalks released a report from market research firm ABI Research that said that putting C-V2X and LTE into a single system would cost between $13.50 and $15 more than the same unit with D.S.R.C. The reason is that the C-V2X system needs expensive chips to provide precise synchronization with cellular base stations. There are also costs related to patent royalties and ruggedizing components.

But obviously the cost of C-V2X will fall as the technology matures.

Another potential revenue stream for Autotalks is connected traffic lights, stop signs, and other infrastructure. State and local governments could buy roadside units to monitor traffic patterns in New York City, curb accidents on reversible highways in Tampa Bay, or send accident alerts to cars driving through a blizzard on a Wyoming interstate.

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