Toyota invests half a billion dollars in Uber to save both companies

Japanese car maker Toyota has invested $500 million dollars to expand its collaboration with ride-sharing company Uber in autonomous driving cars.

After putting a brake on its self-driving car tests earlier this year, Uber has entered a new phase of collaborating with car makers as exemplified by this venture. Both companies will contribute their respective auto-driving technologies, as well as Uber’s ridesharing and Toyota’s car making expertise, to a new purpose-built Toyota Sienna Minivan. The new fleet produced out of this collaboration will not be owned by either company. Instead, according to the press releases, “the mass-produced autonomous vehicles will be owned and operated by mutually agreed upon third party autonomous fleet operators.”

This is not the first auto-driving partnership with car makers Uber has entered. Daimler, Volvo and others are also on its roster. It is not even the first time it worked with Toyota, but it is the first time that the collaboration is taking the such a form, so that the venture becomes a supplier to other service providers.

This may not amount to an outright divestiture of the autonomous driving business that Uber investors have been crying for, it nonetheless will help alleviate the financial pressure on the Uber management in the run-up to the planned IPO, without pulling out of one of the most important long-term, strategic areas in the automobile industry.

“The deal is the first of its kind for Uber, and signals our commitment to bringing world-class technologies to the Uber network,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO. “Uber’s advanced technology and Toyota’s commitment to safety and its renowned manufacturing prowess make this partnership a natural fit.”

This sentiment is echoed by Toyota. “This agreement and investment marks an important milestone in our transformation to a mobility company as we help provide a path for safe and secure expansion of mobility services like ride-sharing that includes Toyota vehicles and technologies,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, president of Toyota Connected Company, and executive vice president of Toyota Motor Corporation.

This is more than a symbolic move, as neither Uber nor Toyota is leading in autonomous driving. Actually neither of them is leading in either of the two strategic growth areas in the car industries, the other being electric vehicles (EV). While Tesla makes all the headlines in EV, it is the Chinese car makers that are selling far more EV and hybrid cars than anyone else.

When it comes autonomous driving, the disruption actually came from outside the automobile industry, with Waymo (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) being the leader (with whom Uber settled a dispute earlier this year). Tesla and Uber are following closely, though the traditional car makers have also heeded the wake-up call.

This kind of disruption from other than the usual suspects is nothing new to those of us who have followed the mobile telecom industry. Smartphones were introduced by companies traditionally associated the computer industry (Apple) and Internet (Google), which ultimately rendered names like SonyEricsson, Motorola, HTC, and Nokia obsolete.

In another interesting development, Finland’s Technical Research Centre (VTT) recently joined forces with Nokia to invest in a driverless “robot car” using the 5G network to be rolled out. It looks the once disrupted mobile telecom company is aiming to bring disruption to the automobile industry. The first targets are reporting weather conditions on the road as well as real-time road maintenance data analytics. Longer term, with a fleet of “robot cars” on the road under a well rolled out 5G network, VTT’s “5G-Safe” project, which “robot car” being part of, will aim to deliver a new use case of 5G to the transport industry.

The road to autonomous driving is quickly getting crowded and noisy.

Nvidia claims autonomous driving breakthrough, but let’s see

Nvidia has attempted to jump-start the CES PR euphoria, claiming it can achieve Level 5 autonomous driving right now with its Xavier processors.

The chip itself was initially announced 12 months ago, but this quarter has seen the processor delivered to customers. Testing has begun, and Nvidia has been stoking the fire with a very bold claim.

“Delivering the performance of a trunk full of PCs in an auto-grade form factor the size of a license plate, it’s the world’s first AI car supercomputer designed for fully autonomous Level 5 robotaxis,” Nvidia said on its blog.

Hyping up a product to almost undeliverable heights is of course nothing new in the tech world, and Nvidia has learned from the tried and tested playbook. Make an incredibly exceptional claim for a technology which is unlikely to be delivered to the real world for decades.

Xavier will form part of the Nvidia’s Drive software stack, containing 9 billion transistors. It is the product of a four-year project, sucking up $2 billion in research and development funds, with contributions from 2,000 engineers. It is built around an 8-core CPU, a 512-core Volta GPU, a deep learning accelerator, computer vision accelerators and 8K HDR video processors. All to deliver Level 5 autonomous driving.

Just as a recap, Level 5 autonomous driving is the holy grail. At this point, humans will not be needed to interact with the car at any point:

  • Level 0: Full-time performance by the human driver
  • Level 1: Driving assistance of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. Human drives the rest of the time.
  • Level 2: The system can be responsible for both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. This could be described as hands off automation.
  • Level 3: This is known officially as conditional automation. The autonomous driving system will be responsible for almost all aspects of the dynamic driving task. Humans will still need to be aware to intervene in certain circumstances. This could be described as eyes off automation.
  • Level 4: The car will be almost fully-autonomous, though there might be rare circumstances where a human would have to intervene. Aside from the most extreme circumstances, this could be described as mind off automation.
  • Level 5: Full autonomy. You don’t even have to be awake.

During the same pre-CES event, the team also announced AR products, new partnerships and solutions in the gaming space, but Level 5 autonomy is the headline maker. Reaching this level is all well and good, but the technology does not have a foot in reality just yet. Nvidia might be there in terms of technological development, so it claims, but that does not mean autonomous cars will be hitting the roads any time soon. Not by a long way.

Firstly, while the processors might be there, the information is not. Companies like Google have been doing a fantastic job at creating mapping solutions, but the details is still not there for every single location on the planet. Until you can accurately map every single scenario and location a car may or may not end up in, it is impossible to state with 100% accuracy that Level 5 autonomous vehicles are achievable.

Secondly, to live the autonomous dream, a smart city is necessary. To optimize driving conditions, the car will need to receive data from the traffic lights to understand the flow of vehicles, and also any unusual circumstances. To ensure safety and performance, connectivity will have to be ubiquitous. The smart city dream is miles away, and therefore the autonomous vehicles dream is even further.

Thirdly, even if the technology is there, everything else isn’t. Regulations are not set up to support autonomous vehicles, neither is the insurance industry or the judicial system. If an autonomous vehicle is involved in a fatal incident, who get prosecuted? Do individuals need to be insured if they are asleep in the car? There are many unanswered questions.

Finally, when will we accept autonomous vehicles? Some people are incapable of sitting in a passenger seat while a loved one drives, how will these individuals react to a computer taking charge? Culturally, it might be a long time before the drivers of the world are comfortable handing control over to a faceless piece of software.

Nvidia might be shouting the loudest in the race to autonomous vehicles right now, but let’s put things in perspective; it doesn’t actually mean anything.

Softbank Vision Fund drops $164 million on maps

Softbank has continued its diversification strategy with another sizeable investment, this time in the big, wide world of mapping technology.

It might not sound like the most exciting arena, but it could be considered one of the most crucial for certain technologies. Whether it is as something as obvious autonomous vehicles, or a bit more subdued like the advertising models associated with social media platforms, accurate location data is critical. And we haven’t even begun to realize the benefits of IoT yet…

The injection of cash from Softbank Vision Fund is directed towards Mapbox, a location data platform for mobile and web applications operating out of Washington DC and Silicon Valley. Many would associate mapping technology with the Googlers, but Mapbox has been quietly accumulated customers and might provide a very viable alternative to the ‘do no evil’ business. An additional $164 million in Series C funding will certainly help mount a challenge.

The platform was initially launched in 2010, and now claims to reach 300 million people each month. When you count the likes of Snapchat, Bloomberg, Lyft or Lonely Planet as customers, the broad footprint starts to make a bit more sense. The team also claim to have 900,000 registered developers, and the cash will be used to build out the automotive unit (including the AI side), AR/VR/Gaming investments and increasing its presence in Southeast Asia, China, and Europe.

“We are mapping and measuring everything,” said Eric Gundersen, CEO of Mapbox. “The SoftBank team understands that location data is transformational to every industry. Additional capital accelerates our speed of capturing the market. This is a step function move that will transform the fundamentals of how everything – people and goods – move through our world.”

It’s an area of the industry which hasn’t received much recognition to date, perhaps because it is being dominated by Google. Just like doing an internet search, when people are looking up a location, Google seems to be the default platform. There is a simple reason for this, it is the best around. And there is another simple reason for that. Google has been investing in this area for quite a while, even before you could make any money from it.

The platform itself was started when a couple of Danish brothers sold their business (Where 2 Technologies) to Google in 2004. The first release was not until 2005, but twelve years later the platform has thousands of employees and contractors directly working in mapping. This is a brilliant example of a company investing in the long-term, a concept which seems to elude most executives.

To start with it was just a free feature for people to find their way. The connected economy wasn’t in full swing, and it was more useful for games than anything else. But with smartphones penetrating the mass market, it started to become a useful little idea. Apps wanted to integrate the platform, businesses could use it for advertising, and little ideas like autonomous driving are now starting to make waves.

Mapping is critical in the digital economy, and now that quirky little feature is looking like a very astute bet from the Googlers. Just like Android, it is a platform which doesn’t make any money directly, but fuels growth and innovation in other areas. Google’s bread and butter revenue machine is search advertising, and now Maps adds an extra dimension. This is on top of all the licensing fees it will be charging developers.

One risk for the industry is that mapping could end up going the same route as operating systems for smartphones. Android dominates this space, which has led to competition concerns in various countries around the world. Google Maps is arguably the most advanced platform out there, so this is certainly a viable concern.

Considering the importance of mapping technologies as a foundation block of the connected economy, this would appear to be a very smart bet from the Softbank team. The only risk is that the Mapbox is not able to compete with the innovative and cut-throat Googlers. Only time will tell, but $164 million will help.

Ericsson makes major autonomous driving move with Zenuity partnership

The Ericsson IoT Accelerator platform will be used to power the Zenuity Connected Cloud, a white-label autonomous driving cloud solution for car-makers.

In a great illustration of how megatrends such as 5G and IoT are creating new opportunities for the telco industry, Ericsson is effectively getting into bed with a major car-maker and the biggest car-safety component supplier. That’s because Zenuity was created earlier this year as a joint-venture between Volvo and Autoliv specifically to focus on advanced driver assistance support (ADAS) and autonomous driving.

The Zenuity Connected Cloud seems to be designed to giver car OEMs a head start in the autonomous car game by dealing with the IoT (i.e. connectivity, sensors, data processing, etc) stuff for them. It will also deal with the integration of in-vehicle software, security and the use of cloud-based safety data.

“With a strong focus on increasing safety through ADAS and AS software and functions, our unique expertise in ADAS and autonomous technologies combined with Ericsson’s technology leadership in complex connectivity solutions is a win-win for the entire automotive industry,” said Dennis Nobelius, CEO, Zenuity. “Together, we will provide OEMs with unique, robust and scalable cloud-based solutions with much faster time to market, allowing them to capture the seemingly endless possibilities in the connected automotive ecosystem of the future.”

“Connectivity is reshaping the future of transport, and Ericsson is right at the heart of this with our IoT Accelerator platform that underpins the connected automotive ecosystem,” said Niklas Heuveldop Head of Technology & Emerging Business at Ericsson. “We will work closely with Zenuity to develop a truly end-to-end offering that enables higher levels of safe driving through ADAS and AD software and functions.”

Dominique Bonte of ABI Research reckons this is a significant win for Ericsson. “Ericsson looks set to benefit from the partnership, as this will expand its automotive connectivity platform beyond basic telematics/infotainment through deep integration with ADAS and driverless solutions and align the company with two global market leaders in vehicle safety and autonomous technology,” he said.

“In addition, this move will connect Ericsson with automotive AI leader, NVIDIA, which announced a partnership with Zenuity earlier this year. It will enable Ericsson to plug its connectivity platform into an end-to-end, scalable, and global autonomous vehicle solution which should help it to win additional OEM deals in the future, including in China where it already works with Geely (Link & CO brand).

“Ericsson has invested heavily in automotive as one of its key end market focuses by creating an independent division; the Zenuity partnership is a very important announcement for the much-plagued network infrastructure vendor, which has recently gone through a major re-organisation and cost saving exercise; however, the real proof will have to come in the form of OEM wins. The Autoliv, Volvo, Zenuity, NVIDIA and Ericsson alliance puts it in the same league as the Intel, Mobileye, BMW, FCA and Delphi constellation.”

Ericsson likes to quote a statistic that 95% of car accidents are due to human error, the inference being that we need technology to help us overcome our failings. Maybe, but what does seem clear is that automotive is an increasingly important new sector for telcos and it seems like a sound strategic move for Ericsson to be focusing on it, especially when you bear in mind that Nokia went in the opposite direction with the sale of Here.