Making smart tech for cars is harder than people think

The CTO of Panasonic Automotive explains why building tech for cars is a lot harder than just putting a cellphone in the dash.

Making smart tech for cars is harder than people think

TechRepublic's Editor in Chief Bill Detwiler talked to Andrew Poliak, chief technical officer of Panasonic Automotive, at CES 2020 about new automotive technologies the company is releasing. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Andrew Poliak: Some of the big things unique to automotive--which we were really proud of--is we leverage a lot of content and technologies from the smartphone place because, as many people talk about, it's kind of like the smartphone for your car, but some unique challenges exist in an automotive environment. One is you can't just let that phone assume you're going to get a new one in a year. These things have to last 11 years. 

With our original Skip Gen announcement, and as we showed those iterations, we are using some of the same architecture and platforms, but we didn't just show an operating system update once or that we're using an automotive environment. We kept extending that Skip Gen to run Android N and then M, N, O, P, Q, and kept going.

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This year, the big revolutionary change in our Skip Gen announcement is moving to a newer class and newer generation of processor. We're now showing a Snapdragon 8155 that you can find in the latest, highest-end smartphones, but automotive grade silicone that are meant to withstand the temperatures, the vibration, have to deal with electromagnetic interference, have to deal with all kinds of things that are unique to an automotive environment. We've ruggedized that smartphone kind of architecture for an automotive environment and then ruggedized the software infrastructure and added capabilities into a based Android for automotive. 

Like we announced today, the integration of SiriusXM into the Android platform, driving a SiriusXM tuner in the car. We also talked about a lot of the integration of new components like iHeartRadio and the ability now to drive up to 11 displays and also to have a mixed blended safety and non-safety system that on one part can drive what's called automotive safety integrity levels that go from A to D.

Typically, instrument clusters are requiring an SoD--meaning there's redundancy. There's all the things that in your seventies car--if your light bulb went out, you could replace it. In a full digital display, you need the ability to kind of figure a way to detect if something's rendering wrong or maybe a light is burned out of an LED. We can detect certain things within that infotainment platform and drive a safety critical display and a non-safety critical display all from one Skip Gen or Spider 3.0 system--and all running the latest Android 10, plus auto-grade Linux, all in hypervised containers.

The first thing is go take whatever consumer device you have, and go stick it in your car in the sun, in the desert, or in your freezer and see what happens the next day. Even RAM--we have auto called RAM--can't do the same. Even if it still works at the end of it, it won't work very well when you first start up the car, right? There's considerations you have to have. 

You also have to think about the complexity of 400 microcontrollers or more in some vehicles that are now consolidating with things like Spider, where we can start pulling a lot of that content like the microcontroller that would drive a head-up display or a cluster or side view mirror replacements with cameras and displays.

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Those are integrating into one, but as you're starting to roll that in automotive, they're replacing it with other sensors like autonomous or Eight S or security gateways or whatever. You really have to care about electromagnetic interference of these different modules. You have to care about heat. You have to care about things that take sometimes six months to go through the validation and certification required. Even getting the certification for a Bluetooth implementation or UL approval--or whatever that we have to do on a regular basis--and you add that into the vehicle life cycle and everything else.

It's amazing how fast we're implementing things, given all those extra steps you have to go through to put it in a car that has to last you 11 years and has to work flawlessly. Those are a lot of the things that we have to deal with on those challenges, but we're accelerating the pace of that. That's why we do things like--with Skip Gen, we prevalidated the EMI, the heat, and all this, and built it into something that I wouldn't call an aftermarket system; I would call it capable of being an OEM off the shelf system. 

We've done some of that pre-certification that it could accelerate its adoption into, especially lower volume specialty vehicles that are fleets that we see potentially replacing some of the volume in a traditional OEM market as you get to autonomous and Eight S systems, or you get into big fleets like Uber rideshare or other things. You really see us starting to get in that micro mobility and other things with something that could be deployed tomorrow rather than waiting a year, or two years, or three years.

It ties into another question that I didn't answer that you asked me: How do you keep these things current, and how do you do software updates, and everything else? That's where we start getting into our OneConnect platform. OneConnect can serve as that update mechanism for not just the main system. Obviously with Android and others, sometimes you have mechanisms for updating the operating system or apps, but OneConnect can fundamentally update the firmware and can extend beyond the core module when running OneConnect to different ECUs within the vehicle to update other systems within the car.

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We've got that, but we've layered onto it a lot of the ability to have personalization grown with you. I call it nomadic personalization. You get in a car, you go into a rental car, you go into a fleet car, and your personalized settings, your subscriptions for applications, your content just follow with you where you go. You can leverage some of that infrastructure capability of OneConnect to be customized for that nomadic personalization. We see that really going to that car as a service, as you said. We're really trying to keep that personalization in the room with you.

We're also doing things where you could do phone as a key. You can start allowing people to have access to a car through a phone by giving them limited access and automotives already doing that. There's been in the past--like Audi's done some announcements with DHL where they allowed one-time access to your trunk for deliveries. There's all kinds of things you can do once you have connectivity and once you have a reliable kind of cloud platform that integrates between the embedded device and the cloud, which we provide the OEMs.

You can go through a dedicated--what's called a telematics control system like we do on Harley with the TCU that has OneConnect built in. It has tight vehicle integration that can give you status to charge, tamper alerts, theft alerts. It can do a lot of things on those motorcycles so you have all of those services, but as we grow into the electrified components, you start wanting to do things like battery management, location of charging stations, scheduling of charge, figuring out how long you have during a charge, potentially. Also things we're doing on Harley, but you could get a little more sophisticated as you manage the battery itself, which is not currently what we're doing on the Harley side, but we're starting to do in other systems.

Then the other thing in the Tropos vehicle-- in those examples--we can go through the telematics control system, or we're showing some demonstration with our ruggedized Toughbook, which is basically addressing all those things that I mentioned to you for the police and other industries where you can't just throw your tablet or phone into a freezer. It won't exactly function, at least when you first take it out. Maybe it will never function again, right? 

Toughbook was built for very low, very high temperatures, smashing, everything you'd do as either an emergency personnel, or as a police, or fire. We can go through that connection that's built into the Toughbook and replace kind of the TCU to actually send data through some other connectivity mechanisms.

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I'll let them just describe what we're doing for more of the production, but you can imagine there's a couple of different ways you could implement through that connectivity. It's interesting; when I joined, I found out that Panasonic has 500 unique companies--about somewhere in that range. You'll have to fact check me on that, but it's somewhere around 500. Of those 500, though, interesting things that are happening in the dynamics of this world is they're all converging around the consumer in a way that we can leverage technology, and content, and so much in my particular market, and I can leverage it for others. 

I'm wearing my nice little aviation themed shirt today. We do so much work with Panasonic Avionics because those in seat back experiences you have in a first class cabin may have some overlaps with the seat back experience you have in an autonomous vehicle.

In our projector business--if you notice back a long time ago--the office projectors sounded like a plane taking off. We established some technology to remove the fan noise that sounds so that projectors became instantly quiet. We're using that same technology to remove things like fan noise out of a vehicle, which is the most annoying thing for me in a hybrid or electric vehicle when you come to a stop and all you hear is the HVAC just blowing because the car is so quiet. Those kinds of things start to get uncomfortable. We can use technologies across all the Panasonic families to really build a better experience for people. We're seeing those synergies across everything.

You mentioned Hussman, that last mile delivery, their experiential cold chain delivery for the Whole Foods and all that, but imagine taking that and starting to build that last mile refrigerated delivery experience. I'm excited to be in a company that I feel like a kid in a candy shop. I can go, 'Wow, that's really cool. I could use that for this other thing, and that would be awesome.' It's a geeky internal answer, but I like it.

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