Panasonic takes major step toward autonomous driving with its first connected vehicle platform in the US

Integrated, connected cars will be the focus of a new platform Panasonic is creating for the Colorado Department of Transportation's I-70 mountain corridor.

Image: iStock/Getty Images, erinbast

Panasonic announced Thursday that it is partnering with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to build a connected transportation system to share real-time data across vehicles and infrastructure to improve driver safety and roadway efficiency, in what is considered an interim step toward fully autonomous driving.

The system will allow for connected cars to communicate with roadside communication modules to relay information to drivers about real-time road conditions to improve safety and efficiency, said Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America.

"This system provides, in a very basic sense, the ability to communicate information in a connected vehicle from different points along the road or the infrastructure that is defining things that the user in the vehicle would need to know or be enhanced by that," Gebhardt said. "It will give him information as it relates to traffic patterns, weather concerns, any disruption on the road, and alternatives that may be there, or trouble that he has to deal with. The roadside units are a communication node that speaks to the vehicle as it goes through these different points."

SEE: Ford's fully-autonomous vehicles will start out in ride-share, says CEO Mark Fields (TechRepublic)

This will be Panasonic's first rollout of a connected vehicle platform in the US. "We have built out other connected vehicle to infrastructure technology in Japan, but not for as comprehensive of a use case as this one," Gebhardt said.

Panasonic chose Colorado as the location because it's been working closely with the state, and the city of Denver, on various projects, including the new headquarters for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, as previously reported by TechRepublic.

"We've never rolled out the entire solution before, and this is a full rollout, from the car unit that's on board, to the roadside unit, to the integration of all the hardware and software that goes around the solution," Gebhardt said.

Panasonic will begin with a rollout on a 90-mile stretch of I-70 between Denver and the mountains. The rollout will be phased in over several years with communications equipment testing through 2017, equipment installation slated for 2018 and 2019, and a full rollout to be in place by 2020, he said.

"We're targeting the I-70 corridor that goes from Denver up into the mountains for a couple of very specific reasons. It's a highly traveled area going up into the mountains in highly treacherous areas. It lines up all of the things that you would want to be correcting with the technology: Increasing safety, avoiding congestion, and helping those tourists that are less familiar with the area," Gebhardt said.

Gebhardt said it's also the first step toward fully autonomous driving. "I wouldn't call it the bridge, but it's definitely the interim step to autonomy. You're coding certain things you'd need to do with an autonomous vehicle. You're giving it similar feeds to what an autonomous vehicle would be getting, but without the autonomous function. It provides the stepping stone to what will invariably be autonomous, but it gets there a lot faster than we'll be getting to autonomous," he added.

"Most people today are talking about autonomy and they're interested in this wholly autonomous vehicle and there are a number of steps to get there. But this one we think is a significant step because it's a real deployment of the things that would show and be proof of concept for what autonomy would be like. The advantage of this is it comes earlier and you will have a driver in place so it will help us as we get closer and closer to this autonomous situation," he said.

The in-car units will eventually be available from some auto manufacturers in new cars, but Panasonic will also create an after-market product that can be added to existing vehicles. The U.S. Department of Transportation is working on potential guidelines for onboard communication units in vehicles, Gebhardt said.

Panasonic is interested in using the technology in other regions as well. "We can roll it out to a much greater area of space both in Colorado and anywhere," Gebhardt said. "We want confidence the technology is highly efficient so we can use it to deploy more aggressively across the country."

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. Panasonic is rolling out its first connected car platform in the US and it will be in Colorado on the I-70 mountain corridor.
  2. The platform is Panasonic's first step toward fully autonomous driving.
  3. Panasonic is interested in introducing this platform to other regions, as well as expanding it within Colorado.

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By Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a former Associate Managing Editor at TechRepublic. She oversees TechRepublic's news team and TechRepublic Premium. She focuses on tech and business and how the two worlds intersect. Teena's lifelong journalism career has included wri...