The world is shifting to autonomous and driverless vehicles, and Qualcomm is among those with their foot on the gas.
Each year in Davos, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting brings together global leaders in business and technology to foster discussion on everything from macroeconomics to microbiology. Today, Dr. Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm’s Executive Chairman, participated in a panel on our driverless future.
The panel featured Dr. Jacobs along with Carlos Ghosn (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Renault-Nissan), Violeta Bulc (Commissioner, Transport, European Commission), Wendell Wallach (Chair, Technology and Ethics Studies, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University), and moderator Alan Murray (Chief Content Officer, Time Inc.). The dialogue focused on the oft-ignored human, legal, and ethical questions that will inevitably arise as we move closer to driverless cars.
Mr. Ghosn, whose Nissan brand was an early champion of electric vehicles, began by noting the difference between autonomous (there is a driver who can assume control of the car) and driverless (a car without a driver) cars. He believes market-ready autonomous vehicles are only a few years away and that driverless vehicles will follow shortly thereafter. Dr. Jacobs concurred, mentioning that the timeline for the rollout of 5G — perhaps the most important technology to support mass-adoption of autonomous and driverless cars — was slated for 2020. 5G, which is being developed for exactly these types of mission-critical uses cases, is expected to add billions to our future global economic activity, according to a recent 5G economic impact study commissioned by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.
The entire panel agreed that it’s not a question of if the world will be driverless, but when. That shared sentiment guided the discussion to some of the upcoming hurdles, which included nuanced ethical, moral, and philosophical complexities.
“We have this array of both practical and ethical and legal and accountability issues that are coming into play in this space, and we don’t have the technology [to support it] yet,” said Mr. Wallach. “The technology isn’t ready to solve them, nor have we as a society decided how we want some of these challenges to be handled.”
Mr. Ghosn agreed, but suggested that these issues would invariably be worked out by the consortium of auto and technology companies alongside regulators, all working toward a driverless future. Dr. Jacobs’ echoed much of the same thinking, pointing to the development and application of machine learning and computer vision — both of which Qualcomm is working on today — as potential solutions to upcoming problems.
“I think the interface between humans and machines is going to be an interesting aspect for us to work on for a little while, and machine intelligence will help a lot,” said Dr. Jacobs, after noting the importance of a car not just recognizing its external environment but also monitoring passenger awareness in the event it needs to prompt action. “For autonomous vehicles, even early versions, to work extremely well there’s going to need to be a lot of situational awareness.”
Much of the panels’ consternation about a driverless future was purposefully focused on urban rather than suburban, rural, or cross-country driving. They agreed that the biggest challenge to adoption would be figuring out how to make driverless cars work amid extreme congestion.
The group then turned to automation in general, which was followed by a healthy discussion about the changing dynamics of the auto industry and its players. Mr. Murray asked Dr. Jacobs whether it would be easier for tech companies to become car companies or car companies to evolve into tech companies.
“My experience when industries converge is that neither side really gets it and they have to spend some time to understand each other,” he responded, introducing some anecdotal professional experience. “A great example is health care. All the people from the healthcare industry thought they were going to become a mobile virtual network operator. They knew their industry was hard but thought the others’ was easy. And everyone from the wireless industry thought they were going to be selling wireless diabetes test strips. It took a while for everyone to come together, but I think we’re doing that right now. Those connections are being made.”
There was a shared optimism about our automotive future, which should come as no surprise. Qualcomm, for example, has been working on technologies that support autonomous and driverless cars, drastically expanding its automotive tech portfolio in response to an increased appetite for cutting-edge tech by auto manufacturers. From the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820A chipset to the Qualcomm Connected Car Reference Platforms to Cellular V2X (vehicle to everything), a host of auto-focused technologies now exist to help push the consumer market forward.
The future is bright and moving forward, and the discussions at WEF in Davos serve as a testament to the marked improvement Qualcomm, the auto industry, and regulators have made in executing on the vision of autonomous and driverless cars.