Qualcomm Moves Toward Self-Driving Vehicle Tech

A rendering of Qualcomm's self-driving technology. (Qualcomm via YouTube)

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SAN DIEGO — After years of supplying Bluetooth and cellular connectivity to automakers, Qualcomm is pivoting toward safety with its new Snapdragon Ride platform, which aims to bring advanced driver assistance features such as automated parking, lane monitoring and highway autopilot to vehicles as soon as 2023.

Eventually, the company believes its new Snapdragon Ride platform can serve as a foundation for full-fledged self-driving cars.

Qualcomm announced Snapdragon Ride on Jan. 6 at CES, the annual technology trade show in Las Vegas. Its foray into safety-autonomy systems pits it against several large rivals, including Google-parent Alphabet-Waymo and Intel-Mobileye.

In addition, Tesla and other automakers have their own in-house initiatives. Ford bought artificial intelligence start-up Argo for $1 billion to bolster its autonomous driving work. GM acquired Sidecar’s assets, invested in Lyft and bought autonomous technology startup Cruise Automation.

Still, self-driving cars are likely years away from showing up on roadways in significant numbers. In the meantime, Qualcomm is betting that the Snapdragon Ride platform can reduce the complexity of current driver assistance and autonomous driving technology with a comprehensive software suite, power-efficient hardware, computer vision and other techniques to power such things as automatic braking and traffic sign recognition.

Snapdragon Ride includes processor and accelerator chips, artificial intelligence and sensor fusion technologies, as well as what the company called a pioneering “software stack.” It is designed to be power-efficient, which is important as electric vehicles become more widespread.

The computing hardware itself is relatively small — about the size of a hardback book. The system is air cooled, so no fans or liquid-based cooling systems are needed to prevent the chips from overheating in the vehicle.

“Autonomous driving, of course, is just going to be transformative to the auto industry,” said Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s senior vice president for automotive product management. “It is going to bring the right technologies — machine learning, sensors and really advanced capabilities — to the next generation of cars, and I think we have a fantastic starting point.”

The company expects Snapdragon Ride hardware and software will be available to automakers and their suppliers for testing in the first half of this year. The company hopes that vehicles with advanced driver assistance features powered by Snapdragon Ride will be in production in 2023.

Qualcomm has long sought to diversify its business beyond smartphones. Last year, it booked about $600 million in revenue from supplying wireless and computer technologies to automakers. But it has $7 billion in pending auto orders in the pipeline — up from $5.5 billion a year earlier. To date, 19 automakers have selected the company’s infotainment technologies for vehicles.

While no automakers have ordered Snapdragon Ride, the company expects that its experience supplying connectivity, vehicle diagnostics and infotainment technologies to auto companies will help it gain a foothold with its advanced driver assistance/self-driving vehicle platform.

“I know our customers who have been working with us in previous areas are going to be very excited to see what we have to offer” with Snapdragon Ride, Duggal said.

GM on Jan. 6 pledged to work with Qualcomm on advanced driver-assistance technologies. The two companies have done business together for years, with Qualcomm supplying wireless connectivity for GM’s OnStar service.

“As we enter into a new era of innovation built on higher performance, low power (computing) and artificial intelligence, we are very pleased to be expanding our decadelong partnership with GM into digital cockpit and advanced driver assistance systems,” Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said in a statement.

Two years ago, Qualcomm received regulatory permission to test self-driving vehicles in San Diego County, with experimental runs occurring near its Sorrento Mesa headquarters and on local highways. In October, a portion of Highway 905 was shut down briefly so the company could try out three self-driving vehicles.

On top of Snapdragon Ride, Qualcomm introduced a secure cloud-to-car service, which allows automakers to update software, future-proof the vehicle, gather maintenance data and possibly offer new services personalized for the driver.

The company also updated a fledgling peer-to-peer technology called Cellular-Vehicle-Everything, or C-V2X. It enables cars to communicate directly with other nearby C-V2X enabled vehicles, stoplights and other smart cities infrastructure at distances beyond line of sight.

The technology is not widely deployed. But Qualcomm said Jan. 6 that more than 10 auto industry suppliers, a dozen smart cities infrastructure providers and 11 other auto/smart cities module outfits are ready to roll out C-V2X technology.

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