Big suppliers hunger for startups' tech
Published time: 2019-12-20 14:09:05
As far as the auto industry is concerned, there has never been a better time to launch a high-tech startup.
The industry's big suppliers are racing to invest in companies that can deliver key technologies for infotainment, self-driving cars, EV batteries -- you name it.
And that's a gold mine for startups with key technologies. At a time when U.S. auto sales have crested at record levels, Tier 1 suppliers are flush with cash, and everybody is looking for the next Mobileye, the Israeli startup that has become a leading supplier of obstacle-detection software.
Consider how three megasuppliers -- Delphi Automotive, Harman International Industries Inc. and Robert Bosch GmbH -- are incorporating startup expertise into their product plans.
During this week's Consumer Electronics Show here, an Audi SQ5 retrofitted by Delphi negotiated streets around the Las Vegas Convention Center without a driver's help.
The vehicle was festooned with radar, cameras and six lidars, but there were no Google-style coffee-can-size lidars on the roof. The laser sensor units on the Delphi vehicle -- developed by Silicon Valley startup Quanergy Systems -- were compact, solid-state devices that were invisible to bystanders.
Delphi's plan: bring their cost down to $200 to $250 apiece and put them into production in 2019.
To speed development, Delphi has taken a modest stake in Quanergy, said Delphi Chief Technology Officer Jeff Owens. If things work out, Delphi may eventually buy the company out.
"We'll get to know each other," said Owens, "and if we can make some magic, we'll take it to the next level."
To spot prospects like Quanergy, Delphi set up a technical center in Silicon Valley in 2012. Now that investment is paying off, Owens says.
"For a lot of startups in the tech sector, the auto industry is a strange land," Owens said. "Nothing that they've done has prepared them for that. We want to be their bridge from the tech sector into the auto industry."
With lidar development underway, Delphi's next target is a startup that specializes in artificial-intelligence software. Such software would enable self-driving vehicles to learn to identify the vehicles around them and figure out how they are likely to act.
It would be useful to know, for example, whether a given vehicle is a delivery van that is likely to make frequent stops. It's also useful to predict how multiple vehicles are likely to behave in a busy intersection.
Glen De Vos, Delphi's vice president of product engineering, is hunting for startups that can deliver that kind of expertise. So far, Delphi has been working with various universities to develop artificial intelligence.
Now it's preparing to establish partnerships with companies, De Vos said. "In this space, there have been a tremendous number of startups," he said. "Now we are reaching out to some companies, so you'll be hearing about that."
Beware of hackers
Phil Eyler was named president of Harman International's Connected Car division last July. That same month, a pair of hackers videotaped their successful effort to hijack a Jeep Cherokee remotely, causing it to behave erratically and then stop cold on a Missouri highway, despite the efforts of its driver.
It's Eyler's job to make sure that never happens to his customers. Last week, Harman announced that it has acquired a small Israeli firm, TowerSec, that provides infotainment security. The company has offices in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a technical center in Tel Aviv.
Its software is integrated into electronic control units connected to the vehicle's central communications network. The system monitors all data flow and flags any foreign transmissions.
If it spots a threat, the system can warn the automaker or the driver, or eliminate the threat itself.
After Eyler integrates TowerSec's security system into Harman's products, he plans to market it to automakers that use rival infotainment systems, too. His goal: use TowerSec to establish a de facto industry security standard.
"We want that organization to do business with our competitors," Eyler said. "That's the same approach we took with Redbend. That's our desire."
What's next? Eyler declined to disclose the size of his war chest, but he did note that Harman spent nearly $1 billion on acquisitions last year. "We're in a good position from a cash standpoint," Eyler said. "When we find a good fit, we can move quickly."
Double the range
Lithium ion batteries have brought the auto industry within reach of an EV that eliminates range anxiety. But the batteries are costly, and if they overheat they can catch fire.
A small Silicon Valley startup, Seeo Inc. of Hayward, Calif., may have the solution for those problems, and Bosch hopes to bring their solution to market.
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