A car today comes with over 150 million lines of code. Vehicles have become more than a mode of transportation – they are ‘computers on wheels.’
Much like the lines of code, the need for central processing units, graphic processing units and server infrastructure in a vehicle has increased exponentially. Today, as many as 100 electronic units are installed in a car to control various functions, according to Mercedes-Benz.
The vehicles of today, whether cars or trucks, are no longer just mechanical devices – they’re driven by software at a breathtaking pace.
Such advances touched a new level last month. On June 28, when the AirCar landed at Bratislava international airport after a 35-minute flight, it marked yet another chapter in automotive technology. At the click of a knob, the aircraft turned into a car soon after landing. The future is here.
The encouraging sign for India is that major global advancements in automobile technology have their roots – and future – here. Given the disruption caused by autonomous driving, connected devices, shared mobility, powertrain technology and industry 4.0, the software content in a car has risen significantly, and this only plays to India’s strength.
That’s reflected in the global capability centres that multinational auto companies have set up in India to drive value for their products. Continental AG, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Bosch are among the companies with R&D units in India that funnel deep technology into their global product development.
However, there is immense competition in global automotive R&D. India’s main rivals are Latin American countries Mexico and Brazil, Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, and East Europe’s Poland, Romania, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
However, India has an edge: the numerous startups working on technologies related to the auto sector.
“India is not a destination just for labour arbitrage. Its distinct advantage is the significantly high quality of software talent pool,” said Rajiv Singh, a partner at Deloitte India who leads the automotive practice. “This has led to automotive R&D centres moving in to India and many more will do so in the future.”
The technological revolution in the automotive industry is also manifested in the disruption of its traditional powerhouses. Detroit, known as the centre of the US automobile industry, has been displaced by Palo Alto in California, where Elon Musk’s Tesla is based.
“Tesla has redefined the industry, which has resulted in a rub-on effect globally,” said Kaushik Madhavan, vice president, mobility practice, at Frost & Sullivan. “India has met the challenge, taking massive strides in the automotive R&D sector. If the government provides some more benefits in relation to power, water and land acquisition, the industry will flourish further.”
Let’s look at the cutting-edge work that’s taking place in the Indian labs of some global auto powerhouses.
Continental, which develops technologies and services for sustainable and connected mobility, set up a technical centre in India in 2009 to strengthen its R&D efforts. Today, the German company hosts almost 6,000 engineers in all its subsidiaries. The technical centre in Bengaluru employs about 4,000 engineers and supports R&D in all the company’s automotive divisions, locally and globally. The centre has already built competencies in areas such as advanced safety technologies, autonomous driving and connected mobility.
“We have continuously invested in India. In 2018, we announced a high three-digit crore investment in India, including establishing greenfield projects and adding R&D centres,” said Prashanth Doreswamy, head of Continental India.
With artificial intelligence playing a major role in autonomous mobility, self-driven and connected cars, Continental’s Software Academy is building an AI-enabled automotive workplace.
“Apart from the engineers, 400,000-plus employees at Continental are ready to handle AI-related work globally,” said Doreswamy.
The technical centre team helped develop the transparent trailer technology, which allows drivers to see through a trailer and check the area behind and beside it. This solution uses two cameras and a controller unit to provide a panoramic view. The result is a seamless live feed for drivers to see the road as well as obstacles behind the trailer.
The engineers in Bengaluru are also working on level-2 automated driving, which allows a person in the driver’s seat to take control of a car at any time, and on robotaxis, which are self-driving or driverless taxis.
Some of Continental’s recent innovations include:
3D immersive audio system without speakers: This sound system is based on Sennheiser’s Ambero 3D audio technology and is blended with Continental’s Ac2ated system to provide a 3D immersive audio system. Specially developed actuators replace conventional speakers in the vehicle interior. The technology can reduce the weight of a sound system by 75-90 percent and allow futuristic electric vehicles to save space and weight, which are high-priority areas for zero-emission models.
Transparent hood: This enables the driver to look underneath the car to check the condition of the road, small objects on the path, the footpath, the terrain and wheel positions. Under-car visuals help the driver park in narrow spaces, manoeuvre speed bumps and potholes, and handle off-roading over rocks and rough terrain.
Contact Sensor System: This detects sounds made from low-speed impact and can be used to bring a vehicle to a halt immediately. Once installed, the system can support other applications such as detection of vandalism (scratching), slow parking knocks, recognition of the road condition, driver identification by voice, and detection of approaching emergency vehicles. It helps to make applications like automated parking safer.
Mercedes-Benz Research and Development India, based in Bengaluru, carries out critical research in multiple areas. They include work on enhancing the driving experience with advanced infotainment systems and navigational aids.
Mercedes-Benz User Experience: Commonly known as MBUX, this is a suite of cutting-edge intuitive technologies that use artificial intelligence to upgrade every moment of the driving experience. The infotainment team played a pivotal role in designing MBUX, including the interior assist and rear seat entertainment.
MBUX’s predictive functions help to personalise the infotainment system, which can be operated by natural gestures in addition to controls by voice, touchscreen and touchpad. To support Indian customers, all Mercedes-Benz cars with MBUX sold in India are pre-loaded with MapmyIndia COVID-19 India guide, which enables users to navigate to the nearest COVID-19 testing centre using the most updated information provided by the Indian Council for Medical Research.
Intuitive Parking Experience: This system helps Indian customers address the challenges posed by traffic congestion and limited parking. Designed in collaboration with Get My Parking, the Internet of Things platform assists in searching for and navigating to an available parking lot. This feature is available in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune and will soon be extended to 45 additional cities.
“Mobility around us is constantly changing and it’s exciting to see the new facets of mobility,” said CEO Manu Saale. “The customer today does not only need a transportation vehicle, but wants to interact with the car to help him with much more functions than just taking him from one place to another.”
AI computing architecture will aid in streamlining the processes as new capabilities and upgrades will be downloaded from the cloud, improving safety, increasing value and enhancing driving experiences, he added.
The Volvo Group Technology Centre in India is the Swedish company’s third-largest development centre globally. The R&D centre works on global products as well as Indian products for all truck models in the Volvo Group. The work includes reducing emissions, electromobility, automation and connectivity and developments to support the India business.
“We also have collaborations and partnerships around research & development in India. We are a founding member and chair of the Sweden-India Transport Innovation & Safety Collaboration,” said managing director Kamal Bali. “We also have a partnership with the Indian Institute of Science to pursue collaborative research in the field of transportation and automobiles.”
Additionally, Volvo carries out development activities in India for road and construction equipment. The Volvo road engineering team in India is now responsible for development of the full range of small asphalt compactors for the rest of the world. The electronic systems team in India does testing and development work for all electronic platforms for Volvo construction equipment factories globally.
(This is the first of a two-part series on India’s automotive R&D surge)