The contents were published from July 2016 to February 2017 on"Nikkei Technology Online", the engineering information website run by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc., and reprinted with the author's permission.
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Autonomous driving technology is expected to bring about a dramatic evolution in mobility, and the many social structures it supports. Electronics technologies such as sensing and control will be essential in making it happen. President and CEO Satoshi Sawamura of ROHM Co., Ltd., a semiconductor device manufacturer, discusses the impact of self-driving technology on society with Hisashi Taniguchi, President and CEO of robotics development tech start-up ZMP Inc.
More and more electronics is being used in automobiles, as electronics technology implements new frameworks and functions. Automatic braking and other Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), for example, are now found in mid-range vehicles, not only luxury cars. And many automotive manufacturers are actively developing autonomous driving technology, as extensions of ADAS.
Autonomous driving technology is big news these days, but the automobile manufacturers actually began development in the 1980s. ZMP launched its own effort to provide a platform for autonomous driving technology development in 2008. Google Corp. of the US put autonomous driving back in the spotlight. Mass media ran with the story of their self-driving cars, and suddenly everyone was interested.
Until then, most automobile manufacturers working on the technology assumed that the driving assistance system would be implemented with a human driver to start, and gradually perfected until complete autonomous driving became possible. When it became clear that Google was planning on practical, fully autonomous driving from the start, the industry approach changed overnight, and everyone began aiming for the same thing.
Fully autonomous driving will require not only sophisticated electronics technology, but also a high level of safety. As a manufacturer of electronic devices, we feel a strong sense of responsibility to help resolve these issues.
The Goal is Finding Solutions to Social Problems
ZMP is involved in the development of self-driving technology, and establishing related business, to better serve society. Concretely, we believe that the technology will prove invaluable to people who are unable to make best use of available transportation modes in their daily lives.
An increasing number of people are becoming unable to drive because of age or other factors, and face a variety of inconveniences in daily life. This problem is especially severe in rural areas where population density is dropping, because when taxi companies cannot find sufficient passengers, they go out of business. That leaves the populace without a means of transportation. Autonomous driving could resolve this problem.
One of the largest costs in running a taxi operation is salary. If self-driving taxis can be used to reduce personnel overhead, then it would probably be possible to provide taxi service in even sparsely populated regions. That would make their daily lives so much easier, and make it possible for them to continue living in the homes they were used to in spite of the changed transportation environment.
These days, it is very difficult for a company to advance its business without being aware of social issues. Problems like global warming, energy shortages, and graying populations are becoming pronounced on the global level, and I think all companies are expected to contribute to resolving them, and helping construct a sustainable society. The ROHM Group is involved in corporate activity while helping find solutions to these issues. We've established our corporate credo to reflect the need to produce value for both society and the company: Creating Shared Value. This is not a new philosophy at ROHM, because we have always felt a responsibility to contribute to culture through quality products. We've held to that ever since we were founded. And we continue to supply innovative, key devices to a wide range of fields, whether the automotive industry, the industry equipment field where the Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming so important, or information technology equipment such as smartphones. Our priorityhas always been to contribute to society through products that combine power efficiency, safety, comfort, and small size.
ZMP wasn't originally developing autonomous driving technology in an effort to resolve social issues, you know.
The core of our business is automating transportation, and autonomous driving was merely one aspect. Part of our approach was to begin providing vehicles using self-driving technology, but at that time I was still uncertain if society really needed the technology or not. Sure, I realized the advantages of having your car drive you home if you had too much to drink, but that wasn't enough to make it a social necessity: it was a technology that would be handy, that was all. In 2013, though, my thinking changed. My father became ill, and when I went home to see him, I saw for myself the difficulties people like him faced, living out in the country.
When he was healthy he'd drive down to the train station to pick me up, but he couldn't drive this time, so I had to take a cab. The company that used to operate taxis from the train station, however, had gone out of business for lack of passengers, and there was no way for me to get home. I realized then how much of a problem this was for sparsely populated areas. And my opinion of autonomous driving changed from "handy" to "essential."
Autonomous Driving Opening New Businesses
Convenience is important, but a sense of responsibility can be a powerful motivation. Your own personal experience provided the clear motivation to push for the rapid development of autonomous driving technology.
I think the developments in practical autonomous driving technology will also drive increases in our automotive business.
ROHM began in resistors, discretes, and audio integrated circuits (IC), but we grew primarily through our powertrain and driving safety products, especially power supply ICs representing our strengths in analog power technology (Fig. 1). Recently we have been introducing silicon carbide (SiC) and other power devices into the upstream design process. I expect to see surging demand for modules, and new types of sensor devices, too. It presents a major business opportunity for us, but also an opportunity to put our Creating Shared Value philosophy into practice and make a real contribution to society.Fig. 1 ROHM's Autonomous Driving Solution (CEATEC 2016 demo)
We are also facing new obstacles in how to contribute to the widespread adoption of autonomous driving technology. For example, quality and precision must be significantly better than in most other products. The circuits implementing fully autonomous driving have very little margin for failure or misoperation.
ROHM has established "quality first" as a corporate motto, and unlike most semiconductor manufacturers is vertically integrated, handling every step from development to manufacturing in-house. This is a reflection of the quality-first approach we have honored since our establishment. We build quality in at every step, with reliable traceability and supply chain optimization, so that we can contribute through our products and fulfill the trust our customers place in us.
We are applying this quality to creating innovative automotive technology.
It is likely that technologies created for autonomous driving will find application in other fields as well. When self-driving vehicles become a reality, that might mean that the scale of the electronic device market serving it could expand dramatically. Autonomous driving is fundamentally a combination of technologies for recognition, judgment, and control, and those technologies are useful in a broad spectrum of applications.
ZMP is applying its autonomous driving technology in distribution systems as well (Fig. 2). Under the CarriRo product name, this system utilizes robotic carts to transport loads. The cart propels itself, minimizing operator fatigue. There is also a "freight train" mode so multiple carts can automatically follow a lead cart pushed by the operator. A single worker can control multiple carts simultaneously, providing significant productivity improvement.
The distribution industry is facing a chronic shortage in young workers due to Japan's dropping birthrate and rising average age. With the CarriRo system, we think even people with low physical strength will be able to handle this type of work.Fig. 2 ZMP Product Lines
Contributing to Improved Mobility
Fully autonomous driving would be a very high-level achievement. And that alone means the technology will be applicable to an extremely broad range of sectors.
In addition to completely self-driving vehicles there will also certainly be rapid advances in intelligent transportation systems (ITS) supported by information and communication technology (ICT) and other emerging automotive-related technologies, but I think the key point in achieving widespread use will be saving energy. As vehicles become increasingly dependent on electronics, onboard systems will consume increasing amounts of power, and the need to slash device-level dissipation will rise accordingly. This is where advanced devices such as high-efficiency power semiconductors made with next-gen SiC materials, and analog products such as power supplies combining high efficiency with ultra-low dark current, will be invaluable.
Safety functions are being developed and upgraded to minimize risk, but preventive maintenance will be increasingly important in the future. For example, fault signals from the motor and other equipment can be sensed before problems become apparent, with feedback through a high-precision control system. That sort of system is already being implemented in consumer electronics and some industrial equipment, and when it is adopted in vehicles it will probably help prevent failures there, too.
Mobility within society is evolving rapidly, not only in the form of autonomous driving, but also through advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).
It is possible that changes in mobility could bring about an information revolution, for example. With PCs and mobile phones connected to the internet, new systems that shattered existing preconceptions have become commonplace. I think the same sort of thing will happen in automobiles. When a variety of new services based on content download to the car begin operation, vehicles will be more like mobile smartphones. That transformation will demand not only new electronic devices, but also new technologies in a range of fields including security and communications. Many companies are already entering the mobility sector precisely because they realize the potential.
Expectation is high for innovation in both automobiles and the manufacturing industry overall, and an increasing number of firms are moving into new fields for new ideas. To continue to develop ourselves we have to look to the entire world, not merely Japan, and take a macro view of the market to more accurately grasp customer needs and provide the products to fulfill them. ROHM is committed to active collaboration with universities and research institutions, as well as supporting standardization activities. We work with leading universities in continuing basic research programs, accept funding proposals from young researchers, and sponsor idea contests designed to support hands-on engineers. We intend to develop even more opportunities for interaction in the future, and welcome participation by an ever-growing range of people.
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