The Direction of Autonomous Driving

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Flex (formerly Flextronics) is a company that I've worked with for decades, both as a customer and as a supplier. Recently, they were honored with Frost & Sullivan’s Manufacturing Leadership Award. I sat down with Eric Hoarau, the senior director managing automotive innovation at Flex, to discuss his company’s views on where autonomous driving technology is heading in the next 10 to 15 years.

Dan Feinberg: Eric, congratulations to Flex for being honored with the Frost & Sullivan Manufacturing Leadership Award. That was impressive.

Eric Hoarau: Thank you. It's part of our transformation. We are happy to see that the industry is recognizing some of the work we've been doing.

Feinberg: Let’s talk about autonomous driving and autonomous transportation. Where does Flex think this technology will be in five years? I mean, we're really at the beginning of it at this point. What do you see in the next five years or even in the next 10 years?

Hoarau: It's a good question, and one I think everyone in the industry is trying to answer—and everyone has a slightly different vision of where we're going. What we do know is that—especially for the next 10 years—it's going to be exciting to be in the industry. We see autonomous technologies advancing from two different directions: autonomy features and full autonomous vehicles. While autonomous vehicles capture everyone's imagination, autonomy features are what you're starting to see in all the commercials for cars, things like automatic braking or lane keep assist. Those features will be deployed at volume soon, and their purpose is primarily to help improve the safety of the vehicle and make people better drivers.

So the features that are going into mass-market cars will meet the Level 2 to 3 specifications on the 0−5 scale developed by the SAE. We’ve already heard the announcement that Ford was going to make things like automatic breaking  a standard feature in their cars. This is a big step for the industry and for safety on the road.

Feinberg: Very big step.

Hoarau: We are excited by that too. That's on the same order of things such as seat belts that improve safety across the board. In terms of what we call L4 systems, which are autonomous systems, those will come in different ways and forms around the world. The future is not just cars or pickup trucks, but there may be all sorts and types of vehicles and business models. It's going to be more service-oriented, and business models are going to go in many different directions.

If you have a high-end vehicle, you should be able to drive autonomously on the highway in four to five years, unless there are some major regulatory setbacks. Passenger fleets on specific roads and destinations in major urban areas will also be there. Again, it's not going to be the same everywhere, right?

You recently heard some interesting news about commercial trucks. That's also coming quickly, and the main reason is that they are bigger, more expensive, they can afford the equipment, and they tend to operate mostly on the freeway. It's a perfect fit for that. And then the last thing that people tend to miss sometimes is all the shuttle services that will be delivering goods.

Feinberg: I was going to say that's a big one. I saw some things at CES and in listening to the Nvidia people talking about their advancements in artificial intelligence and their contributions to this technology, I would think that the delivery of goods is one of the very first things we're going to see. You know, the van comes by your house every day at 10:00 and you pick out the groceries you need, and it automatically charges you, and it moves on its way to the next person.

Hoarau: Some version of that, yes. And it's not necessarily going to be a large vehicle. It really could be a small vehicle. People are getting used to it in some fashion. If you've needed to visit a hospital recently, they have robotic assistants that are delivering drugs and picking up things within a confined environment. You could argue that it's not fully autonomous and making independent-decisions, but it's starting to get there.

Feinberg: I agree. And I do think that that it is going to be one of the very first ones. You know, there's been some talk that there already are some autonomous or very nearly autonomous freighters moving across the world's oceans.

Hoarau: That's correct, and the same thing with airplanes, right?

Feinberg: Airplanes are a little scary.

Hoarau: But today, the technology is fully capable of taking off and landing the planes, but for regulations, the pilot does it. But once it's in the air, it's mainly controlled by the system.

Feinberg: It really is. Well one of the things I've been following is that in five or 10 years we'll soon see freeways that will be reserved for autonomous vehicles only, where a human being would not be allowed to control them. I think one of the biggest drivers of autonomous vehicles—and I'd like to have your opinion on this—is that most accidents are caused by human error. I think we're going to see a lot of arguments for autonomous driving in that it will reduce the number of accidents significantly. What's your opinion on that?

Hoarau: Yes. It's an interesting point. And, by the way, when we're thinking about being disruptive, the way we're looking at it is in a transformative way. Society is changing to hopefully bring more efficient productivity into the system and these technologies will help you with that. I like to think about it on the positive side and on how it can help us.

Feinberg: I absolutely do not think that disruptive means negative. I think it just means change.

Hoarau: Yes. And those are exciting changes, right? We look at it from the mobility perspective. Mobility is a broad space and autonomous vehicles are one component around that. And like you say, there could be lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles, much like you have separate, dedicated bike lanes in many cities today. These are for safety but also to create new means of transportation that people can enjoy, and also help with congestion. I totally agree with you that this will be a great way for society to improve productivity, efficiency and most importantly, I believe, the quality of life.

Feinberg: I agree. When I sit on I-5 here in California to get someplace 20 miles away, and I've been in traffic for 40 minutes, I would love to have my vehicle driving me. I could do some work.

Hoarau: Yes, or relax. At least it would technically be safer, for sure. But from a point earlier, things like automatic breaking and lane assist in Level 2−3 cars are already starting to help with the safety aspect. With fully autonomous vehicles, it's going to be a sliding scale of improvement because it's not going to be the same everywhere, and not every vehicle will be autonomous. And, honestly, no one really knows yet what the future is going to look like. But for a fully autonomous system, you should expect the system to be better at avoiding human errors than what we have today. That's for sure. I think everyone agrees with that statement.

Feinberg: Let me ask you a few things about Flex's involvement with this. What segment do you think Flex will focus on?

Hoarau: We want to be the solutions provider. And that includes manufacturing and manufacturing at scale. Many systems today are small production trial and prototypes. We want to help companies scale those systems so that they can be deployed, both for full autonomy and what we like to call the journey to autonomy. We have a vision of full autonomy in our mind, but there are a lot of opportunities and things to be done along the way.

Feinberg: You're on the path and the path right now is taking us well into the semi-autonomous mode, but with the end goal being full autonomy.

Hoarau: Exactly. We see ourselves helping the manufacturer with many different parts to help them accelerate that transformation and build their products at scale. Flex is unique in this sense in that we play in so many industries at once, and this transformation is touching many of them. The autonomous vehicle is not just about the car or the vehicle, it's also about the cloud connectivity, it's about the servers on the back end. There are a lot of different pieces of the equation, and those are all areas that Flex is actively a player in today. We feel we can help by connecting the dots and helping them plan where the technology is going and see how we can get there.

Feinberg: It's also about autonomous vehicles communicating with each other.

Hoarau: You're correct. The vehicle-to-vehicle, the vehicle-to-infrastructure, that's coming up now in some form, but it would be there.

Feinberg: If you think about the tragic bridge collapse in Florida the other day, and let's say that there were autonomous vehicles. Well, obviously the bridge wasn't lying on the ground, so the autonomous vehicle wouldn't know about it, and maybe it would have seen it in time, but, with the communications now, one vehicle says to every other vehicle, “Hey, we've got a problem here, avoid this area.”

Hoarau: That’s right. What we've done in this space is to partner with a company called Savari, which is developing a software stack for vehicle infrastructure and then we're helping with the hardware piece of the equation.



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