Auto-parts maker Delphi will drive an autonomous car 3,500 miles across the country — from San Francisco to New York – in a coast-to-coast test-drive that will push self-driving-car technology to its limits.
A team of Delphi engineers will leave California in an Audi SQ5 loaded with special cameras, radar and software on March 22, hoping to arrive in New York City during the first week of the New York International Auto Show. The car will travel for six to eight hours each day and will be tested by a team of Delphi engineers who will be watching the car’s performance closely.
“Whenever we are on the road, we will always have a driver in the seat,” said Jeff Owens, Delphi’s VP and chief technical officer,” Owens said. “It’s all about … staying alert.”
The test drive will give Delphi the opportunity to collect a tremendous amount of data that the company says will be invaluable as the industry explores various forms of autonomous vehicles.
The potential for self-driving, or autonomous, cars has tantalized the automotive industry for several years.
Ford CEO Mark Fields predicted in January that an automaker could launch an autonomous car within the next five years, while a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey predicts it will take until about 2025.
While much of the technology necessary for semi-autonomous cars — such as lane-departure systems and adaptive cruise control — already exists, Owens contends it will take 20 years or more before fully-autonomous cars are sold to the general public.
“A lot of things need to be solved to get to autonomous driving,” Owens said. “We don’t have the regulatory environment (necessary) anywhere in the world, and we don’t have the legal framework.”
But Owens said Delphi isn’t worried about how long it will take for fully autonomous cars to go mainstream because automakers are already moving full-speed ahead with the development and deployment of technology. And Owens said the auto industry will continue to deploy pieces of technology that are improving the safety of cars.
“If your premise is more safety, you don’t have to get to fully autonomous to get there,” Owens said. “You don’t have to take the driver out of the seat to do that.”
Owens also said the development of autonomous-car technology represents a huge opportunity for Delphi and other auto suppliers.
Delphi booked $1.4 billion in sales in 2014 for sensors, cameras and other active safety systems — and $3 billion over the previous three years.
Owens said the market for active safety technology is growing at 35 percent annually, and Delphi’s sales in that segment are growing at 54 percent annually.
Delphi’s autonomous test car, adapted from an Audi SQ5 crossover, is far more advanced than anything on the road today. It has the ability to instantaneously make complex decisions, like stopping and proceeding at a four-way stop, timing a highway merge or calculating the safest maneuver around a bicyclist on a city street.
Glen DeVos, Delphi’s vice president of engineering, said the company has built a fleet of just four of the test vehicles. Because they are so unique, and are not designed for sale to the public, DeVos said it is impossible to estimate how much the car would cost.
“This car has more sensors than any car that has been in this space before,” DeVos said.
Other automakers are also experimenting with self-driving test cars. Mercedes-Benz revealed a sleek sedan called the F 015 Luxury in Motion concept car earlier this year and is testing it in California, while Google has made waves with its cute, bubble-like car.
DeVos said Delphi’s goal was to make its vehicle look as normal as possible. And, aside from the bright blue company logo pasted on the side, the company largely succeeded.
In the front, the vehicle is equipped with three Lidar (laser radar) and a vision camera mounted inside the front windshield. But the Lidar systems are not immediately noticeable. Two more Lidar systems are integrated into the rear bumper.
The software that interprets the data drawn from those systems and the algorithms that help the car make driving decisions were developed jointly by Delphi and Ottomatika – a company started by Carnegie Mellon University.
Delphi’s engineers have already tested the vehicle on the roads in busy downtown Las Vegas, where they had to dodge pedestrians and navigate extremely congested traffic.
“Now, we want to take this out on the highway … and test what these sensors can do and can’t do,” Owens said.