A System That Any Automaker Can Use to Build Self-Driving Cars
Delphi is one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers and has been working with automakers almost as long as there have been automakers. And it’s got a solid history of innovation. Among other things, it built the first electric starter in 1911, the first in-dash car radio in 1936, and the first integrated radio-navi system in 1994. Now it’s built a self-driving car, but it won’t be sold to the public. This robo-car, based on an Audi, is a shopping catalog for automakers. The car is contains every element needed to build a truly autonomous system, elements Delphi will happily sell. In other words, it’s an off-the-shelf autonomous system that could help automakers catch up with Google.
Delphi has a long history in passive safety systems—things like airbag deployment electronics—and began the progression to active safety that strive to prevent rather than merely mitigate crashes. Delphi got in the game in 1999, when Jaguar used Delphi’s radar system in the adaptive cruise control first offered on the 2000 XKE. Today, Delphi offers a range of active safety systems, from automatic emergency braking to blind spot detection to autonomous lane keeping.
Until now, those systems have operated independently of one another. Delphi wanted to make them work together. “The reality of automated driving is already here,” says John Absmeier, director of Delphi’s R&D lab in Silicon Valley. “It’s just been labeled mostly as active safety or advanced driver assistance. But really, when you take that one step further and marry it with some intelligent software, then you make automation. And you make cars that can navigate themselves.”
That marriage has come through a partnership with Ottomatika, a company spun out of Carnegie Mellon’s autonomous vehicle research efforts to commercialize its technology. Delphi provides the organs—the sensors and software for controlling the car. Ottomatika adds a central brain and nervous system—the control algorithm to bring all the data from sensors into one place and tell the car what to do. The result is Delphi’s Automated Driving System, a name so boring you’ve likely already forgotten it.
The name is lame (even if the unintended acronym, DADS, is pretty funny), but at least Delphi had the sense to pack the tech into a 2014 Audi SQ5, which it chose simply because it’s “really cool,” Absmeier says. (The company changes up its showcase vehicles; earlier this year it rolled into CES with a Tesla Model S and Fiat 500.) At first glance, the car seems stock, but it’s actually covered in high-tech sensors.
A camera in the windshield looks for lane lines, road signs, and traffic lights. Delphi slapped a midrange radar, with a range of about 80 meters, on each corner. There’s another at the front and a sixth on the rear. That’s in addition to the long-range radars on the front and back, which look 180 meters ahead and behind. They’re all hidden behind the bodywork, but the LIDAR on each corner need a clear view. So Delphi put them behind acrylic windows. “We tried to make it look pretty,” Absmeier says. The Audi designer who styled the SQ5 might consider the changed look an affront, but he’s probably not as annoyed as the Lexus employee who sees Google sticking a spinning LIDAR on the roof of the RX450h like a police siren.
To give the computer command of the SUV, engineers tapped into the electronic throttle control and steering, and added an actuator to control the brakes. The interior is essentially as it appears in an Audi showroom but for the addition of an autonomous mode button, which you twist to turn on and push to turn off.
Riding in the SQ5 in autonomous mode has a super conservative feel, accelerating slowly and braking early. No speeding, even on the highway to match the speed of traffic. It doesn’t turn right on red, which subjects the test drivers to honking and the occasional middle finger from annoyed humans. These are settings Delphi’s engineers could easily change, but for now they’re playing it safe. Very safe. That kind of caution is what Delphi wants. “If everything’s working, it should be boring,” Absmeier says. “We want boring.”
Google is taking a “moonshot” approach, aiming to put a fully autonomous car on the market within five years. Delphi, despite having developed an impressive system, is more circumspect about the prospect of eliminating the role of humans in the operation of a motor vehicle. “There’s a lot of romantic speculation—hype—around in the industry about that now,” says Owens. “I don’t know when we’ll get there, or if we’ll ever get there.”
And while Delphi likes the idea of one day selling a drop-in autonomous system, Absmeier says that’s not really the point of this project. “The platform enables us to build out all those different components that are required to make an automated driving system in a car, and OEMs can either take the whole package or they can say I want that algorithm and that sensor and that controller, or whatever it is that they need.”
A flexible system is the smart play, Delphi CTO Jeffrey Owens says, because automakers aren’t yet sure exactly what they want to offer. “They don’t know what path they’re gonna go down. They don’t know what governments are going to require, they don’t know what governments are going to not allow. They don’t know what consumers will pay for … They don’t know what insurance companies will incentivize and what they don’t care about. They don’t know what will help them in JD Power and what will hurt them in JD Power.”
That means that whether an automaker is shopping for systems to put in a luxury or bargain car, high volume or low, to meet regulations in the US or China, it can pick and choose the elements of Delphi’s system that it needs. And that’s good for Delphi, which is already in discussions with customers to sell elements from the self-driving platform in the next two years.