Prateek Khatpal, CTO of Cerence, a Nasdaq-listed company that aims to create top-notch in-car experiences, sets a context to our conversation when he lists three trends that are influencing the auto sector. These three are software-defined architecture, self-driving and connectivity. Then getting to the heart of what Cerence does, he says it’s a fusion of this that determines the in-cabin experience. “ At Cerence, we bring it all together,” he says.
Khatpal is in India to meet the team here at one of the most dynamic markets for the auto sector, and in which Cerence is building the base for a solid presence. The company’s intent is clear. Aniket Kulkarni, India sales head says the company’s presence is new, barely two years but “we are ramping up”. As he said, “Our focus is in the passenger car market which is a priority but we are preparing for a play in two-wheelers and CVs.” While the pandemic did affect its India game plan, Kulkarni says the company which had about 40 employees now has 400, and this was done during the thick of the Covid.
Cerence’s India operations are headquartered in Pune where it as its car labs. Here, the company software experts as well as AI and ML experts are working to develop products tailored for India.
This mission effectively means that the company is trying to adapt its mobility platform for India. The in-car experience is primarily voice-based. As Kathpal elaborates,” We want to develop products in Hindi and English, or the fusion of both, and add Tamil and Telugu too.” He further says, “Our base hardware is the same and we build in features for cars across the spectrum based on the price points.”
Cerence recently announced that SAIC Mobility Robotaxi, part of SAIC Motor, has selected it to provide mobility assistant technology for its L4 self-driving robotaxi platform. The company is already big in China, a huge team in China, and its products “cover several different flavours of Mandarin as well”. Given India’s language diversity, the market here offers a huge opportunity. Kathpal and his India senior team are now putting in the building blocks.
As Kathpal puts it,” Our global brands are being sold here and our aim is to get into India-specific brands.” Kulkarni mentions the Mercedes S class which has “full blown” Cerence technology which is available globally and here in India as well.
Explaining the technology platform that Cerence has, Kathpal says that while the base platform is the same, by which he means the hardware, there are solutions at different prices. These features would be built into the platform depending on the price point. As Kulkarni puts it, for a local brand like Tata or Maruti, the capabilities offered would be different.
From a pure tech point, the platform or the service drive framework is what a potential customer buys and they get to choose the add-ons and different services. The Cerence platform has different variations. A customer can opt for the embedded platform, which runs non-connected, but is embedded as a part of the infotainment stack, or they can opt for the connected, which is linked to the cloud. In this case, they can get a subscription-based platform for which they pay annually or the hybrid, in which case it can run partially-embedded, partially-cloud, and they can offshore, in that case, some of the processing power from the car to the cloud as well.
Explaining the technology in a little more depth, Kathpal says voice has now become proactive. “It is going to be a very important medium of control for the car going forward.” As he explains it, the steering wheels are going to disappear and the buttons on the control have already started to disappear in the cars. Then he adds gears, citing Tesla’s new Model S which has no more gear shift at all. “Voice and gestures will control the car going forward,” he emphasises.
Cerence has three car laboratories in Pune.
With three car labs in India, all in Pune and a sizable staff, it is clear that Cerence wants to leverage the Indian advantage which is not just cost but the country’s software prowess. As Hatkar says, “The automotive ecosystem being present over here was also a factor in our decision-making process. As Kulkarni puts it, Cerence has received a good reception in the Indian market. OEMs have been receptive to this change, and are in fact “more visionary than us”.
As Kathpal says, “When they are building the car, they know they are making an investment that is going to pan out in five years. They have to be right on track when the car comes out in five years of investment.”
The company has clearly studied the potential of the Indian market and as an example, the fact that there are no stop signs is cited as a characteristic. Cerence has a product that will make this via a voice. Or for that matter, a connected red light. Clearly, for the company, the potential in the Indian market is to be able to develop products in Hindi, or English and Hindi. That is the gist of the adaptation to the market here which will also include the Indian lingo, information from Indian roads, noise cancellation, street noise etc. “ We will be adding nuances,” says Kathpal.
As CTO, Kathpal says that the automotive sector is growing through a hyper growth cycle right. Now which is akin to the cycle of growth that software was going through 3-5 years ago. Today’s jobs in automotive are exciting, he avers, because when, “You tell them it’s a job in the automotive sector and on top of it, AI and ML, their eyes glow.” His priorities are to take on board Python and the C ++ developers, take them through Cerence's induction process and then train them through the key learning and AI capabilities. “They then get on to our product development process, “ he says.
As the Indian economy and the world emerges from the worst of the pandemic, Kulkarni says that while the last two years have been very challenging, Cerence's sights are clearly trained on the future. And while sales are linked to the numbers produced, the tech direction has not changed. The company is working on 3-5-year programmes down the line.
While the company’s focus is on PV’s Cerence sees enormous opportunity in two-wheelers. It is from Cerence's point of view , a logical extension and the applications are the same, volume is keen. Asked what kind of products could be potentially targeted at two-wheelers, the CTO explains that one aspect is bringing “your personal life into the head unit. Things like maps, music and contact list and apps”. Here too, as Rahul Hatkar, the company’s GM says, “It is very important that our technology fits into the mass market segments as well and that is where the whole platform strategy comes in. It can be modular and with variants at all different price points.”
Given the nature of in-car intelligent assistants, the issues about data security assumes importance. Kathpal says the company is compliant from a data security perspective, and he expresses the hope that as the India government becomes more mature from the data perspective, “it is an opportunity for us because the global brands already trust us from the data security, data sovereignty perspective. We ate already ahead in that game, and it’s an advantage we bring to our Indian customers.”
At the car labs in Pune, the company brings in pre-production cars. It is a secure facility, and then we can do speech signal enhancements and audio path quality measurements. It then goes back to the auto manufacturers and then they actually take the car into production on those placements.
So where does one go from here? While the word lifestyle may, in a sense sum up what Cerence is offering, the fact is that the future is akin to the “lounge-like experience” where one is sitting facing each other in a car. The steering has disappeared and one is actually having a pure entertainment screen. One is in a productivity environment where the car has become either a family room or a meeting room. Cerence aims to help its customers with both entertainment and productivity, he signs off.