Sachin Lawande, Visteon Corporation's president and CEO, who visited Chennai recently, speaks on the speedy digitisation of the vehicle cockpit, autonomous driving technologies, bringing artificial intelligence into cars, the dynamic Phoenix infotainment platform, and challenging his team to introduce the world's best technologies to India. An interview by Kiran Bajad.
Automotive electronics is a rapidly evolving industry. What are the new technologies that Visteon is currently working on?
Automotive electronics certainly is the most interesting and fastest evolving of the various sub-segments that make up the automotive industry, especially the passenger vehicle market. There are different trends that are cutting across.
In the 17-odd years that I’ve been in the industry, I have never seen a time like we are experiencing right now in terms of different kinds of innovations. Of all the technologies which have driven so much of the innovation in the consumer electronics space, the Cloud, information displays and artificial intelligence (AI) are all starting to have an impact in the automotive industry.
What, in your opinion, will be among the most exciting developments in the near future in vehicle electronics?
Over the past 20 years or so, automotive electronics has changed substantially. Electronic Control Units (ECUs), which are essentially the computers that drive various functions inside vehicles, have steadily grown from less than 10 in the early years now to 150 in some cars. The average in the developed world is 30-40 ECUs per vehicle. With new capabilities coming in, especially in the area of autonomous driving or ADAS, and connected cars, the number of ECUs is being driven even higher.
One big trend that is going to play a big role across the entire gamut of automotive electronics is the consolidation of the ECUs into domains. More powerful domain controllers are driving the electronics within that domain instead of a collection of ECUs. For example, the cockpit area, once made of separate ECUs for a cluster, infotainment or audio, is now powered by bigger and more powerful computers – we call it a cockpit domain controller. The same is the case for ADAS and body controllers, among other things. That’s a very fascinating trend.
What this allows us to do is to bring the benefits of richer software and a computer platform which is much more powerful than what we used to have in ECUs. This opens up a tremendous amount of potential and capabilities.
Autonomous, connected cars and electric vehicles are the mega trends dominating industry globally. What opportunities do they offer Visteon?
Since we play in the connected cars space today, they are a very big area of focus. We are making inroads in the autonomous domain and the opportunities it is providing.
In connected cars, the key things that are driving (growth) are digitisation of the cockpit and the desire to bring more and more digital content, either from your personal devices or the cloud, into the vehicle. It’s a long-term trend that is driving all the analog devices. We are midway through that transformation, which is now opening up possibilities, such as autonomous, to consider other capabilities.
We are very excited about autonomous vehicles. When one talks about autonomous, it has to be about the levels. Level 3 is a sort of entry gate into the world of autonomous. Below Level 3, it’s ADAS. At Level 3, there still is a significant role that the driver plays because the system is not capable of handling all situations. At Level 4, the vehicle is capable of handling the car with a very well-defined domain. Two examples could be the highway mode and driverless self-parking. But when you go to Level 5, it’s fully autonomous in all conditions.
Technology today is at these levels. We are absolutely capable of developing and producing Level 3 of autonomy and are working towards Level 4. We see a tremendous opportunity because we believe that Visteon, with our domain controller expertise developed using SmartCore technology, is in a great position to get us into autonomous driving technologies.
Visteon has recently set up a new Artificial Intelligence centre in Silicon Valley. What is the overarching plan behind this?
A lot of this activity has come out of Stanford University and in Silicon Valley there is a tremendous amount of talent, investment and attention given specifically to the problems of applying artificial intelligence to the challenges of automotive. It was natural for us to set up our office with intent to collaborate very closely; we are working together with Nvidia, Google and other companies. We believe a collaborative approach towards this big and complex problem is best; nobody probably would have the entire solution on its own. A way to come up with a solution is by being more collaborative.
Bringing AI into the car is the specific area where we want to focus and we believe we are in a better position than most other players. Visteon is working with some of the leaders driving AI technology and bringing it into automotive; that is the role of our Silicon Valley office.
We have opened another office in Germany, which is also focusing on this to collaborate with Silicon Valley. The aim of this office is to bring our technologies to German OEMs who, I believe, are leaders in this space.
How big is the Silicon Valley office?
Our expectations in terms of the R&D team for self-driving capability by the end of 2017 is about 150 people; we are very much on track with nearly 50 people as of now. We continue to look for new talent but this is an area where there’s a tremendous struggle to get the right talent. This is not going to be done in the next year or two but we are going to invest for a number of years and are fully prepared to do so. We believe it is very fundamental for the future of automotive.
On the passenger car cockpit electronics front, what trends do you foresee for developing or APAC markets?
It’s a very fascinating area. Firstly, there’s the trend towards digitisation; instrument clusters which used to be analog became hybrid and are now moving towards all-digital. The benefits of all-digital versus hybrid are very obvious and it’s very difficult to predict what kind of information we may need on that cluster five years from now.
Putting all the clusters really allows OEMs that flexibility to change later on the information they would like to show on the cluster. We see that the trends of digitisation and of putting bigger displays cut across all markets and all vehicles.
The second trend, mentioned earlier, is the integration of various ECUs into a single ECU which delivers benefits of reducing cost, space, weight and power consumption. This, especially with the electrification of powertrains, is extremely important.
Head-Up Display is one of the faster-growing products within cockpit electronics.
Another big change we are seeing is the emergence of an interesting category – the Head-Up-Display (HUD), which is one of the faster-growing products within cockpit electronics today. HUD has a lot of benefits, the biggest being that it allows you to consume information while keeping your eyes on the road, which is important from the safety point of view.
Do you foresee HUDs coming to emerging markets like India?
We definitely see it coming to emerging markets and China certainly is a big market for it. We have also started seeing interest in India for HUDs for the same reason and the costs are also coming down. The cost, especially of the so-called combiner HUDs, is coming down to a point where it will be very viable.
Recently Visteon bagged a mandate for SmartCore technology from a Chinese OEM. How you view this development?
It’s a significant development and the very first cockpit domain development solution ever in the Chinese industry. We are very happy to be awarded and it has the potential to cut across all their vehicle line-up.
There are many benefits as we have discussed on cost, weight, space, and power consumption and user experience. But, more fundamentally, it represents the ability to be much more software oriented in the cockpit and that will continue to grow. It will be commercially launched in 2018 for an SUV in China. I am very optimistic that some solutions like that will come to India in future.
Visteon says Phoenix (above) signals a technological breakthrough, being the first automotive infotainment system to facilitate app creation through a software development kit and software simulation of the target hardware system.
Visteon displayed the Phoenix global infotainment platform at the Shanghai Auto Show in April. What are its highlights?Phoenix is a very innovative solution which tries to address the challenge of making the cockpit application platform much like mobile phones. What made Apple phones and the Android phone popular and successful is not the fact that they are open source or closed source. What really opens up the potential is the fact that they did something that the rest of us need to take into account. They created an App eco-system that enables third parties, with very inexpensively and minimal efforts, to bring Apps to the market. We in automotive have not done that, and it (concerned) me for a number of years. This is our first opportunity to be able to do so.
What Phoenix does, irrespective of the OEM or vehicle model, is that it allows an application developer with very simple tools to create an application which is expected to run everywhere. It has that potential and we are very happy with the response we have received from OEM customers. There was a lot of excitement when we launched it initially at CES 2016 and took it to Shanghai. I wouldn’t be surprised if China becomes our first market for Phoenix.
What is the road-map for Phoenix and do you see it going into production?
We have about 4-5 active engagements right now where we are evaluating the technology in terms of applicability to their future programs. Any one of them might end up being the first customer. You always eagerly await the first customer for any new technology. We are very excited about 4-5 ongoing engagements in North America, Japan, China and South America.
China has been Visteon’s biggest market and you cater to all key OEMs there. In FY2017, India crossed 3-million passenger car sales for the first time. How do you view the Indian market and the opportunities it offers?
I am very optimistic about the market in India. The recent numbers show strong performance in the retail sector. Overall, there is a growing sense of confidence in the Indian economy and the automotive market at large. We see several opportunities for our products and technologies no different than what we have seen in China.
In China, we saw 20 percent year-on-year growth last year. This year, we expect to grow another 20 percent. Where China was for us a few years ago is where India is today. Will we see India doing a similar thing for us in the coming year? Yes, we are very happy to be here and work with OEMs and bring our technologies to them.
We want to play on the strength of technologies and don’t want to be just a low-cost provider. We want to be a cost-efficient provider of the best technology because we believe consumers, including those in India, deserve the best technology in their cars. Cost should not be the reason why they are not able to access those technologies. That is the challenge I am giving our team – offer all those technologies to customers and how to bring them to India.
The cost-conscious Indian market is also embracing new tech. How is Visteon working on solutions for India?
I look at the technology adoption of India with what’s happening with broadband as an example. India is making huge investments leapfrogging some of the technologies
all together to get on the next-generation technologies. I expect the same thing to happen with automotive.
We will not necessarily go through the same sequential incremental innovation but leapfrog. Sometimes, that has the advantage of coming slightly late to the party but of being able to access the latest technologies.
What I like about the Indian market and car manufacturers in particular is that they are very ambitious – they don’t see themselves as just domestic car manufacturers but competing with global car makers. They have one eye on what their counterparts elsewhere are doing and want to bring those capabilities to India. Where I see they have an edge than many others is that they also understand instinctively what the Indian market needs.
How are you leveraging India’s strength in the technology domain and also local talent for your global programs?
India, which is one of our largest software development centres in the world, has such a tremendous depth of talent. We do lots of work here but what is more exciting and interesting is that we have strong participation from teams in India in some of the newest and latest things we talked about earlier – artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, connected cars and cloud computing. I am very happy with that kind of talent in Visteon India.
India already has huge software talent and we want to have access to that talent. We have offices in Chennai, Bangalore and Pune and over 1,000 software developers in India. I expect us to continue to grow. We expect this number will grow significantly in the coming years as the entire industry, along with us, gets transformed more towards software.
How do you relax when you are away from office?
It’s a good question. A lot of people tell me that I am not doing enough of it. But the fact is that these are very interesting times and there’s so much going on here. I am very motivated and interested in understanding as much of it as possible – whether it is technology, business, evolution of the market or products. I spend a lot of time reading about different markets, where they are headed and different technologies.
When it comes to downtime, which all of us need and should take time out to recharge, it is usually with family. Between family and work, I don’t get much time for anything else. I travel extensively and I always find that most of my learning occurs outside of the office usually when I am visiting customers. So I tend to make it a point to be with customers and also out at our facilities. It’s been a very busy and hectic time but when you enjoy what you are doing, you don’t feel like you are working.
You hail from Goa and are closely associated with Maharashtra state. What do you think of the state and its growth potential?
We believe Maharashtra is doing some things right, especially with respect to automotive. Pune has been a centre of automotive and the ready talent available in and around the city is outstanding.
This is an area that, as I often say, will see more change in the next 10 years than what we have seen in the past 50 years. This is the place where you want to be and there are not many areas of technologies that are going to see this kind of excitement and opportunities as in automotive. For youngsters exploring a career in the industry, I would suggest very highly to think of technology in automotive.
This interview was first published in Autocar Professional's June 1, 2017 issue.