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ÅF: Gothenburg has the expertise to develop the safe vehicles of the future

You have to train for a long time before you can jump really high, and the same applies to building complex and safe systems such as self-driving vehicles, comments Christian U Larsson of ÅF Consult in Business Region Göteborg's series of articles on the technology consulting industry.

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Sweden is a leading nation in road safety and this is reflected in, for example, the zero vision initiative with the long-term ambition of no severe injuries or fatalities resulting from road traffic accidents in Sweden. Volvo Cars, with a list of innovations including the three-point seat belt, the first prototype for a rear-facing child car seat and side impact protection, has a history of profiling itself as a world leader in road safety.

And safety is where the conversation begins when we meet Christian U Larsson, Business Leader Active Safety & Autonomous Drive, at ÅF Consult's offices in Lindholmen. Does he see ties to past efforts? Do we benefit from having been at the forefront of safety in the past?  

"Definitely, much of the development takes place incrementally, with the level of complexity increasing gradually. We build the more advanced systems of tomorrow based on the experience accumulated from previous projects. Domain knowledge and expertise acquired in earlier system development work are prerequisites for understanding the challenges faced when building even more complex and safer systems, such as self-driving cars. In terms of not only design, but also of verification, a non-negotiable phase – we not only need to design the gadgets and functions, we must also be able to sign off on them at the end. If you have a couple of projects under your belt and it's become instinctive, you have a better grasp on such matters. As a high jumper, you have to train extensively before you can jump really high, and the same applies here."

So says Christian and mentions systems such as FCW (Forward Collision Warning), which warns the driver if they're on a collision course with an object in front of the car, CMbB (Collision Mitigation by Braking), which applies some braking to reduce the severity of the accident, and AEB (Autonomous Emergency Braking), which brakes more heavily to reduce speed and in some cases completely avoids impact.

"When self-driving cars are in 'self-driving mode', the car manufacturer is liable, not the driver. The car manufacturer must then ensure that the car operates safely and doesn't collide with anything. The car needs to 'see', 'evaluate' and 'act' based on the objects in its immediate vicinity under defined conditions. Car manufacturers have gained extremely valuable experience from earlier developments in the field of ADAS."

In addition to challenges in traditional development, the automotive industry is also facing disruptive challenges within mobility development, Christian explains. The 'traditional' development arena is being challenged by the need for increasingly more customer functionality to be developed and tested in the same or less time.

"The vehicle ownership model is also being challenged by demands for new mobility solutions and the automotive industry is evolving in a direction where new skills and partnerships are needed to keep pace with development. The future will see even greater complexity with business models and system solutions vastly different to those of today."

Christian U Larsson

The automotive industry has become an engine in the ongoing development boom seen in the Gothenburg region. What's your take on Western Sweden's automotive cluster? What are its foremost strengths?

"The automotive cluster we see today wasn't built in a day, instead it's the result of persistent investment, modification and change. Since 2005, Region Västra Götaland has bolstered the infrastructure for innovation in automotive and transport technology by creating development arenas to complement the more academic R&D system. Investments have been made in the relevant skill sets, relevant companies have moved here and promising infrastructure has been established. The regional innovation system and the de facto region for automotive innovation largely overlap."

We'll soon have a century-old tradition of automotive development in the region, and we also have strong traditions in the IT and telecom sectors – and now these sectors are interacting. What will this entail?

"There's a lot going on. It enables considerably more complex system solutions. Companies can deliver significantly more innovative customer functions, such as Volvo Cars' slippery road warning function. The IT and automotive industries each have their own areas of expertise, but both have a lot to learn from each other. The production development process for a car is three years, and if you open the bonnet and compare what you see to how things looked 20 years ago, the space is full now. And it's not just the engine compartment this concerns, but all the control units and software too," says Christian.

And, he emphasises, this is to be achieved in increasingly less time, which means you need more efficient processes to develop and verify the software. This is where the IT companies fit in, with more efficient test and verification loops. What's more, they launch new software more frequently.  

"As a car manufacturer, you try to create a hardware platform that not only fulfils needs when the car is launched, but also offers scope to develop additional functionality for your customers. Today we're accustomed to updates, what with our smartphones updating themselves overnight."

Christian U Larsson

Our region is good at system solutions. In many other countries, people work with either vehicles or technology or urban development, whereas in Gothenburg we're good at integrating them. Why is this?

"To a large extent, it's down to the infrastructure and collaborative culture found in the Gothenburg region – but also the desire to make a difference. What's more, Gothenburg is a moderately sized city, making it possible and viable to conduct different types of pilot projects. Here in Lindholmen, everyone in the automotive cluster is so close to one another, and we have access to open arenas that make meetings and collaborations more natural."

If you compare development, both the field and the environment, to a pyramid, then the Gothenburg region has a very solid base, says Christian. And if you have a broad base, you can quickly build a tall pyramid, whereas a narrow or non-existent base makes for a very unstable construction.  

"I'd say that even if we're seeing high-paced development in, for example, China, they don't have the same solid foundation to stand on as we do. The challenge there is to understand what the actual challenge is, and it'll probably take a few more years before they catch up. We might not have the monetary resources of China, but we've already made more progress because we started much earlier. And that's a great advantage."

What's your take on the collaborative climate in the region? How would you define the culture and how can we leverage it even more? 

"In Sweden, we're great at working together compared to many other places, and we're very open. I think it's because we're a small country with few people, so there's a need to help each other. The future will see even greater complexity, business models and system solutions will differ from those of today. We can reach even greater common ground by the public sector encouraging cross-functional collaborations and actively participating in the open arenas. Moreover, we must pursue even more important pilot projects. If we can increase the frequency of this type of collaborative initiative, we'll make more progress faster."

Traditionally, the Gothenburg region has a very mobile workforce. In many European automotive clusters, people are more likely to work for a single product company and stay there. Here we have a workforce that's flexible and moves between different companies, bringing knowledge and refining it in new contexts, which is an advantage for the region.

"Since the automotive industry is highly reliant on consulting companies, their consultants can offer expertise accumulated during previous assignments. Naturally, all consultants are bound by NDAs, non-disclosure agreements, so they're not divulging trade secrets, but they do have the experience of having worked on many different projects. Fortunately, in this region we don't have any major competitors – the heavy vehicle industry isn't really competing with the passenger car sector and Ericsson isn't competing with the Volvo companies. So this creates a fantastic environment in which we can truly embrace different skills and combine them."

What role do you think the consulting industry plays in the region's automotive cluster?

"The role of the consulting industry is to understand future challenges and trends, to offer the right resources and skill sets and to help clients who lack the necessary 'critical mass'. All consulting companies can't be everywhere at once, but it's our joint responsibility to understand where the region is headed so that we can help recruit and provide people with the right skills at the right time. All consulting companies need to have a good grasp on this so that we can create a suitable workforce."

Tell us about ÅF!

"ÅF is an engineering and consulting company that works with energy, industry and infrastructure. By combining different areas of technology and expertise, we create profitable, innovative and sustainable solutions for a better future. Our base is in Europe, but our operations and our clients are found throughout the world, from Brazil to Vietnam. In 2016, ÅF conducted projects in more than one hundred countries worldwide. We offer all imaginable technical services in the automotive industry and have 1,500 engineers spread throughout the global car industry, helping 40 different automotive clients. We deliver right across the automotive industry, in fact we have services covering the entire breadth. If we wanted to, we could build a car ourselves."

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