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Self-driving vehicles

Semcon: History important when developing self-driving vehicles

The self-driving car is part of the city ecosystem of the future and no longer tops the pyramid. This is an area where the Gothenburg region has a substantial competitive advantage thanks to our openness and ability to collaborate well, says Carl-Johan Aldén at Semcon in Business Region Göteborg's series of articles on the technology consulting industry.

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When international consultancy Roland Berger ranked the world's countries in terms of the automotive industry, Sweden came third in the company's Automated Vehicle Index. In another survey, AVRI 2018, conducted by KPMG, Sweden ranks fourth.

Each index is based on legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure and consumer acceptance. Depending on how the different factors are weighted, the world's countries end up in different positions in each ranking. What is apparent, however, is that Sweden has a top international position when it comes to the development of self-driving vehicles.

The Gothenburg region is home to a number of initiatives that aim to develop the self-driving transport solutions of the future. These include the Vinnova-funded project Drive Sweden, which is headed by Lindholmen Science Park, and Born To Drive, a software-based solution that will optimise the logistics chain for passenger cars by helping them to drive themselves. And for some time now, a number of self-driving Volvo XC90 cars have been operating on public roads in Gothenburg as part of Drive Me, the world's first large-scale pilot project for autonomous driving.

We meet Carl-Johan Aldén, Business Manager Autonomous and AI Solutions, at Semcon's head office in Lindholmen, Gothenburg, to talk about self-driving vehicles.

The increasing level of automation can be seen as the next step in road safety, a field where Volvo Cars has always profiled itself as a world leader. Do you see ties to past efforts? Do we benefit from having been at the forefront of safety in the past now that we're developing autonomous driving?

"It's an important link. It's a well-known fact that Volvo Cars has had safety as one of its core values for many decades and it's an advantage having the two Volvo companies as engines in the Gothenburg region, what with them both being world leaders in their respective fields. Today, we also have CEVT and Geely in Gothenburg and Nevs in Trollhättan, a town that still has a significant automotive industry working very closely with Gothenburg and various suppliers," says Carl-Johan.  

"We have a major advantage in having been developing active safety here in the region for more than ten years, and we've been able to base each step towards autonomous driving on past experience, giving us a good chance of getting the next step right. It might seem like the new American startups are way ahead – and in some respects they are – but we shouldn't forget that the traditional automotive industry has been making this journey for a long time, which is an obvious advantage."

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 region's strength is that all levels are found here – auto manufacturers, suppliers for different phases and the full breadth of the service sector. We have extensive experience, a high level of expertise and a very positive approach to collaboration. So all in all, the region boasts a complete cluster. International players are also represented in the region, with smaller local offices. Then there's us, Semcon, and other engineering companies, both large and small, working in the industry. Parallel to this, we have our highly favourable research climate, which is one of the region's greatest strengths. In other countries, research is pretty much company specific and secret; it's not until the development phase that they open things up and enlist the help of suppliers and consultants. In Sweden, we have a different kind of openness in the research phase of our R&D projects, with several actors collaborating. This is a great strength that we should most definitely maintain."

Carl-Johan also emphasises the fact that we have not only the traditional automotive business in the Gothenburg region, but also thriving telecom and IT sectors, which actively work with the automotive industry and collaborate on various research projects.

"Not every region has this breadth. Take Detroit for instance, there's not a great deal of IT and telecom there."

Geographic proximity and Gothenburg's relatively small size are also key, says Carl-Johan and mentions Lindholmen Science Park, where all involved meet on a daily basis. People eat lunch together, and talk to each other regardless of whether they have any business or joint projects under way. Everyone knows everyone. 

"Now that we're transitioning to autonomous and connected vehicles and a new ecosystem in which the car is part of the city of the future, it no longer tops the pyramid. That place belongs to society or the city instead, making it natural to embrace the opportunities that service providers can offer in terms of software, electronics and so on. In this area, Sweden and the Gothenburg region have a substantial competitive advantage thanks to our openness and ability to collaborate well. More hierarchical countries have had more trouble making this transition, in both their mindsets and their organisations. Whoever can collaborate best will win, and that's not necessarily the biggest." 

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Carl-Johan Aldén

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

"It'll be very interesting for the automotive industry to learn from other industries when it comes to agile development methods. Once again, an open environment and collaboration are key. If we consider the car as an isolated product transitioning to a connected product in an ecosystem, it becomes clear that there are many skill sets which are not traditional automotive skill sets – connectivity, cloud solutions and so on. This is where it's important – in terms of the technology – to combine skill sets and take advantage of best practice as applied to other fields. Take the pharmaceutical industry, for example, as regards quality assurance. Quality assurance is already at a very high level in the automotive industry, but for obvious reasons it's even higher in the pharmaceutical industry. And now that we're transitioning to autonomous vehicles, quality assurance is even more important, nothing is allowed to go wrong quite simply. Very many of the quality management experts here at Semcon originally worked in the pharmaceutical industry."

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?

"I think it's down to two things. First, our high-quality educational programmes introduce a very broad and holistic approach early on. In Germany, for example, when studying a technical subject you specialise in one particular field. Second, our graduate engineers enter an industry with relatively flat organisations and, above all else, open environments where employees are encouraged to think and act independently. Swedes generally have broad skill sets, together with both the will and the courage to exercise them. In Asia or Germany, operations are much more segmented and people are highly specialised in one field."

Carl-Johan believes that the Swedish mindset is a good fit for autonomous driving, which encompasses very many steps – design, UX, architecture, connectivity, immediate surroundings analysis, sensors/hardware, software, decision making, integration, verification, validation and aftermarket. That is, more system solutions than component solutions by far. He also thinks that the product companies and the region should position themselves high up in the food chain, at a system level with a focus on the user experience, the interaction between the customer and the product.

"Consideration for and refining the end user's experience is also something that we're very good at in Sweden. That's why we've invested in such a large design department at Semcon, with over one hundred employees and a dedicated user experience department. Basic technologies can be advantageously developed in other, low-cost countries while we concentrate on developing cutting-edge technology and system solutions in this region. After all, we have limited capacity in the region and it's simply impossible to do everything locally."

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 is flexible and moves between different companies, bringing knowledge and refining it in new contexts. What are your thoughts on this?

"People switch both industry and company more often today, we're seeing that more and more. Things are more flexible in the region, compared to say Asia where people often work for one and the same company their entire life still. This benefits the level of general knowledge in that people get to see and learn different things. This is of course our core business at Semcon, this is our strength. We work explicitly to ensure that our staff don't have to do the same thing their entire life, otherwise clients don't really benefit from engaging a consultant, you lose the advantage offered by diversity. We work a great deal with diversity in general, with some 30 nationalities here at our office in Gothenburg alone, and have a good balance between men and women – considering we're in the engineering industry. Diversity is essential to ensuring a broad approach and a broad perspective, as well as for being a leading innovator."

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

"There's a great deal of activity in the automotive cluster, what with autonomous driving, electrification and the whole infotainment bit, and there's a great need for external help. It's easy to believe that the big German auto manufacturers do a lot themselves, but they focus only on certain core elements and outsource the rest to suppliers and service companies. CEVT engages a large number of consultants here in Gothenburg, but it also uses traditional product companies and suppliers. It's quite natural, development times in the automotive industry have dropped from product life cycles of between six and eight years to three years between updates and the next step will be regular over-the-air updates. There's an incredible amount of technology in cars today, and it's not strategically smart for auto manufacturers to do everything themselves."

Carl-Johan describes Semcon's input to the client's business as a ladder – first direct service, engineering work on site at the client, then solution-based, packaging some kind of delivery into a project, and finally managed services, where the consulting company takes over parts of operations to free the client's resources, enabling them to concentrate on their core business. As an example, Semcon helps clients around the world manage their entire aftermarket activities. Semcon also leads development in so-called facelifts, which entail major updates to a car model, generally about halfway through the product life cycle. Within autonomous driving, Semcon has a broad offering of advisory services, systems and software development, product integration and global testing. And finally, Semcon helps its clients worldwide with everything from consulting services on site to turnkey solutions provided by the desired Semcon office anywhere in the world.  

"Providing added value to the client's entire business is something that Semcon always strives to do, based on the broad expertise we've accumulated from various sectors, industries and countries. This means that in certain cases we're more like advisors to our clients, providing early help with strategy, innovation, design and the user experience. This enables us to have a significant impact and to help clients in a completely different way," says Carl-Johan. 

What's your take on development within the automotive industry?

"We can see two development tracks within autonomous driving. One track follows the evolutionary school of thought, where you take one step at a time, moving from level 1 to level 2 towards a self-driving car. A number of premium car manufacturers have done this for ten years now, having reached the fifth, sixth or seventh generation of these systems, such as lane keeping systems, automatic braking systems and so on, which comprise the main components of an autonomous driving solution."

The Gothenburg region's automotive cluster has a major advantage in having been developing active safety for more than ten years, says Carl-Johan. They've been able to base each step on past experience, giving them a good chance of getting the next step towards completely self-driving cars right.

The other development track entails striving for the final goal directly, that is, a self-driving car at level 4, and Google Car is a prime example of this.  

"We can debate whether it's sensible to take such a giant step when the goal is so very demanding, but right or wrong, this approach challenges the traditional automotive industry, which in the big picture is good for development," says Carl-Johan.

Tell us about Semcon!

"Semcon's core business is product development based on human behaviour and consists mainly of engineering services and the full gamut of product information, encompassing everything from research, advisory services, strategy, design and architecture to systems development, hardware development, software development, integration, testing, validation and aftermarket. Semcon's strength is that we have a foundation based on 40 years' experience of automotive development with sound expert knowledge and extensive delivery capacity comprising more than 2,000 engineers. Parallel to this, we're very innovative, open, modern and keen to remain proactive moving forward, in terms of both our offering and our corporate culture. At Semcon, we always follow our motto, 'People first, then technology'. The technology must be adapted to the people, not the other way around. This human perspective is something that truly characterises all of Semcon."

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