BMW, Volkswagen try to outrace Apple & Google as big data emerges as challenge for automakers – Economic Times

Posted: Monday, June 26, 2017
FRANKFURT: Volkswagen is delving into quantum computing. BMW is building a giant new data centre. And Bosch this week announced plans to construct a factory to build chips for self-driving cars.

The moves are part of an expanding effort to build the computing capacity — so-called big data — they will need as vehicles digitise and become driverless. Cars will need to constantly communicate, absorbing and analysing information from thousands of vehicles at once, to make decisions to smooth traffic flow, save fuel and avoid hazards. That presents a huge new challenge for companies traditionally focused on manufacturing.

“The processing power needed to deal with all this data is orders of magnitude larger than what we are used to,” said Reinhard Stolle, a vice president in charge of artificial intelligence at BMW, which is building a data center near Munich. “The traditional control engineering techniques are just not able to handle the complexity anymore.”

Big data is a challenge for all automakers, but especially German companies because they target affluent customers who want the latest technology.

At the same time, focus on computing pits the automakers against Silicon Valley tech companies with far more experience, and creates an opening for firms like Apple and Google, which are already encroaching on the car business.

That has put pressure on automakers. German companies in particular have already made investments in ride-sharing services, in part to combat the rise of Uber, and are looking further into the future.

Volkswagen, a German company, recently joined the handful of large corporations worldwide that are customers of D-Wave Systems, a Canadian maker of computers that apply the mind-bending principles of quantum physics.

While some experts question their usefulness, D-Wave computers can in theory process massive amounts of information at unheard-of speeds. Martin Hofmann, Volkswagen’s chief information officer, is a believer.

“For us, it’s a new era of technology,” Hofmann said.

This year Volkswagen used a D-Wave computer to demonstrate how it could steer the movements of 10,000 taxis in Beijing at once, optimising their routes and thereby reducing congestion.

Because traffic patterns morph constantly, the challenge is to gather and analyse vehicle flows quickly enough for the data to be useful. The D-Wave computer was able to process in a few seconds information that would take a conventional supercomputer 30 minutes, said Florian Neukart, a scientist at a Volkswagen lab in San Francisco.

Such claims are met with skepticism by some experts, who say there is no convincing proof that D-Wave computers are faster than a well-programmed conventional supercomputer.

Volkswagen executives say they will publish the results of their work, allowing outsiders to try to debunk them.

If the D-Wave collaboration proves to be a misstep, it would illustrate the hazards of big data for companies whose main focus for the past century has been the internal combustion engine. It also reflects the stakes for one of the world’s biggest carmakers.

Some car companies have decided to concentrate on what they do best and let others handle the computing. Volvo Cars has been a pioneer in marrying digital technology and automobiles. It has turned to outside providers like Ericsson for computer technology. In May, Volvo said it would install Google’s Android operating system in new cars beginning in 2019. And the company is cooperating with Uber to develop self-driving cars.

“We are trying to embrace it,” said Martin Kristensson, senior director for autonomous driving and connectivity strategy at Volvo, of the challenge from Silicon Valley.

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