DW Economic Journal: Could you describe the scope of your responsibilities at Renault?
Thierry VIADIEU: As far as connected cars are concerned, the field of endeavour for the Product Planning and Programs department covers on-board systems (multimedia systems), offboard systems (servers) and connected services. For autonomous vehicles, it covers autonomy and the components that enable that autonomy (sensors, radars, cameras, LIDAR, etc.).
Our task is to ensure that what we want to deliver to our customers (as set out by the Product Engineering and Sales and Marketing departments) is properly expressed, then taken into account by those in charge of development. We give them the budget they need, and we ensure that the plan they put into effect lines up with their mandate. These projects are then contracted with the Vehicles Program departments which will adopt these developments and we commit to results.
Over the course of its lifespan, we ensure that the project is on track and make the necessary decisions when it deviates. Top management receives progress reports on a regular basis.
We often associate the notion of the self-driving car with that of the connected car, as the latter is a stage in and a prerequisite for making a car autonomous. But users are not terribly clear on exactly what services a connected car provides. What does Renault offer its customers in this regard? And which applications do you believe are the most promising for the next five years? Can you share any figures on your connected car output?
Autonomy and connectivity cover two different technical fields, and exist independently of one another. But of course the autonomous car will be highly connected.
The connected car has been around for some time. For instance, the traffic information given by navigation systems requires connectivity. Today, through its RLink systems, Renault offers a range of connected services: traffic information, Coyote, access to e-mail, access to a variety of apps from the app store, data for fleet management or pay-as-you-drive insurance contracts, opening car doors using a smartphone for car-sharing services (RAccess), and so on.
In a not too distant future, the range of services on offer will be very broad and cover different value fields such as monitoring the state of the vehicle (preventive maintenance), remote actions (setting the vehicle’s inside temperature, opening the boot for deliveries), easy driving (booking parking spots, travel recommendations), mobility services (opening doors with a smartphone, multimodal solutions), personalised virtual assistant with connections to one’s digital devices (links to calendars, appointment bookings, restaurant reservations, etc.). Depending on their needs, each customer will choose the services they find most useful.
The job of the autonomous car is to gradually relieve drivers of certain driving tasks, aiming to take a complete control of the vehicle. This will give drivers more time to do other things during their drive time, so an advanced connectivity solution will be absolutely vital to the offer of autonomy. This offer could go as far as the ability to work in one’s car, and videoconference from the vehicle.
The ubiquity of the smartphone and the apps designed for the two main platforms, iOS and Android, is pushing car-makers to offer drivers the ability to replicate the familiar digital environment on their vehicle’s display. At the same time, car-makers also want to protect the independence of their relationship with customers for certain services, such as maintenance. What are the services that the car manufacturer must deliver directly or indirectly, but independently from mobile application platforms?
A fluid relationship between the customer’s smartphone and the car’s multimedia system (which we call smartphone integration) is key to ensuring the digital continuity our customers demand. That being said, we need to keep in mind that – while awaiting the autonomous vehicle – the driver is still in the driver’s seat, and any activity that might distract her/him and threaten her/his safety must be avoided. This is why certain apps are “replicated” in the multimedia system, and in a very strict fashion. So drivers will have access to a very limited number of their smartphone’s features.
As to the relationship with the two digital giants, Google and Apple, it is clear that all car-makers have certain concerns over the ultimate consequences of smartphone integration. Some have taken the path of defining integration standards that allow them not to rely on those developed by Google and Apple, while others have even announced they would not be offering those applications.
At Renault we have chosen to offer CarPlay (Apple) and Android Auto because we think that’s what our customers want. On the other hand, we are very careful about creating a balanced relationship and about the data being relayed, by ensuring that it in no way jeopardises our customers, or our business models.
To illustrate the merits of having a good relationship between the car-maker and an application, let’s use the simple example of looking for a petrol station. An application that indicates all of the petrol stations in the vicinity is clearly useful when we are driving and need to fill up. However, its value increases tremendously if it can also gauge how full the tank is and tell us the best time and place (cost, mileage remaining) to fill up the tank.
The car dealership obviously has a very important role in selling vehicles and promoting the latest innovations, and in maintenance and customer relations. In what way do you take this into account? What is their role today, and how will it change in future?
Renault dealers play a key role in our relationship with customers, and in informing them about our products. We believe this will continue to be the case with connected services. Naturally this relationship is evolving as customers are getting more and more information from the internet, and are able to discover products online from home, but it is undeniable that physical contact with a product and an informed representative will remain an important ingredient in quality of service. As proof, I offer up the direction being taken by certain major internet companies, such as Amazon, which plan on opening up brick and mortar shops in major cities. In this respect, the density and proximity of the Renault network is a major asset that we will be sure to leverage.
We can also cite the initiative taken by a number of Renault dealerships which offer what we could call “RLink genius bar sessions” to give customers an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the system.
When we move into the autonomous car stage, we have to stress the impact of regulatory imperatives, of consumers’ reactions – be they enthusiastic or disoriented – and the influence and role of the internet big five (GAFAM) and of new entrants: could you comment on these central issues and challenges ahead?
Regulation is a very important, so as not to say crucial aspect. Laws and regulations will need to evolve to allow extensive use of the autonomous car, and Renault is naturally involved in the discussions that are underway on the matter. It is a difficult exercise because, as with most car-makers, we sell our models in a great many locations around the globe, and there is still no overall regulatory framework that applies to autonomous cars.
On the matter of users, I think they have a tremendous ability to adapt, and when the services on offer are useful and have been carefully designed, there will be no obstacles to adopting them. On the contrary!
For us, the internet giants are certainly potential partners. As with all of our partners and suppliers, we look closely at what they can offer us, while also be vigilant about the skills and responsibilities we want to maintain or acquire. Today, they appear to be positioned solely in the driverless autonomous car, and we don’t know if one day they will be direct competitors.
What are the most strategic technological developments that self-driving car vendors will need to master? What R&D and partnership (with its peers, and with electronics and IT companies) policies is Renault putting into place? Do you think that the costs associated with the connected/autonomous car will drive a period of consolidation in the automotive industry?
When it comes to the development of autonomous cars, the different sensors that become the car’s “eyes and ears” naturally play a major role. They will evolve, be able to “see” farther and under any conditions (snow, rain, etc.), will be increasingly reliable and especially increasingly affordable so that all product ranges can benefit from them.
But if there is one area in which all automotive manufacturers, and of course the Renault-Nissan alliance, are investing massively, it is the development of the software that will manage all of the vehicles’ sensors and systems. We need to develop the right algorithms, incorporate elements of artificial intelligence, ensure the robustness of zero-fault execution (the bugs that are such a familiar part of our daily lives are “forbidden” in an autonomous car, whose software needs to be as robust and reliable as the software that drives the most sensitive installations) and have a self-learning capacity that allows it to improve on an ongoing basis.
I believe this is the key to the development of the mass-produced autonomous car.
As to the impact on a consolidation of the automotive industry, this sector has already undergone considerable consolidation in recent years, creating several “titans” that produce more than 8 million vehicles a year, and I expect to see more close partnerships over certain technologies rather than corporate mergers.
The autonomous car will generate thousands of Gigabytes, often with stringent quality and latency requirements that will mean connectivity costs cannot be overlooked in vendors’ business models. What are your views on this? Do you believe, like some, that your business model will include monetising some of the data generated? How much are you banking on the advent of 5G which is currently mobilising the telecoms industry?
Today, the cost of relaying data over the GSM network is a significant element in connected services’ business model. The use of a SIM card that allows users to switch from operator to operator, or plans that allow them to pool or spread out their consumption are important factors in limiting the impact of this cost. As is monetising generated data. That being said, data traffic still carries a high price tag in some countries which creates an impediment to deploying services to all of our customers around the world.
Regarding 5G, naturally we are keeping a close watch over its development, but current projections indicate that coverage will still be very slim in 2020, so we cannot concentrate our developments for the next five years around 5G.
We often stress the time lapse between automotive industry cycles (four to five years) and digital innovation cycles. But if we take the example of the transition from LTE to 5G we see that, even in the digital world, not everything progresses as quickly as the latest version of WhatsApp or the rollout of the latest smartphone model…
The vision for the connected car, as for the self-driving car, needs to be part of a more wide-reaching thought process devoted to the different components of the digital transformation that is affecting mobility: the servicisation of car use, the influence of the first car-sharing platforms and ride services, how cities are changing, smart roads, etc. What initiatives are you taking with respect to these various trends, and how would you describe a car-marker 10 years from now?
As with most other car-makers, Renault is not focusing all of its attention or investments on the development of the car solely, even if it is autonomous and connected. Either directly or by having a stake in other ventures, we are interested in all aspects of innovation in what we call the mobile digital ecosystem (car sharing, car pooling, multimodality, peer-to-peer rental, etc.). It is also an opportunity to engage in discussions and run trials in large cities such as Lyon and Bordeaux where Renault is partnered with Bolloré.
Here, it is likely that the development of the autonomous car will run parallel to investments in outfitting roadways (smart roads and motorways), paving the way for new forms of mobility. One of the challenges will be managing the co-existence of classic cars and autonomous (possibly driverless) cars within a complex environment.
To answer your last question, I tend to believe that ten years from now the car-makers that remain – and of course the Renault-Nissan Alliance will be among them! – will be similar to car-makers today in many respects. We will undoubtedly see a shift in the value chain, and an expansion of car-makers’ business into mobility products and closer ties with the digital world. But at the centre of all this is an object – the car – which is more and more technologically complex and subject to increasingly stringent regulations (security, emissions, CO2). This is what constitutes an automotive manufacturer’s core business, and what I believe explains why there are virtually no new entrants to the sector.
Thierry VIADIEU. RENAULT Program Director for Connected Car (since 2012) and Autonomous Driving (since 2016). Graduated from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Ingénieurs Electrotechniciens de Grenoble in 1985 and received a PhD in Material Science from the University of Grenoble in 1988. Entered RENAULT in 1988 as research engineer. Then RENAULT Powertrain Division from 1992 until 1999 working on programs and strategy. Moved to NISSAN Headquarter in 1999 after the signature of the Alliance, starting in Manufacturing Strategy. Moved to NISSAN Corporate Planning in 2003 as General Manager and became NISSAN Corporate Vice President in 2005. In 2006, moved to NISSAN Thailand as ASEAN VP. In 2009 became RENAULT-NISSAN b.v. Director for Alliance Powertrain Planning.
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