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“A Big Leap in How We Think About Safety” – Zenseact CEO on Autonomous Driving, Cool Tech, And Saving Lives

Text framtagen i samarbete med Zenseact

“Obviously, a lot of changes are happening in the car industry. I think it’s exciting times.”

Ödgärd Andersson, CEO of autonomous driving company Zenseact isn’t your typical tech CEO. While many of them talk rapaciously about the ways in which their tech is going to revolutionise the world in ways we never thought possible, Andersson is more measured – with a firm emphasis on the here and now.

“The first step is to do autonomous driving on highways – and that is not so far away,” she says. “We’re talking about the coming couple of years, we will see lots of these systems coming out and giving you more places where you can let the car drive for you.”

On highways, Andersson says, autonomous driving will be a game-changer.

“We start on highways because it’s a use case where we can actually, in a safe way, deploy autonomy. But it’s also a place where people spend a lot of time and we’re able to free up time to do something else.”

“But we have to grow out from there,” she continues. “And exactly how quick that is will be different in different places, depending on how the roads look, depending on the conditions, and the legislation in different countries.”

Zenseact is a Swedish company and subsidiary of Volvo. And, while we might not be too far from Zenseact’s software powering autonomous XC90s on the six-hour drive from Malmo to Stockholm, the rest of the world might take some catching up to do.

“When it comes to legislation,” Andersson says, “we intend to follow the legislation that’s there. We also, together with Volvo Cars, work with authorities to create future legislation and explain how we think about it in such a way that they can create it in a safe way – and I think that’s really important. It’s up to us, as an industry, to explain that autonomous driving is a good thing.”

“Legislation might be limiting in some markets, and we will choose to roll out in places where the legislation allows,” she continues. “But I think it’s also fair for legislators to request from us as an industry that we are responsible about this and that we actually have legislation that supports being responsible.”

Andersson also strikes a different tone to many tech leaders with her laser-focus on responsibility and safety. For her and Zenseact, the driverless future is not about realising sci-fi pipe dreams but about saving lives.

“I think some people are interested because it’s cool technology,” she says. “But I think the safety aspect will become a very important one and it will become increasingly important as people realise that we can actually use this cool tech to increase safety.”

“There are going to be different consumers,” she says, conceding that some potential buyers are excited by driverless tech and want it today. “I think we’ll probably see a span. But in the end, a lot of us are parents, we’re going to put our kids in the car, and we’re going to want that car to be really safe. I think there are enough people that want that for us to have a really good market opportunity. Then there may be others who choose another approach and there may be consumers who like that approach. That’s up to them. I’m convinced there are a lot of people who really like to keep their loved ones safe – and we’ll prioritise that aspect.”

However, Andersson also believes that companies -such as Zenseact and Volvo – have a level of responsibility towards their buyers.

“I think it’s really hard for somebody who buys a car to know exactly what the limitations in the system are,” Andersson says, “So I mean, that’s really up to us who design these things to make sure they’re safe and deployed in a responsible way. And I think as a consumer, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether a system is safe or not. I think it’s actually really hard for the individual consumer to make that judgment.”

Of course, it’s hard for consumers to understand much of the existing tech in their cars – let alone the complex autonomous driving software that is starting to emerge. Zenseact, for example, uses a combination of LIDAR, cameras, and radar to allow cars to sense the world around them.

“We are focusing on creating a super-capable sensor set, and making use of that,” she explains. “We collaborate with Luminar for the LIDAR and that’s one of the things we have identified as an important component. Of course, we have cameras and radars as well. And the combination of these gives us a way to ensure that we have really capable sensing in all types of conditions and scenarios and basically pull the best of all those systems that make sure we see what is going on. And then we use machine learning and make an understanding of what it is we’re seeing.”

Zenseact Cat Detection

However, Zenseact takes its safety a step further than most of its rivals.

“We believe that monitoring the driver and understanding that they are actually in control when they need to be is also a key in our system where others may have different approaches,” Andersson says.

Zenseact uses a combination of cameras and an innovative capacitive steering wheel to monitor whether the driver is awake and in control of their car. This allows Zenseact’s software to step in at critical points if the driver falls asleep or has a medical emergency.
Of course, this kind of monitoring has its detractors, but Andersson is quick to assuage any misconceptions about privacy and data storage.

“We have no intention of storing their data for any other purpose than creating safety and helping them when they need help,” says Andersson. “I can understand the concern and we take that very seriously. But we really want to do this in order to help you and avoid situations where you may be sleepy or have a medical condition or something else. I think in that scenario, people are willing to share that view of themselves to help them, really.”

Sharing our data with car companies isn’t the only big change Andersson is expecting in the coming years. Public transport, and even complete city redesigns, are on the cards.

“Buses are large, because you need to employ your driver, and then you want to drive a lot of people with that resource,” she says. “And if you don’t have a driver, the buses could be smaller. And then it’s, I guess, a matter of definition when it’s a bus or a car.”

“But of course, for that to work, you need to have all the urban scenarios covered, because that’s mostly where public transport is relevant. And I think we will see this in limited geographies. But it’s interesting to think about, especially if everything is electric, as well, it can basically drive indoors and the whole planning of a city can be done in a quite different way,” she continues.

“I think in the long run, [city design] will change a lot,” she says. “I think realistically, it will happen first in newer cities that are growing up, it’s, of course, a big, big thing to change a city that’s been around for a number of 100 years. So, I think realistically, probably in newer cities first. And of course, there will be a lot of learnings from those, they can probably be adapted into existing cities.”

However, while electric autonomous cars will require different infrastructure from our existing cities, Andersson says that reports of the private car’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

“I think that we will see different types of users here for quite a foreseeable time,” she says. “I think that scenario [mass car sharing in place of private ownership] will evolve and makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re a very urban person and parking is a problem. And I think in other stages, you may prioritize having access to your own car and knowing that it’s fully charged and waiting outside. I think in those scenarios, the buying behaviour will move towards prioritizing this being able to upgrade your car and that also goes quite well with having more of a subscription service.

“But I think in the near future, a lot of us will want to have our own car and run off with the kids to do activities and quickly come to work and things like that. In other lifestyles, it may make a lot of sense to have access to a more shared resource.”

But, for Andersson, all these thoughts and concerns are secondary. For her, Zenseact, and Volvo, the future is all about safety and upgradability.

“I think one of the really good things about our system, and Volvo was also indicating that they are going to standardize the hardware, meaning you can actually upgrade the cars software-wise,” she says. “That means that we can actually take all the tech that we put in for autonomous driving and use it to make every mile you drive yourself safer because we have all these systems that can actually help you.”

“The fact that we can actually upgrade the cars for all driving, I think is really, really exciting. We’re at a potential to take a big leap in how we think about safety, which hasn’t really been possible with the systems that are in today’s cars. That makes it worthwhile to go to work.”