IT Bringing Change to the Future of the Automobile

Mr. Tetsuro Ueda

PROFILE

In 1990, Tetsuro Ueda completed his master’s degree in information systems at Kyushu University’s Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Engineering Science. The same year he joined the Nissan Research Center (NRC) at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., where he engaged in research of automobiles and IT. In 1999, he completed his doctorate in systems management and business law at Tsukuba University. He also acted as a visiting lecturer at the University of Tokyo and Tsukuba University between 2008 and 2011.

Factors impacting future automotive development

  • loT
  • BigData
  • AI

A New Era to Redefine the Car

From the invention of the automobile to the present day, there has been little change in its form or its means of operation. But today’s dramatic leaps in the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) and its installation in vehicles are opening up the vista for tremendous change in the future of the car.
Cars with always-on connections to the Internet are particularly promising. According to Tetsuro Ueda, “These connected cars give us the chance to reset the relationship between humans and vehicles and take it in entirely new directions, just like IT firms did when they reinvented mobile communication by developing the smartphone.” And, as he notes, “This redefinition of the car has already begun.”

Perhaps the most obvious function of a connected car is the navigation system. Road conditions are constantly changing due to congestion, accidents, construction and other factors. With online access to up-to-date road information, the car can display even more detailed route data and suggestions, considerably reducing driver stress. And it’s easy to see that constantly updated map and road information will be vitally important to autonomous drive vehicles as they plot their courses.

But the benefits of a connected car don’t end there. They may also include unparalleled safety and comfort while driving. For example, by tightly integrating the car’s systems with the surrounding traffic infrastructure, we can keep the vehicle moving smoothly without ever hitting a red light, thus ensuring a more pleasant drive. We may also be able to help reduce collisions at intersections.

One outcome will be an increasing sense that the car is a partner to the driver, rather than a simple tool. As Ueda says, “All people will be able to create relationships with their vehicle to match their own lifestyle. Redefining the car may be something closer to personalizing it. We may see the day when your car knows what sort of driving you like to do, and even the schedule you keep.”

Putting IT to Work for Cars That Amaze the World

Once advanced IT comes to be a key component of cars, we can foresee many ways to put that IT to use in the vehicles and our automobile society. Ueda gives his take on the current state of the IT industry, where companies are getting actively involved in vehicle and autonomous drive development.

“When I first joined the Center I had no idea that AI would make such rapid strides,” he laughs. It was in 1990, before IT had become a common term, that he completed his information system studies and joined the NRC. “I had little idea of what I would be able to do for Nissan, but I was confident that in an organization heavily staffed with machine specialists, like automakers back then, there wouldn’t be many information system specialists, so I’d have plenty of room to make my mark.” He laughs again. “That prediction turned out right!”

While working as an IT engineer on information processing problems, Ueda also kept busy coming up with ideas and proposals to drive Nissan’s open innovation forward. But his opportunity to pursue his specialization to the fullest came with the establishment of an IT-focused laboratory in Yokohama. He had a new, important mission: to explore how IT could be put to use for the future of the automobile and to create concrete blueprints toward that future.

Ueda’s pursuit of this mission, in an era when new human-car relationships are starting to take shape, is leading him to keep an eye firmly on IT players as they make their way into the automotive realm while he works to create the cars of tomorrow that will amaze the world.

“For IT firms, which have already carved out platforms like PCs and smartphones, the car is one of the ‘final frontiers’ left to explore. At the same time, though, automakers are putting technology to work in realizing automotive solutions that weren’t possible in the past. For us, IT is the ‘final frontier.’ Which side is going to take the lead in this race? I think it depends on which one can best put IT to use for the sake of vehicles, the people that use them and society as a whole.”

The Last Piece in the Zero Fatality Puzzle?

To help reduce exhaust emissions, and their impact on the natural environment, to zero, Nissan’s solution comes in the form of the electric vehicle (EV). In striving for another zero target—virtually zero fatalities in accidents caused by human errors in judgment or operation—the company is working on autonomous drive technologies. Ueda states: “We want to bring the number of accident deaths and injuries as close to zero as possible. Engineers have done long years of research in many fields to help achieve this goal. I feel like we’re just one more step away from it now. The key to taking that last step is IT.”

By introducing safety functionality including airbags to its vehicles, Nissan has helped to achieve a more than 60% reduction in deaths and injuries from accidents involving Nissan vehicles compared to the 1995 baseline. “To give us that next push toward the zero target,” says Ueda, “we have to put IT to use. AI breakthroughs seen in 2006 really started to pay off from 2010 onward as we made IT a more integral part of cars. Now vehicles can detect danger and assist in braking, support the driver’s handling to help prevent operation errors and maintain distance between vehicles—and IT plays a role in all of this. The car can detect a threat and help to initiate an action before the human driver becomes aware of it. I really think there’s a strong expectation that our ‘zero fatality’ target is coming within reach.”

A Technological Path from Present to Future

In Japan in the 1950s, the three must-have appliances were the black-and-white TV, the washing machine and the refrigerator. In the 1990s, this set was commonly defined as the digital camera, the DVD recorder and the large flat-screen TV. “Next we’ll see people clamoring for virtual reality devices, EVs and 3D printers,” Ueda predicts with a laugh. A key part of his job is presenting the EV’s intelligent features in easily understood ways so that consumers will view this vehicle—already an important platform for driving electrification and intelligent functions in various areas—as something they need in their lives.

As one example, Nissan LEAF owners enjoy a service where the EVs keep track of the battery power they consume, delivering that data for information processing and feeding it back to users as data on how much electricity they are likely to need to reach a destination. “There are many other ways we can put this data to use, analyzing it and giving it back to our users as handy information they can use.”

While Ueda and his team work with big data in ways like this, they also come up with ideas—often lighthearted—about ways to make cars a part of our future lives. One project that got plenty of attention in the company was the “espresso car.” Ueda explains: “You know how limousines often have bars installed? We got the idea of putting an espresso machine into an ordinary car. We took the sort of machine you can buy anywhere and installed it. We learned a lot of things,” he recalls with laughter. “The vehicle interior is the perfect size space to be fully infused with that coffee aroma when you make espresso. And the drink tastes best when it’s served slightly cooler than the drinks you get at a café.”

With clear goals to shoot for in research, Ueda has been able to create his own work environment best suited to the challenges that he wants to take on. He can depend, of course, on the results he has produced to secure this freedom in his work, but there is more to it than that. Another key is the focus he places on people as the most important element of his work. “In the IT field, you deal mainly with data in the course of your job. But it’s human beings who really take that data and put it to vital use. With top-flight people who can see the significance hiding in those numbers, I believe it’s possible to produce limitless results in any era, no matter what direction you’re trying to go or what needs you’re trying to meet in your research.”

Based on an interview carried out in November 2015.

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