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13 July 2018

NAV Alliance founded to tackle woeful in-car networking landscape

The Networking for Autonomous Vehicles (NAV) Alliance has been launched, by founding members Aquantia, Bosch, Continental, Nvidia, and VW America. Looking to create an ecosystem for next-gen Multi-Gig Ethernet networking. But even if the alliance solves the networking problem, there are many other elements of a self-driving car that need a similar level of international and regulatory consensus.

The “Multi-Gig” part sounds a bit redundant, as these days, 100G and 40G are fairly commonplace in data centers these days – and the auto industry is quite happy to quip that cars are now ‘data centers on wheels’ (just as the NAV Alliance does in its launch materials). Sure, 40G Ethernet hasn’t exactly trickled down into consumer electronics, but that’s largely because nobody really needs those speeds in the home.

But self-driving cars do need a new way to move data between their component parts, and the archaic networking standards until now are not enough. Recent designs have begun incorporating Ethernet, but protocols like CAN Bus are in no way, shape, or form, suited to shuffling the vast amount of data needed.

Jumping wholesale to Ethernet would also allow the cars to use the IP-based security technologies deployed in so manner IT applications and data centers. CAN is woeful when it comes to security, and while porting such tools over to cars isn’t going to be as simple as plugging in a USB drive and double clicking an executable file, becoming IP-native would be a huge boon for automakers.

While it’s still very early days for the alliance, it sounds like the goal is to bring OEMs together to agree a common approach. There’s no mention of standards here, yet, which is probably a good thing, but it will apparently be defining specifications for the vendors to comply with.

The alliance says that their planned next-gen architecture is akin to a very advanced nervous system, “based on an array of ECUs, CPUs, GPUs, HD cameras, sensors, gateways, and storage devices, all connected through a high-speed Multi-Gigabit Ethernet network.”

Key to the Ethernet side of things is Aquantia, which makes most of its living building the chips that are being used by Nvidia’s Drive Xavier and Drive Pegasus platforms, which are being used by many self-driving car developers. Such chips include AQV107 Multi-Gig PHY, and the AQVC107 PCIe MAC+PHY controller.

Bosch and Continental are major Tier 1 OEMs, and VW is currently the largest automaker in the world, having just passed Toyota. So while the current member list is just a handful, it does represent some pretty sizeable influence. We would be more confident in success if there were more, but the list should grow in time.

Separately from the launch of the NAV Alliance, members Bosch and Nvidia are working together with Daimler to create a self-driving taxi service that will launch in California in 2019. Bosch is using Nvidia’s GPUs and software in the systems it sells to automakers.

According to Bosch’s head of urban autonomous driving, Michael Fausten, the car being used will be SAE Level 4 or 5, but will only be operating in autonomous mode on sunny days, days with inclement weather, in broad daylight, or at night. It seems that the car, at the current level of development, does not like having to deal with changing conditions, such as dusk or dawn. Rain and snow (not that there’s much snow in California) are also apparently out of the picture. That somewhat precludes it from most markets.

It’s expected that the technology will improve with time, so that rain is no longer at risk of interfering with the cameras and LiDAR. As it stands, the project still doesn’t have a name, nor has it confirmed which it will launch – only that it’s in the Silicon Valley.

We know that Mercedes will be supplying the vehicles, which will run a ridesharing service on select routes – which will be expanded in time. Notably, this is well ahead of Intel and BMW’s planned fleet of cars, due in 2021, although Waymo’s fleet is still (as far as we know) the pack-leader.

As for comment on the recent Uber crash and fatality, Uwe Keller, Daimler’s head of autonomous driving told Digital Trends “we are not in the position to comment on recent accidents. I would rather focus on what we are doing on our side to avoid anything happening to our program. We are having a very careful design process where we evaluate all use cases and figure out what can happen on the roads. When we test, we drive on public roads with people on board who are trained and well certified. From our side, we think we do our best to make driving safe in the testing and prototyping phase.”

Something worth noting from that Digital Trends article is that Audi has apparently given up trying to get its Traffic Jam Pilot system approved by US regulators. There was a lot of fanfare around the SAE Level 3 system, which would allow a driver of its new A8 to zone out when the car found itself in heavy or standstill traffic, but apparently the regulatory climate is still not as friendly as the automakers would like – with the US Congress still not having passed a national set of rules.