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Self-Driving Cars – Ireland could be the new Detroit

For anyone who thinks that a career designing software for self-driving cars means a move to Stuttgart, Detroit, or Silicon Valley, we’ve got news for you. You could try moving to Shannon in Ireland.

No joking. The west of Ireland is fast becoming a hot-bed of talent and investment for the development of robotic vehicles. As a result, there’s a good deal of hiring going on. French vehicle components and technology supplier Valeo, for instance, has had a base out in Tuam, Co. Galway, for some time now. Recently, they announced a major expansion with what it calls ‘double-digit’ hiring for software developers with expertise in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Marc Vrecko, Valeo Comfort and Driving Assistance Systems Business Group President, said: “Our facility in Tuam is one of the leading Research centres in the Group. With the support of IDA Ireland, Valeo continues to have a sustained and rewarding  investment in Ireland. We are very excited about the announcement today to further expand our footprint here to build on the proven innovation in Product and Process R&D. The investment will help fuel the global growth of the Vision Product Line and extend Valeo as global leader for ADAS systems and related MaaS products.”

The potential for bigger things

Just down the road in Shannon, there’s the potential for even bigger things. Last year, Jaguar Land Rover announced that it was going to set up a development centre next to Shannon Airport. One that would be dedicated to research and development of new autonomous, robotic, and automated in-car systems. The lab was set up by John Cormican, a former Intel software engineer. He has since convinced a dozen of his colleagues to join him out west.

“We were a bunch of engineers; cyber safety experts, functional safety experts, virtualisation engineers, embedded software engineers. A good mix of people, and now we have 250 people on board, and we intend to keep expanding into the future. It’s been a great journey so far” he told the audience at the recent Electronomous vehicle technology conference in Killarney.

Big challenge around technology

“The big challenge we have is around technology. Our colleagues in the UK are very, very good at building cars. We have 14 fabulous vehicle lines, including the all-electric I-Pace. We’re very good at things like powertrains, at body control, at mechatronics, at noise, vibration, and harshness quality. All of that. That’s tough to bring all of that together, and then to lay software complexity on top of that. So that’s our job in the Irish operation. To come up with the best software solutions that we can, and then work with our colleagues to integrate those into the vehicles.”

The Shannon development centre has just revealed its first major software package — a ‘virtual wallet’ for future Jaguar and Land Rover models. This allows cryptocurrency payments to be made to a driver as a reward for sending back data on traffic flows, road conditions, even weather reports. These reports are sent back using the car’s sensors. So all you do is drive. Then they get rewarded with such things as vouchers for free coffee, toll road payments, or even parking payments.

Cormican wants to go further, though. Jaguar Land Rover has already mapped out an ideal circuit of roads in counties Clare and Galway for testing autonomous cars (it basically runs in a loop from Ballyvaughan to Kilkee, and then back up the M18 motorway towards Galway). However, there are now proposals to build a dedicated test track for self-driving cars. Locations are next to Shannon Airport, with direct airside access. This means that experimental cars can roll straight off a “plane and onto the network of testing circuits and proving grounds”.

Why the West of Ireland?

Why the west of Ireland? “Well, I would challenge any car maker to come down here, to County Kerry, and take a vehicle from Killarney, around the Ring of Kerry, then head down to Dingle over the Conor Pass, at night, in winter” said Cormican.

“These are very, very tough conditions and use cases. It’s easy to do autonomous cars in California or Arizona, where the roads are big, the lane markings are clear, and you have great weather. It’s not completely simple, but it’s being done right now, in many ways it’s been cracked. So how do you take that to the next level? How do you cater for a car driving itself in every use case, with all of those challenges? And we cannot compromise on safety.

Tens of thousands of people are killed every year in road collisions, but we have come to accept that as a society. We have the technology to eliminate that. But if that software makes a mistake and kills one person, that’s unacceptable to us too. I’m not saying one or the other is right, but we do know we can save lives. We should be able to do this as a technology industry.”

Development worth “billions”

Autonomous vehicle development is seen as being worth billions, maybe eventually even trillions to the global car industry. This is why there are now major opportunities for software developers out west. When we talk about west coast technology hubs, in the future, we might mean Clare rather than California…

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