Key emerging tech: autonomous vehicles and AI-ready sensors

It’s that time of year again when analysts and industry insiders step back and define the top innovations that will matter in coming years.

Lux Research just released its own list of 12 key technologies that “will reshape the world,” and several of them correlate well with topics often covered by Fierce Electronics.

The top three technologies cited by Lux are autonomous vehicles (AV), natural language processing (NLP) and plastic recycling.  At Fierce Electronics, we have covered AV tech fairly frequently, especially at the integrated circuit level, and NLP is a big focus of artificial intelligence, something FE has also covered.  Plastic recycling is important to everybody, but it’s rarely something we cover.   AI-enabled sensors ranked #4 on the Lux list, and such tech was heavily discussed recently by various companies at Sensors Innovation Week Fall.

Ranking AV as the #1 emerging technology to watch might seem odd at first, given how COVID-19 decimated the auto industry in May and led to plant shutdowns and some retrenchment of R&D research and development of AV components.  However, a number of semiconductor makers noted marked improvements in ICs sold into auto for ADAS and AV work in their third quarter reports.

Lux defends its focus on AV with a measured commentary: “Increasing levels of vehicle automation, eventually resulting in removing the need for drivers in consumer and commercial vehicles.”  Analyst Lewie Roberts is quoted further saying, “Improvements in safety an efficiency are happening at all levels of vehicle automation, benefiting both consumer and commercial applications. Further out, Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles will open new mobility and logistics possibilities by removing the need for a driver in a vehicle.” 

Lux recommends that companies “tap into emerging opportunities in areas like sensors and connection for autonomous vehicles while also planning for the impact on mobility businesses more broadly.”

In related research, Lux earlier in November said that the fully autonomous vehicle at SAE Level 5 “remains a moonshot,” but quickly added that on-road Level 4 vehicles “will emerge slowly during the mid-2020s for commercially owned vehicles.” That includes delivery trucks, especially those on a pre-planned route according to many analysts.

“The autonomous consumer-owned vehicle (Level 4) will not appear in the foreseeable future,” Lux added.

  Even so, today, Lux noted that Waymo has a fleet of 600 self-driving cars which the company is already using for fully self-driving taxi rides in limited, geofenced zones.  Major trends helping drive AV tech include data fusion from multiple sensors and real-time, high definition mapping.  Lux also ranked AV tech high on a score of trends in patents, papers, funding and other areas—well above the average rankings for other emerging tech.

For its #4-ranked tech, AI-enabled sensors, Lux gave an even higher score in terms of trends in patents and funding, noting that $1.8 billion has been raised by companies developing or using AI-enabled sensors.  “Recent advancements in machine learning capabilities enable developers and operators to extract more value out of sensors; this is an opportunity to create new products and improvement internal processes by generating deeper insights off existing hardware,” said analyst Cole McCollum.

AI-enabled sensors become powerful when combined with automation such as 3D printing and robotics, Lux added. Algorithmica is identified by Lux as a startup that is generating data using low-cost sensors.

Lux also ranked green hydrogen as #6 on its list, noting that vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are still an “unfulfilled dream,” but green hydrogen could become important for residential and industrial energy.

Ten of the 20 emerging technologies on Lux’s 2020 list are not even a part of the 2021 listing of 12 transformational technologies.  For example, 5G networks was the top tech on last year’s report but is absent from the 2021 listing.  As 5G rollouts occur, the technology remains important but is already “firmly established on everyone’s radar,” Lux said.

“For all the changes that the pandemic has brought, the key megatrends shaping the future are still in force,” said Michael Holman, lead author of the report and vice president of research at Lux.

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