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Qualcomm's self-driving car made me never touch a steering wheel again



Of all the cars I saw at CES 2020, I was most impressed with the Lincoln MKZ I drove in – and I couldn't even touch the steering wheel. In fact, I didn't have to: the car itself took over the entire steering.

A few days earlier, Qualcomm announced a new platform for self-driving cars called Snapdragon Ride at the huge consumer electronics fair – and to demonstrate its strength, Qualcomm drove with me in an MKZ equipped with all sensors and chips that were required to use the new platform. The platform, Snapdragon Ride, consists of a handful of chips and a software stack that fits into a box no bigger than your backpack and connects all of these systems together: radar of all ranges (and possibly even high-resolution radar), one CV2X communication system and front and rear cameras connected by software that knows where the car is, where to turn and what is going on on the road.

"Qualcomm has been working on autonomous driving for many years," said Anshuman Saxena, director of product management at Qualcomm Technologies, who works on the Automotive Driver Assistance Solutions team, Digital Trends said. "It took us years to understand the whole problem, tackle it and put it all together in an autonomous solution."

My self-driving test drive

The system marks an important linchpin for Qualcomm, which is focused on delivering the chips ̵

1; not the whole package. And to prove his platform, the chip giant took me for a spin. During my time at CES, I got behind the wheel of Faraday Future's $ 200,000 electric sports car, but my ride on Qualcomm's Lincoln MKZ was more exciting. Jeremy Kaplan / Digital Trends

Two years ago I drove at CES with a self-driving vehicle from Aptiv and the carpool center Lyft. It was the best kind of boredom: the car reacted exactly as you would expect, that is, it didn't stop in the middle of the street, it didn't try to drive into a pond or a tree. and it felt like any other ride I've been on.

That said, it was only a block or two on the Las Vegas Strip. Qualcomm put me on the highway.

When driving on the highway, the stakes seem to be higher: the cars move faster and there are many more of them. However, it is easier to master a computer in many ways. Cars drive straight ahead unless they change lanes, and very little navigation is required, except for entry and exit. In order to demonstrate his skills, we did all the complex things: we drove up and down ramps at variable speeds, submitted to a three-lane freeway, drove over motorway junctions and avoided 18-wheelers. In safety, he pressed a button and signaled the car that the movement was fine.

It was both exciting and boring as it was my first experience. The car mastered every situation with ease, slowed down and accelerated as needed, found suitable space in neighboring lanes and switched between them without any problems. A few things stood out: First, the car does not easily recognize the speed limit and then tries to drive it. Instead, Qualcomms Ride uses the speed and activity of nearby cars and the speed limit to determine an "appropriate" speed. You wouldn't drive past a line of stopped cars just because the speed limit allows, and neither would Ride.

In addition, the car was not set to change lanes completely on its own. Instead, the system displayed a map with a green stripe in a nearby lane – the target zone – and alerted our operator that he wanted to change. When he found it was safe, he pushed a button and signaled the car that it was okay to move. This appeared to be a cautious safety measure when testing the system, but would be annoying to anyone who actually drives Ride Auto.

Big computing power, small package

  Qualcomm's trunk-based Snapdragon Ride unit at CES 2020
Qualcomm's trunk-based Snapdragon Ride unit Jeremy Kaplan / Digital Trends

This ride solution itself is installed in the trunk of the MKZ. A tiny box with plenty of room for your luggage.

In other self-driving demos, the computing power required to drive a car without an accident has essentially filled the luggage compartment. Qualcomm had attached a number of sensors to the car, including the aforementioned radar and video cameras. However, there is no lidar: Qualcomm has informed me that such laser-based positioning systems are still prohibitively expensive, despite the large number of companies that want to build more affordable solid-state systems.

  Close-up of Qualcomm's trunk-based Snapdragon Ride unit at CES 2020
Jeremy Kaplan / Digital Trends

The buttons on the steering wheel were reused to activate and deactivate the automatic drive. No system is currently good enough to fully drive a car, and no state laws allow such control.

But tests? It is a different story.

Qualcomm has told me that it has been testing the system in California for years, accumulating thousands of autonomous miles, as well as the dozens of other tech companies that want to build self-driving cars from the US automaker Future. Who comes first? It is everyone's game at the moment.

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