Tuam-based tech firm providing the vision for the age of autonomous transport

Valeo Vision Systems is playing a key role in developing driving assistance systems

 

If the rear-view camera in your car has saved you from a bollard-shaped dent in your bumper or flattening the family pet while reversing into your driveway, you could well owe your thanks to those working for Valeo Vision Systems (VVS), in Tuam, Co Galway.

Tuam’s speciality is front, top, rear and side cameras for cars. It produced more than 5.2 million of them in 2016 and this volume is only set to increase as we move closer and closer to the brave new world of autonomous driving. Cameras, along with radar, lidar and sensors go to the heart of what will make autonomous cars safe for drivers, passengers and other road users.

VVS is French owned and part of one of the world’s leading suppliers of driving assistance systems. Tuam is a significant operation within the Valeo group and home to one of its largest R&D centres. It is also the headquarters of its Vision Systems Product Line. VVS employs more than 700 people, mainly from science and engineering backgrounds, and supplies manufacturers such as BMW, Jaguar/Land Rover, Volvo, Ford, Nissan, VW and Audi.

Until 2007, VVS was Irish-owned. It was then known as Connaught Electronics and from small beginnings in 1982 had grown into a thriving enterprise with an international reputation for excellence in the development and manufacture of automotive electronic components. In particular it became recognised as an innovative player in the field of camera applications for driver assistance and radio frequency applications for remote vehicle access and security.

Its success did not go unnoticed and in 2007 it was acquired by Valeo as part of the French company’s push to add more technological innovation and realise its ambition of becoming a world leader in parking assistance systems. What made the acquisition attractive to Valeo was the synergy between Connaught Electronics’ low-speed manoeuvering solutions and its own driving assistance technologies.

Bird’s-eye visibility

Today, the Tuam plant is Valeo’s automated parking and computer vision research hub and is at the cutting edge of next-generation automotive vision systems. Valeo was the first to market in Europe (via Tuam) with what many car owners now take for granted – the reversing camera – and VVS’s main focus now is on developing even more sophisticated cameras (and their associated electronic control units) with advanced features such as “bird’s -eye” or 360-degree visibility to support safe, low-speed manoeuvring. This involves using four cameras to create a single image of one’s surroundings that appears to have been taken from about three metres above the car.

VVS has also developed a wide-angle camera that can generate cross-traffic alerts and the company’s technology is being used to improve views at junctions, to detect pedestrians and to provide assistance for those towing trailers. The company’s Park4U product combines ultrasonics and vision systems to automatically manoeuvre your car into a parking space.

Valeo is a long-established company that began life in a workshop in Saint-Ouen, just outside Paris, France, in 1923. Today, it has a presence in 32 countries and its operations are spread over four business groups: driving assistance, power train, thermal and visibility systems. At the end of 2016 Valeo group had €15.5 billion in sales, 91,800 employees, 155 production units, 58 research centres and an R&D budget of €1.6 billion.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Valeo’s director for innovation, Guillaume Devauchelle, said: “Galway is a major Valeo centre. They had very specific skills in imaging which is why we bought them in the first place and since then what was a small company has grown many times over.

“Galway is not just a plant, it is a plant plus a very big engineering department and it is also our main research centre for vision – with its own test track – with many engineers coming there from all over the world. We do a lot of research there regarding image and Tuam is responsible for all parking manoeuvres at Valeo. The Valeo bird’s-eye view camera was the first application of this technology.

“Seven years ago it was a handful of engineers who were very convincing. Now it is a big success story. It is not really a matter of size or number. It is a matter of talent. A team of five can be much better than a team of 100. This is why big companies like Valeo need to remain very humble. The competition can easily come from a very small company and they can be much better than us.”

Unlike some multinationals, Valeo is not interested in turning Galway into a company clone. “We want to be Irish in Ireland and French in France,” says Devauchelle. “We are a global company but we also want to be local. We believe it is important to keep the local culture.”

Smart assistance systems have a big role to play in autonomous driving and are part of the process of joining the dots that will ultimately lead to self-driving cars by 2021, the manufacturers say. But not everyone agrees with this ambitious timeline.

Revolution

“Autononmous driving is a revolution, but step by step because it is not about one thing, it is a mix of engineering capability, people’s acceptance and driving culture,” says Devauchelle, who cites the evolution of parking assistance systems as an example. “First it was a beep, then it became semi-automatic, then automatic and when you can get in and out – which is much more difficult – of a space you are ready for semi-autonomous driving at low speeds. But each step is a different story.”

Asked if he believes autonomous driving will happen by 2021, Devauchelle says: “Sure, but it will be twofold. First we will have level-five fully automatic driveless shuttles, mainly point to point, operating in given limited conditions. Then we will have passenger cars able to do fully autonomous parking, traffic jam automation and also autonomous driving on highways, which are easy to manage because you have exits at regular intervals. You will also have semi-autonomous driving on city highways such as ring roads which are more crowded and therefore more difficult to manage. It will not be 100 per cent autonomous driving but in given circumstances it will look like it.”

Devauchelle (60) has spent all of his career in the motor industry and he says the sector is undergoing unprecedented change.

“I call it a triple revolution. We have a big shift in energy with electric cars. Secondly, we have autonomous driving and connectivity. Thirdly, we have new mobility solutions bringing new business and usage models. Within this new scenario every product within the car will need to change. Let me give you a very simple example. Today the wiper cleans the windshield for the driver. Tomorrow it may also be needed to clean a camera, the radar or a sensor. It is the same with the lighting. Today it supports the view of the driver, tomorrow it will have to support autonomous driving, which is very different. Now if a pedestrain wants to cross there is eye-to-eye contact with the driver. With an autonomous car the lighting will have to show the pedestrian that it is safe to cross.”

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