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Foxconn EVs to take on Tesla with autonomous driving tech

Japan's Tier IV seeks new clients through iPhone assembler's vehicle project

Shinpei Kato, founder of Japanese autonomous driving startup Tier IV, is involved with Foxconn's MIH electric vehicle project. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

TOKYO -- Foxconn's platform for electric vehicles will feature driver assistance technology similar to that used by Tesla and Nissan Motor when it is launched this year, with plans for a higher level of autonomous capability in 2022, a Japanese tech executive involved in the project has told Nikkei Asia.

The plans underline how Foxconn, best known as an assembler of consumer electronics, hopes to challenge established automakers with its MIH "EV open platform" project, which aims to produce a "kit," including software and hardware that can help new EV manufacturers scale up quickly.

Shinpei Kato, founder and chief technology officer of Japanese autonomous driving startup Tier IV, which is part of the Foxconn project and heads its autonomous driving software, said in an interview that the first-generation EV Kit will provide so-called Level 2 advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). This level enables automated steering, braking and accelerating for cruising and lane changes to support the driver.

Foxconn said in March that it would launch its first EV Kit in October.

Level 4 autonomous driving -- defined as requiring no human involvement under limited conditions -- should be integrated into the next version of the kit planned for 2022, Kato added. That is when Tier IV's own open-source operating system for driverless cars, called Autoware, will be ready, he said.

"MIH will start launching the system which is already commercialized in the market so that it can be sold immediately without legal issues," said Kato, referring the still-developing legal framework in various countries needed to ensure safety for Level 4 autonomous driving. "But like Tesla, computers [for the first EV Kit] will be designed to enable scaling of the system up to Level 4," Kato added.

A taxi equipped with autonomous driving software for which Japan's Tier IV led development prepares for a test drive in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Tier IV)

Cadillac's Super Cruise and Nissan's ProPilot 2.0 are examples of ADAS technologies, which both allow hands-off driving -- with the car automatically following the vehicle ahead -- while the driver is required to pay attention. These conventional driving assistance systems often lack scalability, as they are developed as stand-alone systems and are unable to connect additional sensors later on for more advanced functionality, according to Kato.

Foxconn's MIH project includes nearly 1,700 partners and is designed to lower the barriers to entry to the EV market, cutting the amount of time and resources needed to develop and produce electric cars. Companies involved include mobile chip developers Arm Holdings and Qualcomm, MediaTek, Amazon's AWS, Microsoft, Texas Instruments and leading battery provider Contemporary Amperex Technology.

Foxconn said in a news release in December that Tier IV and other MIH alliance partners would "provide Level 4 and above autonomous driving technology." Tier IV is in charge of "defining the functional requirement of software application," Foxconn said in the release.

When asked for comment, the company told Nikkei Asia that "for reasons of commercial sensitivity, we will only provide specific details on those projects once they are ready for release."

Foxconn will host its second membership meeting on Friday, following the first one in March, as MIH prepares to be formally established as a separate operation, starting next month, independent from the world's largest iPhone assembler.

Tier IV, backed by Japanese insurer Sompo Holdings, is known for supplying self-driving technology to Toyota Motor's e-Palette vehicle, which will be used in the Olympic Village during the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Kato said offering an EV package through MIH would allow diverse EV parts to integrate with Tier IV-led Autoware, potentially expanding its customer base. To date, only the biggest automakers have had the hardware and software design capabilities to mesh with the Autoware system.

"It makes a lot of sense that the MIH positions [itself] in the middle, bringing together hardware and software to create a set of standards," he said, explaining the rationale behind Tier IV's membership.

Formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry, Foxconn is betting on the EV business as a new growth driver and aims to capture a 10% share of the global EV market between 2025 and 2027.

The company in May announced a joint venture with Stellantis, the world's fourth-largest auto group which owns such brands as Alfa Romeo and Fiat, to develop software. Foxconn in February last year also formed a joint venture with Yulon Motor, Taiwan's second-biggest automaker, to develop electric cars. It also announced deals with Chinese EV maker Byton, Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, and American EV startup Fisker.

Japanese automakers have focused much of their effort on developing fuel-efficient, low-emission gasoline engines and hybrid vehicles, instead of EVs. Asked whether MIH is approaching Japanese carmakers, Kato said that is not in the minds of MIH top executives, as they believe automakers will naturally be interested in the project.

"Japanese automakers are sitting on the fence right now," he said. "But MIH believes that as it moves forward, these carmakers will spontaneously come to the project."

Additional reporting by Lauly Li in Taipei

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