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Sony sees shot to dominate sensors for self-driving cars

President Hirai weighs overseas aibo sales, seeks smartphone 'paradigm shift'

Sony President Kazuo Hirai spoke with reporters at a roundtable Tuesday during the annual CES electronics expo in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS, U.S. -- Sony holds the technology to grab the market lead for image sensors in the nascent autonomous-driving field, President and CEO Kazuo Hirai told reporters here Tuesday.

Hirai, attending the annual CES electronics exhibition here, also discussed the Japanese conglomerate's plans for the aibo robot dog and the future of its struggling smartphone operations. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Are you looking to have Sony's automotive image sensors predominate in self-driving vehicles?

A: We want to become the market leader in the field of autonomous driving and in-car equipment. We have the technology to do it. We'll partner with automakers and autoparts manufacturers to make it a reality.

Q: Will you get actively involved in auto manufacturing?

A: We won't get into actual auto manufacturing. We'll contribute to the autonomous-driving field with image sensor technology. We may [work on] supporting software and systems, but we don't envision direct participation in auto production.

Q: When do you expect automotive sensors to contribute to earnings?

A: It still has a long way to go to grow into a business that translates directly into operating profit for the semiconductor business. We'll discuss when to deliver [the sensors] and what vehicles they'll be used in. I honestly can't tell what sales will look like in a given year.

Q: Sony exhibited the aibo robot dog in the U.S. for the first time. What are your plans for it outside Japan?

A: We wanted people to see it overseas so we could gauge the reaction. We'll consider offering it abroad, not just in Japan. The aibo has a lot of parts, and it takes time to manufacture. We'll think about [international sales] once we've met Japanese demand and increased production capacity to ensure a stable supply.

Q: Sony's earnings are solid. What's the company's biggest challenge?

A: I think the biggest issue -- though it hasn't surfaced yet -- will be employees and management, including me, getting complacent. I've kept saying in various internal communications that I want everyone to remember the really tough times.

Q: How do you plan to turn around Sony's struggling smartphone business?

A: Our market share in Japan is high. [We need to look at] how to add features that users can appreciate and how to cut costs, including in production. We'll further improve product quality and reduce return rates. There's no trick to it. Our basic thinking is to compete in the high-end market.

We believe a paradigm shift will happen somewhere in smartphones. We'll actively pursue the communications business with determination to create the next paradigm shift. Businesses that consumers engage with even closer than the "last inch" are important. Once the next paradigm shift happens, we won't be able to participate unless we maintain relationships with telecommunications companies and parts makers.

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