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Technology

Sony to refine connected-car sensors via road tests

Laggard in market hopes to glean data with concept car

A prototype of the Vision-S electric car. Sony intends to gather data by driving the vehicle on public roads. (Photo by Kosuke Shimizu)

TOKYO -- Sony showed off its automated electric concept car in Japan for the first time Monday, ahead of the planned start of testing by fiscal year-end on public roads at home as well as in the U.S. and Europe.

The silver Vision-S four-door, unveiled this January at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, slowly traveled on a circular driveway at company headquarters here. Large screens on the dashboard show maps and entertainment content menus, much like a large version of a smartphone.

Thirty-three sensors, including image and time-of-flight distance sensors, work together to offer an accurate picture of the vehicle's surroundings even in such challenging conditions as fog, nighttime rain and glare.

Sony is the world's top producer of CMOS sensors, used mostly in smartphone cameras, and commands half the global market. But it is far behind rivals in the hot field of automotive sensors. Sony's 8.6% market share by sales volume pales beside American player ON Semiconductor's 45% share, according to Techno Systems Research.

Sony created the car as a test bed for collecting data to improve its auto sensor technology. Austria's Magna Steyr built the Vision-S on an EV platform that Sony sees working with a range of auto categories, including sport utility vehicles.

Sony's electric car features numerous panels for operating map displays as well as music and movies. (Photo by Kosuke Shimizu)

"We can't build it alone," said Izumi Kawanishi, the Sony senior vice president who heads the Vision-S effort. "We're exploring collaborations, including working with suppliers." Regarding automaker tie-ups, he acknowledged that the Japanese company has been approached by some potential partners.

The Vision-S is not for sale, at least not in Sony's current plans. The company does not want to make competitors out of automakers -- potential customers for its image sensors. Selling autos would also entail such weighty responsibilities as meeting safety standards.

A second car under development will be equipped with more sensors. "We'll learn a lot of things from tests on public roads," Kawanishi said.

Sony is making sure that concept vehicles create a superb entertainment space with its content and technologies. The Vision-S prototype features a 360-degree immersive audio system.

The auto industry is said to be undergoing a once-a-century revolution. Cars are morphing into technology products, Kawanishi said. Unlike auto parts makers, electronics manufacturer Sony is "free of industry constraints and can produce the best solutions" for automated driving, he said.

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