Autoliv staffs up for leap into autonomous

Autoliv staffs up for leap into autonomous

Big move starts with an engineer surge

Carlson: "A pretty steep ramp-up"

Now that Autoliv Inc. has partnered with Volvo Car Corp. to develop self-driving cars, Autoliv CEO Jan Carlson says he plans to hire 1,000 engineers over the next year to beef up r&d.

Five hundred engineers will be assigned to Autoliv's electronics division, which is developing radar, cameras and software for self-driving vehicles. The others will join the company's passive safety unit, which produces airbags and seat belts.

The new hires would be in addition to the personnel to be assigned to Autoliv's 50-50 joint venture with Volvo -- announced Sept. 6 -- which aims to develop fully autonomous vehicles in 2021.

Each partner will contribute half of the joint venture's initial staff of 200 employees, which will rise after a year to 600. "It's a pretty steep ramp-up at the beginning," Carlson said in a phone interview last week with Automotive News. "It is a big number."

The hiring binge comes at a time when Autoliv -- the world's largest airbag supplier -- is carving out a big niche in active safety. By the end of the decade, the Swedish supplier's active safety unit is expected to generate $3 billion in sales, up from $1.6 billion in 2015.

Some of that growth will come from the joint venture, which will develop technology for a partially automated vehicle in 2019 and a fully automated version in 2021. That technology eventually will be tested in Volvo's planned fleet of 100 automated vehicles that will undergo road tests in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The joint venture won't solicit outside customers, but Autoliv will be free to market its technology to anyone. And initial prospects look bright.

Mercedes-Benz's redesigned E-class sedan can accelerate, brake and steer itself on the highway. According to Carlson, Autoliv supplies the sedan's radar, cameras and electronic control units.

Autoliv has been a radar supplier since 2008, when it acquired the radar sensors unit of Tyco Electronics. The company also has developed its own mono- and stereo-vision cameras, along with the software required to identify obstacles.

Originally, Autoliv planned to use Mobileye's cameras, but Carlson says the two companies were unable to come to terms.

"Mobileye didn't want to work with anyone they saw as a competitor," Carlson asserted, "and we had to start all over."

According to Carlson, Autoliv's electronics unit employs 2,500 engineers. Of those, 1,500 are software specialists. And when that division adds 500 engineers over the next year, at least 400 will work on software.

Specialists in camera vision will be clustered in Sweden, while radar development is based in Massachusetts. Some engineers also will be based in Germany, Japan and other locations.

As Autoliv adds engineers, its research budget is growing, too. Back when Autoliv focused primarily on passive safety, its r&d budget was less than 6 percent of revenues.

In the first six months of 2016, r&d expenditures rose to $335 million, or 6.5 percent of sales. And that figure will rise to 7 percent, Carlson said.

The payoff could be huge. Over the next decade, global industry sales of active safety technology could be as high as $25 billion a year, according to one estimate.

"Ten years from now, the market for active safety will be in the same ballpark as passive safety," Carlson said. "That's a big market."

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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