Autoliv Inc., the world's top producer of airbags and seat belts, is trying to muscle its way into the small fraternity of mega-suppliers that design collision-avoidance systems for autonomous cars.
The Swedish supplier enjoys growing sales of radar, cameras and night vision systems. Now, CEO Jan Carlson says he may make some acquisitions to expand the company's technology portfolio. Carlson hinted that lidar and vehicle-to-vehicle communications might prove useful but declined to name specific targets.
Carlson, 55, spelled out his plans in an interview last week with Staff Correspondent David Sedgwick.
Q: Autoliv says it's the world's No. 2 producer of collision-avoidance technology, correct?
A: It's not easy to estimate market share. In active safety, you have radar, brakes, vehicle-to-vehicle communications. ... It's the sum of a lot of things. But if you limit your definition to components that Autoliv produces, like radar, cameras and night vision, we believe our market share is around 20 percent.
Autoliv sells a lot of radar?
Radar is the bulk of our active-safety sales. That comes from the acquisition we made in 2008 [of Tyco Electronics' radar unit]. We had sold radar before, but that's when it took off.
Is radar Autoliv's core product for active safety?
I wouldn't say that. We use radar together with vision and other components and integrate that data in our main controller. That's what we see as "core." Of course, we would like to sell all the sensors that we develop ourselves. But we can integrate other suppliers' sensors if that's what the customer wants.
This year, Autoliv formed a joint venture to produce brake systems and acquired a company that makes GPS modules. Are additional acquisitions being considered?
We are looking at it on a case-by-case basis. We have a strong balance sheet. When a new deal might happen is hard to say. But we are definitely looking for more acquisitions. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications and lidar are two areas that could be of interest.
Autoliv sells collision-avoidance systems to Mercedes, BMW and Audi, right?
We are a supplier to Daimler for some systems -- like radar -- and we sell a vision system to BMW. We also sell night-vision systems to Audi and Daimler. We work with all three of them. They are driving the technology.
In September, Autoliv formed a joint venture with Nissin Kogyo to produce brake systems. Does this expand your collision-avoidance portfolio?
We did a little bit with brake controls in the past. We [integrated] electronic stability control with airbag actuation. But this joint venture will do it in a much better way. This gives us some know-how.
In July, Autoliv bought Macom Technology Solutions, a startup that produces GPS modules. What will this do for Autoliv?
It provides interesting technology to track the electronic horizon in front of the car. You need data from vehicle-to-vehicle communication, navigation systems, radars and cameras [to create] a virtual map of the road in front of the vehicle. It's a building block for us.
Five years ago, Autoliv predicted annual sales of 300,000 night-vision systems a year in 2015. Was that target reached?
No, I don't think that's what we are doing. It's a great technology. Unfortunately, [night-vision systems] sometimes are embedded in big option packages. You cannot buy that feature alone. You have to buy a lot of other stuff to get it. So the "take rate" isn't as high as we think it should be.
There isn't much we can do about it. If you drive the Mercedes S class, it's a fantastic system. You have a clear picture on the screen, and you can see 300 meters (984 feet) in front of the car. And you can get warnings on your head-up display. It's everything that you want to have when you are driving on a dark road.
Autoliv has opened a track in Sweden to test autonomous vehicles. What is its progress?
It's not only ours. There are a number of participants. Scania, Volvo Trucks and others are doing this. The purpose is to have a full-scale track to simulate normal roads -- rural roads where you can see the car behaving. It's a big track.
In July, Autoliv said it could produce 20 million replacement airbag inflators in 2015 and 2016 for Takata customers. Are you sticking with that forecast?
Yes, up to 20 million units is our best estimate for the time being. It's a fluid situation. Where this is going is hard to say.
What is the progress of Autoliv's effort to expand inflator production in Utah?
It's progressing very well. Everything is up and running. We started producing [replacement inflators] in the second quarter, and we are gradually ramping up.
Is Autoliv gaining market share from Takata, the world's No. 2 airbag maker?
It's a little bit early to say. Of course, we hope to get market share. We are seeing more orders for frontal airbags. In our earnings call, we said that we have seen 50 percent of frontal airbag contracts coming our way. That's higher than our global market share, and we believe it may play out this way. It takes time. We will see.