Panasonic, a top player in infotainment systems and batteries for electric vehicles, is muscling into the fast-growing market for autonomous-drive cars.
The company intends to exploit its deep expertise in cameras and cockpit displays to gain a foothold. Last month, Panasonic announced plans to boost sales of safety technology by 52 percent to nearly $4 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019.
As if that weren't enough, the Japan-based mega-supplier is helping Tesla Motors build its EV-battery factory in Nevada -- a project that gained a sense of urgency this month when Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced 325,000 preorders for the Model 3 sedan.
Tom Gebhardt, 56, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Co. of America, spelled out the company's plans in an April 8 interview with Staff Correspondent David Sedgwick.
Q: Is it true that Panasonic wants to develop the human machine interface -- that is, the cockpit controls -- for autonomous-drive cars?
A: We are. In the short term, there will be some features that come out of infotainment. In the long term, we'll see where we go. We certainly have some aspirations.
Can you give examples of cockpit components that relate to autonomous vehicles?
Sure. The way that you monitor the driver and the vehicle -- that has to be rethought. So we're developing a driver-monitoring system, and also the instrument cluster, and the head-up display that brings it all together. Currently, the human machine interface is a big deal, and it only gets bigger as the market changes.
Panasonic also is developing cameras for autonomous vehicles, right?
We can use both the cameras and imaging technology that our consumer division developed. We've been making cameras for 50 years. We have an incredible amount of knowledge about imaging and video that we can apply to automotive. That's why we think we are positioned to grow aggressively.
A year ago, you showed me how Panasonic wants to replace the rear and side mirrors with three cameras. Do you have any contracts?
We haven't announced any contracts. This is part of an initiative with Ficosa -- a company that we invested in -- which is in the mirror business. There is a lot of activity between our two companies.
Is Panasonic moving as fast as it can to develop rear cameras?
We think we are ideally positioned since we are closely partnered with a company that has been in mirrors for a long time. We'll have a lot to say about that in the near term.
But U.S. regulators allow automakers to only supplement side mirrors with cameras, not replace them, right?
There have been some regulatory approvals [of cameras that replace mirrors] in Europe and Asia, so that's an opportunity. Certainly, we want to be in the forefront of it.
Is Panasonic designing cameras for a 360-degree view around the car?
We are developing all camera-related technologies, and a 360-degree view is one of those.
Is Panasonic marketing forward-looking cameras for obstacle detection?
Yeah, we are in development -- and not only for cameras. Certainly, we are looking at all the other sensors, like lidar and radar, to make sure we've got a full perspective.
So Panasonic is developing a lidar system?
We are working internally on development, and we're working with some potential partners. There are a lot of startup companies with interesting technologies. We are working with them because there are a number of potential breakthroughs.
Will Panasonic acquire any of those companies?
We'd be very open to looking at that. We are looking at all those options.
Will Panasonic market a full-scale system for autonomous vehicles, with sensors, monitors, computer chips and software?
It's hard to say what "full-scale" means. We know which elements are nearest and dearest to us, but I'm not sure we need a full system.
Let's move on to batteries. In 2010, Panasonic invested $30 million in Tesla, and it is helping to build Tesla's battery factory. Can you give an update?
Tesla has established that it's a player with 325,000 orders for the Model 3. They will require an incredible number of batteries. We have incredible momentum coming off Elon Musk's announcement.
Will Panasonic cover 30 to 40 percent of the plant's cost, as previously announced?
It's a moving target. Tesla controls it. It's hard to put a percentage on it. We have said we will do what we need to do to assure supply. So is it 20 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent? I don't think you can put your finger on it.
Will Tesla initially be the only customer, or will there be other customers, too?
With 325,000 preorders -- plus all of their existing needs today -- we're going to be quite busy. That plant supports Tesla's needs, which is credible and positive and growing. Tesla's announcement [of preorders for the Model 3] is as positive as we could have expected.
Given the low price of gasoline, what are the prospects for EVs?
Although gasoline is not expensive, EV activity among automakers is at an all-time high.
We are really starting to build some momentum. We are the overall leader in that segment, so we're very bullish on electric vehicles and batteries.