Jaguar Land Rover’s self-driving software guru sees long road ahead for tech

19 Jun 2018

A concept image of Jaguar Land Rover’s autonomous car. Image: JLR

When it comes to the development of autonomous vehicles, automotive giants can’t go it alone, according to the head of vehicle engineering at Jaguar Land Rover’s Shannon research centre.

We can often take for granted the power of the human brain, especially when we hit the road and navigate our way from point A to point B without colliding with another car.

During that journey – be it down to the shops or crossing a country – your mind is subconsciously scanning the surroundings of the car through vision and hearing for any potential dangers.

Now try and imagine the almighty challenge it is to take the power of the human brain and place it in the confines of a car, and then you’ll get a sense of what autonomous vehicle (AV) developers face right now.

One of those developers is Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), a household name in the auto manufacturing business that is now trying to transition itself from not just a producer of traditional luxury vehicles, but also a maker of advanced electric vehicles (EVs) and AVs of the future.

While Ireland’s history with actual car manufacturing died off with Ford in 1984, the country is finding itself part of this new and exciting frontier in AV development, with JLR announcing earlier this year that it would establish an automotive research centre in Shannon, Co Clare, for AVs and EVs.

The centre’s general manager for vehicle engineering, John Cormican, has, as a result of this move, become one of the country’s leading figures in AV development and just happens to be speaking at this week’s Inspirefest, a sci-tech festival taking place in Dublin on 21 and 22 June.

He and his team’s goal at the Shannon site is to develop the software for Level 4 AVs, one stage below what can truly be called a fully autonomous vehicle.

John Cormican of Jaguar Land Rover

John Cormican, general manager for vehicle engineering at JLR’s Shannon site. Image: JLR

‘It’s such a complex problem to solve’

Speaking with, Cormican agrees that it is an enormous challenge to give a car the ability to think for itself.

“With autonomous driving, it’s such a complex problem to solve. There is no one magic solution out there that you can just buy off the shelf,” he said.

This is a radical change from the past where auto manufacturers were determined to keep production in-house as much as possible, fearing their secrets would be stolen by a competitor, but times are different now.

As recently as March, JLR announced a partnership with Waymo, Google’s AV division, which will see the former’s I-Pace model being the first in Waymo’s future fleet.

Speaking of radical changes, Cormican has seen the rapid pace at which the technology has progressed firsthand, having moved to JLR after a 15-year career at tech giant Intel.

He admitted things were a lot different when he was starting out.

“When I first started in automotive [with Intel], there were no real activities in automated driving,” he said. “It was almost like widgets in a car where there was an infotainment solution or a telematics box or an instrument cluster. They were all very much individual controlled units in a vehicle.

“The big change for me was around automated driving because it’s so much bigger than what’s going on in the vehicle. The processing power and the computing capability required is off the chart compared to a regular infotainment solution.”

Technology under the spotlight

Something else arguably off the chart for a person working in such an advanced field is public scrutiny. On a few occasions in recent months, we have heard of vehicles from companies such as Tesla being involved in incidents with AVs.

Unlike the thousands of road incidents that occur every day, each of these unusual cases gets enormous coverage.

So, what is it like to work under such intense pressure?

“We need to take security and cybersecurity and functional safety very, very seriously,” Cormican said.

“There’s an onus on companies like Jaguar Land Rover that have many years of automotive credibility [to be extremely safe], whereas in some cases you’ve got new entrants that don’t have that same legacy.

“We are shipping a lot of cars and they’re going to be out there on the road. It’s of primary importance that everything we ship is fundamentally safe and secure [in terms of cybersecurity].”

Shannon centre

JLR’s new software engineering centre in Shannon, Co Clare. Image: Shannon Property Group

Importance of Shannon

Once again, Cormican said it is a priority not to go it alone, especially having only established itself in Shannon, which is why JLR is turning to the Limerick tech ecosystem for some help, including from Science Foundation Ireland research centres Lero and Connect.

“If you look at the University of Limerick, they’ve just started a really good degree in artificial intelligence (AI) there and that’s fantastic for us,” he said.

“We could apply AI in the automotive market but it can be applied in medical, transportation and financial, so there’s a lot of tech companies benefiting from these activities and we’re just one.”

As the days count down to Inspirefest, Cormican hopes to pitch this idea to attendees. “We’re doing all these cool solutions around autonomous vehicles, connectivity and vehicle architecture; we want to get the message out [that] we’re producing great cars, but also that we have a strong technical pedigree.”

John Cormican will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic