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March 6, 2017

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Home » Business » Autotalk Special

U-blox buys into idea of ‘smartphone on wheels’

THOMAS Seiler, chief executive of Swiss firm U-blox, didn’t hide his enthusiasm when talk turned to the technology of “smart” cars during his recent visit to Shanghai.

U-blox just completed the US$52.5 million acquisition of Shanghai-based SIMCom’s cellular modem product line, its research and development team, and its customer base. It was U-blox’s biggest-ever takeover.

The Swiss company creates wireless semiconductors and modules for consumer, automotive and industrial markets, including GPS technology, GPS chipsets and smart antennas. It is betting on high growth demand in China, the world’s biggest auto market.

Seiler calls it a “step-forward” industry in progress toward “smart driving,” or Internet-based driving.

U-blox isn’t the only company investing heavily in the sector, which enables people, vehicles and machines to locate exact positions and communicate wirelessly over cellular and other networks. Such systems are regarded as a basic and necessary step in the development of the more ambitious target of “self-driving” cars.

Industry giants like Intel, Qualcomm, China Mobile, Baidu, Huawei and start-ups like Mobike and Ofo are entering the sector, which comprises an industry chain from chip design, telecommunications networks and satellite positioning to chip-making and Internet services.

The market is no doubt worthy the heavy interest. By 2020, more than 152 million cars are expected to feature Internet-connection functions in location positioning, communications and entertainment. Cars capable of autonomous driving will begin appearing on highways by 2020, according to US-based research firm IHS Automotive.

The Internet of Things market in China, which relies on the technology of machine-to-machine communications, is forecast to grow at an average 13 percent annually, topping US$361 billion by 2020, analysts said.

China Mobile, the world’s biggest mobile carrier, has partnered with Ericsson Inc and Mobike to adapt the latest location application technology to track bike-sharing in Shanghai. New narrow-band Internet of Things technology can help Mobike users easily locate shared bikes and can assist Mobike in finding lost bikes faster. It also helps China Mobile to improve its network coverage ability by five to seven times, the firms said.

Huawei, China Telecom and bike-sharing service provider Ofo also launched similar services last month. The technology used in bike-sharing is seen as a prelude for technologies that will soon be installed in cars.

Such technology can be used in parking lots, industrial plants, rural regions and other places without mobile network coverage, said Sweden’s Ericsson, which plans to set up a new Internet of Things research center in Shanghai.

Chip giants like Intel and Qualcomm expect new 5G technologies, scheduled to be in commercial use between 2018 and 2020, to become a key catalyst in developing the smart driving industry.

Intel has allocated a US$100 million fund for smart driving. It has said it expects more than 100 million Internet-connected cars on the road by 2025, creating a market valued at US$42 billion.

The 5G network, offering high-speed connection and improved bandwidth capacity, will push the development of smart driving. By 2025, the average data-transmission capacity of a smart car is forecast at about 750 megabytes per second, creating a “powerful smartphone” on wheels, according to Intel, the world’s biggest computer chipmaker.

U-box, which supports various satellite communications systems including GPS and China’s Beidou system, is able to offer location positioning systems on vehicles with an accuracy rate of within one meter. Its more advanced positioning system has a rate within one centimeter, but so far it is available only in some professional sectors, like architecture, at a high cost, the company said.

But such location technology is expected to be widely adopted within one or two years, especially in tandem with the advent of 5G technology. That will be a big step forward for smart driving and even self-driving, industry officials said.


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