Soma Muthumanickam “I’m very optimistic about the future of autonomous driving”

August 2, 2019

IT Arena kicks off in less than 2 months! To fuel up your interest before the event, we continue our tradition of introducing you to our speakers. Today, we talked to Soma Muthumanickam, Lead Software Architect for Automated Driving at ZF. Soma talks about the current state of the self-driving car market, challenges and opportunities they bring to other industries, and whether the future of automotive will be environment-friendly.  

Could you please give us a short review of the current progress of autonomous cars? How reliable are they?

This is a classic question that I get a lot 🙂

There are 5 different levels of Autonomy for self-driving cars.

  • Level 1 is the most basic version, where the vehicle can steer or accelerate on its own, but not both at the same time. So the driver can temporarily relax his hands or feet but is still expected to pay attention to the road in case something happens. A good example is Adaptive Cruise Control that has existed for a long time now.


  • Level 2 lets the vehicle steer and accelerate on its own at the same time. So the driver can relax his hands and feet at the same time but is still expected to pay attention to the road. A good example of this level is the Tesla Autopilot Feature.


  • Level 3 is the first level where the driver can actually stop paying attention to the road while the vehicle drives itself. So the driver can watch a movie, read emails, etc. In case the vehicle can’t drive itself, it alerts the driver and provides enough time for the driver to take back the steering wheel. The first level 3 vehicles were released in 2018.


  • Level 4 is the first level where the driver is no longer required in the loop and the vehicle drives itself completely within geo-fenced locations (which means a vehicle built for China might not drive in Europe). A good example of this level is Google’s Waymo which only operates in certain cities.


  • Level 5 is the final level where the vehicle drives itself completely no matter where it is in the world.


The image below summarizes the different levels of autonomous driving.


In 2019, we have successfully released level 3 vehicles into the market and making good progress towards level 4.

All self-driving cars are reliable to their advertised levels of Autonomy. But because people tend to think of self-driving cars as a Binary Problem (either the driver drives or the vehicle drives itself completely), full reliability for them will only be reached when level 4 vehicles arrive in the market in a couple of years.

Are you optimistic about the future of autonomous driving? How long will it take for the autonomous driving systems to become mature?

Yes, I’m very optimistic about the future of autonomous driving. Level 2 cars are already pretty mature. I feel the industry as a whole, would become pretty mature when level 4 cars are released in 2023.

What opportunities could autonomous cars bring to other industries?

Because autonomous cars require so much computation power and connectivity, they are essentially becoming a smartphone on wheels 😉

So this provides lots of collaboration opportunities for people working in industries such as telecommunications and road & Infrastructure Management.

Many people are concerned about the price of self-driving cars. Do you think autonomous cars might become more economically viable in the future?

Level 2 cars are already built to be economically viable for consumers. But Level 3 and Level 4 cars will be significantly more expensive in the beginning since they require a lot more sensor redundancies to take the driver out of the loop.

I expect that level 4 vehicles will initially focus on being robo-taxis for the first 5 years until the technology becomes cheap enough for consumer cars.

You’re an obvious environmentalist. It seems like many autonomous cars will be electric in the future, is this what inspired you to pursue a career in the automotive industry after graduation? Do you believe that the popularization of autonomous cars will have a positive effect on our environment?

Cars being Electric is definitely more environment-friendly. But autonomous cars also provide additional benefits to the environment.

For example, most people who own cars tend to use them for less than 10% of a day. So 90% of the day the cars are just standing still taking up valuable parking space. Once robo-taxis arrive they will be cheaper than normal Taxis and be operating all the time, reducing the need for everyone to own cars and also avoiding wasted parking space. I believe this would have a very positive effect on the environment.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has done a good job of summarizing all the benefits of Self-Driving Vehicles (SDV) as shown below.


What were some of the most valuable experiences in your career as Lead Software Architect? Why did you choose to work at ZF?

The automated driving team in ZF is very diverse and contains people from highly different cultures and backgrounds. You can meet everyone from traditional software engineers to hardcore mathematicians. You even have some people who previously worked in astronomy and used to study cosmological patterns for example.

So working as a software architect at ZF has always provided me with excellent opportunities to learn from different people working here.

This year, IT Arena tries to better understand the intersection of humanity and technology. What’s your opinion on self-driving cars when it comes to moral dilemmas? (e.g. the so-called trolley problem)

Until Level 3, moral dilemmas for self-driving cars wouldn’t be a huge problem, because every time the car is forced to take a hard decision, it would simply let the driver decide.

From Level 4 onwards, moral dilemmas start getting tricky, since the car is fully autonomous. We always try to adopt a minimum risk maneuver, but in order to define this minimum risk maneuver, we are working together with the different governments and traffic safety organizations across the world. It’s one of the reasons why level 4 vehicles are not ready yet. But this situation will improve soon.

Learn more about Soma Muthumanickam: