Exclusive: India’s carmakers help define innovation, says Qualcomm’s Vivek Khanna - Hindustan Times
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Exclusive: India’s carmakers help define innovation, says Qualcomm’s Vivek Khanna

May 18, 2024 01:44 PM IST

Vivek Khanna tells HT that Qualcomm is in talks with all Indian automakers, to enable satellite connectivity at minimal cost. We should hear from car companies, soon

It had been a while, partly due to hectic schedules back in San Diego as a result of the many hats he wears at Qualcomm as the senior director, yet Vivek Khanna likes what he sees about India’s transformation in the past few years. He’s been keeping a close watch on the trajectory of India’s economy and investments in infrastructure since he is working closely with automakers in the country, who are dependent on Qualcomm’s array of automotive tech platforms for their vehicle portfolio as well as upcoming launches. “We’re working with pretty much every automaker in India,” he tells HT, in an exclusive conversation.

Vivek Khanna, Senior Director at Qualcomm and (right) an illustration of the Snapdragon Cockpit platform (Qualcomm)
Vivek Khanna, Senior Director at Qualcomm and (right) an illustration of the Snapdragon Cockpit platform (Qualcomm)

It is only logical that someone as passionate about automotive technology as Khanna defines Qualcomm’s automotive ventures. The indicators aren’t only pointing at big numbers on the balance sheet, but consumers want to buy smart-ER cars and automakers want to find every way possible to have an advantage over rivals. While Qualcomm doesn’t share India-specific numbers thus far, their automotive revenue globally surged by 35%, according to the latest financial results. That translates to $603 million in Q2 FY24, up from $447 million, and a revenue record. There has been a sharp adoption of Snapdragon Digital Chassis solutions by carmakers for new vehicle launches.

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After fourteen consecutive quarters of double-digit growth for Qualcomm’s automotive business, confidence is understandably at an all-time high. Their estimates? $4 billion in automotive revenues by fiscal 2026. Khanna is very clear that in terms of use cases, Qualcomm relies on automakers because they have the pulse of what customers want. At the same time, having consistently pushed the performance, architecture, platform and thermal boundaries with smartphone and computing device silicon, those learnings can be applied to Qualcomm’s range of car tech. An example of that is the Snapdragon Ride Flex platform beginning production this year, which has ADAS features, in-car infotainment and automated driving tech, working on the same silicon.

Khanna shares his views about India’s car market, the importance of car makers in educating consumers about how to best use connected car tech, generative AI finding its way into the cockpit and the pillars that’ll define the cars of tomorrow. He believes that from the Indian perspective, the three pillars that will define the next generation of cars and who buys them will depend on affordability, increasing compute power for safety systems in particular and generative AI as a personal assistant. Edited excerpts.

Q. How do you visualise a baseline in terms of connected and smart capabilities for cars, be it ICE or EVs?

The cars of today, and I specifically talk about the Indian scenario, is that the affordable cars and the entry spec tier rule the market. That tells us price continues to be important. When we think, “Can we put an IVI system there,” the answer is no. (Editor’s note: IVI that Khanna is referring to, is in-vehicle infotainment, also called in-car entertainment). That’s because the car line cannot afford it, the buyer cannot afford it, and that’s a problem. Now, in the mid-tier cars where the IVI systems are present, built-in connectivity comes in and that is the tier, which seems to be growing in India.

Tata is doing pretty well in that segment, as are Maruti and Mahindra. I think what is happening in India is that the affordable car market is not getting what a mid-tier car has. Then there is a premium tier where affordability is not an issue. That’s when we look at things from a global view. Premium connectivity with 5G is enabled, ADAS (or Driver Assistance Systems) and in the cockpit, the best of the display and the best of acoustics in the car.

I’ll give you an example of a reverse parking camera, in a way an ADAS feature. It was a premium feature 10 years ago, and now it is down to a basic safety feature. I say that because what we believe will eventually happen is in the next five years or so, advanced connectivity will go a similar way. What I learned during the last one week was people want to track their cars. Or you could be worried that your children may drive faster than they should. In the next few years, people start looking into cars as something, of a safe environment for themselves and their family. Can I do Netflix streaming in my car? Globally it is happening. For example, BMW is putting screens for rear passengers, with 5G connectivity.

Q. Do you believe a subscription model that’s being implemented by some carmakers in different parts of the world, works in India?

More tech in cars will eventually come. The Indian market is very cost-conscious for the right reasons. And from our perspective, what we are learning is that we need to have cost-specific solutions in India. If I try to apply a BMW, a Porsche mindset, it’s not going to work. It’s going to serve probably one per cent of the population.

I think subscription will also work in the sense that if carmakers provide basic services, for example, tracking if the car is stolen and also geofencing, and then club it with a basic subscription package in the car, yes, it will actually work at the entry-level too. This is a very basic phenomenon that you would want to track your car because it is an expensive purchase. And here on the affordable cars, it is going to happen. It is not happening right now because of the price points of connectivity, not that people don’t want it. We have to seed the market with low-price solutions, whether 5G or 4G.

Q. Qualcomm has many mobility-focused technologies. How is focus and research aligned?

Our primary method of operation is very simple. We talk to everybody. We start with the process of what our end customer wants, which is the automaker. In turn, they are directly talking to their end customer. Therefore, they come up with the requirement in terms of what they see as a problem in their car, or what their vision is for the next model which is coming in three years. That’s a basic feeding point for us. Then we start looking at some technologies which are available in smartphones because they are leapfrogging, essentially everything else. I mean, these smartphones are pretty much replaced every year.

You see what is available from a technology perspective and in the PC space. For example, generative artificial intelligence (AI), and we are propagating it to the auto ecosystem. There are advancements in chip technology, and what can we further integrate? There is also a very complex mechanism of talking to partners and figuring out how you can enhance performance. For example, if a device can do a gigabit per second, within the same power constraint, can we deliver 2 gigabits per second?

Some things are difficult in smartphones as they have limitations because of heat generated and the small sizes. From a car perspective, that isn’t a problem because you can have the highest number of antennas and the most compute. Gen AI is going to be one of the major things for cars, and that’s the direction we’re going in.

Q. Is generative AI finding a relatively stable place in a car just yet, or are we more in a phase of refinement?

Today, if you look at this from a PC or phone perspective, Microsoft and Google are working on models that need updates. Then there is the otherwise of Gen AI, which is regeneration and contextual awareness. From the automotive perspective, we need to figure out how to tune elements of the car. For example, when a car goes for service, can the dealership find a way to derive specific data from the vehicle for analysis or check for faults? It can be used for personalisation and smart suggestions such as a prompt to check if you’d like the score of a cricket match happening 20km away from where you’re driving at the time. From the EV perspective, where’s the nearest charging station? It’ll all come down to the cost factor and the percolation of tech to the affordable and mid-tier cars will take time.

Q. Has progress been made, in working with automakers in India?

We work with pretty much every automaker in India. Recent examples are the cockpit platforms for Mahindra and Tata Motors. We are actively collaborating with all automakers, and also supporting the developer community. I think the critical part for us now is that we have a good establishment in India. Carmakers know what the domestic market wants, and we must collaborate with them and foster innovation which is critical for India. For that, we must be ready to customise technology that works for the Indian market.

We are in talks with all Indian automakers, in terms of enabling satellite connectivity at minimal cost. The use case is very simple. If there is no service in an area and connectivity in the car doesn’t work, most likely your smartphone also is not going to work because the coverage is pretty much the same from the same operator. In an emergency, if I have a smart way of sending a message saying here’s my location and this is the kind of emergency I am in, I can ask someone to send help.

Q. Does a layer of connectivity and telematics raise a question of data privacy?

A question for more for the end user to be comfortable in the government regulation. If for example, a person buys a car, the automaker typically asks if they want to be tracked. If the answer is yes, then fine. The user gives permission. The second scenario is where the car and the automaker on their own are able to transmit some data, but it’s more related to the diagnostic information. What happens is that the user’s location is also transmitted. Yes, that is where I think privacy issues exist and the government has to basically decide how this works.

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