French Auto Supplier Valeo Moves Toward Mobility with New Innovations

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Although the timeline for getting fully driverless cars on the road is in flux, the mobility industry is moving along at a rapid clip. Yet another huge investment in the sector was announced this week when Aurora Innovations, based in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, scored more than half a billion dollars from a group of backers led by Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital.

Aurora’s co-founders are what Sequoia’s Carl Eschenbach described as a “self-driving dream team” of roboticists and engineers, including former Waymo, Tesla, and Uber executives, Aurora also attracted funding from asset management company T. Rowe Price and Amazon, providing one of the most concrete indications yet that the retail giant intends to be a mobility player—not a surprise given the extent of its logistics operation.

“Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive,” an Amazon spokesperson said to Bloomberg, “whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities.”

The transformative potential of autonomous technologies has attracted many companies that might seem, at first blush, to be a surprise. Automotive suppliers are often thought of as purveyors of nuts and bolts, but they are also seeing a big opportunity in mobility.

Take Valeo, for example. The nearly 100-year-old France-based supplier, with a focus on heating and cooling systems, has debuted a number of innovations in the past year that capitalize on autonomous and connected tech. Xconomy saw two of those innovations—the Smart Cocoon and Oxy’Zen—earlier this month at Valeo’s North American headquarters outside of Detroit, and we talked to the company’s chief technical officer, James Schwyn, about what’s next.

Schwyn says there are three “mobility revolutions” that are at the center of Valeo’s research and development efforts: autonomous, electric, and connected vehicles. “And they’re all evolving at different rates,” he points out.

Schwyn says the Smart Cocoon, integrated into an electric BMW for demonstration purposes, is an energy-efficient, adaptive heating and cooling system that responds to biometric and other sensor inputs to adjust cabin temperature on the fly. Smart Cocoon does this by incorporating smaller HVAC systems that consume less battery power, infrared cameras, and artificial intelligence to focus on where passengers are and how they feel. The system calculates an optimal personal thermal range, he says, by detecting the vehicle occupants’ gender, heart and blood pressure rate, location, age, weight, and even the clothing they’re wearing.

The Smart Cocoon achieves this “comfort bubble” by incorporating radiant heating surfaces throughout the car’s interior and jets that gently blow cool, misty air toward a passenger’s face, which are mounted in opposite corners, just above the windshield, on both the driver and passenger sides. The heating panels glow red while the cooling jets are a neon blue, and Schwyn says those colors can trick the brain into feeling warmer or cooler.

“Some of this technology is 10 years in the making,” Schwyn explains. “We’re not just HVAC engineers—we’re moving into health and psychological tools that translate into mood and biometric sensors.”

Schwyn expects Smart Cocoon technology will be production-ready within five years, and he says Valeo is working with startups on other innovations that would allow the car to detect breathing rates and drowsiness.

Schwyn says the air inside a car can be up to four times more polluted than the air outdoors, which was the genesis behind Oxy’Zen, demonstrated for us in a Mercedes. Oxy’Zen is a sensor system that detects pollutants, particulate matter, and the general air quality of the driver’s environment, and purifies the car’s interior accordingly through high-efficiency filters and ionizers. There’s also an option to turn on three different varieties of subtle air freshener: relaxing, healing, or energizing. The system continuously monitors the outdoor conditions and can activate purification automatically, Schwyn says.

Drivers can use an associated smart phone app called Valeo Clean Road to turn on the purification system remotely. Schwyn says the app can also tap into databases to calculate the best driving routes in terms of air quality, and alert drivers when the system’s air filters need to be replaced.  Schwyn says Oxy’Zen will be ready for prime time in a few years, and automaker customers will likely employ their own branding once it’s launched. Schwyn declined to name the car companies it works with, but says, “We supply HVAC to everyone.”

Valeo is also developing a map to track urban pollution in real time. It’s been tested on the streets of Paris with 20 vehicles fitted with sensors that collect information on the concentration of six pollutants: fine particles, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide. The collected data is then aggregated with existing public information to create a dynamic and hyper-local map.

With all of these new projects, Valeo says it is demonstrating an ability to “imagine, design, and develop technologies conducive to new forms of mobility that are widely accessible, yet adapted to individual needs.” Expect to see an increasing number of auto suppliers try similar strategies, incorporating whatever they have expertise in, as the race toward self-driving cars intensifies. After all, the auto industry, and all of its partners and affiliates, are quickly moving into “innovate or perish” territory.