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How Sophia Antipolis is becoming a hub for tomorrow’s automotive industry

From the modern giants of Google and Tesla to the well-established powerhouse brands like Mercedes, Volkswagen and Audi, it seems as though every car company around today wants in on automation. The smart or self-driving vehicle is no longer a sci-fi concept, but a reality, with tests ongoing throughout Europe and the wider world.

Over the past few years, the south of France – and in particular the Sophia Antipolis technology basin – has emerged as a hotbed for innovation. The conditions here are just right according to those in the know, such as Pierre Sigrist, the former director of research and development for Visteon and the current general manager of Epicnpoc (an automotive and software innovation company based in Sophia Antipolis).

“The Côte d’Azur is a unique environment for experimentation,” he says, “with a wide variety of road types deployed across an atypical geography between sea and mountains; a spectrum of connectivity from highly connected zones to those without coverage; areas of very diverse population density; a pyramid of the ages with a particularly large presence of seniors; a range of social issues on both the coast and in the back-country; an excellent technology ecosystem; and it has one of the world’s first official smart cities, the Métropole Nice Côte d'Azur.”

From 5th to 7th September, Antibes will host the annual Driving Simulation Conference, which unites simulation experts from across the globe as well as various industry and academic communities. It’s a meeting of hi-tech minds; the like the region hopes to attract.

“The very ever DSC event, which took place in 1995, was in Sophia Antipolis,” explains its Paris-based organiser and the president of the Driving Simulation Association, Andras Kemeny. “Our focus then was on ‘cooperative driving’, the precursor to autonomous driving. At the time, traditional car companies were hesitant to start the journey towards self-driving vehicles, with one of the main concerns being about safety and the public reaction towards accidents.”

Over the last two decades, he explains, the simulation industry has been able to move the concept forwards. Data collected suggests that there is a lethal accident on average every 200 to 300 million kilometers. So if autonomous vehicles will have to be safer, companies developing these vehicles are required to trial their products over billions of kilometres and in various scenarios, from weather conditions to city centres versus quieter country lanes. This can be an extremely costly exercise to do in reality, but simulation provides an alternative.

“To be accepted by the public, the self-driving car of tomorrow needs to be safer than cars of today,” says Kemeny. “Simulation provides a way of testing out these vehicles both in their autonomous mode and when the human driver has taken control.”

Studies have shown that 50% of the population is anxious about handing control over to their vehicle, even though human error is to blame in an estimated 90% of car crashes. Part of the challenge for simulation companies is to put the driver in a realistic scenario and test their management of an autonomous vehicle in a potential accident.

Kemeny anticipates the first autonomous cars to be on French roads by 2022. At the Artificial Intelligence for Humanity conference in Paris earlier this year, France’s 40-year-old president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged €1.5 billion euros of investment in the country’s AI industry. He also announced that, from 2019, Level 4 autonomous vehicles (cars that can drive themselves almost all the time without any human input) can be tested on French roads.

“While the cars will be manufactured in existing plants rather than in research and development centres like Sophia Antipolis, that’s not to say that the technology hub won’t play a very important role. For some of the leading brands, the tools to make these self-driving cars will be designed here,” says Kemeny.

An existing ecosystem with investment potential

The DSC conference is expected to attract around 100 companies from around the world, including Germany, Canada, the US, Japan and South Korea.

“In its role as host, Antibes is far more than just a business tourism destination,” says Jean-François Chapperon, the head of Team Côte d’Azur’s (TCA) International Networks, who will be present at the event. “We will be highlighting the strengths of the area within the automotive engineering and smart vehicle industries, making that link between its active ecosystem and strong investment potential for businesses from around the world.”

This blend of networking and promotion is something TCA is taking international over the next few months, with visits to the ITS World Congress in Copenhagen (17th to 21st September) and a trip to Silicon Valley in October. Although it is ‘not exactly a partner’ of the DSC event, TCA has been involved in its affiliated industries for some time now.

“The closure of the Texas Instruments offices in Villeneuve-Loubet in 2013 kick-started our smart vehicle initiative,” explains Chapperon. “The company was one of the pioneers to settle in the region in the 1960s and had built up a number of very specialist teams by the time it shut. The job of TCA is to attract foreign companies to the area and this existing pool of talent was one of the tools we have been able to use.”

TCA helps businesses of all sizes with the different aspects of relocation to the south of France, from finding office space to legal obligations. It has flourished in the area of recruiting of highly trained and experienced personnel for IT, tech and design companies.

“Many of those we have helped come to the region because of its aptitude as well as the qualified young people graduating from the universities in the area. As such, we have been able to further attract skilled workers and cutting-edge companies,” says Chapperon.

For example Renault, which is one of the DSC’s major sponsors and recently took on more than 200 staff from Intel according to Chapperon. TCA helped the globally-recognisable brand set up its Software Labs just last year and the facilities are now working to accelerate Renault’s connected vehicle capabilities.

But it isn’t just the mega corporations that TCA is working to attract. It’s now targeting small to medium-sized companies within the affiliated automotive field, such as simulator Optis, which manages a workforce of around 260.

“Autonomous vehicle is already the subject of work and study for many automotive actors in the region,” says Epicnpoc’s Sigrist, “but in the Côte d’Azur as elsewhere, the advent of the autonomous vehicle will be done in successive stages. Users will need to change their habits of today and turn towards new paradigms such as car sharing and carpooling. For the autonomous vehicle to be adopted by users, it will have to be a means of transport that is more social and cost effective than the individual car we know today.”

Elsa Carpenter