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How ARM is ushering in a future of self-driving cars and intelligent paint

What ARM will do next
In a future of miniscule sensors, cars could practically drive themselves

Cars that avoid accidents. Street lights that turn off when there's no one around. Battery-free sensors you can paint on the wall. The future of ARM processors is much bigger (and smaller) than the unsubsidised $75 smartphone and ARM-powered data centres you'll see pretty soon.

And these aren't idle predictions; this is the official product roadmap.

ARM has a unique advantage when it comes to future gazing, according to its Executive Vice President of Strategy Tom Lantzsch, speaking at the Future in Review conference. "Our engineering team that's working on product development today is working on products you won't hold in your hand as a consumer for probably five or six years."

It's not that they're slow; it's just that they're only the start of the process. "The time it takes them to do a design may be two years, by the time we hand out that over to our semiconductor partners it will take them two years to design and manufacture a chip and by the time it gets in the hands of someone making a product it will take them another 12-18 months," he explained.

That $75 Android smartphone will be on sale in developing countries within 18 months, he says. So what's in the lab now? "What I spend most of my time on now is commonly known as the internet of things."

The human touch

Although most people concentrate on the idea of sensors in products like the Fitbit tracker or the Nest thermostat, Lantzsch says the bigger picture is how they change behaviour. "This is the wave of adaptive learning, creating closed loop systems at a personal or industrial level that makes things more efficient. We will have billions, literally billions, of internet connected devices – and there will be some type of actions taken on this information."

Some of that is personal. "I'm sort of an athletic guy so I got into these gadgets early on. Two years ago, did I really understand if I ran a mile as a 53 year old guy at my pace, how many calories that burns? Which in my case is about 109. Now, I compare that to the chocolate chip cookie I see when I go to Starbucks, at 350 calories. It is having an impact on that decision process!"

What ARM will do next

Streets that are only lit when you need them? ARM could make it happen

On a rather larger scale, ARM is working with GE to make self-monitoring street lights. It starts by alerting the local council when a bulb is going to fail, so they can plan ahead and save money by being more organized about changing them. "But it will eventually get to shutting off those lights when there's no cars on that road. The system will make decisions faster and that will make us more efficient and we will learn from that and just constantly change the system."

Similar things are happening in cars with blind spot indicators and automatic braking and alerts telling the driver if their head is in the wrong position. "We're moving from making the car safe when it's in a crash to keeping it out of the crash altogether; we'll see more and more of that as the cost of semiconductors comes down."

Small is big

Sensors – powered by ARM chips – are going to get smaller. ARM chips already go into disposable and razors and let manufacturers replace 80 per cent of the copper in an HDMI cable with a signal amplifier. "We are driving towards semiconductors that will have some RF technology [to make a network] and literally be able to be put into paint. They can be in common items, in concrete.

"There are all sorts of interesting materials semiconductors will find their way into. They will be extremely, extremely small and very low power to the extent it really doesn't require an energy source, they can have a life of 10-15 years…"


Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.