Visteon CEO Bets Company's Future on Autonomous Vehicles

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

After spinning off from Ford in 2000, Visteon has set a corporate goal of expanding its supplier business to other companies. However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Granted Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, Visteon emerged intact from its reorganization the following year. By 2013, the automotive supplier announced it would pare down its operations to focus primarily on vehicle electronics and HVAC systems.

Now, CEO Sachin Lawande says the company’s future hinges on autonomous vehicles. At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Visteon will unveil its new DriveCore platform, a central control unit for electronics and software in autonomous cars known as a “domain controller.”

While DriveCore is essentially an evolution of the preexisting SmartCore platform, which is currently being prepped for customers in Europe and China, it represents a major leap forward into unfamiliar territory. Visteon missed the boat when it came to advanced driver assistance systems, and most established suppliers diving into autonomous tech have a background in products like emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane assist. But Lawande says his company won’t miss the next evolution of automotive technology.

“We know people will say we have no capabilities or experience in this space, but about a year and a half ago, we created a completely separate unit to focus on this and this only,” Lawande told Crain’s Detroit Business. “I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions because we weren’t innovating in the right areas. For us, this is a big bet, but if we’re able to fundamentally change Visteon and prove this [DriveCore] out, we’re going be successful.”

While most automakers and rival suppliers have tried to add autonomous technology talent by purchasing other companies, Lawande hired an engineering team that now numbers 100 people to create DriveCore. It’s a big gamble for the supplier but, potentially, a wise one.

Products attached to advanced driver assistance systems are expected to grow to 20 million units by 2023, according to IHS Markit forecasts. That’s a significantly larger number than the growth anticipated for cockpit domain controllers that only deal with infotainment and heads-up displays, which is expected to reach roughly 8 million units by 2026. Mark Boyadjis, principal analyst and manager of automotive user experience at IHS Markit, explained to Crain’s that Visteon sees the gamble as a shrewd (and probably necessary) measure.

“With every new [automotive] feature comes a new electronics control unit and [automakers] are at their wits’ end,” Boyadjis said. “Now with these domain controllers, they see a way to combine the ECUs with less complexity and less cost. It’s of strategic importance for Visteon to be doing this because, like their peers, they were beginning to offer these domain controllers in the cockpit that were essentially eliminating hardware they were supplying. Everyone is asking how this won’t affect their bottom line and the answer is to produce them for more than just the cockpit.”

However, Visteon will enter into some exceptionally fierce competition. Not only from other suppliers, but tech giants that have focused on autonomous tech for years and automakers that are implementing their own AV programs.

“When it comes to the big giants of Silicon Valley, they are extremely formidable, that’s why we spent a lot of time where we felt we could operate,” Lawande said. “Continental and Aptiv have no chance in competing against Google and neither do we, but we’re at the cusp of really exciting things for the company. We’re already in discussions with [automakers] about putting the DriveCore system in vehicles in the 2020 time frame. After 2020, we expect this to pick up and become a significant portion of our business.”

The good news is that Visteon has seen some stability after years of selling off large pieces of the company. Now focused entirely on interior electronics, the supplier is in a far better position to pull something like this off. The bad news is that the company’s very existence might hinge on DriveCore’s success.

“I, generally, believe in finding a space where not everyone is focused, and I think we’ve found it” with SmartCore and DriveCore, Lawande said. “We had not invested in core capabilities on the software side. I had to make some very fundamental changes to the company’s structure. This is not the same company as it was a few years ago. We’re focused on Visteon 2.0, and we’re doubling down, and it’s going to pay dividends.”

[Image: Visteon]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Sceptic Sceptic on Jan 09, 2018

    Another old economy company run into the ground by incompetent management. Goodbye Visteon.

  • Mike9o Mike9o on Jan 12, 2018

    I was in a meeting with Visteon about 10 years ago when the company I work for was shopping for a new audio system for an upcoming CUV. There might have been 20 of their employees in the meeting versus 6 of ours. No one was introduced and they would randomly get up and leave the meeting without explanation. It was odd to say the least. We went with Delphi.

  • Rochester I wouldn't obsess over the rate of change, it's happening whether we want it or not.
  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.