Comment: Quantum computing and the automotive industry

Dr Christophe Bianchi, Chief Technologist at Ansys Inc, explores the ways in which quantum computing can shake up mobility.

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Over the last decade, the automotive industry has transformed into a data- and technology-driven sector, intertwining traditional engineering processes with revolutionary innovation from industries such as computing and telecom. The result has rapidly introduced new opportunities for automakers and consumers alike, from autonomous vehicles to electrification.

However, these new product offerings require a new level of skill, technology and understanding, propelled by a new era of engineers. Despite the successful development of these systems, the automotive industry is reaching a breaking point where systems are already becoming outdated and too slow to deal with the thousands - if not millions - of commands required in a matter of seconds. Without change, the automotive industry will find itself in limbo, unable to harness future innovation.

This is where quantum computing comes in; the emerging technology can harness the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems far too complex for traditional computer systems. It is the next step in enabling computational improvements that could boost capabilities across the value chain, dealing with an incomprehensible amount of information at the same time, beating even the fastest supercomputers.

Supercomputers can only deal with one computational problem at a time which, with today’s technology, can stall the development of new systems. Quantum computing enables tasks to be completed that would take a normal supercomputer up to 10,000 years to process in just over three minutes.

This represents new possibilities for engineering that will enable vehicles and the connected ecosystem to react more quickly, efficiently and safely. It could help companies establish new verticals in emerging markets, including the creation of new mobility services such as ride hailing and car sharing. It also presents new opportunities in vehicle design optimisation, the supply chain and battery chemistry, to name just a few. Quantum computing has the potential to take the automotive industry into a new era of success.

What is quantum computing?

Instead of using traditional ‘bits’ as information-processing units, quantum computing depends on quantum ‘bits’, better known in the industry as ‘qubits’.  Quantum computers are complex and specific hardware units designed to manipulate qubits, with a promise to improve processing time exponentially compared to the best conventional factoring algorithm.

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Achieving a sufficient level of qubit quality is the main challenge in making large scale quantum computing possible. There are many challenges on the road to designing a truly fault-tolerant quantum computer with exact, mathematically accurate results. The success of these systems will be driven by a new era of engineers, who can extract and develop data to drive research and development.

One particular use case is evaluating the efficiency of self-driving vehicles over long distances through virtual simulation. Engineers can virtually develop data through ‘digital miles’ of driving, which significantly reduces the process and need for slower real-world testing. Fundamentally, quantum computing will unlock new opportunities in the automotive and mobility sector, far beyond what we think is possible today.

Quantum computing on the world stage

Quantum computing will play a vital role in modern engineering, from creating autonomous driving scenarios to crash test simulation, while also developing new job opportunities. There is a critical need for targeted investment, including the education and upskilling of engineers and the establishment of partners and legislation.

China is investing heavily in quantum computing and aims to be a global leader by 2025. The US is following closely behind, with investments doubling between 2020 and 2021 as reported in McKinsey’s QT Monitor, with a strong focus on quantum hardware and legislation to promote growth. Both countries have confirmed that mobility is the second high-value application for quantum computing after life sciences, generating new business opportunities for automakers and suppliers, as well as increasing job opportunities for their workforces.

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Europe is someway off China and the US. With ongoing geopolitical challenges between the two superpowers - including the restriction of semiconductors from the US to China - Europe cannot not rely on other regions to develop its own quantum computing offering. The continent needs to support new and existing engineers to help uncover new quantum computing verticals, as well as garner support from governments to help automakers and suppliers.

Although home to a few prominent quantum startups, Europe does not have enough engineers and needs to heavily invest in a skilled workforce to deal with quantum computing, both on the hardware and software front. It is home to some of the brightest minds in the world, but countries such as the UK, Germany and France must move quicker to keep up with global quantum market growth that exhibited a steep acceleration over the past five years. We are seeing improvement, but we must not wait for other regions to pull away and investment is key to this.

Europe is a sleeping giant. It has the capability to become a leader in quantum computing in general and more specifically in mobility applications. Once automakers, suppliers and governing bodies come together and set out a clear goal, Europe should quickly establish itself as a leader in the field, driven by the world-class engineers that have historically supported the sector.

Dr Christophe Bianchi is Chief Technologist at Ansys Inc