Atif Rafiq, Volvo Cars
Atif Rafiq is the Global Chief Information Officer and Chief Digital Officer of the Volvo Car Group. At Volvo, Atif is spearheading the digital transformation of Volvo Cars by building new consumer experiences and the digital products behind them. Atif joined Volvo Cars from McDonald’s where he was a Senior Vice President and the first Chief Digital Officer with a focus on the future of customer experience and brand engagement, powered by digital technology. Earlier, Atif was the General Manager of the fast-growing Kindle Direct Publishing unit at Amazon helping give shape to the future of content and books.
Atif also leads Yahoo’s Local Business and managed Product Marketing/
Strategy for Yahoo News. Atif began his long career of almost two decades in Internet businesses starting with AOL and Audible. In 2001, Atif co-founded and served as CEO of Covigna, an innovative content management software provider until it was sold to Proquest. Atif holds a university degree in Mathematics Economics and an MBA in Finance and Marketing.
Capgemini’s Digital Transformation Institute spoke to Atif to understand his views on Artificial Intelligence and how it impacts the automotive industry and Volvo Cars.
How does Volvo Cars see artificial intelligence (AI)? Are you already deploying it, and if so, in what functions?
Car companies are actively using AI in their autonomous driving efforts to solve very complex problems around being able to take you from A to B in a safe way. This typically gets the most headlines. And it’s been used for a long time in driver assistance and active safety features of the car, like for instance traffic sign recognition and threat assessment. But every facet of this industry can benefit including how cars are made and sold and to invent new
Let’s take the process of trading in a car and the need to describe the condition of the vehicle. Objectively determining the condition can be a machine-learned activity that makes things easier for everyone and perhaps increases trust. This can work by taking images of your car’s conditions and matching them against large data sets of cars categorized according to different physical conditions. The same goes for returning a rental car accessed through a sharing service. For example, determining the car comes back in the same condition compared to when it was checked out.
Another useful application, currently under development, is predictive maintenance. Parts within your vehicle are designed to work well for a long time. Now, with AI we can observe signals about how they perform against data sets of repairs to predict a potential need for maintenance before anything stops working properly. This clearly holds
huge benefits for the consumer, where we can optimize the service intervals of the car and avoid any unnecessary downtime. All of that leads us toward the goal of a hassle-free ownership and better experience for the driver.
As you can see, our aim is to use AI to solve meaningful customer and enterprise problems anywhere it makes sense.
Where do you think AI can help a large auto manufacturer such as Volvo Cars?
We are working on uses for the consumer and for the internal enterprise. Both opportunities are significant. Let’s start with our vehicles. To make good use of your time in the car, you might want to operate different features with your voice. We’re making strides here by being one of the first companies to partner with Google on a native version of Android in the car that makes it easy to use Google Assistant to access all kinds of information and services. We
realize there are digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and we will find the best ways to support them.
Then of course with the car we have self-driving both for consumers who buy our cars and B2B customers like Uber which seek to operate fleets of autonomous cars. Both of these are major market opportunities for us.
And we can make an endless series of experiences around owning or using a car easier. My favorite at the moment is the idea of using exterior cameras of cars to figure out when your car needs a wash. This is definitely doable though hard to get right because, as you can imagine, everyone has a different perception of cleanliness. Wouldn’t it be great to learn how each person wants the appearance of their car to be and to simplify life by dispatching a cleaning service to keep it that way?
The good news is we have the building blocks here with our on-demand wash service. Customers in certain cities can use the Volvo on Call app to request such a service. These kinds of ideas are not technology for technology sake. They can help us fulfill our promise to give one week of quality time a year back to consumers in 2025.
Since I also run global IT at the company, I’m happy we are putting effort into enterprise use cases. Those are just as plentiful when we think about making cars, the amount of automation in manufacturing, production, and logistics.
What is your view on the skills issue with technologies such as AI? Are you finding good AI talent easily?
The skills involved with AI and machine learning are in demand, yet we have been successful in recruiting talent. That’s because our industry is one of the best places for real applications that will influence how millions of people live. There is so much technology in cars—sensors, cameras, radar, etc.—generating so much data with increased compute capacity.
People see this as a rich environment in which to work. There’s a unique opportunity right now to solve fundamental technology problems. Fortunately, we’ve been able to recruit talent in both Sweden and Silicon Valley (through our digital tech center).
Of course, we can do better. Part of the approach needs to be sharing ideas and socializing the work the company is doing so we get noticed. I think we will do more of that as we look forward through conferences and events.
How is AI being driven in Volvo? Is there a central leader for all initiatives?
There are some dedicated efforts as you can imagine like autonomous drive that we resource through our JV with Autoliv in a company called Zenuity. Zenuity is a separate company building autonomous drive software and they employ a large number of software engineers, including those familiar with AI.
More broadly we have a Center of Excellence (CoE) that brings together different skills from algorithm development to data science to setting up compute environments. We formed this CoE over the past 12 months and this group shares learnings, applies its efforts to different parts of the company and
will find ways for us to place AI in the heart of our development activities everywhere in Volvo.
A good objective for our company is to have AI models for all software development domains where it applies, just like Google has a clear method to “AI-ify” every product from mail to photos to maps. And to do that we will need to drive into the core development processes. This is a big ambition and I’m hopeful we will take solid steps in the next 1-2 years.
What is your take on the debate of the impact of AI on jobs?
There are a number of offsetting factors when it comes to the use of AI. The question is how will it net out?
If AI eats jobs at a rapid rate without producing new work for managers in corporations, that will make companies more profitable but hurt society. Tech companies are keenly aware of this dynamic and so we see conversations about universal basic income. I think Amazon’s move into healthcare, described as a not for profit motivation, can be a positive offsetting factor to potential job loss.
My own take is that we will see AI live alongside humans in carrying out managerial work and that AI will assist humans to unlock human potential, allowing them to focus on higher and higher value tasks and activities. The work of humans in corporations is going to be very hard to replace for a long, long time but it will need to rise to higher and higher levels of contribution. AI can help make the workplace more objective in decision-making based on real organizational learning.
Volvo has publicly said you want to put driverless cars on the road by 2021. You’ve also partnered with Uber. What role does AI play in driverless cars?
AI is the brain that takes advantage of the car’s ability to sense the world through sensors, cameras and other hardware like LIDAR* to make decisions. These decisions must be accurate, fast, and continuously improved so that we make driving safer than it is today. Of course, AI is at the heart of that.
Volvo has historically been known as a brand that stands for safety. How is AI helping you there?
Since the transition of focus from passive to active safety, information technology has been at the core of what makes up safety development. Today, AI assists in this development in two fundamental ways: solutions to understand when a crash is imminent to trigger pre-emptive safety systems and, second, increasingly to avoid accidents by understanding the environment and anticipating problems before they happen.
Within safety, AI can also considerably enhance the tools and methods used during the development phase. One example is helping us to understand complex situations with a lot of interacting agents, which is typically the norm when it comes to this area of engineering. I think we will see more simulation software based on AI that allows for modeling complex scenarios and some unsupervised learning insights.
You have expressed a vision where technology dramatically simplifies life for the car owner. Can you describe it and what if any role AI plays in actualizing this vision?
We have a publicly stated goal of giving our consumers one week of quality time back each year by 2025. That can come in many ways.
For example, by creating a car experience that works well with the rest of your digital ecosystem. Cars can do much better here and that’s why working with a company like Google on native integration of Android will connect things in very interesting ways. Knowing your calendar and where you have to go can be used to save people time in all sorts of ways. For example, imagine the case where you have an early morning meeting, the fuel level in your car is low and the distance to get to the morning meeting is a bit far. Why should this stress you out in the morning?
There’s enough knowledge between the car and your calendar to solve this problem the evening before your meeting and reduce morning headaches. We talked about dispatching fuel on-demand and this one case where you might appreciate it.
Speaking of dispatching fuel, we are testing a number of convenience services like valet pick-up of your car for service or repair, test-drives at home, and even in-car delivery of packages (sometimes that is safer or more convenient). For Volvo and its partners to provide these services, we have to intelligently route resources like people and cars around. You can imagine AI providing a smarter basis for these services that improves utilization and efficiency of the resources.
Coming back to the customer, owning a car used to be about freedom. Technology is going to bring that freedom back by removing headaches of managing tasks like these, where AI can be an enabler behind the scenes.
You have an uncommon role for the automotive industry—a joint CIO/CDO. What advantages do you think that brings to accelerating digital initiatives?
Typically, a CDO focuses on consumer facing innovation and technology, while a CIO oversees the digitization of the internal enterprise. You can imagine there’s a good amount of dependency between the two, such as platforms that serve both consumer and enterprise use cases.
One example is the connected car platform, which is used by consumers to handle remote tasks like heat, locking, and sharing, but also for internal use like collecting information about the performance of the car for maintenance. Another example is data platforms which house customer information used in retail interactions for sales and service, typically powered by enterprise systems. This platform is also used when consumers interact with us directly over the web or mobile. By combining the consumer and enterprise digitization efforts in my role, we aim to leverage common capabilities more effectively.
On top of this, we think about digitization as a fundamental change in how work gets done through real agile processes. To do this only for consumer technology and software and not for enterprise is short sighted. We are equally excited by the potential for digitization to fundamentally change how software gets developed, managed, and
driven by our strategy both for the consumer and the enterprise.
Lastly, I think this combination of responsibilities make sense for all kinds of industries because customers don’t care how your company is organized. It’s odd to settle for one part of a company moving at a slower pace than other parts; the ambition must be bigger across the board.