Self-Driving Vehicles – Startups (Already) on the Road

ImageThe big question: Are we there yet?

Thilo Koslowski,  the panel moderator, is truly a pioneer in the automotive industry. He has been an active participant in industry since 1997, starting the automotive division at Gartner – 16 years ago before becoming their Vice President & Automotive Practice Leader. Gartner serves as the largest technology advisory company, and operates in over 85 countries, boasting a clientele list of 13,000!

Their three-fold goal is simple and clear-cut:

1. Develop winning strategies

2. Predict the future

3. Discover new opportunities

This winning approach made it a natural progression for Gartner to analyze the impact of the self-driving automotive industry, and the three main aspects to the industry: unmanned, autonomous and automated. Thilo predicts that by 2016 there will be at least  three companies who will claim upcoming launches of autonomous vehicles. Survey results indicate that 30%of the United States population is already ready for these cars.

Self driving vehicles serve to create exciting and disruptive business opportunities.

The introduction of self-driving, autonomous, and automatic cars will cause a change, but that change is already in effect. Josh Switkes, Founder and CEO of Peloton Technology Inc., has used his developed technology on fleets of trucks to allow them to become connected, and increased driver and automation awareness. By focusing on the freight trucking industry, a lead consumer of diesel fuel, and a significant contributor to accidents and fatalities, Pelaton has been able to use connected technology to improve safety and decrease fuel usage, aiming for a three times efficiency improvement rate. Connected technology uses radars to improve automatic braking systems.  While a normal driver would take 30 seconds to react to a situation, using a close formation platooning system shortens the reaction time to a mere ten seconds. Overall, the solution works well beyond cruise control, and allows for fuel savings through use of aerodynamics, and ultimately enhances driver awareness. Trucks are linked only under completely safe situations: safe roads, optimal weather conditions, safe traffic conditions, and cooperative drivers.

Through improving safety and efficiency, optimization and data aggregation (BIG DATA!), this technology serves to provide value to a trucking company at the individual truck, fleet, and network level. With numerous partnerships, including a grant from the US Department of Transportation, this technology is fast evolving and will be available to implement not only trucks, but also commercial cars in the near future.

“At 2 cents per mile and 2000 per truck, this is a no brainer” – Walmart

How far are we from realizing this autonomous dream? The common consensus: the year 2020. Why? Nissan anticipates releasing an autonomous car by 2020, but they know that creating these cars is not about the existing technology. Rather, it will depend on innovation and new ideas  being incorporated.  “This technology nut will be cracked.” (Marteen). According to Luca Delgrossi, Director of Driver Assistance & Chasis Systems NA at Mercedes-Benz R&D North America, cycle productions and new product introductions happen just before the end of the decade. Mercedes has already released autonomous cars, dating back to the 80’s so it is in the DNA of Mercedes to be involved in this movement, in this market.  While companies such as Mercedes already have semi-autonomous cars in motion, the future is already here. But, the goal of a fully autonomous car that is completely self-driven will not be realized in the next few decades.

So knowing everything that we do, would people still be interested in self-driven cars if they had to still pay attention?  A quick poll of the audience showed that only one third of those who had originally shown interest in self-driven cars were still interested when they discovered they would still have to pay attention to the road.

The technology may be present by the end of the decade, but would society be ready, and what would be the legal implications of a move to self-driven cars? But really, this issue is just like that of smartphones and other revolutionary changes. Adoption of this new technology would be easy. We don’t actually need it, but adoption would happen quickly enough, especially in a technology hub like the Silicon Valley. Legally speaking, the car would have to be completely in sync with decisions that a person would make, and a person would have to always be aware of their surroundings in the fully autonomous car to ensure no problems occur.

In which country will we see autonomous vehicles first? Thilo guesses Japan or the US. Corey Clothier, the President and COO of Induct Technologies USA says France, at least for specific ventures. Why? Because his company is already implementing the technology. Induct has already begun the path to fully autonomous cars, creating electric, low speed vehicles that are self-driven. For now, by supporting vehicles travelling at lower speeds, they don’t need to support technologies that higher speed vehicles will need to. As of now, their pilot program has begun at select locations, such as airports and mall strips in France, Singapore, and now the United States. In terms of commercial ventures, Corey guesses Japan as well. Considering the Connected technology that Induct uses, and the implementation of semi-autonomous cars by Mercedes, Luca and Josh posit that the US will be the first to release a fully autonomous, self-driven car. “More money equals more research.” (Luca) With an abundance of resources in the Silicon Valley, maybe the US will be the first to release the much anticipated self-driven car.

Some outstanding benefits of connected, autonomous vehicles: reduced accidents, more personal time, crime prevention, improved road utilization, traffic flow, fleet operations, increased productivity, emission improvement, many people can take advantage of the new opportunities that arise.  Our panelists’ companies are already taking advantage of these benefits. Sven Strohband, a Partner and CTO at Khosla Ventures, a Venture Capitalist firm, brings up the examples of robots. “If an agricultural action was done ten times better by a robot than a person, it would be adopted quickly.” In the same way, if a sensor reacted more efficiently than a person, than the technology would be quickly adapted.  This creates the need for new sensors and systems. While the automotive industry has stringent rules, making it difficult for a startup to prevail, the focused resources a startup use allow for them to succeed in the industry. Large companies on the other hand have the benefit of a large following, more time and more money at their dispersal. Overall, there are so many software and hardware components that will contribute to the final product that both small and large companies can prevail in realizing this dream.

Marteen Sierhuis, Director of the Nissan Research Center specifically chose a location in the heart of Silicon Valley for three specific reasons:

1. The talent is already present here. Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science skills are abundant in the Silicon Valley.

2. Nissan wanted to pursue the opportunity of open innovation, and to work with startups to bring in new ideas.  As a hub for start ups and innovative research, the Silicon Valley will bring this technology sooner rather than later.  While car companies have the infrastructure and resources to implement and fund big changes, research works at a slower pace.  Working with startups that have the momentum to work quickly, Nissan will be able to work with these start ups to get the exact parts they need.

3. And finally, the most important point, quite simply put, the car will actually be driven here!

Opportunities for start ups are just beginning but will be evolving over time

But, what about trust issues? Maybe we as consumers have unrealistic expectations? Creating new opportunities in the autonomous industry may inadvertently create threats to existing business models and change the rate of technology maturity, governance, liability implications, infrastructure investments. It could also lease to a loss of driving freedom and a loss of driving skills.  Even though a car is autonomous and self-driven, there is the possibility of malfunctions and dire circumstances in which a driver may have to take over.  For that reason, a driver may always have to pay attention constantly as if the vehicle were not fully autonomous or self-driven.

So now, the bigger question is: Are you still interested in self driving cars? Or would you like to stop change?

(Written by Dipti Kanthilal, VLAB Marketing Committee Blogger. Dipti is a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow at Santa Clara University.)