LISBON, PORTUGAL—The twin auto revolutions—autonomy and electrification—are proceeding forward in tandem. It’s interesting to point out that self-driving cars can (and are) taking their time, but electrification has a deadline—regulators, particularly in Europe, are tightening up emissions regulations so that no automaker will be able to stick with gas cars alone.
The Web Summit, which has been described as Europe’s answer to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), is a great place to hear about new technology in the car space, and I’ve been leading panels there four years in a row. Even if the average attendee has a cell phone in hand instead of grease under the fingernails, there’s a lot going on where tech and the auto industry intersect. Here’s a few things I saw and heard in Lisbon this year:
Car sharing is getting popular, especially the peer-to-peer kind. Michelle Fang, vice president and chief legal officer of this California-based network, says that traditional car sharing is showing signs of decline, in part because of the need to maintain expensive auto fleets. Turo’s model is helping people share their own cars. The average owner can make $360 per month doing this, but if the car is a 2018 or newer it’s $600. That simple fact has let some people upgrade their rides. If you’ve always wanted a Tesla, for instance, think about buying one and sharing it to offset the additional monthly payments.
Remember, most cars are parked 95 percent of the time, so why not let your car get some exercise via a paying client? The company offers in every state except New York (which has arcane insurance rules) and in Great Britain, Canada, and Germany. It was started as Relay Rides in Car Talk's hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but is now in San Francisco, a haven for all forms of experimental transportation.
Electric cars are expensive, and Arrival thinks it can change that with EVs that cost the same (or are cheaper than) gas cars. Avinash Ruguboor, chief strategy officer at Arrival, told me that the company’s Gen 2.0 EVs will be built in an all-new process that takes a lot of the costs out. “People want electric cars; they just don’t want to pay a lot for them,” he said, adding that the company’s goal is price parity with conventional gas and diesel vehicles.
“We design for bay assembly so that we can build our vehicles in micro-factories, which we can locate in response to demand,” Rugaboor said. “This allows us to be profitable at low volumes and further improve the sustainability of our vehicles by supply chains and not shipping vehicles from a centralized manufacturing plant.”
Other companies that are trying to do this include Local Motors, which also wants to build cars via 3D printing. Arrival plans to have its electric vehicles in production by 2021, and has announced partnerships with UPS, DHL, and Royal Mail. The company is British, but it has R&D centers in the U.S., Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, and—the latest tech hub—Israel. It has opened an office in Edison, New Jersey, and plans to supply U.S. fleets with its EVs soon.
Roborace shares technology with Arrival, and they have the same parent company. CEO Lucas Di Grassi was the 2016–17 champion driver in Formula E, and he’s still competing with Audi there, but he’s also exploring racing without a driver. Di Grassi told me on our panel that the Roborace cars are now less than four percent slower than human pilots around the track. “We’re going to call it a singularity event when an autonomous racing car is faster than any racing driver,” Di Grassi said.
The technology was demonstrated at the Goodwood Festival of Speed this year as part of Roborace’s Season Alpha. Bryn Balcombe, chief strategy officer, said that actual public events are coming (in both Europe and the U.S.), and could include human vs. machine competitions.
The skeptic might think that a human behind a curtain is controlling the cars with a joystick, but in fact a very intelligent algorithm carries these purpose-built racers forward.
I didn't actually interview these folks in Portugal, but around the time I went there. AdaSky is an Israeli startup that's using thermal imaging as a piece of the puzzle for autonomous driving. I met with Raz Peleg, AdaSky’s director of sales and a former F16 pilot for the Israeli Air Force. He makes a good spokesman for using Far Infrared Sensors (FIR) as a complement to cameras, radar, and Lidar for self-driving. We drove around in a car so-equipped, with a screen that showed the heat signatures of just about everything, from buildings and the pavement to people—who not surprisingly shine fairly bright. You can even see them through solid objects, which is something mere cameras can't do. It doesn't matter to thermal sensors whether it's day or night, and blizzards and fog—a problem for Lidar now—don't present obstacles. It's not blinded by oncoming LED headlights.
NHTSA wants to see better pedestrian safety in cars by 2021, and this tech would seem to apply there as well. Animals are also bright spots for thermal sensors, so there's another use case for the sensors, which are quite affordable compared to Lidar units. Units would cost maybe $200 to $300 at production scale.
Karlheinz Wurm, on one of my five panels at Web Summit, is CEO of this Volkswagen Group subsidiary, which is building “a full software stack for self-driving cars.” VW isn’t farming this out but building its own team. Wurm is a former Microsoft engineer who worked on Skype. AID is working on a hard deadline—it wants to produce a “totally driverless” and market-ready car by 2021. That’s not far off.
At the Web Summit, California-based Nauto unveiled “the industry’s first and only real-time, in-vehicle solution impacting driver behavior,” using both artificial intelligence (AI) and multi-sensor fusion to give drivers in commercial fleets real-time feedback on their performance behind the wheel. Nauto says that fleets using its technology report an average of 35 percent reduction in reported accident claims.
Nauto CEO and founder Stefan Heck said on my panel that it’s generally agreed that self-driving cars will deliver accident-free driving, but he said we can get at least part of the way there—maybe 80 percent—on cars with people behind the wheel. Nauto COO Jennifer Haroon told me she left Waymo, Google’s self-driving arm, because she doesn’t want to wait until full autonomy arrives a decade (or maybe two) in the future.
The name may not suggest it, but Lynk & Co. is a Chinese startup car company with a strong Swedish connection—its parent, Geely, also owns Volvo, and that company’s XC40 platform, with a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder engine, undergirds the first products. The offerings will be either hybrid or plug-in hybrid, and were designed by a team at the European home base in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Lynk & Co. cars will be among the first Chinese-made vehicles Europeans can try out. CEO Alain Vissier, a 30-year veteran auto executive with experience at GM and Ford, said on my panel that the auto industry repeats the same old mantra, that cars will be autonomous, electric, and connected, without fully embracing an all-new sales model.
Vissier said that 20 percent of a car’s cost is “non product,” meaning it’s tied up in brick-and-mortar dealer overhead. He plans to deep six all that with a simplified lineup (just six fully equipped model choices) and a price for a mobility subscription, not a car purchase. In the future, Vissier thinks, car brands won’t be important, because mobility providers will be the brands that matter.
The Lynk & Co. brand is already well-established in China, with brisk sales of more than 120,000 units annually.
This company, which grew 8X last year, has as its goal to “enhance product quality by automating vehicle testing throughout its entire lifecycle with tools that enable the creation of a data-rich feedback loop between market and R&D.” Actually, forget all that. The goal, according to Rui Sales, president and chief operating officer, is to make the coming electric and autonomous cars as maintenance- and failure-free as possible by analyzing the data they produce. “We need more analysis of vehicle data so they can be used 24/7, as robo-taxis will be,” said Sales.
The robo-taxi thing may seem to be science-fiction out of Total Recall, but people are swearing that it is going to happen soon. Elon Musk of Tesla, for instance, said it would have a million robo-taxi-ready cars on the road as early as next year, and their owners will be able to put them to work (a la Turo) and make tens of thousands of dollars per year.
In addition, Amnon Shashua, senior vice president at Intel and CEO of Mobileye, says he had his eyes opened by a deep dive report on mobility as a service. “What is really the game-changing element is going from a human-driven ride-hailing service ... to a robo-taxi service,” Shashua told CNBC. The driver is 80 percent of the cost, he said, which would make robo-taxis 40 to 50 percent cheaper than current ride-hailing businesses.
Stratio is one of many tech startups I’ve run across in Portugal—it’s a very entrepreneurial company.
This one’s American. I spoke to Taso DuVal, who describes the company as “an on-demand platform for skilled labor.” In other words, it’s a portal for hiring the top three percent of freelance talent, especially for software work. What’s the connection to cars? DuVal told me Toptal has been funneling software engineers to auto companies to help develop the interfaces for self-driving cars. That makes sense, because automakers know how to make internal-combustion cars and don’t need any outside help. But for autonomy and connectivity they need to partner with and hire from the tech industry. In some cases, a temporary worker—if especially experienced and skilled—will suffice. The company also works in finance, design, and project management. Clients include Bridgestone and Motorola.
DuVal, who looks, I don’t know, 18, is actually 34 and an experienced serial entrepreneur who was 25 when Toptal launched. A high school dropout, he was eager (like Bill Gates!) to get into the working world. He was lead engineer at Fotolog (bought by Hi-Media for $100 million) and Slide (sold to Google for $228 million). Maybe we should all drop out. That course has been advocated by Peter Thiel, a PayPal founder and entrepreneur, who is awarding the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to young geniuses who want to forgo college and start inventing stuff.