NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—I’m circling the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in a self-driving Mercedes van that’s got not one but two Lidar installations on its roof. These imaging systems are the heart and soul of autonomy, unless you’re Elon Musk, who doesn’t believe in them (cameras are an alternative).
The blond-bearded Austin Russell, Luminar’s founder and CEO, is in the back seat, showing us a screen that graphically represents what his rooftop Lidar is seeing. It’s colorful, looks like something out of a rock video, with the different colors representing distances to the visible objects—people, cars, buildings.
“We measure millions of points per second, and put that resolution where it matters most,” says Luminar. “This allows our sensors to see not just where objects are, but what they are—even at distance.” The scene shifts on the screen and we see a dim image—from the competitor’s Lidar. Russell claims to have 10x the range and 50x the resolution of his $4,000 rival. He’s got one laser, they’ve got 16. Is Russell competitive as hell? You bet.
Welcome to the wild, wonderful world of Collision, a tech conference for young startup entrepreneurs and people who just like cool stuff.
I admired Gita, a bright red robot built by Piaggio that’s a kind of traveling suitcase—it rolls behind you, keeping a respectful four-foot distance, and carrying 40 pounds of your equipment. I’m not sure what it does when it encounters stairs.
Al Gore spoke and said some scary stuff about climate change, but also praised the young start-up folks for being part of the solution. And, indeed, everyone here has the environment in mind.
Electric cars were very much on the agenda—I chaired a panel with Bryan Hansel of Chanje, who’s fielding made-in-China utility vans in partnership with Ryder; Monika Mikac, who is converting diesel “Jeepney” transporters into electric in the Philippines; and Matt Fenigstein, a co-founder of Alta Motors, which is plugging competitive off-road motorcycles (and striking a deal with investor Harley Davidson).
Here’s a rundown of some really neat stuff I saw at Collision. The same people run the larger Web Summit, held annually in Lisbon, Portugal. It’s like the European version of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but with more of a (welcome) let’s-save-the-world vibe.
- EZ-RYDR. How about a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based subscription-based ridesharing company that serves only college students? They make one payment for, say, a semester and then get unlimited rides to within a certain radius of campus. They’re big on safety—the app has an SOS/Panic/Emergency button that can be activated by both the driver and the passenger.
- SPLITAXI. These folks are Brazilian, and their app—which hooks up travelers to shared, low-cost conventional taxi rides—is active there, but Splitaxi’s Luis Henrique Rodrigues told me that world domination is in the plans. “It’s a win-win,” he said, “especially for the peak travel periods, because that’s when taxi travel is heaviest and on average they’re carrying only 1.5 passengers.” These same rush hours are also when Uber and Lyft raise their rates, so sharing a taxi can save you money.
- MYSTRO. This is a subscription app for Uber and Lyft drivers. It lets them set parameters for the ride offers they see. If the ride is going too far away, or the rider has been rated as a bad risk by other drivers, those choices can be taken out of the equation. It also offers a way for drivers to have both Uber and Lyft open at the same time. One thing the app does, obviously, is reduce distracted driving by harried rideshare operators. Some 48,000 drivers are subscribing now.
- CARS DIGITAL. I’d rather not know exactly what this company does, but I think it has something to do with making sure car for sale ads are seen on social media. The description doesn’t shed much light, unless you’re a hard-core tech geek: “Cars Digital is a software tool that puts auto dealer postings on turbo-boosted auto pilot syndicating to mobile apps and sites.”
- KARL TECHNOLOGIES. This app is for regular uses of limo services who travel a lot. It connects users to a network of 250 limo companies in 18 countries. So if you get off a plane in Paris, where founder Mike Beck is from (he now lives in Colorado Springs) your ride can be waiting. Beck told me that companies are reporting 240 percent more bookings as a result of the app.
Danny Shapiro of NVIDIA, one of the Collision speakers, talked about the value of the company’s technology for powering robotics and self-driving cars. For the latter, they can simulate an intersection and have the company “read” everything that’s going on virtually. It’s a fair amount safer than having all those autonomous cars on the road—as we discovered with that horrendous Uber accident.
Next year in Toronto! The conference is moving there from New Orleans, because the Canadians (including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) are very welcoming.