TORONTO—I love a good gadget, and there’s plenty of them at tech conferences. But Collision, held in Toronto after several years in New Orleans, is less about cool smartphone cases and more about innovative plans to save the world. Or at least make it a better place to live.
Take Verge Genomics. Here’s an innovative company using artificial intelligence to develop drugs that show promise in treating ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in mice. The company’s Alice Zhang was up there on stage showing diseased cells transformed into healthy ones, and mice regaining their strength. It looks promising for people too. She said her company’s methods of testing drugs were far faster, cheaper and more efficient than those used by traditional pharma, and claimed a 15 percent success rate (compared to the usual 0.1).
There was stuff like that going on all around me, but this is Car Talk so let’s stick to the mobility stuff. One of my panels featured Don Burnette of Kodiak Robotics and Jeff Rustakow of Boosted. The former is a veteran of self-driving ventures at both Google and Uber’s Otto, and is now working on self-driving trucks from Mountain View, California (Silicon Valley ground zero, also home to Boosted).
When he was at Otto, Burnette worked on the first commercial delivery by a self-driving vehicle. It was a Budweiser truck that drove 120 miles hands-free back in 2016. A big driving force is the reluctance of Americans to become long-distance truckers, even though it’s a fairly well paying job--$60,000 or so to start. There’s about a 51,000-driver deficit, says the American Trucking Association.
Self-driving trucks will be making regular commercial deliveries long before the cars will take over the road because, Burnette explained, they mostly stay on the highway and don’t need nearly as many regulations. Expect them in just a few years. By the way, Burnette thinks platooning—the much ballyhooed technology by which self-driving trucks stay very close together to gain aerodynamic efficiencies and save gas—isn’t worth the trouble.
Boosted makes electric skateboards and, on my panel at Collision, Russakow announced that it’s also going to be building an electric scooter, the $1,599 Boosted Rev. It folds up and is portable, which means you don't have to worry about charging it at the curb in crowded urban areas. During the session, I provoked a discussion on ownership versus sharing. Russakow is convinced that Americans—or anyone else for that matter—won’t want to give up ownership (including of their scooters). Burnette believes, as I do, that societal imperatives will make sharing inevitable. This is an important discussion that we need to be having—but aren’t.
Volvo is just one of many car companies that have started investment funds. In general, the investments show that the industry is thinking of the future. Zaki Fashihuddin, CEO of Volvo Cars Ventures, told me that fund is 13 months old, and has invested in three U.S.-based startups and one from Finland. The money has gone to high-precision LiDAR company Luminar; Zūm, a smart ride-sharing service for kids; Forciot, a Finnish company that develops “connected, printable and stretchable electronics”; and Freewire, which does mobile EV charging—a lifesaver in San Francisco office building parking lots, where too many EVs are competing for too few chargers.
“Software is a key differentiator for us,” said Fashihuddin. “The hardware gets better as the software gets better.”
I was fascinated by GoFly, headed by the very enthusiastic Gwen Lighter, a lawyer turned entrepreneur with a passion for personal aircraft. Lighter told me that GoFly (with Boeing as the major sponsor) will award $2 million to whoever comes up with the cleverest designs for flying machines limited to three meters (10 feet) in length. It’s sort of like the Automotive X Prize, but in the air. “Yes, it’s a competition,” Lighter said, “but it’s also a chance for the teams to attend 50 mentoring sessions and get in-kind donations.”
The flying devices can have any kind of propulsion, including electric motors and traditional jets. Jetpacks are fine. Wings, too. The craft, which begin as paper models, then bigger prototypes, will have to travel 20 miles before refueling or recharging. There are 825 teams from around the world, and 100 universities participating. The date of the final fly-up hasn’t been announced, but it will be in the first quarter of 2020.
“Our teams keep their intellectual property,” Lighter said. “What they do after that is up to them.” Industry is also looking skyward, though their entries in this realm tend more toward autonomous robo air taxis for urban commuting. Air traffic control will be a big hurdle for all craft of this type. “The FAA is working on regulations for personal flyers and air taxis,” Lighter said.
I had two sessions with Amos Haggiag, who founded Optibus five years ago in Israel. The Jewish state is an amazing incubator of tech talent, some of it honed in the Israeli Army. Concerned about data privacy? Or cybersecurity in cars? Israel is where you need to be.
But Haggiag’s play is a bit different. His father is the CTO of a bus company, and he said to his son—a recent graduate of Ben Gurion University—“You know computers, why don’t you do something about bus scheduling?” It turns out that, despite this being the 21st century, transit agencies are still scheduling their buses with little scraps of paper and blocks of wood. If the paper falls off the board, a bus from Las Vegas to Reno gets canceled.
Optibus’ software optimizes bus and train routes, and also shows operators just how much money it will cost to change the structure (and how much it will save in the end). For instance, in Munich, Optibus showed that adding a certain route—much traveled by cars, the data showed, would soon have high ridership.
“Transit ridership is down internationally,” Haggiag said. “The challenge is the infrastructure, and redesigning it to make it efficient and useful for riders.” It seems to be working, since Optibus is in 300 cities around the world. But it’s not yet profitable, Haggiag said.
Lots of time-honored traditions are changing in the mobility space. I sat down with Mark Endras, co-founder and CTO of TradeRev, and Becca Polak, who is both president of TradeRev and chief legal officer and secretary at KAR Auction Services.
Endras, a Canadian auto dealer, developed technology that greatly simplifies the trade-in process—and increases the badly frayed trust between dealers and their public. When a customer brings in his car, TradeRev conducts an online auction right then and there. Buyers from all over the country, TradeRev veterans bid on the car. The dealer can show the offers to the customer, so there’s no doubt about what the car’s worth—and what the dealer will pay for it. It makes total sense.
Of course, the cars will have to be delivered around the country, but that’s where the synergy with KAR Auction Services comes in—it has experience moving auction cars around the country. The company operates both in the U.S. and Canada, but the cars stay in their country of origin.
In Miami, white Mustang convertibles that can’t be sold in New York might be in demand, Endras explained, and it makes sense for a dealer to buy one on offer for the inventory. If used cars in Dallas are getting a premium, a dealer will want to buy them somewhere else—if it still makes sense after the transportation is figured in.
Traditionally, cars are auctioned at huge events for dealers. I visited the famous 32-lane Manheim auction in Pennsylvania here, but the logistics would seem to suggest that selling used cars online makes more sense.
Everybody loves Wayz, except maybe the coppers, but what if the same approach could be taken to parking? That was the brainstorm of the young Robyn Gerber, a newly minted entrepreneur whose first company is Parkarr (launched in 2016), which uses crowd sourcing to help people find on-street parking. So far, it’s in New York City with 18,000 people enrolled, but Gerber was in Toronto looking for $500,000 to take it further. She had an appointment with Volvo Cars Ventures.
Blood has been shed over parking spaces, but Gerber’s Parkarr is trying to make the transition more orderly. Instead of putting sensors in parking spaces, as some apps have done, it relies on drivers to report their comings and goings. “There’s a point system,” Gerber said. “The driver starts with five points by hosting a spot. Then they say something like, ‘I’m leaving at 9 a.m,’ and report where they are.”
Looking for a space? You use the app to look with location, date and time, request a spot, then arrive and park. Once the reservation is made, the user’s car details are recorded and become visible to the other user.
It’s a natural for a city like Los Angeles, wouldn’t you think? Coming are apps that will let you pay your parking meter on your phone, and—as Barry Campbell of Interac (Canada’s biggest money-transfer company) told me—pay for parking garages without having to reach for your wallet.
Finally, I met with Marshall Finch, CEO and co-founder of a Canadian company called sMedia that launched Vroomance, a site for buying cars at Collision. Finch said that the big player, Cars.com, has 4.5 million cars, and Autotrader three million. His site scours all of North America’s dealer sites and offers up 16 million automobiles on offer, with pricing, odometer mileage and personalized search. As with many of these sites, it monetizes by selling the data it generates about car-buying habits.
“We’re the Trivago of auto sales,” said Finch, referencing the big German firm that offers hotel pricing comparisons. It’s new and used cars. We surfed for 1980s Porsches, and found five or six, including a 928S I wouldn’t mind having in my garage. But the bargain $6,000 price proved illusory. The Vroomance site clicks the user over to the actual dealer, where the price had risen to $12,000. “That listing needs updating,” Finch said. The others we checked out were accurate, though.
The public only wins with sites like this. You can find the car you want, even if it’s at some tiny dealership in Mississippi you wouldn’t find otherwise. The only reason you wouldn’t want to jump in is if you have qualms about sharing your data, but it just goes into an anonymous pot.
Vroomance/sMedia is part of a burgeoning tech movement in Canada. I saw a panel of Canadian entrepreneurs, who explained that when they first went for venture capital they were told they’d better relocate their enterprises to Silicon Valley. But that isn’t happening anymore. Canada today has a really good base of tech people, and much more affordable rents. Collision (sister to the larger Web Summit, held in Portugal in November) will be in Toronto at least two more years.
Let me add that Toronto has excellent public transportation. I took a fast train to the center of town and didn't even have to go outside before I was in my hotel room. The cost was $4. I got a train to the event site for the same amount, and a tram and/or bus back for $3. Transit is part of the landscape here. The traffic was better than most big cities I've been in lately. But the papers were full of horror stories about the current Ontario chief, Rob Ford, cutting every public program in sight. Transit may be in the crosshairs.
Oh and let me also add that I was minding my own business in the lounge when I was approached by 13-year-old Nina Khera, a very self-confident longevity researcher. She said she'd been on a panel earlier, and I didn't doubt her. Her website says, "I love senescent cells and genomics!" I can't imagine a 13-year-old nervy enough to approach adults and talk to them on a professional basis. But she could and did. Check out her work here.