Mining Silicon Valley for must-have car tech
December 22, 2014 12:00 AM
BY SHIRAZ AHMED
SAN JOSE, Calif. —
Peter Ma’s car is calling the police.
His car’s interior reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A sensor picks up the reading and transmits it to a remote server, which triggers a call to his personal phone and 911.
“We have detected your child or pet in the car, and it is over 91.77 degrees Fahrenheit inside,” a robotic voice recites over his Android phone’s speaker. “Press 1 if you have this under control.”
This, of course, is all a simulation. There is no car.
The blistering temperature comes from Ma heating a sensor with a blow dryer, and the 911 call goes to a dummy phone. Ma, a 30-year-old prototype specialist, is presenting “Car-Sense,” a technology he cobbled together in 24 hours for a competition known as a “hackathon.”
It’s a hot October afternoon here in the Bay Area.
In the past, automotive breakthroughs have come from Detroit, Stuttgart and Tokyo. Yet here, in a converted paper factory, representatives from some of the world’s largest automakers have gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of the next big idea for auto technology.
Europeans lead automakers into Silicon Valley
The hackathon is hosted by the Autotech Council, a group formed in 2012 to bring automakers and suppliers together and connect them to startups from around the Bay Area. One of the most recent members is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which in early 2014 appointed an emissary to Silicon Valley.
With FCA’s arrival, every major automaker is now invested to some degree in the global epicenter of digital technology.
Most European car companies arrived in the first boom of the 1990s; Asian automakers followed at the turn of the century; and U.S. automakers, within the past several years, have established presences.
Tactics may differ, but the goal is the same: Cozy up to tech companies small and large to engineer the next must-have car tech.
Automakers in Silicon Valley have been increasing efforts on near- to midterm advances such as voice-activated personal assistants, apps to improve the in-car experience, and automated driving.
To navigate this terrain, car companies have two challenges:
1. Filtering through a seemingly endless pile of potential features.
2. Speeding the car development life cycle to match the pace of nimbler tech companies.
In the mecca of software development, there is tense competitiveness, despite the collaborative spirit engendered by the Autotech Council. Automakers are ripping up development rule books to become the automotive digital technology leader.
AMONG THE HACKERS
BENEVOLENT HACKING, FUELED BY CAFFEINE, SUGAR
Toy cars in eye-popping colors adorn tables with piles of SunChips and candy. Hackathons (a term auto executives despise, preferring the more staid “developer challenge”) are usually caffeine- and sugar-fueled marathon coding sessions, and the Autotech Council’s event is no different.
Before teams are formed, contestants roam booths, experimenting with hardware they can use in their projects.
One futuristic option is a biometric car seat, provided by supplier Faurecia. The seat is equipped with sensors that can read temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and other information. It is connected to a massive touch-screen display that uses the data to assist in a variety of functions, such as selecting mood music and tracking alertness.
Automakers seek ideas, talent from Valley network
Behind the wires, sensors and lines of code is a network of engineers, entrepreneurs and investors.
Automakers are tapping into the grapevine of the Valley.
Take the story of Quanergy, a lidar startup now working with Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai. Lidar is laser-based radar used to map surroundings.
Quanergy hopes that its product will replace car cameras that can be hindered by fog or rain.
Louay Eldada, CEO of Quanergy, is an academic, inventor and three-time entrepreneur. For his fourth gambit, though, he needed an auto connection.
Enter Jim DiSanto, an investor who spent several years working with automakers and Tier 1 suppliers on diagnostic and telematics technologies. When they met at an event in San Francisco, DiSanto was trying to find him.
DiSanto introduced Eldada to investors Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, two of the founders of Tesla Motors.
“After that, things fell in place,” says Eldada.
Within months, they announced a contract with Mercedes-Benz. This past October, they raised $30 million in capital.
But the path isn’t always so smooth. Many automakers struggle to bridge the distance between Silicon Valley operations and the rest of the company.
“Some of them have very complex processes,” Eldada says. “They cannot make decisions. They cannot move forward easily.”
One issue is that relationships created in Silicon Valley, where both parties act as partners, connect with an infrastructure designed for large-scale auto parts suppliers. This is especially problematic for smaller startups, which lack manufacturing capabilities and can be overwhelmed by the bureaucratic apparatus.
To address this, automakers need a particular type of individual leading operations: a networker, engineer and diplomat all in one to work with executives back home.
Often, the individuals leading automakers’ labs come from outside the industry.
Nissan’s Maarten Sierhuis is one example. A former NASA engineer who worked on the Mars colonization program, Sierhuis is leading the automaker’s autonomous driving program.
“The folks in Silicon Valley are not automotive people,” Sierhuis says. “We’re not used to the way this industry works. So we have to learn that.”
THE INVENTOR Just months after Louay Eldada, CEO of lidar startup Quanergy, and investors met, they announced a contract with Mercedes-Benz. In our video profile, Eldada speaks on being a serial entrepreneur, Quanergy's early days, and the benefits of lidar.
SOME COME TO SELL, SOME JUST WANT FEEDBACK
The biometric chair is simply, as one team describes it, cool.
Jeanette Head and her partner are software developers with Michigan-based Atomic Object. This is their first hackathon.
Their project, “Driver Safeguard,” is designed for rental car companies. By using Faurecia’s chair connected to a phone app, a rental vehicle is configured for comfort before the driver even gets inside. It also tracks stress and fatigue for rental car companies eager to learn about driving habits and car usage.
Winning isn’t the only goal at the Autotech Council’s hackathon.
For Head, this is a vacation.
For Adam Jansen, it’s an opportunity to hone a business pitch.
Jansen is a co-founder of Au.to, a search engine for used cars — he calls it the “Google of cars.” Rather than creating something original in 24 hours, Jansen and his partner are here to pitch their product to investors and receive feedback.
After all, when else can a scrappy startup have a captive audience of investors and auto engineers?
GM, Honda move quickly to get tech
Owners of the 2015 Cadillac ATS may not know it, but the car is revolutionary in a way that’s invisible to them.
The ATS comes with a wireless phone charger, a product put out by an Israeli technology firm called Powermat. The charger is more commonly found at Starbucks shops around San Francisco.
It’s also one of GM Ventures’ first successful investments. The deal was struck rapidly in 2011.
“GM knew what they wanted,” recalls Powermat’s president, Daniel Schreiber. “They knew they wanted a wireless charger, and they knew they wanted to be the first.”
Schreiber was impressed by the car company’s urgency. Until that point, he’d thought of GM as “kind of a lumbering giant.”
Carmakers need to be aggressive in getting new ideas into cars, not just to charm tech companies, which value speed to market, but to win customers by being first with cutting-edge features.
“The only way is us moving faster than everybody else,” says Nick Sugimoto, senior program director at the Honda Silicon Valley Lab, on how to stay competitive.
Sugimoto knows this is easier said than done.
In 2011, Sugimoto approached Apple with a Honda Odyssey that had been modified to work with Siri, the tech giant’s personal-assistant technology. Using steering controls and voice commands, iPhone users could access functions such as music and navigation.
Apple was intrigued, bringing executives to the Honda lab’s parking lot to demo the technology. Eventually, the company introduced Siri Eyes Free, the official adaptation of Siri for the car.
The problem: Sugimoto wanted Eyes Free for car designs that were already approved for production.
“This came from nowhere,” for Honda’s product development team, Sugimoto says. “All of a sudden: ‘Hey! We want to put this in a car.’”
Honda had to hustle.
A task force of people spanning four cities was created to rework software designs and integrate the technology.
This was the Honda Silicon Valley Lab’s first rapid integration of a new technology. It was, as Sugimoto puts it, a “total disruption to our traditional process.”
The software change made it into 2013 model year vehicles as a dealership add-on, a dramatic turnaround time of two years vs. the usual four to five.
But the hurdles for automakers aren’t just procedural.
Powermat’s Schreiber points to the complexity of cars as a challenge in adapting the wireless charger for Cadillac.
“When you’re dealing with a car, it takes it to another level,” Schreiber says. “This device will have to live another decade.”
Powermat’s charger can operate seamlessly in a cafe, but in cars, Powermat found its electromagnetic signal would clash with other wireless features such as radio and key fobs. Suddenly, things weren’t so simple.
AN IDEA COULD DEAD-END, BUT ROAD AHEAD IS OPEN
Back at the Autotech Council’s hackathon in October, the organizers snap photos with Ma. He’s won two tickets to the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Like many contestants, Ma has no background in car tech. But his idea for a potentially lifesaving system captivated the engineers present. Ma had the idea for CarSense after a September CNN story documenting one parent’s tragedy appeared at the top of Google News. At that point, he hadn’t even heard of the Autotech Council.
Ma’s idea may not make it into a car in the near future — but now he’s aware of the possibilities. Hackathons are just one tool automakers are using to start this conversation, but where it will lead is still unknown.
Culture clash, or ‘learning each other’?
Working in Silicon Valley allows automakers to tap nontraditional spouts of ideas. But tech companies point out the relationship isn’t just one-sided.
For Powermat and Quanergy, partnerships with automakers gave them access to technical expertise and manufacturing partners. Powermat’s Schreiber regularly flew to Detroit and welcomed GM executives at his Israeli offices.
“One of the smart things GM had us do was work with their suppliers,” Schreiber says. This was “to bring us along up to speed and how to work in their automotive technology.”
While the relationship of automakers with Silicon Valley has often been characterized as a clash of cultures, Schreiber takes a more nuanced view.
“It’s really more of a question of learning each other,” he says.
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