Austin, Texas, is a city that prides itself on being weird and isn't the most obvious setting for companies focused on the future of transportation to make a splash. The city has been a hostile place for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, and Texas is notoriously focused on personal cars and trucks.
But global companies are flocking to the capital city this week for SXSW (pronounced South by Southwest), the eclectic film, comedy, arts and technology festival where musicians and filmmakers rub elbows with coders and philosophers. This oddball collection of people network, recruit and talk shop away from other tech and auto shows, where the over-the-top product demonstrations are the main attraction. Last year, there were over 420,000 participants at the 10-day festival series.
"I can talk to what we are as a company," said Chris Thibodeau, a senior vice president of Ushr, a mapping company that has worked with General Motors on geolocation for autonomous systems. Ushr will be among 50 companies given two minutes to pitch their stories to a panel of investors and a live audience at the tech festival.
Austin, and SXSW, has a small but significant role in tech history. The festival was the site of several successful company and product launches, including Twitter and Foursquare. The city is also where the first unsupervised driverless ride occurred, in a low-key test drive by Waymo.
Dwarfed by the CES convention in Las Vegas, SXSW puts its focus on interdisciplinary events that skew to the more theoretical aspects of technology. The official schedule offers up unorthodox panels on topics such as the "emotional life of cars," ethical robotics and how self-driving car networks controlled by companies such as Google and Uber could engender Big Brother-like issues in the future. But in addition to these, companies, associations and economic development organizations will partner to host side events around the city.
For instance, this year, Mercedes-Benz and its subsidiary Smart are headlining sponsors of the festival series, part of an ongoing collaboration with Daimler, the carmakers' parent company. Additionally, Daimler will host an associated convention at nearby hotels that will offer yoga sessions and "mystery talks," where discussion topics are kept secret until the event starts.
Daimler chief strategist Wilko Stark will make a separate appearance at the German Haus, a consortium of German companies, alongside the CEO of an artificial intelligence company and a DJ known for his work with gypsy brass bands.