BY CHRISTOPH MEYER
ME 302C - The Future of the Automobile - Mobility Entrepreneurship is a Stanford course taught by Reilly Brennan and Stephen Zoepf in Spring 2017. This course will feature a series of guest speakers across the spectrum of the mobility industry, with Pearl, Turo, and Lyft featured among others.
In order to provide an inside view to mobility enthusiasts not enrolled in the course, I will be publishing a weekly post on the CARS blog. These posts will feature a high level summary of a brief discussion with each of the guest speakers. While the content shared in the classroom will be kept confidential and off-the-record, I will interview them for 15-20 minutes afterwards. I may probe them on topics that were covered in class but the interviewee will have the discretion as to how they answer. The goal will be to learn more about their companies as well as delve into the speakers’ views on general trends in the industry and predictions of where things are headed.
Keep your eyes out for these weekly updates - full speed ahead!
Interview with Alex Rodrigues-CEO and co-founder of Embark
Alex Rodrigues provided some unique insights during class and in my interview with him. In particular, his approach to tackling autonomy by focusing on a specific application, trucking, was interesting. With Uber having acquired Otto, Embark is one of the few players solely focused on achieving autonomy in this space. This allows them the opportunity to tackle a huge market while reducing some of the complexity. With so many players trying to unlock level 5, it will be fascinating to see whether companies focused on specific applications will be able to achieve early wins and expand from there. Those achieving early success, whether on one application or several, are likely to reap increasing rewards and build on their advantage exponentially as time goes on. Will Embark be one of them?
Q: When do you think autonomy will be “mainstream”?
“The timeline is more piece-meal than people think. In some ways we are already in the era of autonomy — Rio Tinto has autonomous trucks working in an unconstrained environment. I think Chris Urmson summed it up well in his TED Talk: we’ll have some things within 3 years and everything within 30. I believe by 2020 we’ll have some useful applications — low speed trucks and constrained areas. By 2025, we’ll have self-driven vehicles in many environments. By 2030, we’ll have this at scale and by 2040 we might see the first place ban human-driven cars.”
Q: What is the greatest obstacle to achieving autonomy?
“If you look at Google, they have spent huge amounts of money and taken a lot of time to get where they are. They are far ahead of the curve but still not quite there yet. There is an incredible level of complexity in achieving full autonomy — it will require some of the highest levels of reliability we have ever seen. In solving this problem, the first 90% are quite feasible. The next 9% are very hard. The last 1% might not even be possible — we are not sure yet.
Regulatory challenges are also something to be aware of. Cybersecurity is a medium level obstacle. It won’t prevent roll-out but it will challenge operations down the road. Even though many people like to talk about moral dilemmas, I don’t think they’re really an issue. They won’t happen that often and when things are ambiguous, we will follow the rules of the road and slow down. We would kill far more people by not deploying the technology.”
Q: Where will we see autonomy first?
“I think we can rule out South America, Russia, and Africa fairly quickly. It won’t be in Europe either — there are no credible European companies and the markets are very fragmented. China and the USA are most likely — they are both very focused and the biggest markets. China is not ahead in tech or operability but their government can play a big role. Australia and the Middle East are possibilities as well. Australia has a good market and is accepting of the tech, having already had success with Rio Tinto. The Middle East has some advantages as well: they have a lot of roads, are excited about the technology, and their governments can enact policies swiftly.”
Q: What does this future look like?
“30 years ago, people thought that 30 years from now things would like pretty much the same. In 30 years, things will not look very much the same — a huge section of the economy, transportation, will be very different. I predict there will be a lot of single and two-person vehicles — pods. Far fewer people traveling alone in 4 person cars. There will likely be a transportation network, relying on smartphones to request rides on demand. It may look like Uber or may be run by another company or agency. Street parking and private cars may no longer exist and even public transportation may be given up. There will also likely be fewer planes as cargo planes will face increasing competition from autonomous freight trucks.”
Q: If you were in government right now, what policy would you enact to guide the industry in the right direction?
“I would be very careful about enacting regulation, even if they were well-intentioned. I have been surprised to see some of the big players, including Google, push for more open regulation. I would be worried about smaller startups making a mistake and setting the industry back. I think the most reasonable is to have liability minimums. People testing and working on this problem should be able to show they can deal with the potential consequences.”
Q: What is the biggest misconception about the industry and its future right now?
“I think the overall view of the industry is fairly accurate right now. However, the biggest misconception is that we are close to seeing autonomous vehicles from multiple manufacturers in the near term. Many of them have stated dates about having vehicles ready, but I just don’t think this is really going to happen.”
Q: What are you most excited about in this industry?
“I have been excited about self-driving technology since I was a child. I think it will be one of the 3–4 biggest developments in technology in the 21st century. It will change everything. I’m excited to take this idea and apply it to something realistic. My goal is to plant a seed that can spread. I want to help lead toward this future.”