The events of the past year have only served to accelerate interest in all things robotics and automation. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen across a broad range of categories, and automotive is certainly no different.
Of course, carmakers are no strangers to the world of robotics. Automation has long played a key role in manufacturing, and more recently, robotics have played another central role in the form of self-driving vehicles. For this panel, however, we’re going to look past those much-discussed categories. Of late, carmakers have been investing heavily to further fuel innovation in the category.
It’s a fascinating space — and one that covers a broad range of cross-sections, from TRI’s (Toyota) Woven City project to Ford’s recent creation of a research facility at U of M to Hyundai’s concept cars and acquisition of Boston Dynamics. At TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9, we will be joined by a trio of experts from these companies for what’s sure to be a lively discussion on the topic.
Max Bajracharya is Vice President of Robotics at Toyota Research Institute. Previously serving as its Director of Robotics, he leads TRI’s work in robotics. He previously served at Alphabet’s X, as part of the Google Robotics team.
Mario Santillo is a Technical Expert at Ford. Previously serving as a Research Engineer for the company, he’s charged with helping lead the company’s efforts at a recently announced $75 million research facility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The work includes both Ford’s own robotics work, as well as partnerships with startups like Agility.
Ernestine Fu is a director at Hyundai Motor Group. She heads development at the newly announced New Horizons Studio, a group tasked with creating Ultimate Mobility Vehicles (UMVs). She also serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, where she received a BS, MS, MBA and PhD.
Get ready to talk robots at TC Sessions: Mobility. Grab your passes right now for $125 and hear from today’s biggest mobility leaders before our prices go up at the door.
We’re in the final run-up to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 on June 9, and the great stuff just keeps on coming. We’ve stacked the one-day agenda with plenty of programming to keep you engaged, informed and on track to build a stronger business. You’ll always find amazing speakers — some of the most innovative minds out there — on the main stage and in breakout sessions.
Dramatic pause for a pro tip: Don’t have a pass yet? Buy one here now for $125, before prices go up at the door.
“I enjoyed the big marquee speakers from companies like Uber, but it was the individual presentations where you really started to get into the meat of the conversation and see how these mobile partnerships come to life.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.
We have another exciting bit of news. We’re hosting pitch session for early-stage startup founders who exhibit in the expo at TC Sessions: Mobility. Each startup gets 1 minute to pitch to attendees in a breakout session. Remember, this conference has a global reach — talk about visibility! Want to pitch? Buy an Early Stage Startup Exhibitor Package as we only have 2 packages left.
Alrighty then…let’s look at some of the breakout & main stage sessions waiting for you at TC Sessions: Mobility 20201.
Learn how the CMC’s model of bringing their Clients’ new technologies to market is new and innovative, going beyond a typical demonstration or pilot program, to the point of product launch and sustaining market viability. Hear from an expert panel about how the CMC’s programming is unique, innovative, and game-changing.
The future of mobility starts with the next generation of transportation solutions. Attendees will hear from some of the most innovative names on opportunities that await when public and private entities team up to revolutionize the way we think about technology. Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer, will be joined by Nina Grooms Lee, Chief Product Officer of May Mobility.
Plus is applying autonomous driving technology to launch supervised autonomous trucks today in order to dramatically improve safety, efficiency and driver comfort, while addressing critical challenges in long-haul trucking — driver shortage and high turnover, rising fuel costs, and reaching sustainability goals. Mass production of our supervised autonomous driving solution, PlusDrive, starts this summer. In the next few years, tens of thousands of heavy trucks powered by PlusDrive will be on the road. Plus’s COO and Co-Founder Shawn Kerrigan will introduce PlusDrive and our progress of deploying this driver-in solution globally. He will also share our learnings from working together with world-leading OEMs and fleet partners to develop and deploy autonomous trucks at scale.
Data will play a vital role in solving the critical edge cases required to gain city approval and deploy autonomous transportation at scale. Pilot projects are underway across the U.S. and cities such as Las Vegas are leading the way for progressive policies, testing and adoption. But, how do these projects involving a limited number of vehicles gain city approval, expand to larger geographic areas, include more use cases and service more people? Join our expert panel discussion as we examine the progress, challenges and road ahead in harnessing data to enable multiple modes of autonomous transportation in major cities across the U.S.
Wejo provides accurate and unbiased unique journey data, curated from millions of connected cars, to help local, state, province and federal government agencies visualize traffic and congestion conditions. Unlock a deeper understanding of mobility trends, to make better decisions, support policy development and solve problems more effectively for your towns and cities.
With remote work becoming the new normal and the mass movement from the city to the Japanese countryside, the trend of private car ownership is growing day by day. During this session, we’ll be hearing from Sae Hyung Jung, serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of oVice. oVice is an agile communication tool that facilitates hybrid remote and virtual meetups. Most notably, a hope that can trigger a sudden expansion in the Japanese mobility and vehicle infrastructure.
Saikat Dey, the founder of Detroit’s own Guardhat Technologies, got his start working in the steel industry. His last job, before founding Guardhat, was serving as the chief executive officer of Severstal International, the multinational steel conglomerate whose headquarters were in Dearborn, Mich.
There, managing the global business of the fourth largest steelmaker by volume and revenue, with 3,600 employees in Mississippi, Michigan, and the coal mines of West Virginia, Dey became obsessed with safety, he said.
Beyond tracking cash flow and EBITDA, the typical numbers companies use, Dey said that worker safety was another measurement that effected compensation. “One of the key metrics is how well and how safe we keep our frontline workers,” Dey said.
Dey’s concerns over safety at his plants is what led him to reach out to union leadership and begin developing the technology that would form the core of Guardhat’s offerings.
The company pitches a multi-product intelligent safety system that integrates wearable technology and proprietary software to detect, alert, and prevent hazardous industrial work-related incidents.
Investors including Dan Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners, General Catalyst, and RTP Ventures, the venture investment firm led by Ru-Net Holdings co-founder, Leonid Boguslavsky, are backing Dey’s vision, which also has buy-in from the most important audience of all, the unions representing the workers that use the company’s tech.
Notes on the first day brainstorming session for Guardhat’s industrial wearable. Image Credit: Guardhat
Made in Detroit, built for the world’s industrial workers
Roughly fifteen workers are killed every day on the job in industrial jobs like mining, metals and oil and gas and another 3 million people are injured every year. For executives in the industry, the issue is as much a financial concern as it is an ethical one. At Severstal, 40 percent of Dey’s salary was tied to worker safety, he said.
In fact, the idea for Guardhat hit Dey while he was walking the floor of the company’s Detroit-area steel plant. On one of his regular walks through the factory Dey said he wandered past a man working on a piece of equipment when the employee’s carbon monoxide alarm started to buzz. Instead of trying to find the source of the leak, the man turned off his monitor.
“You’re taking about a steel facility in the heart of Detroit having the largest blast furnace in North America,” said Dey. “Whatever that individual was doing, it could have led to a catastrophic accident.”
That’s what inspired Guardhat’s technology that Dey said was designed to answer a few simple, situational questions that apply to any factory anywhere in the world: Where are you? What conditions do you face? When can help get to you? Those are the questions that Guardhat’s technology is designed to answer.
“We didn’t have effective means to prevent or if an accident happens to intervene with timely information,” Dey said.
The technology may have been designed by executives, but it was made in consultation with the heads of the Detroit area unions, to ensure that workers would actually use the product.
“We decided that we wanted to do this in September 2014,” Dey said. “And when I was struggling with whether to scratch that itch and start the business, the union guys said go for it and do it…. I was a person of color with a $6 billion P&L running one of the six largest steelmakers in the U.S. building this literally out of the garage. It took a lot of guts, stupidity, and it took a lot of support from regular friends at the UAW.”
That collaboration ensured that the union’s workers were comfortable that the information wasn’t being generated and stored in a way that employees would not feel that they were being monitored unnecessarily or punitively.
Guardhat Technologies wearable safety helmet. Image Credit Guardhat Technologies
From prototype to product
The company’s first product was the HC1 — a helmet that comes jam-packed with sensor equipment. “You want to put it on something that everyone wears and is mandated to wear,” Dey said.
Initially the thought was to just create the wearable, but over time Dey and his team realized that the device alone wouldn’t be enough. “The helmet is just another form factor… [and] whatever the form factor, you need to know how you make this information the single source of truth for the platform of all things that surround the worker.”
Like dozens of other Detroit-area startups that came before them, when Dey and his team needed to raise cash, they first turned to Dan Gilbert.
Gilbert tested the prototype by running around a building and asking the GuardHat team if they could find him and tell him where they thought he was.
With Gilbert on board, the product design firm frog labs came into the picture and so did 3M. By then, it was time to test the prototype.
“I still remember the first day we were in testing in a third party certified lab in Akron, Ohio,” sad Dey. These guys were dropping a metal ball from 5 meters and each one of those puppies was $3,000 a-piece and 27 of those hats got ground down to powder,” Dey said. “We failed every test because we didn’t know how to build a helmet.”
Assistance from frog and others brought the device over the finish line and it’s now being used by over 5,000 workers and prevented or alerted workers to at least 2,000 potentially dangerous incidents.
For Dey, the business could only have come from Detroit. “The Detroit thing is symbolic,” he said. It’s a symbol of the school of hard knocks that educated its founding team in the ways these heavy industries.
Honda and Verizon are researching how 5G and mobile edge computing might improve safety for today’s connected vehicles and the future’s autonomous ones.
The two companies, which announced the partnership Thursday, are piloting different safety scenarios at the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a test bed for connected and autonomous vehicles. The aim of the venture is to study how 5G connectivity coupled with edge computing could allow for faster communication between cars, pedestrians and infrastructure. The upshot: faster communication could allow cars to avoid collisions and hazards and find safer routes. [TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, which is itself owned by Verizon]
The 5G testing is in its preliminary research phase and Honda doesn’t intend to implement this new technology as a product feature just yet. The companies do have plans to test 5G-enabled vehicles on public roads in at least four cities this year, according to Brian Peebles, Verizon’s senior manager of technology development and one of the leads on the project.
This partnership builds off of Honda’s onboard SAFE SWARM AI technology, which the automaker began developing in 2017. That technology uses Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything, or C-V2X communication, which does what the name implies and lets vehicles communicate with other road users.
“Traditionally, with V2X, the cars talk to each other,” Dr. Ehsan Moradi Pari, research group lead at Honda’s advanced technology research division told TechCrunch. “They provide their information, like their location, speed and other sensor information, and the car does a threat assessment, like whether I’m going to collide with another car. What this [5G and MEC] technology offers is that we all provide our information to the network, and the network tells me if there is a potential for an accident or not.”
Honda and Verizon’s premise is that the technology can handle communication far faster than a car’s computer. Instead of relying on a car’s less capable computer to do the work, information generated from connected cars, people and infrastructure is sent up into the 5G network. The computations are then done at the edge of network (meaning not in the cloud) in real time.
The payoff: a car relying on sensors and software might be able to understand a driver is about to hit something and hit the breaks, but the MEC can almost see into the future by checking out and communicating what’s happening farther down the road.
One of the safety scenarios that Verizon and Honda tested was a red light runner. Using data from smart cameras, MEC and V2X software they were able to detect the vehicle running a red light and send a visual warning message to other vehicles approaching the intersection. They tested similar scenarios to warn drivers or vehicles about a pedestrian obscured by a building and an oncoming emergency vehicle whose sirens are drowned out by the car’s loud music.
“Ensuring real-time communication among all road users will play a critical role in an automated driving environment,” said Pari. “Through these connected safety technologies, we can develop vehicle systems that detect potential dangerous situations in real time to warn the driver or automated system.”
While this initial research stage involves making human-driven vehicles safer, the Honda-Verizon partnership might eventually lay the groundwork for the use of 5G in future autonomous vehicles. If testing proves out, connected vehicles would be safer and could lead to a more efficient network that smooths out traffic congestion and reduces air pollution.
“We’re primarily doing this to promote vehicle safety and human safety,” Peebles told TechCrunch. “There are over 42,000 people a year in the United States alone that are killed in automobile accidents, and another two million are injured. Technology is becoming more crucial as we undergo an evolution of human drivers, so as that transition happens, we need to do it in a safe and orchestrated manner, such that everything is working together.”
Autonomous vehicles being tested on public roads today don’t require 5G or edge computing. While autonomous vehicle companies are eyeing what might be possible with 5G, the vehicles they’re developing are based on present-day technology.
There are headwinds to this 5G-MEC combination. This level of interconnectivity only works if there are sensors on every highway and every intersection. Many 5G-enabled vehicles and devices will be able to communicate with one another, but they can only communicate with pedestrians or infrastructure if smart cameras are clocking them and sharing that info with the network. And sensors are not perfect.
That would require a huge infrastructure investment as well as public acceptance and cooperation with states, cities and localities to install all of the necessary sensors. However, one might look to China as a use case. The country has a national policy to move rapidly over to a 5G network, and many Chinese autonomous driving companies are finding this type of connectivity and computational power essential to development.
The partners at MaC Venture Capital, the Los Angeles-based investment firm that has just closed on $103 million for its inaugural fund, have spent the bulk of their careers breaking barriers.
Formed when M Ventures (a firm founded by former Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty); the first Black talent agency partner in the history of Hollywood, Charles D. King; and longtime operating executive (and former agent) Michael Palank joined forces with Marlon Nichols, a co-founder of the LA-based investment firm Cross Culture Capital, MaC Venture Capital wanted to be a different kind of fund.
The firm combines the focus on investing in software that Fenty had honed from his years spent as a special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz, where he spent five years before setting out to launch M Ventures; and Nichols’ thesis-driven approach to focusing on particular sectors that are being transformed by global cultural shifts wrought by changing consumer behavior and demographics.
“There’s a long history and a lot of relationships here,” said King, one of Hollywood’s premier power players and the founder of the global media company, Macro. “Adrian and I go back to 93 [when] we were in law school. We went on to conquer the world, where he went out to Washington DC and I became a senior partner at WME.”
Palank was connected to the team through King as well, since the two men worked together at William Morris before running business development for Will Smith and others.
“There was this idea of having connectivity between tech and innovation… that’s when we formed M Ventures [but] that understanding of media and culture… that focus… was complimentary with what Marlon was doing at Cross Culture,” King said.
Few firms could merge the cultural revolutions wrought by DJ Herc spinning records in the rec room of a Bronx apartment building and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s invention of the internet, but that’s exactly what MaC VC aims to do.
And while the firm’s founding partnership would prefer to focus on the financial achievements of their respective firms and the investments that now comprise the new portfolio of their combined efforts — it includes Stoke, Goodfair, Finesse, PureStream, and Sote — it’s hard to overstate the significance that a general partnership that includes three Black men have raised $103 million in an industry that’s been repeatedly called out for problems with diversity and inclusion.
MaC Venture Capital co-founders Marlon Nichols, Michael Palank, Charles King, and Adrian Fenty. Image Credit: MaC Venture Capital
“Our LPs invested in us… for lots of different reasons but at the top of the list was that we are a diverse team in so many ways. We’re going to show them a set of companies that they would not have seen from any [other] VC fund,” said Fenty. “We also, in turn, have the same investing thesis when we look at companies. We want to have women founders, African American founders, Latino founders… In our fund now we have some companies that are all women, all African American or all Latino.”
The diversity of the firm’s ethos is also reflected in the broad group of limited partners that have come on to bankroll its operations: it includes Goldman Sachs, the University of Michigan, Howard University, Mitch and Freada Kapor, Foot Locker, and Greenspring Associates.
“We are thrilled to join MaC Venture Capital in this key milestone toward building a new kind of venture capital firm that is anchored around a cultural investment thesis and supports transformative companies and dynamic founders,” said Daniel Feder, Managing Director with the University of Michigan Investment Office, in a statement. “Their unified understanding of technology, media, entertainment, and government, along with a successful track record of investing, give them deep insights into burgeoning shifts in culture and behavior.”
And it extends to the firm’s portfolio, a clutch of startup companies headquartered around the globe — from Seattle to Houston and Los Angeles to Nairobi.
“We look at all verticals. We’re very happy to be generalists,” said Fenty.
A laser focus on software-enabled businesses is complemented by the thesis-driven approach laid out in position papers staking out predictions for how the ubiquity of gaming; conscious consumerism; new parenting paradigms; and cultural and demographic shifts will transform the global economy.
Increasingly, that thesis also means moving into areas of frontier technologies that include the space industry, mixed reality and everything at the intersection of computing and the transformation of the physical world — drawn in part by the firm’s close connection to the diverse tech ecosystem that’s emerging in Los Angeles. “We’re seeing these SpaceX and Tesla mafias spin out, entrepreneurs who have had best-in-class training at an Elon Musk company,” said Palank. “It’s a great talent pool, and LA has more computer science students graduating every year than Northern California.”
With its current portfolio, though early, the venture firm is operating in the top 5% of funds — at least on paper — and its early investments are up 3 times what the firm invested, Nichols said.
“The way to think about it is MaC is essentially an extension of what we were building before,” the Cross Culture Ventures co-founder said. “We’re sticking with the concept that talent is ubiquitous but access to capital and opportunity is not. We want to be the source and access to capital for those founders.”