Looking ‘left’ before crossing the technology road

Automotive production in the United States, once the sole domain of ‘blue-collar’ Detroit has a relatively new and progressive player in the game:  the western states, nicknamed “the left coast” to denote its liberal leanings.  Case studies from research groups such as Global Entrepreneurship Institute Honda point to a plethora of partnerships in Silicon Valley.

Exponential growth

Adi Singh is senior scientist at Ford’s R&D site in Palo Alto, California. The opportunities and facility are growing exponentially. “I was working here two years ago when it was just a one-room lab with between seven and ten employees,” Singh said. “The number of employees is now 150; the Palo Alto campus is expected to grow by three times in the next few years. It will be an R&D campus exclusively. Our CEO just announced we will soon have upwards of 400 employees. It’s nice to see something I’ve dedicated my heart towards coming to fruition. Ford realises that the skills in Silicon Valley are important.”

Among Singh’s work is studying mobility, seeking trends of at how people move point A to point B. “The old one-car-per-person model was good for Ford’s core business but it will not be sustainable, so we are looking at alternative means of enabling mobility. With shared vehicle concepts, how we can enable people to move around without just the use of single occupancy vehicles?”

Ford initiatives GoRide, GoDrive and GoPark address issues peripheral to shared ridership, such as shared parking. With the increase of millennial, urban residents who work in the suburbs, residential downtown parking spaces often go underutilised on weekdays.

“I live in the city of San Francisco, yet work in the suburbs,” Singh said. “My residential parking space is not used by someone working downtown and I am not using it, so it is redundant space. In big cities such as San Francisco, parking prices are exorbitant, so what can we do to enable others to park in spaces in the day? Ford has not committed to build a business around answering that question but we can explore it. I would be reluctant to be stuck on the shared parking issue alone, as there is so much to the entire ride-drive-park system.”

Growing research and development

Greg Basich is a senior analyst with the US division of the research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics, which counts automotive manufacturers and suppliers among its clients.  He is quick to note the growing quantity of companies and corporate divisions in the Western US, along with the plethora of career categories including scouting, user experience (UX), research and business innovation.

“There are more than I can quickly list,” Basich said. “Nissan and Honda both have R&D facilities in the Bay Area, Faraday Future is an automaker start up, Ford has a research facility in Silicon Valley, Continental has an R&D facility there, could keep going. Much of the work automakers are doing on the West Coast is related to research but there are a number of automakers with headquarters there, such as Honda in Torrance, California and Hyundai in Fountain Valley, California. Job title-wise, you have everything from software engineers and product planners to UX designers and business development professionals. Jaguar Land Rover has an R&D facility in Portland, Oregon.”

Basich is aware of several promising start-ups in the western region. “Kymeta is one worth noting,” he said. “They’re developing a new type of antenna technology that could provide high-bandwidth, two-way communication for vehicles such as cars and ships. They’re currently working with Toyota. Another is Immersion, which is developing new types of haptic user interfaces. They’re based in San Jose, California. Peloton Technology is another example. They’re developing truck platooning technology, which enables a lead truck to control the acceleration and braking of a truck that’s following. This can help improve fuel efficiency and safety.”

According to Basich, a number of factors came together to lead to the boom in start-ups, including the desire to bridge automotive manufacturing skills and technology gaps.  Western cities including Seattle, San Francisco/San Jose and Los Angeles offer software engineering talent in a range of disciplines, from application development to AI/machine learning.

“As for why, all of these companies see a business opportunity and are looking to take advantage of the rapidly changing auto industry,” Basich said. “Automakers and suppliers are spending money to acquire start-ups with the technologies they perceive they need, so there’s the potential to make a lot of money while working on innovative technologies. The auto industry is being affected by a number of major trends, including wireless connectivity, autonomous vehicle technologies, electrification, and the advent of new business models enabled via the broad availability of, and ownership of, smartphones.”

Many of the new R&D centres are charged with developing new types of concepts related to wireless connectivity, software solutions/applications, and general research related to advanced product planning. Basich said sources of revenue for the centres are varied.

“It depends on whether you’re talking about automakers or start-ups,” Basich said. “For start-ups, they’re attending trade shows, getting into accelerator programmes, etc. For start-ups, many are getting revenue from the usual sources: investors. Finding partners is a constant search that involves arranging formal meetings, informal networking at industry events, as noted previously getting involved in start-up pitch competitions and accelerator programs. One of the most publicised start up acquisitions was GM buying Cruise Automation for $1Bn (£757M).”

Technologies keep trucking along

While most of the professional changes in the industry are likely to hold the interests of engineers and software developers, the products are likely to be the most appreciated by the blue-collar workers who stand to benefit greatly:  long-haul truckers. Wade Hults is a trucker based out of the hub of software development in the northwest Seattle. The Qualcomm unit in his truck, which is used for communication with the company, runs on a Windows embedded platform.

“As one who frequently transports automotive products and fully-built trucks, I have been privileged to observe how automotive technology has been advancing,” Hults explained. “Supply chain solutions are keeping automobiles affordable, the technologies being used, such as collision and rollover avoidance systems are even being implemented into tractor-trailer configurations, plus lane departure systems are making our roadways safer each day.”

Safety developments are important to Hults, whose hauls are among the most dangerous. “Because I operate a flatbed, there is considerably more skill involved than simply closing some doors,” Hults said. “Our freight is loaded loose and exposed, and it's our job to ensure we secure whatever product properly so that it doesn't move during transit. Safety is, and should be, a professional driver's first priority.”

Lest we forget about the importance and humanity of the technology being developed, Hults notes another group likely to benefit: riders with disabilities, such as the visually impaired. “This technology began with Google and their prototype of the self-driving car,” Hults said. “While there are still many issues to resolve and technology to prove, these systems may open up more of the world to the visually impaired and granting them more freedom of movement and access to a wider range of services.”

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