The Mobility Innovators Forum Review - Silicon Valley Dating Game, Hyundai Courts Start-ups

A well-chaperoned Silicon Valley courting ritual took place this past Friday afternoon, introducing Hyundai, the Korean auto firm, to potential partners. The occasion was The Mobility Innovators Forum, a symposium on mobility of the automotive kind held in the Stanford Huang Engineering Building’s Mackenzie Room.  Providing a meeting ground for potential partners and/or adversaries to encounter each other and sniff out possibilities has become a minor Silicon Valley industry. Old industries and firms seek rejuvenation, hoping they respond in time to avoid being disrupted and possibly put out of business by a start-up with a new technology or new business model.

 

The Ecosystem is Evolving

The event itself, joining a large firm in an established industry, seeking technology partners from start-ups in the same or potentially related industries, is a Silicon Valley art form adapted from the academic meeting model. An intriguing theme is announced, addressed by panels of presenters interspersed with keynotes from the sponsors. The program is the backdrop for the real business of the day: accessing relevant technology partners and building new relationships.

 

 

CEO and founder, Cameron Teitleman, spoke for  StartX, the lead sponsor, a non profit accelerator program,  assisting Stanford start-ups. StartX originated from a study Management of Technology students conducted of Stanford alumni who had formed successful firms. The finding that became the basis for the StartX Stanford Student government project was that it “takes a village to start a firm.” Successful start- ups were the product of an interactive process with mentors, large firms and small, that formed a protective space:  a nutrient bed of knowledge, relationships and resources that the new firm could feed off and learn from as it took shape. StartX’ s founders’ insight was that entrepreneurship was a collective process rather than an individual accomplishment. 

 

Start X and Hyundai

The dimensions of individual versus collective action provided an implicit framework for the event. Mobility, getting from here to there, takes place in a variety of ways, shaped by technology choices and the assumptions on which they are based. The three panels showed a progression from an isolated individualistic model of the autonomous car bristling with various types of sensors to avoid colliding with other vehicles, objects and obstacles to an inclusive societal model focused on government’s role in providing access to mobility for people lacking the resources to provide it for themselves. In between these two poles, the 2nd panel presented business models offering expanded mobility options to the relatively affluent.

 

 

  • Panel 1: Autonomous vehicle innovators discuss the technical challenges in bringing connected cars to market.

How much is enough technology? Can an individual vehicle ever have enough different types of coordinated sensors to insure that it can operate safely in snow and other poor visibility conditions as well as sunny California? Does a human have to always be at the ready to take over control of the “autonomous vehicle” or is it acceptable to accept a certain level of injuries and fatalities from autonomous  vehicle failure, especially if the rate is significantly lower than the accident and fatality rate for human guided vehicles? 

 

The guided “pod” alternative to the individual autonomous vehicle was briefly alluded to in the Third Panel. This option was reminiscent  of  an earlier vision of the automobile’s future, portrayed in magazines 70 years ago, featuring vehicles entering a highway on ramps and turning over control to radio signals, in effect making highways into railways, lanes into tracks, autos into train cabins: a centralized vision of  vehicular mobility. Contemporary air travel falls somewhere between the two modes; with air traffic control providing oversight and widely spaced lines; the individual airplane retains limited autonomy within a centralized system, mostly guided by an autopilot with a human pilot ultimately in control.

  

  • Panel 2: The Future of Urban Mobility - How Will Our Cities Support 5 Billion People by 2030?

Although the title was broad in scale and scope, most of the discussion dealt with the business opportunities opened up by the expansion of San Francisco’ high tech work force, many of whom are living and working in the city; overwhelming limited public transportation. Into the breach comes Scoot, a pick up and drop off electric scooter and small elective vehicle rental service and Chariot, a van service, plying bus routes, supplementing and extending existing service. Chariot is reminiscent of the ubiquitous van services found on the bus routes of Mexico City and other developing country cities, stopping on demand to pick up and let off passengers. A Third World business model has arrived in the First World without credit to its entrepreneurs or awareness of its sources, at least not in the panel presentation!

  

 Panel 3: Working Together - Challenges, Opportunities and Past

 

This panel focused on poor urban areas with transportation gaps that federal government programs are incentivizing cities to address with challenge grants to identify pressing gaps and possible solutions. One example was a poor neighborhood in Columbus Ohio with no ObGyn service locally that was filled by a federally supported city government initiative. This panel’s clientele were in a different universe than the relatively affluent populations addressed by start-ups seeking profitable niche opportunities in the previous panel. 

  

The role of government in mobility was a relatively hidden dimension in this private sector oriented event. Government’s role was explicitly discussed in the third panel by a representative of the US Department of Transportation, with responsibility for the Challenge Grant Program. The autonomous vehicle technology of the first panel is the product of decades of DARPA funded research, intended to produce the autonomous land vehicle” aka tank without crew, while the amenability of municipal government to having public services supplemented was mentioned in the second panel.

 

All of the above, was backdrop to the real purpose of the event, an invitation from John Suh, Head of Hyundai Ventures, to Silicon Valley inventors and entrepreneurs to come forward with what they could add on to the car, not as a mechanical vehicle,  but as a software platform of mobility and infotainment.

 

Photos: Henry Etzkowitz unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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