Hi-tech cars bring Detroit, Sil­i­con Val­ley face to face

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY DEE-ANN DURBIN

The of­fice has all the trap­pings of a high-tech startup. There’s a gi­ant bean­bag in the foyer and erasable, white board walls for brain­storm­ing. Some­one’s pet dog lounges hap­pily on the sunny bal­cony.

Welcome to the Palo Alto home of the Ford Mo­tor Co., six miles from the head­quar­ters of Google.

Mean­while, in a squat, in­dus­trial build­ing in sub­ur­ban Detroit, a short drive from Ford’s head­quar­ters, work­ers are busy build­ing a small fleet of driver­less cars.

The com­pany be­hind them? Google.

The con­ver­gence of cars and com­put­ers is blur­ring the tra­di­tional ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries of both in­dus­tries. Sil­i­con Val­ley is dot­ted with re­search labs opened by au­tomak­ers and sup­pli­ers, who are rac­ing to de­velop high-tech in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems and au­ton­o­mous cars. Tech com­pa­nies — look­ing to grow and sens­ing an in­dus­try that’s ripe for dis­rup­tion — are head­ing to Detroit to bet­ter un­der­stand the auto in­dus­try and get their soft­ware em­bed­ded into cars.

The re­sult is both heated com­pe­ti­tion and un­prece­dented co­op­er­a­tion be­tween two in­dus­tries that rarely spoke to each other five years ago.

“It’s a cross-pol­li­na­tion. We’re ed­u­cat­ing both sides,” says Niall Berk­erey, who runs the Detroit of­fice of Te­le­nav, a Sun­ny­vale, Cal­i­for­nia-based firm that makes nav­i­ga­tion soft­ware.

There’s also plenty of em­ployee poach­ing. Ap­ple re­cently hired Fiat Chrysler’s for­mer qual­ity chief. Ride-shar­ing ser­vice Uber snagged 40 re­searchers and sci­en­tists from Carnegie Mel­lon’s Pittsburgh ro­bot­ics lab. Tesla’s head of ve­hi­cle de­vel­op­ment used to work at Ap­ple.

For years the fast-paced tech in­dus­try showed lit­tle re­spect for the plod­ding car in­dus­try. Google and Palo Alto-based Tesla, with its high­tech elec­tric sedans, helped change that.

“Peo­ple think it’s shiny Sil­i­con Val­ley ver­sus grungy Detroit, but that’s garbage,” says Chris Urm­son, who leads Google’s self-driv­ing car pro­gram. “If you look at the com­plex­ity of a ve­hi­cle, it’s an en­gi­neer­ing marvel.”

Dra­gos Maci­uca, a for­mer Ap­ple engi­neer who’s now the tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor of Ford’s Palo Alto re­search lab, says he’s see­ing a new ex­cite­ment about the auto in­dus­try in Sil­i­con Val­ley. For one thing, cars pro­vide a pal­pa­ble sense of ac­com­plish­ment for soft­ware engi­neers.

“If you work at Google or Ya­hoo, it’s hard to point out, ‘Well, I wrote that piece of code.’ It’s re­ally hard to be ex­cited about it or show your kids,” Maci­uca he says. “In the auto in­dus­try, you can go, ‘See that but­ton? The stuff that’s be­hind it, I worked on that.’”

But cocky tech com­pa­nies have had to adapt to the tough stan­dards of the auto in­dus­try, which re­quires tech­nol­ogy to work per­fectly, for years, in all kinds of con­di­tions. Maci­uca spends much of his time ed­u­cat­ing soft­ware and app de­vel­op­ers about the in­dus­try’s needs.

“Sil­i­con Val­ley goes to­ward this model of a min­i­mum vi­able prod­uct. It’s easy to throw things out there and try them and see if they work,” Maci­uca says. “We can’t do that.”

Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia- based Nvidia was best known for mak­ing chips for com­puter games be­fore it got into the car busi­ness. Now, it makes the com­puter pro­ces­sors that power Tesla’s 17-inch touch­screen dash­board and Audi’s ex­per­i­men­tal self-driv­ing cars, among other prod­ucts. It had to de­velop new man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques and higher lev­els of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for the auto busi­ness, such as tests to make sure its com­puter chips would still work in sub­zero tem­per­a­tures, says Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s se­nior di­rec­tor of automotive.

For their part, the au­tomak­ers are learn­ing that rolling out cars that re­main static for years un­til the next model comes out is no longer prac­ti­cal. At the in­sis­tence of tech com­pa­nies such as Te­le­nav and Nvidia, they’re learn­ing to make cars with nav­i­ga­tion, in­fo­tain­ment and other fea­tures that can be con­stantly up­dated. Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Toy­ota, BMW, and oth­ers can now up­date ve­hi­cle soft­ware wire­lessly to fix prob­lems or add more ca­pa­bil­ity

Shapiro says the cost-con­scious auto in­dus­try has had to learn to spend a lit­tle more — maybe US$10 to US$20 per car — on com­puter hard­ware. Au­tomak­ers would of­ten go with the cheap­est op­tion but then spend even more fix­ing bugs, or be forced to re­place pro­ces­sors that didn’t have enough power to add up­dates.

Nvidia now has eight per­ma­nent engi­neers at var­i­ous au­tomak­ers in Michigan.

“We’ve helped them adopt more of a com­puter in­dus­try mind­set, which is not to rein­vent what they’re do­ing ev­ery five to seven years,” Shapiro says.

Even with that new spirit of col­lab­o­ra­tion, au­tomak­ers and tech com­pa­nies also use their lo­cal labs to do a lit­tle spy­ing.

Frankie James, a for­mer NASA re­searcher who now runs Gen­eral Mo­tors’ Palo Alto of­fice, says spot­ting trends and po­ten­tial threats is one of the most im­por­tant parts of her job. Her team alerted GM to the car-shar­ing trend, for ex­am­ple, and the au­tomaker in­vested US$3 mil­lion in Re­lay Rides in 2011.

Now, she’s watch­ing com­pa­nies that could po­ten­tially dis­rupt the auto busi­ness, such as Google and Ap­ple. Google has promised a self­driv­ing car within five years, and Ap­ple has hired peo­ple from Tesla, Ford and other car com­pa­nies for its own top-se­cret pro­ject.

“We need to say, ‘OK, if we think Ap­ple is go­ing to build some­thing like this be­cause they’ve got this vi­sion of the fu­ture,’ if we take that same vi­sion of the fu­ture, what can we do? How can we con­tinue to play?” James says.

The tech in­dus­try is also watch­ing its back. Te­le­nav is mak­ing a new nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem for the 2016 Ta­coma pickup and other Toy­ota ve­hi­cles, but Ap­ple and Google are also vy­ing for the car’s dash­board with their CarPlay and An­droid Auto sys­tems, which give driv­ers ac­cess to cer­tain smart­phone apps.

Te­le­nav’s Berk­ery says automotive ac­counts for 70 per­cent of its busi­ness, up from just 10 per­cent when its 10-per­son Detroit of­fice opened four years ago. Its suc­cess in Detroit led to new of­fices in Ber­lin, Shang­hai and Tokyo.

“A huge amount of dis­rup­tion is go­ing to take place in this land­scape, and new play­ers will come in,” Berk­ery says. “There’s no rea­son why tra­di­tional play­ers will suc­ceed.”

(Left) A re­search engi­neer works on im­age pro­cess­ing at the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany Re­search and In­no­va­tion Cen­ter in Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia, Thurs­day, Aug. 13. The con­ver­gence of cars and tech­nol­ogy is blur­ring the tra­di­tional ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries of both in­dus­tries. Sil­i­con Val­ley is dot­ted with re­search labs opened by au­tomak­ers and sup­pli­ers, who are rac­ing to de­velop high-tech in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems and au­ton­o­mous cars. (Right) A minia­ture re­mote con­trolled car sits on a counter at the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany Re­search and In­no­va­tion Cen­ter in Palo Alto, Thurs­day. The con­ver­gence of cars and tech­nol­ogy is blur­ring the tra­di­tional ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries of both in­dus­tries. Sil­i­con Val­ley is dot­ted with re­search labs opened by au­tomak­ers and sup­pli­ers, who are rac­ing to de­velop high-tech in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems and au­ton­o­mous cars.

AP

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