Silicon Valley, Detroit Need Each Other to Get Driverless Cars Humming

Last month, the University of Michigan hosted a daylong conference about the economic and social impacts of future mobility, when autonomous and connected vehicles will likely upend transportation as we know it.

Because the research associated with autonomous vehicles and other mobility applications is ambiguous—with many experts having differing opinions on when and how self-driving cars will hit the road—the university gathered experts to discuss the topic.

Sven Beiker, managing director of Silicon Valley Mobility, a consultancy based in Palo Alto, CA, outlined his thoughts during a luncheon discussion. We called him to talk about the subject in more depth after the conference.

Beiker says his firm works with “many players along the value chain—manufacturers, suppliers, insurance and infrastructure companies—including larger companies, startups, and investors.” He calls AAA of Northern California, Nevada, and Utah his primary client at the moment.

“What does it mean for AAA after mobility? I’m looking at it to help them understand the timeline and new business opportunities,” Beiker says. “It’s a 100-year-old organization hoping to evolve.” Beiker says Silicon Valley is interested in and excited about solving big societal problems, such as pollution, traffic safety, and congestion, but it doesn’t have much appetite for infrastructure creation, which is the other half of the self-driving equation. (The cars must be able to communicate with their surroundings to understand the environment and operate safely, which requires some amount of new infrastructure.)

Beiker says the once-prevalent belief that the auto industry was too old-fashioned and slow to lead the development of self-driving cars has faded in Silicon Valley as the reality of what it takes to make safe, reliable transportation at scale has set in. The Valley is increasingly open to big partnerships with auto manufacturers, he says, in order to take a more holistic approach.

“Five or ten years ago, it was thought that one doesn’t need Detroit when there are all these great ideas [coming out of Silicon Valley],” Beiker continues. “The thought was, it’ll get manufactured somewhere with a brain downloaded from Silicon Valley, similar to cell phones—a stupid car with genius software. That’s gone. Tesla wouldn’t be around without financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy, but also from Daimler and Toyota.”

According to Beiker, Silicon Valley prefers its creations to be game-changing examples of “drastic innovation” rather than the products of gradual evolution. Naivete, or the “let’s just build something” attitude, is a hallmark of the local tech community, he says. Because the local microprocessing industry is used to outsourcing manufacturing and … Next Page »

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