Autonomic CEO Gavin Sherry on Mobility, China, and Data Privacy

In a tech culture that looks toward self-driving cars as the pinnacle of mobility innovation, we’re still debating whether fully autonomous vehicles are an imminent reality for our roads or an ever-receding Shangri-La.

But looking back from the viewpoint of 2019, it’s worth considering whether the really pivotal, world-changing advances in transportation have not already been launched. It came in relatively quick steps:

—The first time a person with a smartphone stepped into a car, that vehicle became, by proxy, a connected device with GPS.

—Uber and Lyft took advantage of that combination by creating ride-hailing apps, spurring a conceptual re-imagining of transportation as a technology service.

—This new model was augmented by a proliferation of apps to help users plan trips, call for tow service on the road, avoid unforeseen traffic snags or dangerous weather, and tap into other services. The development of onboard connectivity systems in vehicles themselves also intensified.

—Based on the foundation of connected cars and individual mobility apps, technology innovators are now racing up the digital evolutionary chart to create online marketplaces and other hubs as central meeting places where drivers, riders, apps, service providers, product sellers, consumers, software developers, mechanics, truckers, shippers, automakers, fleet operators, and many others can find each other and do business. The outpouring of aggregate data generated by this better-coordinated activity is feeding the rise of still further business models, such as payment systems and the delivery of food and entertainment synched with the needs of travelers and drivers.

Whenever self-driving vehicles eventually become commonplace, they may simply plug into a market ecosystem that has already been established by the transportation hub entrepreneurs who end up dominating the space—and who may never bear the expense of operating vehicles of any kind. (It’s yet to be seen whether, or when, autonomous vehicles could be more profitable than human-driven cars for fleet operators.)

A roster of tech heavyweights currently compete in this hub arena, including Ford (NYSE: F), Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), SAP (NYSE: SAP), Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) unit Google, and Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) AWS. Hints emerged this week that BMW and Daimler are joining up to get into the mobility services game.

Xconomy called on one of the most thoughtful leaders in this transportation hub sector, Autonomic’s CEO Gavin Sherry, to reflect on developments during the past year, and comment on the challenges ahead in 2019.

Palo Alto, CA-based startup Autonomic was acquired in early 2018 by Ford Smart Mobility. Autonomic is now shepherding the expansion of the Ford subsidiary’s Transportation Mobility Cloud (TMC), an infrastructure platform where software developers can create and operate mobility apps. The TMC will generate revenues based on subscriptions to its software-as-a-service (SaaS).

In August, Autonomic announced that it had signed a deal with Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing division of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba (NYSE: BABA). The two companies plan to create the foremost software infrastructure hub for mobility-related business in China. That hub, like the Transportation Mobility Cloud, will be open to all comers, including automakers that compete with Ford.

In our conversation, Sherry (pictured) offered his thoughts on a range of issues, including the protection of individual data gathered by mobility businesses and hubs. Here are his comments, shared via e-mail:

Xconomy: What trend or event defined your industry in 2018? What are the implications for 2019?

Gavin Sherry: What is changing the mobility industry the most is China. It is still a growing market that has its own regulatory challenges as well as huge opportunities.

China also has a different level of infrastructure, and in many cases better infrastructure, that allows the industry to get a jump on new and innovative transportation experiences that are being developed.

The implications of this go well beyond just 2019, as we will see the roll-out of new technologies at different times in different places. We will also see new technologies developed to address specific market and regulatory pressures in China, but also to take advantage of their infrastructure.

We’re additionally going to see the continued rise of micro mobility technology, chiefly in the form of scooter technology.

Finally, we anticipate the continued integration of people’s digital lives with transportation—their transportation preferences, hailing, entertainment, voice assistance, and increasing convenience.

X: World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee has proposed the formulation of a “Contract for the Web” to mitigate the impacts of tech companies on individual privacy, national and regional strife, and other societal factors. He is asking companies and others to help write it, and pledge to honor it. If you were helping to write the “Contract for the Web,” what are some of the provisions or principles you would propose? Do you think companies will honor these principles?

Sherry: Autonomic’s Transportation Mobility Cloud (TMC) platform is designed specifically to facilitate constructive communication across the transportation ecosystem, and not retain any data beyond the time needed to do that. We believe that’s a good model for the industry: Do only what you’ve promised, with only the data you’re entitled to. And it’s our hope that as developers naturally gravitate to such open, standardized platforms over time, their ability to work toward common purposes will also incline them to work toward common (and common sense) practices like this.

X: What are the emerging technologies that make it harder for you to predict how well your startup, your startup investment, or your company’s new initiatives might remain relevant in the market, for a time period long enough for them to succeed?

Sherry: As Autonomic’s TMC is an open, [original equipment manufacturer]-agnostic platform, we are excited for the new and emerging technologies in transportation. This is because the openness and design of the TMC lets us support developers and automakers by doing the heavy back-end lifting and data normalization, enabling the creators of the new technologies to truly devote themselves to developing new and transformative transportation experiences.

One of the emerging technologies that we at Autonomic are most excited about is from one of our partners, Swarm, which has developed a low-cost solution to one of the main barriers to global vehicle connectivity. Swarm has created a new satellite stabilization scheme for small, low-mass satellites that are cheaper to launch and have less power usage than conventional satellites. The upshot is that these low-cost satellites create a network that enables global connectivity, which is hugely important for vehicle connectivity.

An example is with fleet managers, who are able to have a true, real-time view of their operations in places where cellular connectivity is scarce or non-existent.

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts sharing thoughts from technology leaders about 2018 trends and 2019 forecasts.]

Photo courtesy of Autonomic and Ford Smart Mobility

Trending on Xconomy