The hype surrounding the autonomous car refuses to die down. Any company with a thread of a tie to the automotive world from automaker to cybersecurity developer has turned the vision of the autonomous vehicle into an integral part of its long term strategy. At some point, in their point of view, we will all be riding in driverless cars.
As a leading automaker, General Motors is no different. The company, with a market cap of $48 billion, began playing with the idea more than a decade ago, but in the past year it has changed gears to turn the dream into a reality relying on its R&D center in Israel, the only one of its kind by a foreign automaker.
The US giant recently announced a substantial expansion of the center, which was established nine years ago and employs a staff of 100. General Motors Israel CEO Gil Golan said the workforce of the center will double in the upcoming years, as part of the establishment of four development groups.
“The expansion is a central component of our investment in the idea of the autonomous vehicle,” says Golan, explaining the company was looking for software engineers (with an emphasis on real time embedded software control) and machine learning and machine sensing experts.
The upcoming recruitment is part of the larger plan by the company to develop an autonomous vehicle capable of cognition, in which all systems are entirely in the hands of onboard computers not the driver. The campaign aspires to mimic the human mind to allow the vehicle to make real time decisions instead of a human driver.
General Motors has been leading the way on some of the technologies necessary for the autonomous vehicle. In 2007, the company unveiled an autonomous car (Boss) which won a prestigious competition run by the US Department of Defense research branch, DARPA. The company recently announced its “super cruise” project which allows hands-free (partially autonomous) driving on highways. The technology will be included in 2017 Cadillacs.
The desire of GM to continue leading the pursuit of the autonomous vehicle is seen through the work of its VC fund, General Motors Ventures, which was launched in 2010 to invest in startups developing the next generation of vehicle tech, including Israeli companies.
That’s one reason Jon Lauckner, president and founder of GM Ventures, visits Israel twice a year. Lauckner also serves as VP and CTO of GM, as well as VP of its Global Research and Development unit. The VC fund has no specific budget or timeframe. It makes its investments based on the company’s interest and the recommendations of its investing committee. So far, it has invested $100 million.
“The aim of the investments by the fund is to support our core operations,” says Lauckner in an exclusive interview with “Globes”.
“That’s why we don’t think or act like a normal VC fund our goal is not pure economic profit. A VC fund can do a lot to help young companies, but it can never be their client. We can, and after we invest in a company, we start working together to integrate its technologies into GM vehicles.”
Lauckner, unsurprisingly, has a flattering view of the Israeli tech scene, claiming “there are many capabilities here that suit our needs.” Thus far, the fund has invested in two Israeli startups: Powermat, which developed wireless charging technologies; and Sital Technology, which develops solutions for locating damaged or torn cables inside a vehicle.
Neither company is a new comer in Israeli terms. Powermat has been active since 2006 and has raised more than $100 million, while Sital Technology was established back in 1993.
There is a gap between the theoretical notion of an autonomous vehicle to its integration in real life. It remains unclear how attractive a proposition it will be for the consumer or how the technology will be regulated.
“True, there is much work to be done to test the technology out in the world. Any safety regulator in every country will want to assure it is safe, and we want that too. The technology, like any technology, will be expensive initially but decrease in costs over time, both for the end user and the automaker; but at first it will be installed mostly in luxury vehicles it will be targeted to a consumer that can afford to pay for it.”
“Wait and see”
The ceaseless hype surrounding the autonomous vehicle brings to mind a bubble forming.
“Well… wait and see! In my mind, a bubble means everyone is talking about a technology but there is no way to implement it in real life. That’s not the case for the autonomous car. There are plenty of examples of autonomous cars working out in the world.”
Apple and Google are both trying to fulfill the dream of the autonomous car, each in its own way. Do you consider them to be GM competitors?
“Not directly, because they are not automakers. In terms of developing systems and technologies for autonomous vehicles yes, you can say they are competitors, but they may also be potential partners. Who knows… maybe in the future we will coordinate with Apple or Google.”
What is the most major obstacle on the road to fulfilling the autonomous dream?
“Technology only technology. Regulation, for example, will be a byproduct of the technology because we must first prove the technology works to the regulator.”
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 19, 2016
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