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Some of the most interesting ideas you read today about transportation are topics the Connected Car Council — and its network of automakers, entrepreneurs, technologists, mayors and policymakers — have been talking about for years.
This year’s annual SXSW gathering, dubbed the C3 Smart Mobility Showcase (and planned for Saturday afternoon), focuses on how emerging technologies will fit into the context of cities. Entrepreneur caught up with Doug Newcomb, the president of C3, to learn about how transportation technology is evolving and what might be ahead.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
A few years ago, having cities involved in an event like yours seemed almost novel. And now it seems like a given. Have we all grown up?
What I’ve seen, to use a sort of cliched phrase, is a sort of breaking down of the silos. We’re seeing the stakeholders talking to each other and that’s key — whether it’s the automotive and technology companies or the people from policy or research and media — and really get this networking effect. It definitely is maturing. A lot of the pieces are already in place, where someone may have the technology and it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. So I think that’s where C3 plays a role in getting these people together.
Your sessions reflect the conversations swirling around transportation at that moment. What stands out in those conversations right now?
Technology is disrupting transportation, and technology has opened the door for entrepreneurs. One of the things we’ll be showing at the Smart Mobility Showcase is Chariot, a crowdsourced transportation platform, which was acquired by Ford in September. [The founder] grew up in Brooklyn and started this business based on these things called “dollar vans.” Guys drive around, and for a dollar they’ll give you a ride. He developed Chariot based on that concept, but instead of trolling the streets, he put it on an app. They’re really providing last-mile transportation. He filled a need.
There was just a story a couple weeks ago about Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company that was just bought by Ford for a billion dollars. It had been around since November. That’s a little different case, of course. But these entrepreneurs have this technology and it’s getting scooped up. You’ll definitely see more car companies and others making these investments. And there are going to be these profound changes.
You see a lot of transportation solutions. Some survive, some don’t. With the most promising ones, what stands out?
Jaguar Land Rover has a startup incubator, and I was on the selection committee for the inaugural class. There were two students who created a parking app leveraging existing cameras, like the camera that shows the parking lot at Rice University stadium, so that you could see, “OK, I’m not going to go on that side of the street.” That’s what I mean by connecting the dots. It’s filling the gaps and using existing ideas or technology to provide a service.
Cities have realized that startups can keep them nimble — especially when money is limited for infrastructure spending. But linking public infrastructure can be tricky to execute, yes?
I think that’s the maturation, in a sense, of the technology. I don’t profess to be an expert in public transportation, but what I’ve seen is there’s an entrenched way of doing things. It is a certain amount of headwind, in a way, when you’re dealing with public-private partnerships. It’s going to be really interesting with the new administration that they want to invest in infrastructure. That’s going to be more of the bricks and mortar and concrete and roads, but hopefully there’s going to be some overlap. And if you’re going to build new roads and bridges and airports and all that, it’s time to rethink — I feel, I think a lot of people feel — how we’re going to do that to make it more efficient.
What are a few really critical problems being addressed right now?
Traffic and parking cause such inefficiencies, like fuel waste and accidents. Traffic deaths went up for the second year in a row. Cities can’t build their way out of this problem. I’ve heard Mayor Adler [Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin] say that the thing that people come here for, quality of life, could be lost. Cities like Austin are going to have significant growth. Let’s keep them unclogged so goods and services can move more freely.
Bosch is showing a new technology at our event leveraging existing technology, ultrasonic sensors — the same sensors that tell you that you’re going to back into something and measure parking spaces — and connecting that to a telematics unit in the car and to the cloud. [This technology can guide drivers through traffic jams and minimize disruption to street traffic due to parallel parking]. There are major pain points and I think technology can help with these.
What’s an opportunity to be seized? What’s untapped as of yet?
Big data is still a goldmine in all of this. With self-driving cars or some of these mobility apps, you start to see patterns where people go, how often they go there, at what times. I think that it’s kind of apparent but it’s still unexplored in a way. I think we’ll see how that data can used. And there are huge business opportunities for people involved in the space.
What’s the one thing you’d like people to get from your event but also from what’s happening in transportation right now?
Technology is going to create a new set of circumstances for cities, for societies and for economies. It’s like the internet 20 years ago. It’s always scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But it’s exciting.