With a career that started in the European heart of automaking and having spent the last 20 years in Silicon Valley, Sven Beiker recently released his book “Mobility Diaries” and this year he joined RemotiveLabs’ board of advisors.
Silicon Valley is sometimes described as the cradle of new mobility, how did that come to be?
I’d say the starting point was in 1995 when Mercedes came to Silicon Valley for R&D purposes: They had a natural entry to North America through their DaimlerChrysler collaboration. Then other brands followed including BMW, Volkswagen, and Toyota. Back then, automotive OEMs basically wanted to understand new non-automotive technologies and how they could be used to make future automobiles better.
When I came in 2003, automotive wasn’t a big thing in Silicon Valley but around 2010 companies there began to realize the full potential of the mobility space as an extension of their business. Silicon Valley typically gets interested when there is a lot of data, and early talks about a car becoming “a computer on wheels” sparked that interest. What great stuff can we do with all this data? Of course, one must mention Tesla here too, who also saw their perspective on challenging how a car was built.
How would you describe the gap between big tech and traditional automotive?
A historical example I often use is MP3 in the early 2000s when my BMW colleagues in Silicon Valley went to the Munich HQ and said, “It is nice that you put a CD player in the car today, but nobody will use it in the future”. How do you explain that to someone who maybe does not want to listen because they just spent time integrating and refining something existing?
Automotive OEMs continue to need tech offices in innovation hubs to translate new technology into a language traditional automotive people understand. Today they look at quantum computing and blockchain and bring back their thoughts to the folks in Torslanda, Stuttgart, or Yokohama on how future trends can affect or accelerate automotive. I’d say the main challenge is still to get the understanding into the main organization on what new tech can do in the cars of tomorrow. Often it is just that everyone is so busy to ensure what they do fits with safety regulations and that the quality is right.
How have collaborations evolved in the automotive and mobility space?
From my perspective it was back in 2010 when the mobility topics really took off – Tesla was becoming a real thing, Uber launched ride-hailing, Google started talking publicly about their self-driving car efforts. But at that time it was still “them against us.” Then both sides saw this is not going to work – we need both the traditional engineering, manufacturing, integration, testing and development – and we need to embrace new tech and Silicon Valley thinking.
Many partnerships started around 2012 – 2015 and some of them are still going strong, despite recent challenges. Since then, it has become clear that we need each other and today we see that nobody, not even Google, is working just by themselves. Tesla also uses traditional automotive suppliers and Uber has close collaborations with Toyota for instance. The complexity of software to enable differentiation in future vehicles and for realizing the ACES megatrends (Autonomous, Connected, Electric, Shared) is so large that no actor, and especially not the traditional automotive companies, can have all that expertise in-house so collaboration is really key. That is what I like about RemotiveLabs and why I thought it is a journey I want to follow more closely (edit: Sven Beiker is joining RemotiveLabs Board of Advisors in the spring of 2023). Flexibility, freedom of choice in how to solve problems and signal access to developers, and having tools to enable that collaboration to cut through the complexity is crucial.
How would you comment on RemotiveLabs journey so far?
Despite what Silicon Valley might think, software has been in automotive for a long time. For example, on my very first day at BMW 28 years ago, I was very surprised by the extent of software development that was going into the vehicle dynamics control systems. Silicon Valley used to think of the car as a mechanical brick where software developers can put in their code and that by itself would already be a game changer. But I’d say it is not just like this. Software development is needed in different ways, in innovation on how to develop the user experience and how to integrate it, then of course towards autonomous driving and all the simultaneous processing that is needed. But it is also about the functionality to be optimized, such as electric vehicles getting maximum performance without damaging the batteries. Collaboration and the toolchain need more streamlining, and tooling needs to counteract the ever-increasing complexity by taking care of safety and testing cleverly so the developer can focus on the innovative part.
RemotiveLabs has a big advantage in providing the modern development environment such developers need to develop safe, efficient, and innovative products. The automotive industry is used to being able to attract the best mechanical engineers and the best production engineers. But they have a hard time getting the best software developers on the market since they rather develop something for Google or Meta. I think that lightweight flexible tooling will have a major impact as it caters to the needs of big tech, the new generation of software developers, and what they expect from tooling. The big thing now for a start-up like RemotiveLabs is to gain trust from the development teams as the toolchains today come from traditional automotive suppliers and automotive companies don’t like to change tooling often – so building trust and proving the advantages with use cases is important now. From what I have seen so far I’m impressed and I want to take part in that journey.