In this Q/A session with Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder and CEO of portfolio company Starsky Robotics, Stefan shares his perspectives and outlook on the future of autonomous vehicles. Starsky Robotics is pioneering autonomous driving systems for commercial trucks.
Why should we be excited about autonomous vehicles?
I think there's a lot of reasons we should be excited about autonomous vehicles. One of the biggest is the combination of autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles means that for the first time in history, moving people and goods will be nearly free. There won't be a meaningful marginal cost to the movement of goods and objects. And that's kind of what information has been like for the internet. Transferring information is close to free, and that's about to happen to physical things.
In the US right now, approximately 40,000 people die each year in an automotive accident, which is the equivalent of one and a half9/11s each month. That's something we're just not going to have to deal with in the future. It will be looked at as archaic and as awful and barbarous as we look at infant mortality from the 1600s.
What does the future of autonomous vehicles look like to you? Any thoughts on how infrastructure will change?
Infrastructure — as a function of population — will cost a lot less. Autonomous vehicles will be able to drive at much closer following distances which means that existing infrastructure will have a lot more capacity. Each lane in a highway costs about 2 million dollars per mile so that's a pretty major improvement.
How do you see the industry as being ripe for disruption today?
I think that a lot of the hard parts of the problem have been worked on for the last 10 years. There's a lot of technology that's ready to go to market right now, it just takes the right way to do that. So I think we're a lot closer than a lot of people think or say we are. The industry is definitely ripe.
What are the biggest hurdles to autonomous vehicles becoming mainstream?
I think the regulatory and insurance structures are the biggest challenges to work around. Where previous autonomous companies did stuff illegally, the current batch of aspiring autonomous companies are going to need to do stuff by the books so they can become actual companies — actual businesses. Additionally, in order to do that, they're going to need to have insurance. And it's really hard to insure products that evolve around a lot of data.
Apart from transportation, how do you see autonomous vehicles disrupting other industries?
Everything dealing with the movement of physical goods will be affected. Moving goods and moving people. So in some ways, there will be new land freed up in major cities, which can turn into housing. I think it will rapidly change what types of goods you can move where and at what types of rates, which has a lot of external effects.
What is the current issue in the industry that you are helping to address and how are you doing so?
We're a problem focused company. And what we're focusing on is actually getting people out of trucks. The problem with the trucking industry is that it's really hard to get a person to spend a lot of time in a truck , away from their family. What we're focused on is solving that problem and not on building a monument of engineering. To get there, we need a combination of remote driving and autonomy which very quickly gets to the point where we can have a truck move without having a person physically in it and thus solve the main problem of the industry.
Could you talk a little bit about your team? I understand that you have a very unique group.
So we have folks who have masters degrees from top tier universities and folks who didn't graduate high school. Which makes for an interesting combo. I think what's great about our organization and really about robotics in general, there are so many disciplines involved. People are working with others to learn a whole lot of stuff that they don't know, which leads to a lot of respect across the team. The truck drivers know something about trucks that my co-founder, who has a masters from Carnegie Mellon, doesn't know. Similarly, my co-founder knows a lot about robotics that my truck drivers don't know much about. So we've been able to have a very successful, very accomplished, very rockstar team with very little associated ego that you often see in Silicon Valley.
So I actually started working on this with a friend. We had money committed. The friend put a notice in for his company but then got a promotion that he took. The friend who started with me was actually my roommate. So on February 4 2016, I had no particular cofounder, 6 weeks of money left and double the rent to pay — which was a little stressful. Another buddy of mine had gotten a job at Mattermark and gave me a free trial to it — it had a list of robotics startups in the Bay Area that were trending. Kartik — my cofounder: his former startup was at the top of that list. So I send him a cold email saying, ‘Hey, I have a fun little robotics startup. Do you want to grab a coffee and talk about to hire robotics engineers?’ He actually responded and it turns out he had 30 days before his visa ran out. He was like, ‘so I'm actually looking for a new job so I'd like to talk to you about doing this.’ We sat down, grabbed some coffee, and talked for 8 hours. He thought I was out of my mind. He went and realized that the things I was saying were basically true, and we started working together from there.
Additional Comments from Stefan: Our Philosophy is generally speaking, we want to be the worst entity on our team. We don’t want to work with anyone worse than us. We want everyone to be so incredibly reliable that if something in our system isn’t working, it definitely is our fault. There’s still things that don’t work but if we know it’s our fault, we know where to start.