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AEye Insights: The Road to Electrification

In this installment of the AEye Insights series, AEye Founder and VP of Corporate Development, Jordan Greene sits down with Ryan Popple, AEye Advisor, General Partner at R7 and Executive Director at Proterra to discuss current trends in electrification and urban transportation, the importance of smart sensors, and the implementation of fully autonomous charging stations.

JG: Hello, everybody. Welcome to AEye Insights, where we talk industry trends with proven business leaders. Our guest today is Ryan Popple, AEye Advisor, General Partner at R7 and Executive Director at Proterra, a company that designs and manufactures zero emission buses. Ryan, welcome and thank you for joining us.

RP: Thanks for having me, Jordan.

JG: Ryan, we’ll just dive right into it. You have been involved in a number of really interesting things in next generation mobility, both on the corporate and the investment side. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in this sector?

RP: Sure. I’ve been working on mobility technology, specifically with a sustainability aspect to it, for about the last 15 years. I worked on biofuels, and was an early employee at Tesla Motors. I saw Tesla through the early development of its technology and the launch of its first car, the Tesla Roadster, and also worked on the origin of the Model S program, when EV was the focus and AV was just getting started. Also, as you mentioned, I worked on the investment side in venture capital, again, focused on mobility technologies, including EV charging, telemetry, fleet management and EV fleet vehicles like Proterra. And then for five-and-a-half years, I was the CEO of Proterra. I saw the company through early commercialization, past its first hundred million dollars of revenue, and, as mentioned, I’m currently on the board of Proterra and also general partner with R7.

JG: You’ve had a lot of experiences within the electric vehicle domain and urban transportation. Where do you think we are today as far as the development cycle? And what trends are you seeing in the market?

RP: I think autonomy and sensor technology is very much following a similar curve to electric vehicle technology, and it’s probably lagged by a few years, but it is helpful for us to look at the EV sector as kind of an example of how things start, how they initially ramp up and then how they reach real market impact. On the EV side, where we are today, I think for the first time in a long time, the market – as well as customers – generally accept zero emission and EV in particular for urban markets is the future of the transportation market from a propulsion perspective. If you think about it, EV in the modern era probably really got started with GM’s EV1. It’s great that you’ve got the Bolt EV behind you because it’s kind of the bookends of very early R&D now to mass market commercialization of a vehicle that is a successful consumer application and in high volume. But it did take a lot of core technology development, and I think that’s where we’ve been the last few years in EV, and then active participation from the major OEMs like GM, Daimler, BMW, Ford, Porsche, really getting into the EV space and utilizing their supply chain to ramp quickly. And again, I think that’s going to be a parallel to what we see in the sensor and AV market, that we’re in the very beginnings of commercialization now with commercial traction starting to appear in a lot of different applications, especially enhanced safety, but because of the fact that the OEMs are really embracing it, like they’ve started to embrace EV, I think the growth from this point on is going to be quite dramatic and step change in nature.

JG: I’m sure that you’ve seen within the technology development several technology hurdles and engineering challenges. Let’s dive into some of those and try and see where we come out, because I’m curious what your thoughts are – we talked in the past about infrastructure challenges, charging challenges and various different challenges that have been hurdles in some sense to try and get through to make this electric vehicle, autonomous vehicle world a reality. What are some of those, and what are you most concerned with, and what are you thinking are addressable problems, and how do we solve them?

RP: Sure. Well, in any new technology market, as a good friend of mine has said, every day, there’s a different puzzle to solve and that continues through full commercialization. In the EV market, I think the first challenges were largely technical, and I think you can look at the battery as probably the most essential component of the EV market. So those early technical challenges were things like energy density, which is kind of shorthand for the size and weight of a battery relative to how much range and use you can get out of it. Cycle life, which is probably, again, shorthand for just durability and reliability. How long is the technology going to last in the vehicle application? And then there were also early challenges to overcome in terms of product market fit with charging and charging models, cold weather applicability, and I would say it’s been very important for the industry to solve those challenges first, while also in parallel, keeping a close eye on cost of technology to make sure that the business case really was robust for a consumer or a business or a government fleet to implement EV. That’s both on the vehicle side and on the charging side.

While you have to do those things in parallel, I would say that getting the technology right and working in a really robust manner is probably more important than the cost reduction, that there generally are pockets of the market where a new technology can enter, and then as you grow it, you naturally are able to achieve economies of scale and reduce pricing to enable a larger market.

We’ve seen every few years, as you unlock bigger and bigger portions of the market, there’s a new puzzle to solve and sometimes that’s hill climb capability or extreme cold weather performance. A couple of years ago, the focus was more on hot weather performance. How does the HVAC system work? And again, I think very similar parallels to what’s going on in the sensor software AV/ADAS market that initially the most important element to get right is the technology working really well. You enter the market in some relative niche applications and then you scale from there and naturally cost comes down and you unlock more and more market applications.

JG: I have several follow up questions, but the first would be on the hybridization of those EV and AV models, there seems to be a lot of overlap. There seems to be a lot of interesting interplay between the two. You talked about the emergence of new technology enabling all this. But specifically, if I look at the photo that’s right behind your head, could you tell us a little bit about what’s going on there and what the challenges are or the next gen challenges are for EV and maybe how they fit and interplay with the AV challenge?

RP: The graphic behind me is a great representation of how a number of technologies are coming together, both seen and unseen, in this representation of the fleet vehicle yard of the future. The first thing you notice is there are electric buses, so EVs are a critical portion of the future fleet. But you also see solar power generation, so distributed energy generation, in the form of PV panels, and then you see the green boxes behind me, which are bidirectional chargers so the electric vehicles can take power from solar or off the grid and they can resupply with it or refuel with it, but they can also take power or they can provide power back through those boxes or power electronics, and they can supply power back to the grid or to onsite energy storage. You can also see in the photo that there is automated overhead charging. The vision, and we’ve already started to deploy this in places like Edmonton, Canada or Foothill Transit in Southern California, is that the electric vehicle, the electric fleet vehicles of the future are going to have fully autonomous, fully robotic charging. Those charging systems basically prevent or remove the need for human beings to be involved in plugging in all these different vehicles. There are some positive safety elements to that. There’s also just a general quality control aspect of it, because you completely automate it.

In order to accomplish the vision behind me, in addition to needing solar technology, EV stationary storage, you also need sophisticated sensor technology for micro location and vehicle verification, because every one of those buses should be capable of pulling into an automated charging station, positively identifying the fact that the vehicle is ready to charge, and the charger needs to identify that there is the correct type of vehicle behind it and that when the right bus pulls in the right lane, the correct charger deploys to charge it. All of that requires some pretty, pretty sophisticated sensor technology to get right at scale, and I think that’s one of the places where AV technology plays a role in the EV fleet of the future. Initially, it’s for automating and error proofing that charging process. But longer term, it will likely be that once an electric vehicle is behind the fence in a fleet yard, the vehicle should be able to drive itself to perform basic behind the fence operations, like potentially pulling into a wash rack or pulling into a charging depot.

JG: Walk me through the current sensor suite and what’s involved in that. I imagine the operator of the vehicle will likely pull up to this charging depot, and the goal would be to completely automate the process from that handoff onwards to the charging. What is required? What kind of sensors do you need? What kind of precision do you need? What kind of tools do you need to make that a successful option?

RP: Well, I’d say the state of the industry today, depending on which deployment you’re looking at and which specific vendor is involved, it can be incredibly manual. A driver can pull into a painted lane, the equivalent of the tennis ball hanging from the string which touches the windshield, and then the operator actually has to press a manual button in the vehicle to enable the charger that’s above it to deploy. When you fully automate this process, one of the first things you have to do right is the verification and handshake between the charging system and the vehicle. You need precision location that’s well past what you can get from GPS. You also want to be able to do this process in parking lots or parking structures or under a PV canopy like you see here, so a GPS signal is not necessarily assured. That’s one of the classic problems of GPS in the city, is that you’re operating in an urban canyon. A lot of our buses in our fleet yards are in those urban canyons where you block line of sight from time to time with a cellular connection or with a GPS.

There are also a number of conventional technologies that are used to communicate between electric vehicles like these and the charging systems that robotically deploy – sometimes it’s a Wi-Fi handshake, sometimes it’s a technology similar to Bluetooth. But where it really needs to go is that the vehicle and the charging system need a way to identify that the correct object is located in the correct position for a charger to deploy. And there should be intelligence that verifies that and then is comfortable deploying the technology. Currently, there’s some redundancy built into the system in terms of where the vehicle can be positioned and the height of the charger relative to the top of the vehicle. But again, at scale, you could make robotic charging arms a lot more efficient if you could reduce the error bar around where the vehicle could be underneath the charger. And the only way you’re going to get there is with low cost, high fidelity sensors.

JG: And you’re talking about, I assume, precisions of millimeters as opposed to, centimeters or inches.

RP: Yes. You’re going to see a variety of connector types and the connectors can get more simple, less expensive and have fewer degrees of movement so they’ll become more reliable, less maintenance intensive if you can really locate to millimeters. If you think about the way one would plug in the Chevy Bolt behind you, a human being would pick up a charging cable, they would open a charge port and they would place it precisely into the charging socket. And there’s a little bit of tolerance in that in terms of not precisely locating the charger, but you can’t really do that and you can’t really have a human being connect a charger of the power level that’s required for these electric buses, electric trucks, electric aircraft as well.

You’re talking about a very high-powered charger, so if it was a cable-based system, it’d be a very heavy, cumbersome cable, and the higher the power level goes on the charger, the more the requirement is to make absolutely sure that you’ve properly connected the charger before you initiate a high-powered charge. So, again, millimeters of precision would greatly enhance the reliability, long term safety and reduce the cost of these systems. It’s not something that I think the market has successfully deployed yet, but it would be a very important innovation in the market.

JG: I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the role of the actual sensors, so camera, radar, LiDAR, ultrasonics and so on, as they take shape, because there’s that sense of how those will influence that process. But there’s also the full automation end to end both of the EV running their routes as well as within the parking depot and what needs to be accomplished to be able to enable that. I assume as these technologies mature, and as you start to integrate more of them into your vehicles, those tasks will become easier or more efficient, or you’ll have some unique way in which you actually accomplish those goals.

RP: The place I’d start is just a reminder that the urban application of automating tasks is probably one of the most demanding – the variety of events that you can see, the number of pedestrians, cyclists, kind of multimodal nature of the urban environment, it vastly exceeds anything you’re going to see on the highway environment. Now, highway speeds are higher, but events per mile, events per minute are a lot lower. So, I think we’re probably going to see and already have seen AV systems start to deploy dedicated lane, cargo only applications or consumer applications that are pretty straightforward, like lane keeping and adaptive cruise control. When we start thinking about really productive, economically productive deployments of AV technology in the urban environment, i.e. autonomous delivery of e-commerce, first/last mile delivery of conventional commerce, and then the taxi market and the bus market, these applications are going to require, I think, the most sophisticated kind of multi-sensor arrays. From my perspective, it’s difficult to say that one technology is going to necessarily solve the entire problem set. But I do think the ability to absolutely, positively identify an object, especially one that could be in the lane or the direction of travel for the vehicle, is going to be table stakes for this market. In this market, inches matter, if not centimeters and millimeters. That can be the difference between detecting a cyclist that’s in a bike lane during a turning maneuver and not detecting that cyclist or pedestrian. So, in my view, the fleet vehicles operating in urban areas are going to benefit greatly from 360-degree, precise, high fidelity sensor technology.

JG: I think that the autonomous vehicle world would stand behind that comment that no single technology is going to win out. There’s going to be a place for all of them to work in harmony to really accomplish those goals, and I think it’s interesting because the world you’re sitting in is kind of an amalgamation of all the different areas of autonomous vehicle and electrification. There’s even parallels to other industries. In one of our prior discussions, we talked about mid-air refueling and the implications of trying to have that level of complexity of the boom and the receiving vehicle actually meeting. There are similar implications for what you’re doing here within the autonomous vehicle domain, within the charging stations. The question I have is, how do you see this space evolving over the next several years? What should we look for, and what can we expect on the horizon?

RP: Well, I think the first most important applications are going to be the ones that improve safety. This is an absolutely critical infrastructure market, whether you’re talking about the bus market, taxi or delivery, whether it’s long haul or first/last mile delivery. But these are services, transportation services that our economy can’t live without. We use a tremendous amount. They’re responsible for probably the majority of our GDP directly or indirectly. So, it’s absolutely essential. It’s got to work. But at the same time, the current status quo leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accidents per year, whether that’s cars on the road or trucks and buses operating in cities. And often it’s not the fault of the heavy vehicle itself. But any time you have an accident involving a heavy commercial vehicle, it tends to have pretty severe outcomes. I think the same is going to apply to the construction site and the mining site. Again, absolutely essential aspects of our economy. And they will benefit tremendously from the deployment of EV systems and AV, but where it really should start is looking at what the status quo is in terms of maneuvers and routes that are considered high risk, and that can be in a mine, that can be a bus or truck crowd in a city. So that’s probably where it will start. And I believe that EV and AV are going to be part of what a lot of cities describe as “Vision Zero,” which is zero emissions from transportation and zero fatalities; that we should not accept the status quo as the cost of doing business. There’s a tremendous amount of quality of human life that we can improve by introducing new tech, whether it’s long term health related to EV or whether it’s short term accidents that are avoided by AV. I think the area where people get really excited about is the concept of the Robotaxi, the robo-bus, the robo-truck. Those things will happen, but I think there are going to be a lot of applications that deliver economic productivity, revenue growth, build great companies and refine the technology before kind of the big bang occurs.

I think one of the mistakes about EV is thinking that the EV had to become the complete equivalent of the internal combustion engine vehicle before you’d see any on the road in significant scale. What we’ve actually seen is a lot of different sectors of the car market, truck, bus market have been able to implement EV in its current form, and then as the technology gradually improves and gets less expensive, the market gets bigger and bigger. I think the same thing is going to happen in the AV and the sensor market in that we don’t have to wait for some massive regulatory hurdle or for new business models to be created and deployed around things like Robotaxis. There’s a lot of great work that can be done on the way there, and ultimately that development and the growth of profitable companies along the way will de-risk the end state that everyone is excited about getting into, which is the full Level 5 autonomy.

JG: I really appreciate you joining us, Ryan. We appreciate your partnership. And it’s great to connect. Thanks for joining us at AEye Insights, and we’ll see you next time.

RP: Thank you, Jordan, and thank you to the rest of the team. I really appreciate being involved in this.