The Road to Autonomy Podcast

The Road to Autonomy hosted by Grayson Brulte is a podcast featuring unconventional conversations about the future of mobility.

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American Success Story: AutonomouStuff

Bobby Hambrick, Founder & CEO, AutonomouStuff and Chief Autonomous Officer, Hexagon joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss the founding of AutonomouStuff, the acquisition by Hexagon and why AutonomouStuff is an American success story.

The conversation begins with Bobby telling the story of how he founded AutonomouStuff in a barn in his backyard and eventually sold his house and rental properties to scale the company.

I was born with this natural innate motivation and this drive to succeed. I have always taken this fearless approach to accomplish whatever task I had on hand.

– Bobby Hambrick

As the company grew, Bobby reinvested every dollar that the company made back into the company to help it grow. He grew the company without venture capital as he invested in himself and his company. Every month Bobby operated the company it was was profitable.

The conversation naturally evolves into SPACs and why companies are going public with little to no revenue and zero profitability. Grayson and Bobby discuss the importance of operating a business that is profitable.

Building upon this, Bobby shares an insightful story from when he was interviewing an engineer who did not know how to use tools. This opened his eyes in a meaningful way.

Hard work and common sense can get you a long way. To be a successful entrepreneur, being smart is not enough. You have to be able to understand how things work and even more important is the power of the relationships that you have.

– Bobby Hambrick

The ethic of hard work was ingrained into Bobby during his time growing up in the Midwest. The Midwest historically has had a reputation of hard work. Understanding this, Bobby founded and scaled the company in Morton, Illinois.

As Bobby was contemplating selling the company to Hexagon he thought about the following:

If I am going to sell to a larger company, I want to take care of the people who helped me. They are like family to me.

– Bobby Hambrick

As part of the transaction, there was a clause that AutonomouStuff would stay in Morton for good. The impact that AutonomouStuff has had on the town of Morton cannot be measured. It is felt at the dinner table when employees discuss building the future and their travels around the world.

CES 2020 was one of those moments when it all came together when Hexagon showcased AutonomouStuff right next to the Google installation. Bobby goes on to explain that is merely just the beginning for AutonomouStuff. With the resources of Hexagon, the future is extremely bright for AutonomouStuff.

While the future is bright for AutonomouStuff, the rest of the industry is going through growing pains.

This is marathon This is not a sprint to whoever can show the best concept of driving around in the urban area. This is a serious business, people are spending billions of dollars and now they are realizing that it is not that easy.

This is probably one of the biggest engineering challenges of mankind.

– Bobby Hambrick

Closing out the conversation, Bobby shares his advice for entrepreneurs who want to start their own business while staying true to their roots.

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Insurance Markets and the Digital Economy

Jillian Slyfield, Digital Economy Practice Leader, Aon joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss the current state of the insurance markets and the digital economy.

The conversation begins with Jillian sharing a high-level overview of Aon and the current state of the insurance markets.

It’s the hardest market that we have seen in 25 years.

– Jillian Slyfield

With a hard market comes reduced capacity in the marketplace which leads to increased pricing for renewals.

The markets are hardening with anywhere from 25-40 %, sometimes, even more, delivering at times a 70% year-over-year increase in costs.

– Jillian Slyfield

The hardening markets are not just leading to price increases for companies, insurance companies are also reducing their capacity. Aon is working with it’s clients to ensure that they are prepared for the current state of the insurance markets.

The current state of the insurance markets conversation evolves into one about being underinsured. With significant price premium increases, some companies are having to make hard decisions about how much insurance they can afford and what to do to ensure they are still properly insured for risk.

The insurance market is currently facing the “perfect storm” due to the current state of the world. Jillian dives into the issues that are affecting the insurance markets, which is leading to increased premium increases.

It all flows up to the reinsurance markets, very data driven underwriting in that space.

– Jillian Slyfield

As more certainty comes into view on monetarily policy and elections, the insurance markets should start to stabilize. Monetary policy and elections have direct effects on markets across the globe.

Looking at the capital markets, one of the biggest trends of 2020 has been SPACs (Special Purpose Acquisition Company) which have raised $51.3 billion this year as compared to $111.6 billion raised in traditional IPOs.

Grayson asks Jillian how the insurance is different for SPACs as compared to traditional IPOs and how underwriters view the risk of SPACs.

Interestingly the markets see SPACs being less risky than a traditional IPO, which can be very positive.

– Jillian Slyfield

The biggest risk for a company going public either through a SPAC or a traditional IPO is the D&O (Directors and Officers) insurance. For a company going public, insurer selection is extremely important and that the carrier understands your business model and industry.

Aon works with their clients to ensure that if this then that scenario happens, their clients are fully protected with the right insurance.

Claims occur all of the time. That is why the insurance is there. That is why you have strong advisors like Aon beyond you. Should something arise, you get the best counsel possible.

– Jillian Slyfield

Staying on the theme of working with clients, Grayson asks Jillian how Aon works with underwriters to properly insure asset-light companies. The risk issues, the data used for underwriting is different for asset-light companies.

Jillian gives a masterclass on how insurance can be used to protect third-party transactions such as Airbnb and Uber. Looking to understand these asset-light businesses, underwriters are actively using the products and services to fully understand the business.

By driving for Uber or listing your home on Airbnb, underwriters are experiencing how the business operates first-hand and what potential risks are associated with the business model. This hands-on approach allows underwriters to properly understand the risk.

With an autonomous future on the horizon, Grayson and Jillian discuss what happens when autonomous vehicles are operating in cities around the world. Autonomous vehicles do not get distracted or sleepy, which will lead to a decrease in claims.

Jillian goes onto explain how insurance carriers are planning for a future with autonomous vehicles and who will be responsible for the risk and pay the insurance premiums.

Expanding upon this conversation, Grayson and Jillian discuss how underwriters are looking at insuring self-driving trucks and delivery bots.

Closing out the conversation, Grayson asks Jillian what impact will mobility and innovation have on the broader insurance market over the next 25 years.

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Mobility SPACs: Hype or Reality?

David Welch, Detroit Bureau Chief, Bloomberg joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss the mobility SPAC market.

The conversation begins with David sharing his thoughts on the current state of the mobility SPAC market. He brings up the valid point of who is conducting the scouting and due diligence on the deals.

Grayson then asks David about the supposed due diligence that Steve Girsky’s VectoIQ Acquisition Corp. did prior to merging with Nikola and taking the company public via a SPAC transaction. Building upon that conversation, David talks about the in-progress Nikola / GM deal that has yet to close.

Expanding upon the conversation around Nikola and GM, Grayson asks David if Nikola would even have made it through a traditional IPO. David does not think Nikola would have made it through a traditional IPO process.

David suggests that GM originally did the deal with Nikola because the company had a hot stock at the time. Was the Nikola stock craze driven by retail investors on Robinhood? Perhaps, but we do not know.

Now SoftBank and Apollo Global Management have announced that are launching SPACs.

Real money is getting into the game. To me, that is a good sign. Those guys are professionals who invested in everything from publicly traded stocks already to startups and other private players.

They have made a lot of money so it’s more clear that they know how to do due diligence.

It’s a better bet than the more well-known SPACs that are out there.

– David Welch

Could this be a trend of blue-chip investment companies investing in less-risky electric mobility companies? BlackRock has invested billions in Rivian and Arrival. Both companies are being deemed less-risky than other mobility start-ups by the market. Rivian also has backing from Amazon.

Staying on the Amazon theme, Grayson and David discuss Amazon and mobility. What are the plans for Zoox? Will Amazon end up acquiring Rivian? Does Amazon introduce a mobility Prime service in the future powered by Zoox?

Amazon could have their own competitor to Uber and Lyft with Zoox controlled self-driving vehicles.

– David Welch

But who wants to own and manage the fleet? Does someone buy Hertz out of bankruptcy to carve out an autonomous vehicle management business? Or does Penske expand outside of trucks into autonomous vehicles?

Rounding out the fleet management conversation, Grayson asks David to share his thoughts on the Great Pivot from Self-Driving Cars to Self-Driving Trucks. The two discuss the economics of self-driving trucks and how the business has a path to profitability.

Did this path to profitability, impact Waymo’s decision to introduce self-driving trucks as the Waymo Via service? Grayson and David discuss Alphabet’s appetite to continue investing in Waymo without revenue.

When Alphabet breaks out Waymo revenue for the first time, it will have a positive impact on Alphabet’s stock price. One just has to look to the time when Amazon broke out AWS (Amazon Web Services) revenue and the impact the revenue breakout had on Amazon’s stock.

While Waymo is developing the Waymo Driver, Embark, Kodiak, and TuSimple have been focused solely on trucking from day one. Does this give them a competitive advantage? Perhaps.

Grayson and David go on to discuss the Universal Driver debate and how developing autonomous technologies for trucks operating on highways is different than developing the tech for dense urban environments such as San Francisco.

Staying on the theme of companies that are developing the Universal Driver, Grayson and David discuss Aurora and their many pivots. The two discuss Aurora’s business model and their seemingly never-ending stream of partnerships with no commercially viable products. Evolving into a larger discussion, the two discuss the need for partnerships in the autonomous vehicle industry.

Closing out the conversation, Grayson asks David when Tata Motors will make a move and introduce self-driving Jaguars and Land Rover Range Rovers through a partnership with an autonomous vehicle company.

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Autonomous Trucking Logistics

Jordan Coleman, General Counsel and Vice President of Policy, Kodiak Robotics joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss autonomous trucking logistics.

The conversation begins with Jordan talking about his journey from corporate lawyer to start-up lawyer. His love of being a lawyer and working on transformative technology and what happened when Kodiak Robotics Co-Founders, Don Burnette, and Paz Eshel asked Jordan to join Kodiak as General Counsel.

As my parents like to say, I was a lawyer when I was two-years old at the dinner table, well before I ever went to law school.

– Jordan Coleman

Expanding upon the dinner table conversation, Grayson asks Jordan to dive into family dinners and to share his insight into what his family would discuss over dinner. Jordan credits his parents and family for encouraging him to explore intellectual curiosity and have healthy debates.

My dinner table was a debate club, my dinner table was public speaking 101 and my dinner table was definitely law school 101.

– Jordan Coleman

The conversation evolves from the dinner table to a discussion on why autonomous trucks and what problems autonomous trucks can solve. The impact autonomous trucks will have on the economy and society as a whole.

The economy can not function well without a well functioning logistics system.

– Jordan Coleman

Autonomous trucks will make the roadways of the United States safer for every single driver and passenger on the road. Autonomous trucks will be safer than human drivers as they do not get distracted, they do not drink and drive and they do not tailgate.

For individuals who grew up in the ’80s with a third-row rear-facing seat in the back of their parent’s station wagons commonly known as the way-back, don’t worry your children will still be able to play the “Truck Honk Game”.

There is nothing more mom and apple pie Americana than pulling the old air horn sign and the truck honking that horn.

– Jordan Coleman

The perception team at Kodiak is actively working on ensuring that when a child does the “Truck Honk” arm pull, the autonomous truck will honk.

In addition to working on the “Truck Honk”, Kodiak is actively delivering loads in Texas and learning how to operate in Texas. Kodiak is developing a technology that is solving pain-points and ensuring customer happiness.

While Kodiak is purely focused on highway driving for autonomous trucks, a majority of the autonomous industry is focused on passenger vehicles in dense urban environments such as San Fransisco. San Fransisco is a notoriously complex city to drive in (both human and autonomously), not to mention a stringent regulatory environment.

With the uncertainty around business models and the complexity of driving in dense urban environments, Grayson asks Jordan about “The Great Pivot to Autonomous Trucking” and why companies are pivoting from passenger vehicles to trucks.

Part of the pivot is being driven by the economics of autonomous trucking as there is a clear path to profitability. The other part of the pivot is being driven by the fact that autonomous highway driving is an easier problem to solve than driving in dense urban environments.

Then there is the opportunity based on trends, the growth of e-commerce, and cooking at home with farm-to-table ingredients. These goods and ingredients are shipped to consumer homes on trucks.

Wrapping up the conversation, Grayson and Jordan discuss the economics of autonomous trucks, the trend of asset-light businesses, and why autonomous trucking as-a-service will become a reality in the future.

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California’s Electric Future

Russ Mitchell who covers the rapidly changing global auto industry (with special emphasis on California, including Tesla, electric vehicles, and driverless cars) at The Los Angeles Times once again joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss California’s Electric Future.

The conversation begins with a discussion about California Governor Newsom’s executive order to phase out gasoline-powered cars. Why this was politically savvy to appeal to the climate front, but the uncertainly that this will cause around the economics as an electric vehicle costs on average 30% more than a gasoline-powered car.

Grayson and Russ go onto discuss why this might create a grey market for gasoline-powered cars and what the supply chain for electric vehicles currently looks like in the Congo and China.

Following on this topic, they go onto discuss the conditions in which these minerals are mined, and if consumers will take the same active approach to blood cobalt as they took to blood diamonds and demand ethical mining.

Russ who lives in Berkeley, CA says that his friends who drive electric vehicles have not even thought about the ethical mining of cobalt. Companies are currently focused on shoring up the mineral supply chain at the moment.

While the supply chain and the ethical mining of minerals for electric vehicles remain a concern, the bigger question still remains: “How do you recycle electric vehicle batteries”. Grayson and Russ go onto to discuss this issue and how EV batteries can be reused for backup batteries for homes.

In California, Toyota and Honda were the top two selling brands in 2019, accounting for over 30% of all new vehicles sold in the State. Grayson and Russ go onto discuss why Toyota and Honda have to start investing in fully-electric vehicles today to not lose market share in California when new gasoline-powered car sales are banned.

In the late 2000s, the Toyota Prius was the “It Car” when it became a Hollywood status symbol thanks in-part to Leonardo DiCaprio who was driven to the 2008 Oscars in a Prius. Not to mention the thousands of photographs of him driving around LA in the car.

Today, Toyota no longer has the “It Car”, but they popularized the idea of driving an environmentally friendly car. The current “It Car” is Tesla.

While California may be on the edge of emerging trends, consumers are still not sold on electric cars. Only 2% of the 17 million light cars and trucks sold in the United States in 2019 were electric.

Could this be due to charging and charge time? Grayson and Russ discuss why consumers want to charge quickly and efficiently. This conversation raises the question, can the energy grid handle an increase in new electric vehicles?

With new electric vehicles coming on the market, Grayson and Russ discuss what the market would look like without Tesla’s Model 3. They go on to discuss how Elon Musk built Tesla into a brand that is a lifestyle choice for millions of individuals.

Grayson goes onto discuss how Elon Musk captured the public’s imagination that an electric can be cool, part of your lifestyle, accessible and approachable.

This evolved into a deep conversation about Tesla and what Elon has to do to continue to dominate the public’s imagination on electric vehicles. While the public’s imagination is important, quality control is even more important.

Wrapping up the conversation, they discuss the current state of the electric vehicle market and when brands such as Porsche, Land Rover, and Mercedes will make their big moves to gain EV market share from Tesla.

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If you have enjoyed this conversation, please listen to Grayson and Russ’s earlier conversation:

The Business of Self-Driving Cars