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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Automating Grocery Delivery

Pradeep Elankumaran, Co-Founder & CEO of Farmstead joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss automating grocery delivery.

The conversation begins with Pradeep sharing how bad experiences with grocery delivery led to the founding of Farmstead. Armed with an idea, Pradeep posted the idea on Nextdoor Mountain View to see if there was a demand for his idea of a better grocery delivery experience. Indeed there was a demand. In 2 days, 200 new potential customers expressed interest in the idea.

One of the key selling points to those potential Farmstead customers the substitution policy.

We told customers that we would guarantee the item.

– Pradeep Elankumaran

No longer would items that you did not order show up on your doorstep. This eliminates stress for parents who would no longer have to worry if their child’s favorite milk or ice cream will arrive instead of a substitute.

Our approach is software and a lot of prediction and a lot of very precise control of the data that is inserted into our system which makes the software better.

As the software gets better, prediction gets better. As the prediction gets better, your experience gets better.

– Pradeep Elankumaran

One of the other elements of the Farmstead business model is that the company does not pick items from a supermarket, instead, they operate out of dedicated 15,000 – 25,000 square foot warehouses.

Supermarkets are not great places to full-fill online grocery orders.

– Pradeep Elankumaran

Farmstead is able to operate this model because of its prediction software. As the Farmstead expands to cities around the United States, the company is using a demand model to gauge interest in the market. One of those markets is Miami.

As Farmstead scales, Grayson asks if Amazon and their growing grocery ambitions are a threat to Farmstead. Pradeep shares an interesting thesis on the grocery market comparing Amazon to Walmart and how Farmstead is well-positioned to gain market share in the online grocery market.

One of the key differences between Amazon and Farmstead is that the company uses reusable packaging. Grayson and Pradeep have an in-depth conversation about packaging and why it is so important for grocery delivery.

The crux of the market of the packaging should really be: is it recyclable? Is it returnable?

– Pradeep Elankumaran

From packaging to the current in-store experience, Grayson and Pradeep have a long conversation about consumer habits and their shopping experiences.

Selection no longer matters, curation matters a lot more.

– Pradeep Elankumaran

Farmstead is saving consumers time by curating groceries from specialty retailers all within the app. As Farmstead onboards new customers, they are adding new products that appeal to their customers needs and wants. All the items that are stocked and the quantity of those products are chosen by Farmstead’s predictive software.

With an incredible software solution that is creating massive efficiencies for the company and its customers, Grayson asks Pradeep if Farmstead will adapt it’s model for autonomous vehicle delivery services.

It all comes down to the customer experience. It’s not about the shiny technology.

– Pradeep Elankumaran

When automation can increase the customer experience, Farmstead will go all in.

Wrapping up the conversation, Pradeep shares his vision for the future of Farmstead.

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Recorded on Thursday, February 11, 2021.

Fashionably Late to Autonomy: Understanding Market Dynamics

Çetin Meriçli, Co-Founder & CEO of Locomation joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss what he saw when he launched Locomation into a maturing autonomous trucking market in 2018.

The conversation begins with Çetin discussing growing up in Istanbul, Turkey, and how his family encouraged curiosity and asking questions to learn.

Curious to us, was something that was particularly promoted in our family.

– Çetin Meriçli

With unlimited curiosity and an always learning philosophy, Çetin taught himself computer programing when his Uncle gifted him a small home computer.

I started learning computer programing. Very quickly I ran out of the idea of just getting the computer to do what I wanted it to do. Then I started exploring the idea of what if the computer can make the decisions? What if it can surprise me?

– Çetin Meriçli

After several years of hard work, Çetin moved to America to study robotics at Carnegie Mellon in 2009 and be part of the history.

CMU (Carnegie Mellon University) was equal to Top Gun for me. I wanted to come here, I wanted to learn from the Red Whittaker’s, Al Kelly’s, Tony Stentz’s of the world.

– Çetin Meriçli

While a Senior Robotics Engineer at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon, Çetin co-authored the Slip-aware Model Predictive Optimal Control for Path Following paper which was published by IEEE. This paper heavily influenced the founding of Locomation as several of the co-founders were authors.

Locomation was founded in 2018 just as the autonomous trucking market was starting to mature. Grayson asks Çetin what he saw when he made the decision to join a maturing market.

We were not deterred, but we were actually nervous. We were scared to death. That is just normal because you are about to enter into a race where there are quote on quote more established players.

– Çetin Meriçli

Know-how is very valuable. With a history in robotics and automation, the team at Locomation sat back and watched as the market matured. They were learning the market and discovering opportunities based on their technical backgrounds. While others made mistakes, Çetin learned and studied until the time was right.

Being fashionably late to the party we did not lose the entire window of opportunity. We got our feet into the game at the right time. We got to observe what others were going after.

– Çetin Meriçli

Sitting back and observing the market, Çetin was able to develop an autonomous trucking business model that would resonate with the market.

The business model resonated with Wilson Logistics after a chance meeting at a conference. Then in September 2020, the companies announced a deal where 1,120 Wilson Logistics trucks will be equipped with Locomation’s autonomous relay convoy technology.

Currently, Locomation has tested trucks in Pittsburgh, Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, Texas, and Louisiana. Grayson goes onto asks Çetin what the company is learning from testing in different environments with different climates and driving habits.

Not all tests are created equal.

– Çetin Meriçli

Grayson shifts the conversation to commercialization and asks Çetin when the company plans to start deploying trucks for customers and when the company will become profitable.

In late 2022, Locomation trucks will start operating commercially and by 2023, the company will be cash-flow profitable optionally.

Wrapping up the conversation, Çetin shares his thoughts on the current state of the autonomous trucking industry.

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Recorded on Thursday, February 2, 2021.

The Building Blocks of Mobility

Sahas Katta, Founder & CEO of Smartcar joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss the building blocks of mobility – standardized APIs (Application Programming Interface).

The conversation begins with Sahas discussing the founding of Smartcar and growing up in Silicon Valley. Growing up in Silicon Valley has its advantages as one is able to build and develop a network early in life.

This network becomes extremely valuable as one is exposed to new and emerging technologies prior to individuals located in other geographical regions. Expanding upon this, Grayson asks Sahas when the automotive industry first turned its attention to Silicon Valley.

Automotive has always had a heart in Silicon Valley.

– Sahas Katta

The trend began to take hold in 2015 with the adoption of connected cars. Capitalizing on this trend, Sahas and his brother Sanketh secured a pitch meeting (view the Smartcar pitch deck here) at Andreessen Horowitz which led to $2m in venture capital funding.

With funding secured, Sahas and Sanketh got to work developing a standardized API for connected cars to solve the connected car problem.

If you are a mobility company trying to bring your product or service to the market, you may today have to do proprietary integrations with a dozen or two dozen different car brands. Each integration might take 6, 9, or 12 months to get through that process.

The end result in the world pre-Smartcar, companies decided not to even do it. It was too much work, too expensive, and too time-consuming.

– Sahas Katta

Today with a standardized API for connected cars, companies and developers can build new products and services without having to dedicate an immense amount of resources.

As connected cars become autonomous, Smartcar’s platform will be the plumbing that enables the “non-sexy” parts of the business to function at full capacity.

From unlocking doors to ensuring the vehicle is fully charged to making certain that the vehicle is properly cleaned. This is all possible with Smartcar’s platform.

Staying on the theme of what is possible with Smartcar’s platform, Grayson and Sahas discuss vehicle miles traveled (VMT). How does VMT work and what has Smartcar learned from its pilots in California and Oregon?

With California’s plan to phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2035, Grayson shifts the conversation to focus on electric vehicles. Sahas explains how the Smartcar platform can be used to optimize vehicle charging and monitor the health of EV car batteries.

We are not the innovators coming up with these ideas to solve these problems. We provide the building blocks for incredible entrepreneurs to build really amazing applications which create a lot of value for both consumers and businesses.

– Sahas Katta

One of the applications that uses Smartcar’s platform is Turo. Smartcar’s platform has enabled Turo to digitize their business all the while eliminating consumer friction. This same approach can be applied to fleet operators.

With Smartcar operating in the United States, Europe, and Canada, the company takes the time to understand the culture and localizes its product to comply with local rules and regulations.

Wrapping up the conversation, Sahas shares his thoughts on what mobility will look like in the United States over the next four years.

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Recorded on Thursday, January 21, 2021.

Data is the New Space Race

Dr. Pippa Malmgren, Former Presidential Advisor, Economist, Best-Selling Author, and Policy Analyst joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss why data is the new space race.

The conversation begins with Pippa sharing insight into what her father, Mr. Harald Malmgren, a senior advisor to four consecutive U.S. Presidents (President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson, President Richard Nixon, and President Gerald Ford) taught her about relationships.

My dad taught me how important it is to have trusted relationships even with people who are your opponents.

– Dr. Pippa Malmgren

When Pippa first joined the George W. Bush White House she called her counterpart who worked for President Bill Clinton to learn and develop a relationship.

Bipartisanship is something that is not very common today. Grayson and Pippa go on to discuss why bipartisanship is the way forward.

You are not elected to just represent one side. You are elected to represent the American public.

– Dr. Pippa Malmgren

Pippa has a talk to everyone policy which has allowed her to understand complex issues from different perspectives. With a new incoming administration, Grayson and Pippa discuss what the Biden administration should focus on as it relates to economic policy.

As America awakes from a COVID-19 slumber, entrepreneurs will emerge with new, stronger businesses that will create jobs and have a positive economic impact on society.

Americans now have increased savings, stimulus checks, and commission-free trading. This is causing consumer habits to change. The world is becoming digitized and consumers are investing in the stock market like never before.

While consumer habits are changing, Government habits are changing as well. The United States is printing trillions of dollars with no plan to repay the National Debt. Does the debt even matter?

Can the United States keep printing money? Grayson asks this question to Pippa and the answer might even surprise you – The United States can keep printing money indefinitely.

With a highly digitized society, comes security issues that can have a profound impact on geopolitical politics and the global economy. Pippa and Grayson go onto discuss data gathering and the U.S. Department of Commerce Entity List.

Data gathering is just the first step in capturing emotions.

If you know how I emotionally react, then you know how to sell to me, but you also know how to negotiate with me.

Facial recognition is really about deep insight into your thought process that even you do not know.

– Dr. Pippa Malmgren

What happens when autonomous vehicles start to gather data? Pippa shares examples of how that data can be used against consumers and why it could eventually lead to Surveillance Capitalism.

Grayson asks Pippa about privacy. What regulations are needed to protect consumers from the invasion of privacy? What happens if consumers are forced to show their medical history before entering a restaurant or getting on a plane?

This is a future that some individuals envision and want to see happen for their own personal and political gains. The big ideas coming out of California are not resonating as a record number of individuals and businesses are leaving the State in droves.

One of the places those individuals and businesses are moving to is Austin, TX. The movement is being driven by years of bad policy and over-regulation. This conversation evolves into a discussion about open communication and why individuals are done with being censored and de-platformed.

Grayson and Pippa discuss China and the current situation with Alibaba founder, Jack Ma. This situation raises the question of, who wants to do business in China. Does it lead to an exodus of foreign capital from China?

With the potential exodus of foreign capital from China and a revamped manufacturing industry in the United States, apprenticeships could make a comeback. These apprenticeships will lead to new high-paying jobs.

As the economy becomes more digitized and automated, Grayson and Pippa discuss the myth that automation will kill jobs. In fact, it is the opposite. Automation will create jobs. Pippa goes onto share historical contexts of why automation will create jobs.

You cannot say that automation equals unemployment because it’s just not true. Automation equals better employment.

– Dr. Pippa Malmgren

Automation requires semiconductors and software to operate. Grayson and Pippa discuss the growth of the semiconductor industry. The exponential growth of Taiwan Semiconductor and the geopolitical issues that this is causing in Asia.

Wrapping up the conversation, Pippa shares her thoughts on what new trends she sees emerging over the next four years.

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Recorded on Monday, January 18, 2021.

The Brand is the Experience

Roger Webb, Lifetime Student of the Restaurant Industry joins Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss why the brand is the experience.

The conversation begins with Roger sharing the story of how he first met Dave Thomas, Founder of Wendy’s. Later he shares his experience of when he first joined Wendy’s as the company opened its third restaurant.

Today there over 6,500 Wendy’s around the world and the brand is known and loved by millions of individuals. From the VP of Franchise to a Wendy’s franchisee, Roger had an incredible career with Wendy’s.

Roger was the first Wendy’s franchisee to join the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge in 2016. Before joining the challenge, Roger had a company-wide energy policy.

We had a very strict policy, never have a light out.

– Roger Webb

Never having a light out is part of the experience of going to a restaurant. It’s an experience that consumers look for and one that the restaurant industry has to deliver on each and every-time.

The experience is the thousands of little things that have to be executed perfectly every time.

– Roger Webb

Expanding upon the conversation of the little things that make an experience, Grayson and Roger go on to discuss brands and experiences and why they are crucial to the ultimate success of a restaurant.

Your brand is the experience.

– Roger Webb

With a great brand, the future is bright and scalable if you are innovative and ahead of trends. Taking a look at the future of the restaurant industry, Grayson and Roger discuss the design of restaurants. Will they have to change with the growth of delivery and eventually autonomous delivery via delivery bots such as Nuro.

With an increase in delivery services, comes the need for new innovative packaging. Roger shares his thoughts on packaging and what needs to be done to ensure the french fries that arrive at your house are warm and crispy.

From drones to autonomous vehicles to delivery cars, the packaging has to be developed for the operating environment. The packaging used in delivery will be different than the packaging used for food picked up at a drive-through.

The drive-through is a booming business for the restaurant industry today. Roger explains how the drive-through operates and what the keys to success are for successfully operating one.

The drive-throughs of today might not look like the drive-throughs of the future. Chipotle is pioneering their Chipotlanes concept throughout the United States to great success.

Chipotlanes are Chipotle’s most-profitable experience because of the higher check averages. This raises the question: Is this the future of the restaurant business? Grayson asks Roger and he goes onto say restaurants are always evolving.

While restaurants are always evolving they must never stop building their brand equity. This lesson can be traced back to Sam Bronfman, Founder of Distillers Corporation who was always focused on quality and the appearance of his brands.

Discounting can impact brand equity in a negative way. Roger explains why discounting is something that should be done with caution.

Brand equity is what you do every day, every minute, every hour, and that should be a part of everything that you do when you are building a brand.

– Roger Webb

Looking at the current trend of Cloud / Ghost Kitchens, Grayson asks Roger how these types of restaurant businesses can develop a brand. Without a brand, customers will be unsure whether to try a new concept that they might never have heard of before.

For Cloud / Ghost Kitchen concepts to be successful, they will have to have a brand that customers know, like and trust. A brand combined with a bespoke delivery service and pick-up service will thrive in resort communities.

Wrapping up the conversation, Roger discusses delivery fees and the economics of delivery services.

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Recorded on Thursday, January 14, 2021.