By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
The race to build the “ultimate” electric car is heating up. Every month, it seems another electric car company joins the fray to offer a car stylish enough to attract the Tesla crowd, and affordable enough to meet the growing demand from China, the United States and Europe.
NextEV stands out from the crowd for two reasons:
- It has solid backing, from a broad range of top venture capital and Internet companies like Sequoia and Tencent.
2. Its Silicon Valley R&D facility is led by Padmasree Warrior, “The Queen of the Electric Car” and she’s rapidly attracting top tech talent from the likes of Tesla and Apple.
Last month, I attended the grand opening of NextEV Silicon Valley and interviewed its founder, William Li. He shared his “Blue Sky” ambition (he means it literally) and how his grandfather inspired him to go from cattle herder to Internet multi-millionaire. It was the first interview he’d ever done in English. I filed this report for the BBC World Service’s Tech Program, Click.
Here’s a transcript from today’s program, with some great insights from host Gareth Mitchell and BBC contributor, Bill Thompson. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
BBC Host, Gareth Mitchell: One event that did happen was the recent launch of yet another electric vehicle outfit in California. This is the Silicon Valley division of a Chinese startup called NextEV. The champagne flowed and the ribbon was cut – the digital ribbon – but our reporter Alison van Diggelen was most interested in the economics of it all. You don’t need to be an investor to know just how risky these ventures are as the technology gradually matures. In California and China state funding and tax breaks are all part of getting these businesses off the ground. Alison tracked down NextEV founder, former cattle herder and now big time entrepreneur, William Li.
Alison van Diggelen: At NextEV’s Silicon Valley launch, William Li confirmed that on November 21st, NextEV will reveal its first supercar in London. The electric car is expected to offer a 0-60 acceleration in under three seconds. Its Formula E racing team has used a dual-motor setup on its race car, and it’s likely to be a feature of the supercar. (The top speed of the sleek two-seater will be over 180 mph, and its price is likely to be equally extravagant!)
NextEV is late join to the electric car race. So how does Li intend to challenge Tesla and the dozens of electric car companies popping up worldwide?
William Li: Tesla is a great company, I respect them. But Tesla was founded 2003. Lots changed. It’s a mobile internet era. We can do better to communicate with our users, give our users a much better holistic user experience.
He aims to do for the car what Apple did for the smart phone.
He learned a lot about user experience from Bit Auto, a popular web portal in China and his first business success. He’s now built a global startup – with facilities in Beijing, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, London and Munich. The global workforce is 2000.
In Silicon Valley, its 250-strong team of auto and software experts is growing rapidly. U.S. CEO Padmasree Warrior – former CTO at Cisco – is hiring experts in artificial intelligence, voice interaction and user interface from the likes of Tesla, Apple and Dropbox. Warrior says they’re already working on affordable cars for China’s burgeoning demand.
Padmasree Warrior: In China, There’s a large shift happening … Environment issues are driving the government to look at electric vehicles as part of the solution… It’s healthier for the environment to drive an electric vehicle.
China is offering generous tax incentives to electric carmakers and consumers, driving a flood of companies into the space. NextEV recently signed an agreement with the Nanjing Municipal Government in China, to build a $500 million factory to build electric motors.
Similarly in Silicon Valley, a fleet of electric car companies has chosen to locate here, thanks to state tax incentives and the strong talent base. These include Tesla, Atieva, and Le Eco.
I spoke with California’s Director of Economic Development, Panorea Avdis. She explained how state policy is helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by focusing on the tech industry…
Panorea Avdis: The goal is to have 1 million electric zero emission vehicles on the road by 2020.
(Today, California has about 300,000 electric cars, about half of the nation’s total.)
Alison: NextEV secured $10M in tax credits. Tell me why that’s cost effective for the people of California.
Panorea Avdis: The return on investment…nearly 1000 jobs in the next 5 years, speaks for itself. California is leading the way, there’s no other state in the union that has this type of aggressive polices and it’s really inspiring this innovation in technology to come forward.
But making cars is notoriously hard. News broke this month that Apple is shelving its electric car plans to focus on self-driving software.
William Li knows it’s a tough road ahead. He gives his company just over a 50% chance of success.
As a boy, Li was a cattle herder in China. He’s come a long way and credits his grandfather’s wisdom:
William Li: [Speaks first in Mandarin ] The journey is more important than the result. So follow your heart….your original wish. Don’t worry about failure.
Like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Li is concerned about climate change and also the dense smog in Beijing and Shanghai. He blames polluting gas-guzzling cars.
NextEV’s brand in China is called “Way-Lye”
William Li: It means blue sky coming. That’s my original wish.
It’s an ambitious goal that could be a very long way off, especially in China’s congested and polluted cities.
Gareth Mitchell: That’s Alison van Diggelen reporting from Silicon Valley. So Bill Thompson – the journey is more important that the result?
Bill Thompson: The result is much more important than the journey here, because unless we get much cleaner public and personal transport, then we’re in big trouble. It’s really good to see another serious entrant in this market. It’s not sewn up yet by anyone. As we heard there about Tesla, there’s no first mover advantage because the technology is developing so quickly.
We know Padmasree Warrior’s reputation for delivering. She’s been on the show a few years back. She was senior at Motorola, then went to Cisco. They’ve got really good people.
But the really interesting part of this is what happens in China. In China because they have much more control over what people can do. The government can actually mandate a move to electric vehicles much more easily than they ever could in California and that gives a great market. So NextEV may be getting money and expertise over in Silicon Valley, but it’s what happens in China that’s really interesting.
Gareth Mitchell: I was interested in the economics side of the piece: the reliance partly on state funding to get these businesses going.
Bill Thompson: Occasionally state funding helps. You might have heard of this little thing called the Internet, kicked off with defense department funding from the US. It did pretty well by being able to rely on that funding for a critical period while it developed and then was able to be used by the private sector. One or two of these examples of it actually working…
Photo: Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans is convinced we’ll see “Jetsons” human-moving drones in 5 to 10 years
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Portland is better known for its environmental activism and the quirky comedy Portlandia
than its tech; but that reputation is beginning to change. This month, I visited two Portland startups that are helping accelerate the future of transportation through innovative technology for drones and autonomous vehicles. Skyward
, a drone operations startup, predicts that the Jetsons
future of flying cars is closer than we think. And in the fast-moving autonomous vehicle sector, Polysync’s
software is being widely used to speed up the development of self-driving cars.
“It’s harder to move from A to B and when you look at the sky, you have a blank slate. Within 5-10 years you will see human-moving aero robots that will be moving programmatically in space. It’s a lot like the vision we have of the Jetsons. It’s going to be much more on-demand, much cheaper, empowering all of us to be able to access the sky for whatever we want to,” Jonathan Evans, CEO Skyward
“That’s the problem with autonomous driving: each one of these sensing modalities has their limitations: some don’t see well in rain, in fog, at dusk. The Mobile Eye, what Tesla was using to detect lanes, some objects…that does very poorly at dusk….when the sun is head on. You really want backup, systems that are all corroborating its perception of the environment. In my opinion, the more sensing, the better,” Evan Livingston, Polysync Test Engineer
BBC tech writer, and Click contributor, Bill Thompson
shared some good insights on my report, emphasizing the importance of new drone regulations
that will help bring drones from the Wild West era to “civilization in the sky.”
Here’s a transcript of my report (edited for length and clarity).
BBC Click Host, Gareth Mitchell: Flying cars are part of the subject for our final item. We’re off to Portland, Oregon to its famous “Silicon Forest”, their counterpart to Silicon Valley in California. There’s a startup there working on flying cars, another is working on autonomous vehicles and we have this report from Alison van Diggelen, who’s been there.
Alison van Diggelen: My first stop was the Technology Association of Oregon. Its President, Skip Newberry is bullish about Portland’s growth prospects: in data, software development, and the Internet of Things.
Skip Newberry: I refer to Portland as having this Goldilocks phenomenon: we’re not too big, not too small, not too expensive and yet we also have some interesting amenities and international connections. We have a great quality of life.
Alison van Diggelen: He sent me to Polysync, a software startup that helps speed up the development of autonomous cars.
Polysync just earned a top 10 startup ranking at this year’s L.A. Auto Show.
Evan Livingston: On the right trigger we have acceleration, on the left trigger we have breaking. [Ambi: car accelerating and breaking]
Alison van Diggelen: In a converted warehouse, Polysync’s engineers test the software of autonomous cars to make sure all the sensors are communicating. Field engineer, Evan Livingston gave me a demo.
Evan Livingston: On this car, we have about 15 different sensors…we have 4 cameras that give us 360 degree views of the environment, we have six radars. We have 2 different LIDAR systems, and then we have a GPS inertial movement unit…so it gives us a very accurate location of the vehicle.
Alison van Diggelen: We discuss the recent fatal crash involving Tesla’s autopilot feature.
Evan Livingston: That’s the problem with autonomous driving: each one of these sensing modalities has their limitations: some don’t see well in rain, in fog, at dusk. The Mobile Eye, what Tesla was using to detect lanes, some objects…that does very poorly at dusk….when the sun is head on. You really want backup, systems that are all corroborating its perception of the environment. In my opinion, the more sensing, the better.
Evan Livingston sets up a demo of the Polysync software that connects the car’s 15 sensors.
Alison van Diggelen: Polysync’s team has doubled in size in this year, driven by partnerships with over 50 major car manufacturers and their suppliers. The company uses a 32-acre “mock city” campus near Detroit for testing. It’s called M-City. Here’s Polysync’s CEO, Josh Hartung.
Josh Hartung says MCity’s physical test track allows them to test near collisions and real world simulations.
Josh Hartung: They have cute fake buildings, and intersections, a small section of highway, little stop lights…. They have different ways they can trick an algorithm to think that it’s a real person with cardboard cutouts or inflatable targets. It’s one of the first in the world.
Polysync demo shows the car sensors in action
Alison van Diggelen: Across the Willamette River, I meet with Jonathan Evans, a former Blackhawk pilot in the army. He leads Skyward, an operations platform for commercial drones. He’s excited about how our perception of drones is changing as they touch our lives ever more closely…from fun toys to aerial surveys to even delivering breaking news.
Jonathan Evans: They look at this really beautiful piece of technology that is really like a flying cellphone. It’s gyro-stabilized, grid-oriented, information-oriented robot that can move ubiquitously in space… We take the pilots and the aircraft and we put them into the global airspace and help them conform to whatever the rules of the road are there. We were in the era of the Wild West… but now we have regulators that have provided us the channels to flow into responsibly. You can see a dramatic shift into civilization in the sky.
Alison van Diggelen: Evans thinks that drones will soon make (package) deliveries –even Internet delivery – and anticipates a paradigm shift in transportation.
Jonathan Evans: On the ground, things are getting much more clogged and it’s harder to move from A to B and when you look at the sky, you have a blank slate. Within 5-10 years you will see human-moving aero robots that will be moving programmatically in space. It’s a lot like the vision we have of the Jetsons. It’s going to be much more on-demand, much cheaper, empowering all of us to be able to access the sky for whatever we want to.
Alison van Diggelen: Silicon Valley companies may steal the limelight but behind the scenes, Portland’s “Silicon Forest” is making its mark on the evolution and impact of technology around the world. [Ambi: Skyward flight ops team, DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone]
Jonathan Natiuk: “That’s kinda cool, man!”
Gareth Mitchell: Are we really heading for the Jetsons in our lives, do you think Bill Thompson?
Bill Thompson: Well, I started off being really skeptical about this…but then I discovered a human carrying drone is being tested in Nevada, the eHang drone…the actual hardware is being built. It can go 100 km/hour. The hardware is there and what we hear from Skyward is that the regulation is starting to be there. That’s the crucial thing. It’s about making sure if we have the technology that can deliver these things. It fits into a broader regulatory environment, so it becomes both legal and as safe as it can be to do them. It took a long time for the automobile, for the car, to go from being something strange and mysterious to dominating our cities. I do think we will get to the stage where we’re using the skies in these new ways, so actually, yeah: it is coming.
Find out more about electric and autonomous vehicles, from Tesla to Hyperloop at Fresh Dialogues EV archives
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Sometimes I wonder if anyone is actually listening to my late night conversations with London on the BBC World Service. Well, I just found out that, YES they are. And some listeners are even sharing these conversation with influential people.
This summer, my producer told me that my conversation with the BBC’s Fergus Nicoll was used for “training purposes” at the BBC’s headquarters in London. We were discussing my interview with Instagram’s COO Marne Levine and how male champions can really help women succeed in business.
Curious? I was too.
Here’s a link to the featured clip at the BBC and a shorter (90 second) version below:
From the BBC’s Business Matters feature:
Instagram’s Chief Operating Officer Marne Levine is mentored by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – a beneficial relationship given their similar career paths. Alison van Diggelen, from the Fresh Dialogues initiative that focuses on inspirational women and business innovation, describes how women can really benefit when they have male champions too and challenges Mark Zuckerberg to ‘step up.’
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Alison van Diggelen: One thing that female entrepreneurs in positions of leadership have told me that will help, is for women to have male champions. People like Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai have to step up and be champions of women and make it easy for their teams to not just attract, but retain women. Offering childcare on-site is a large part of that…
Fergus Nicoll: So making sure that the onus is not always on female executives to have female mentees?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, absolutely. It has to be shared. One of the things that was repeated time and time again at the Bay Area Women’s Summit, where I interviewed Marne Levine (COO of Instagram), is that the United States doesn’t have universal paid family leave. Quite a few companies in Silicon Valley are offering it (often in paltry amounts, by European standards), but it needs to be federally mandated in order for the U.S. to remain globally competitive. That was one of the messages that came over loud and clear.
It’s well accepted here (in Silicon Valley), the advantages of diversity: having males and females on the team can increase the bottom line, creativity, innovation and meeting the needs of this diverse clientele. That’s well proven, but these companies are having to step up and try harder to attract and retain these women.
Find out more about inspiring women in business:
TaskRabbit’s CEO, Stacy Brown Philpot is one of the few black, female CEOs in tech. What is she doing for women and diversity in tech?
Meet some of the top women in tech in our Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Why aren’t more women in tech? That was the main topic for discussion yesterday on BBC’s Business Matters. I shared my report from Google’s I/O conference, where almost one in four attendees were women. The Women Techmakers team managed to increase female attendance from 8% in 2013 to 23% this year. How did they do it and what can other companies learn from their strategy?
Listen to the podcast at the BBC World Service (Women discussion starts at 26:40) or use the clip below:
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Have you thought how many women there are in the new high tech industries? Not enough is the general verdict. Have a quick listen to this:
Google CEO, Sundar Pichai: Welcome to Google I/O and welcome to Shoreline. It feels really nice and different up here. We’ve been doing it for many many years in Moscone and in fact we’ve been doing I/O for 10 years, but I feel we’re at a pivotal moment in terms of where we’re going as a company…. There are over 7,000 of you joining in person today.
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: That was the boss of Google, Sundar Pichai, opening a recent conference held near the tech giant’s headquarters in Mountain View, Silicon Valley. Alison, you were at that conference. Tell us more about it….
Alison van Diggelen: Google I/O is the annual Google developers’ conference. I/O stands for Input/Output and Innovation in the Open. It attracts thousands of developers from around the world who use Google’s open platforms, such as Android and Chrome, to build apps for your smartphone, smartwatch, or computer.
Google has been battling to increase the number of women in its tech teams, and I was pleased to see a decent number of women making presentations on the keynote stage. The company managed to triple the number of women attending the conference by partnering with other tech organizations like the Anita Borg Institute, Women Who Code and Hackbright academy.
At the conference, I spoke to Natalie Villalobos. She’s Google’s Head of Global Programs for “Women Techmakers.” I began by asking her WHY Google is seeking more women in tech…
Natalie Villalobos: We need everyone to contribute to make the most innovative technology. The more diverse voices we have, contributing, participating, and building the technology, the better technology we’re going to have…We always need more diverse voices at the table: for women, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities because the people building the tech should be as diverse as the people that the technology serves.
Alison van Diggelen: You went from 8% female attendance in 2013 to 23% this year, almost a quarter today. How did you do that?
Natalie Villalobos: ‘What could only Google do?‘ is a big rallying cry of my work and it was partnering with community organizations, locally, nationally and internationally to bring women to the conference, by providing travel grants, access to tickets and so we wanted to create these lasting partnerships…And one of the things we worked really hard at is how can we really engage women across the spectrum? We welcome all types of women: whether you identify as non-gender binary, women of color, Latinas…Also geographic diversity: We have women from South Africa, Taiwan, Tunisia, China…a lot are coming here to the U.S. for the first time for Google I/O.
Alison van Diggelen: What makes you special, is it just deep pockets? (Google has earmarked $150M this year for its diversity programs)
Natalie Villalobos: We’re really looking at how we can engage and meet developers, designers and entrepreneurs wherever they are. Diversity and inclusion in the tech industry is not just in the United States. There are people all over the world who want to be here in this industry who can’t move to Silicon Valley. How can we meet them where they are and share our new platforms, our technologies?
People who can’t come to Mountain View can join a local extendedI/O event – I believe we have over 400. Our biggest this year is in Sri Lanka with over 2000 attendees. It’s about reshaping the industry and supporting people where they are.
Roger Hearing: Alison, we’ve heard this a lot before…there aren’t enough women involved in the high tech industry. But it doesn’t seem to get any better.
Alison van Diggelen: It seems to be moving in the right direction but it’s very slow going. I actually had the chance to speak with Sundar Pichai and he said that this is a long long road. He’s talking about 10 years, 15 years before they can get close to equality. It’s a pipeline issue, it’s a role model issue. There are inherent biases in companies that make it more difficult for women to get into tech companies and thrive in tech companies. He did point out an encouraging fact that at Stanford University in Silicon Valley, the most popular major is no longer Biology but Computer Science. So anecdotal evidence like that says that perhaps we’re reaching a critical mass, perhaps a turning point, where women can feel at home in that geeky, computer science world.
Roger Hearing: Let me posit that maybe that’s because it’s Stanford…it’s California. Simon, let me come to you (in Singapore) In the high tech world where you are….where some of the most cutting edge stuff is going on. Are there many women involved?
Simon Long, The Economist: I’m struck when I visit multinationals (in Singapore) like Google and local startups how dominated they are by the young…and men. Alison put her finger on one of the main problems: who’s studying what at university? Who has the right skills? There are these ingrained prejudices…people recruit people like themselves.
Alison van Diggelen: The pipeline issue is not the whole excuse. I did speak with Ellie Powers, a product manager at Google and she was on the keynote stage. It’s a lazy excuse, she says, “if you’re looking for gold, it’s rarer, you have to look a bit harder” and you have to figure out how find and connect with people outside your network. She put a challenge out there to Google and beyond for any company looking for women, in order to make a better team.
Roger Hearing: Perhaps the women are not there, they don’t want to do it? Is it a cultural bias?
Alison van Diggelen: I think there is a bias…there’s the stereotype of the geeky coder, but I think that’s changing. After being at that conference for an entire day, and seeing that one in four of the attendees were women. It was different from other tech conferences I’ve been at where if feels more like 10%.
Unconscious bias training will help. I think role models like Ellie Powers, up there on stage, wearing a dress, talking tech, being geeky…that will help get more young women to say, maybe coding is for me, maybe computer science is for me?
Roger Hearing: Simon, does it matter what the gender balance is?
Simon Long: I think it probably does…if everyone had equal access to do what they’re good at, the world would be a better place. As Alison says, if the problem is not just a pipeline one… If there are biases inhibiting women from doing as well as they might, then we’re all losing out.
Roger Hearing: If women were involved in designing the Apple Mac, would it be different, better?
Alison van Diggelen: Natalie’s point is relevant here: if your end product is for the world – 50% of which is women – you have to include women in the process. By attracting a more diverse employees base, you’ll get a better workforce. I talked with Steven Levy, a well-known tech author and he said, the days when a credible company can have an all-male conference or panel are just “way over” – it’s about sending a message to all people that they’re welcome. It’s about getting a better workforce and building better products. That’s the bottom line.
Read more about women in tech in Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series
And find out more about The Anita Borg Institute
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Last Thursday, I joined a special BBC World Service program hosted by Fergus Nicoll in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We began by discussing the large community of Vietnamese in Silicon Valley and its connection to Vietnam’s growing tech hub. Listen to the BBC podcast (at 21:00 re. Silicon Valley-Vietnam, and at 31:00 re. The Tech Awards)
We discussed my latest interviews in Silicon Valley on the BBC Business Matters program. Here’s a transcript of our dialogue, edited for length and clarity:
Fergus Nicoll: Alison, you’ve been talking to some of the winners of the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley. What kinds of things are they coming up with and what could Vietnamese developers seek to emulate?
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with three young entrepreneurs who’re doing incredible things: Tricia Compas-Markman is founder of DayOne Response. What they’ve built is a 10 liter backpack – it’s very low-tech in fact. It provides clean drinking water on day one in a natural disaster. They’ve deployed it in places like Nepal after the earthquake; and what they want to do is pre-position it in places like the Philippines that are subject to natural disasters. It’s a wonderful way for families and individuals to collect and treat and get clean drinking water in disaster areas…
Fergus Nicoll: We were in the Philippines last week…we could maybe put them in touch with Senator Loren Legarda or the Red Cross in the Philippines? They would be very keen to hear about that kind of initiative. What else have you been hearing about?
Alison van Diggelen: Let’s do that for sure! The other winner is called Open Pediatrics and it’s an online community for pediatricians. It’s almost like a Khan Academy for pediatricians: an online learning community connecting the cutting edge technology of first rate hospitals like Boston’s Children’s Hospital with rural clinics in developing countries, so they get the same expertise. It’s a wonderful, simple idea and there are some top people involved in that. I talked with Traci Wolbrink, one of the key people (pictured at the podium, above).
And the last one I want to mention is a very simple app…It’s called BeeLine Reader, founded by Nick Lum, a corporate lawyer who’s become a tech humanitarian. This BeeLine Reader allows people to read on screens much more easily. If you’re suffering from dyslexia, or vision problems, you can read using a color gradient. So if you can imagine reading a line, and the color of the script changes from blue to red to black but it wraps around, it guides your eye so you can read faster or more clearly. This is available for either a dollar a month or $5 to buy the app.
There’s wonderful creativity going on…
Fergus Nicoll: Absolutely…
The Tech Awards in San Jose on Thursday November 12, 2015. (© Photo by Jakub Mosur)
Alison van Diggelen: All these entrepreneurs were given a good load of money to take it to the next level. It was very inspiring to see that not all techies are out to make a buck. Some of them want to change the world…make the world a better place.
Fergus Nicoll: Brilliant. That sounds fantastic.
Find out more at Fresh Dialogues
What is Tech Award winner Jeff Skoll doing to change the world and make it greener?