Over the past several years, there has been an ongoing narrative that a battle has sprung up between Silicon Valley and the auto industry. The tech industry hype machine wants the world to believe that venture capital-backed startups are going to appear with some magic technology that disrupts and destroys the century-old incumbents. The reality is likely to turn out quite differently, with some of the brightest minds in the valley coming up with cool ideas that become a key part of the transportation ecosystem.
Tech Has Saved the Automobile Industry Before
The fact that the auto industry has remained vibrant over the past 50 years can in large part be traced to innovations that have emerged from the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly the silicon microprocessor that gave the region its nickname. At the onset of environmental regulation at the end of the 1960s, most of the functional aspects of cars were mechanically controlled, and these vehicles consumed more fuel and spewed more pollution than they do today.
As engineers struggled to meet the new regulatory requirements, the industry entered what became known to car enthusiasts like myself as the malaise era. Attempts to better control engines through mechanical means like vacuum lines led to many terrible engines with weak output, awful drivability, and barely improved emissions and efficiency.
Silicon Valley saved the auto industry from being suffocated by regulations. As early microprocessors and sensors were applied to engine and transmission management as well as new safety systems like anti-lock brakes, it became clear that computers in the car would be the key to enhanced driving. By the mid-1980s, electronic controls were enabling engineers to extract more power while using less fuel and cleaning up emissions. As fuel economy regulations stopped climbing, car companies offered customers improved performance and capability without making them spend more at the pump.
After earning my degree in mechanical engineering, I spent the next 17 years working on improving vehicles through more sophisticated software running on a series of cheaper, yet more powerful slivers of silicon. Today’s most sophisticated vehicles utilize anywhere from 50 to 100 onboard computers to manage everything from lights that follow the angle of the steering wheel to automatically maneuvering a truck to connect a trailer.
Looking Forward to More Industry Collaboration
Silicon Valley has been a key enabler of the modern vehicle for decades. As we shift toward a world where most of the driving is done by software instead of people, the tech and auto industries must continue to collaborate more closely. The auto industry has developed an immense base of knowledge in building complex pieces of hardware at high volume and with high degrees of reliability and durability. Those machines come in a huge variety of configurations to meet virtually every possible transportation need.
Meanwhile, the tech industry has an unrivaled set of capabilities in developing software and electronics and driving down costs while improving performance. There are great minds on both sides focused on how to make mobility safer, cheaper, and more universally accessible. The Navigant Research Leaderboard Report: Automated Driving scored automakers and tech companies on their likelihood of success in commercializing this technology.
Almost everyone recognizes that transportation will change in the coming decades. The collaboration between the tech and auto industries has yielded incredible results for nearly half a century. New partnerships are going to form on the way to fully automated driving. There’s no need to spin those relationships into a competition when greater collaboration will likely yield much better results for everyone moving forward.