Car Innovation: What Needs to Happen to Make EVs More Practical and AI’s Role

The following conversation is with Todd Lassa, Detroit Bureau Chief, Automobile Magazine, and Formula 1 enthusiast who researches, reports, and writes about emerging auto technologies for the publication. In this post you’ll learn about battery technology complexities, when EVs could overtake combustion engines, what the future may hold for autonomous vehicles, and AI’s role. Jack: How did you get into merging your interest in autos and writing?  Todd: I’m a journalist by trade and come from a hard news background. However, I didn’t get into car magazines until well into my 30’s. I worked for a newsletter company in D.C. covering advanced nursing issues, Capitol Hill and health reform, then began working for AutoWeek in 1996. My core reading audience changed from female to male readers and even having always been a car guy, I had no engineering skills to speak of. Through this transition, I realized that writing and reporting for a living is what I wanted to do. I think I started out wanting to write for a car magazine and then it actually happened by accident. A former co-worker passed my resume to the former Editor of AutoWeek and I got the job where I worked for them for four years, then Motor Trend for 12 years and now write for Automobile writing car reviews and breaking news.  Jack: Have you driven many electric vehicles? Todd: Yes, quite a few. The MINI Cooper electric vehicle was one of the first I drove in 2007 or so, which probably barely had a 100-mile range. Fortunately, EVs have changed quite a bit. I have driven Teslas including the Model S which we previously voted in as car of year in Motor Trend. We also named the Chevy Volt car of the year when I was at Motor Trend in 2011. I’ve driven a few Nissan LEAFs and had the convenience of plugging them in here at work. Jack: When I turn off the car heater in my EV, it impacts the car. I think it has to do with the chemistry of the battery. What do you think? Todd: Yes, I agree. Jack: I own an EV, but EVs are more expensive than similarly equipped gasoline powered cars. At what point do you see the cost equation working for EVs so that they overtake internal combustion cars? Todd: When cost, range, and the speed in recharging the EV all improve, that will be the ticket. Recently GM previewed their EVs; they’re building 20 between now and 2023 and some are additions to their announcement a few years ago. One was badged an Escalade and could supplement or eventually replace the ICE-powered Escalade just redesigned for 2021. I think gas and diesel engines will carry them forward for the next decade or so and that they’ll “ramp down” combustion engines as new EVs replace ICE models. GM says this new battery design comes in stacks of 6, 8, 10, and 12 and can be double stacked for bigger cars like Hummers. They are working to get the cost down from $145 per kW hour to less than $100 per kW hour. GM claims once below $100, they’ll be able to make more of a profit on EVs. I’ve also spoken to Toyota who says at this point if you’re selling an EV for less than $50k you’re not making money. They’re looking beyond battery electric. They’re very interested in hydrogen fuel cells, which are represented in their first and second generation Mirai. It looks like a Lexus, but they’re badging it as a Toyota. All of these vehicles are reducing the cost of the battery, which is one of the major goals – to make money on those cars and trucks and to get them up to a 400-mile range.  Also important is to be able to add 100 miles on a level two charge. That’s the good news. The flip side is the Chevy Bolt, and such are affordable for EVs but there is a huge shift in the auto industry that is getting away from affordable new cars. I think that brand new cars, whether a Cadillac, BMW or VW for instance are no longer attainable for the working class. Now a $35k range is affordable in the middle class, like Nissan LEAF for instance, is in the low $30k range. I see the entire industry: diesel, gas, EV, all moving on to more premium cost cars.  Jack: There has to be a financing program. 30k is a lot for a middle-class person. Manufacturers are going to have to do a resale program or something of the like to make it affordable. Todd: They’re looking at car subscriptions or car sharing. Even those are huge shifts in the transportation systems. At a global level, people are moving closer to big cities, even more so than 60 years ago. Then the question is, do you want a car in a big city? Manhattan is looking at parts of the city without personal cars. One area in San Francisco just went carless and bike lanes are increasing. Cities are moving away from designing streets around cars, moving to designing around public transit, pedestrians and cyclists. Paris and London are looking at EVs only or banning gas cars completely. Auto makers are trying to figure out car sharing. For instance, maybe an autonomous vehicle drives a 9am commuter to work, and then goes to another customer and takes him or her to work. One car can serve many people in a day. This is very pie in the sky, but the amount of money spent on autonomous vehicles is like an EV and the technology is advancing quickly.  All that said, the COVID-19 pandemic may change all of the above, we’ll have to wait and see. Jack: Seems like EV range is an issue with EVs. I get about a 300-mile range out of a full charge on my Chevy Bolt. When it gets down to less than 100 miles, I have to think ahead. Should I plug it

A Conversation with Paul Jacobs on Education, Autonomous Driving, and More

Welcome to the first in a planned series of interviews with innovators, inventors and influencers, many of whom I’m fortunate to know personally, some of whom I’m speaking with in-depth for the first time. The following conversation is with Paul Jacobs, the former Executive Chairman of Qualcomm and current CEO of wireless technology start-up XCom Labs Inc. I have the privilege of being a colleague of Paul’s at the Jacobs Institute, whose mission “to educate students who understand both the under-the-hood details that make something work and the big-picture context that makes something matter” is part of what makes both Paul and I tick. Jack: You’re a donor to education as a part of your philanthropic efforts and the Jacobs Foundation. You’ve been generous in founding the Jacobs Institute serving as its Chairman. Can you tell us what motivated your generosity to Jacobs and the students it serves?  Paul: My parents taught me that it’s important to give back to the communities of which you’re a part; obviously, UC Berkeley was a huge part of my life, so when the opportunity arose, I seized it.  The Jacobs Institute was born from my interest in the convergence of design and engineering, and of the rise of engineering as a global profession, requiring the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams.  I also realized that a lot of kids went into engineering because of their interest in math and science but didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to build something and as a result, many were losing interest and dropping out. I have always felt pride when I built something, I found it motivating in my studies and in my career, and I was confident that the students would feel the same way. That was the real motivator of the founding of the Jacobs Institute: to provide students with an opportunity to build and by so doing, keep them in engineering.  Jack: You’re also a UC Berkeley Alumni MS EECS ’86, PHD ‘89 and you were the same class as I. I’m also an EECS completing my undergrad in ’86 although we didn’t know each other back then. Such people as Steve Wozniak were in my class at Berkeley. What about a Berkeley grad gives them career edge? Is it the rigorous academic program with quality grads? How does this dovetail with your donations there?   I can tell you Berkeley utterly changed my life.    Paul: I have a very strong point of view about Berkeley because I believe that it’s the combination of University of California at Berkeley and the People’s Republic of Berkeley, that that combination is what help changed my life too. I grew up in La Jolla, CA, which is a pretty homogeneous kind of environment and I really wanted something that would widen my perspective. When I came to Berkeley and walked down Telegraph Avenue I thought, oh my, I’m really in a different world here! I literally spend the first probably month and a half in culture shock. I think that that ability to have a wide world view and be accepting of diversity – both through experiencing the town and through the insights of the faculty and the UC Berkeley community – is crucial to becoming an independent thinker. And of course you know, it’s not like getting through Berkeley is that easy either. So it teaches you to be independent in a lot of aspects of your life.   Going back to the previous question. I didn’t help create the Institute just to make things; it had to be combined with the rigorous academic program, with the incredibly high quality people that are at Berkeley. The end result:  theory and practice together turn out great engineers.  Jack: Your son is a current Cal Berkeley engineering student. Cal has a tough program and it’s exclusive. From observations you’ve made of your son’s experience there, has Cal challenged him?  Paul: The program’s been tough and he’s had to learn that what was easy for him in high school wasn’t necessarily going to be as easy in college. He attended a good high school, but it’s just not the same level of competition. The sheer volume of information that students have to absorb and be able to demonstrate their ability to use is formidable. I would guess his experience was similar to most of every freshman class at Cal Berkeley, which after all, is filled with kids who were stellar students in high school: when he first arrived, college was much more challenging than he’d anticipated. Since he first arrived, he’s developed his understanding of what he needs to do for the grades he wants and is capable of; he’s enjoying it more and is now at the stage where he’s focusing in on a specific area for deeper study.  Jack: Your father, Irwin Jacobs, co-founded Qualcomm, of which you are also the former chairman. My reading indicates that Qualcomm’s secret sauce was the alterations to standard satellite communications. How did Qualcomm enter into the cellular market coming from satellite and what was Qualcomm’s secret sauce?  Paul: The previous company that my father founded was very much focused on using digital communication for applications in industries that could afford to do so, which at that time was primarily space and military, involving a lot of satellite work. The first project at Qualcomm to become a major commercial success was a satellite system for long haul trucks.  Driving home from a meeting to pitch a CDMA based satellite system, my father and a colleague spotted a cell tower by a freeway and thought, with some modifications, the technology they were considering for the satellite system could be used for digital cellular phones.  After that it was a matter of a whole lot of hard work. He and his colleagues had these great ideas and those great ideas were very attractive to a lot of engineering people, who just loved “the elegant solution” as we said back then.  The key to Qualcomm’s