May 18, 2024

Sven Strohband got a taste of the excitement of Silicon Valley innovation early on.
In the mid-2000s, the German native was the lead hardware engineer on Stanford University’s effort to build an autonomous car for a challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 2005, his team won the $2 million competition.
Following that effort, Strohband managed Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Lab, where he led technical projects for LED headlights, electronically tinted glass, driver assistance systems and robotics.
Strohband, now a managing director at Khosla Ventures, talked with the Business Journal recently about autonomous vehicles and venture investing. ŒThe following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The most important lesson might be that small teams that are very, very dedicated and have the right makeup can beat much, much larger teams. This can happen even when the larger team is well run.
Our core team at Stanford was maybe five or six people. The Carnegie Mellon University team arrived in an 18-wheeler filled with people and workstations, plus they had a lot of people back at CMU. They had an order of magnitude bigger team than we did.
I learned that a lot of technology problems are essentially software problems. Even the hardware problems are often software problems.
For example, we had an embarrassing failure in the very beginning with an alternator that would overheat and die. We had to pull the entire engine out in order to replace the alternator.
But after you have replaced four alternators in a row, you go, “Maybe there’s something really, really wrong here.” And it turns out it was a software bug that put undue load on this particular alternator due to some very, very weird condition.
There was a lot of excitement about this. But as folks tried to commercialize it, they realized that they had to figure out how to deal with all of the situations a self-driving vehicle has to deal with, including the ones that are relatively rare. When you fix that problem, however, it can have consequences on other ones.
You have a situation where you ask, if I turn this screw here a little bit what does it do to everything else? ŒThese types of problems have made everybody go slower, and it’s taking longer than anybody thought to get where we thought we would be by now.
That’s a hard question to give a simple answer to.
If you are asking at what point can I take an autonomous taxi through Manhattan during rush hour with all the construction you run into and with people waving other drivers through, I have no idea when that will happen. But when are we going to have big trucks that can drive themselves on the highway or interstates? ŒThat’s a much more attainable goal. I would say that’s coming in the next few years.
The environment matters a lot in this. There are some problems that you can credibly argue are only decidable by humans. How do you deal with a person who signals with their hand (to determine) who goes first in an intersection? That’s a problem that requires a level of cognition that’s non-trivial for an autonomous car to deal with.
So I think we’re going to see simple use cases solved first and the simplest one is driving on a highway. Everybody goes in the same direction at roughly the same speed, ideally.
Almost always early, and mostly at the seed level.
I am drawn to having an actual technical advantage. But the startup also needs to be going after a big market.Œ
The entrepreneur is probably the biggest overriding factor. There are lots of smart and accomplished people founding startups. But one thing I very much appreciate is entrepreneurs who just don’t give up.
Startups are genuinely hard. You need to have enough tenacity to see it through. ŒThere’s also the value of personal relationships. Many of the entrepreneurs I have invested in are ones I have known for years. ŒThat personal relationship is very important, because when you invest in a company, you are likely going to work with them for a long time.
Almost everybody is looking more closely at how much money they’re burning, that’s for sure. Occasionally people (cut back on their projects), meaning that they wanted to do X, Y, and Z, but now they are only doing X and Y.
Those are the most common things. Occasionally people add more money to their balance sheet, despite the fact that the valuation might be closer to the last round, which can be a prudent move.
In the end, startups do what they have to do to survive when the market changes like it has.
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