A View from Job Seekers in the Automated Vehicle Space: Tough TimesInterview conducted in May 2020
Meet T. and J., recently unemployed professionals in automated vehicle (AV) research, development and testing. Both are Europeans living and working in North America.
T. has spent most of his 20-year career in telematics and ADAS at an OEM. Up until the last few weeks, T. worked as a lead research engineer for a large, multinational that could be considered a non-traditional player in automotive, exploring its role in AVs. In the fall of 2019, his company decided to shutter its office in Silicon Valley out of costs savings and consolidated reduction of R&D activities out of Europe. T. has lived in Silicon Valley with his family for many years now and prefers to stay.
J. works in business development and product planning for traditional automotive and startups. He has broad industry exposure including racing, powertrain, electrification, connectivity and AV. He had just started working for a company in Canada when it let him go during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding himself jobless and locked down in a foreign city. He is pondering whether to look for another position in Canada or return to Europe.
For both T. and J., COVID was not the cause for separation with their previous employer, but they suddenly found it a contributor to their current situation.
SAE: Picture yourself on New Year's Day 2020, the whole decade is in front of us. We had heard a little bit about a virus, but we had no idea what its impact on all of us might be. How would you have described your goals at the beginning of this year?
T.: I knew the autonomous driving industry was in kind of a reset mode last year, in terms of things being more complicated than we thought. Nobody has found the silver bullet of proving AV safety. Since nobody was going to solve that safety case this year or next, that was my next three to five years. I was hoping that by middle of this decade, 2025, somebody would have a limited ODD with a proven safety case and real product, so I was looking to position myself in that company. There were a couple of start-ups and OEMs I was talking to.
J.: I wasn't expecting such a short term with my previous employer, so I would have said my goal would have been to stay there and do a good job, but as the rug has been pulled from under my feet, it's not always easy just to come up with something else straight away.
SAE: Over the last three months since the impact of COVID, how would you describe how your goals have changed?
T.: By March everything had halted with the companies I was speaking with. Before the end of 2019, the reset year, I knew the reset would continue – maybe longer than three to five years. I've also gone back to my telematics roots where there are still a lot of opportunities in infotainment and connectivity. There is more ready practical application there. Short term, AV still feels like cold fusion, the technology of the future. It definitely is the future, but no one can figure it out just yet.
J.: Right now, honestly, I would rather see myself either self-employed or at least within an organization that has a long-term goal and is able to develop a project in things I know are going to be coming. So, I am exploring little broader view of the industry. I've recently been studying quite a lot of material to try to position myself (and help any future client) position themselves in this changing world. I think COVID has precipitated some of that change, in that a lot of OEMs are going to find themselves short of money by the end of the year, and they already weren't making much profit in the first place.
SAE: Where do you think the automotive industry, maybe in particular the automation industry, is going now because of the pandemic and tight budgets?
T.: The automotive industry has been undergoing electrification, but again I think will take longer than people are anticipating for ICEs to go away. The infrastructure for charging is everything. We're living in a bubble here in the Valley where every other car is an electric car, like a Tesla, and a charging station is just around the corner. But this is just not the broader reality, and we will hit a separation point when a certain percentage of cars are electric, say 10 to 20 percent, and then it will get difficult to increase this number because the infrastructure is not there yet. Yes, there's a lot of innovation, but I'm not sure if investors are going to put a lot of money into this at the moment because we have existing infrastructure for gasoline. We have gas stations, we know how to build an ICE.
J.: Surveys are showing the population in general has shifted to being a little wary of public transport. People would rather travel in their own vehicles because of the recent pandemic. However, this doesn't translate into an intent to purchase a new vehicle, so at the end of the day, there's a lot of brands on the automotive horizon that don't really know where to put themselves. I think the generation or the type of person who is buying a Tesla, for example, is not buying into the pleasure of driving and the image that we and our fathers have. Even before this pandemic, if you went up to a 20-year-old and asked, "If I gave you five grand today, what would you do? Would you go and buy yourself a MacBook Pro, a car or a flight to Indonesia for three weeks?" I think the car would come third. Whereas when we were twenty, if you'd given me five grand, I would have put it in a car.
SAE: How would you compare the current situation to the 2008 crisis?
T.: I agree it's going to be worse. I have the feeling people are still hanging out at home and don't see the effect day-to-day because most of their time is spent at home. Yes, you're connecting and talking to people, but you don't feel it yet. In Belmont, two restaurants closed. They're going to close for good, and they're never going to open again, and this is just two restaurants. There will be companies, and a lot more once people come out again.
J.: I’d say here in Canada it's going to be worse. They just don't see it because they've never lived it. I think for the rest of the world, Europe's quite conscious that we're living above our means, and we've been living off the backs of other people. I think it might be easier to swallow in that respect than it will be in North America.
SAE: Where would you need the most help in your current situation such as finding a job?
T.: I don't see SAE in that role. That's more on the personal network side when I talk to [people I know in the SAE Silicon Valley Office], but it's not SAE as an organization.
J.: I don't see SAE as an employment agency. Maybe for networking, but I never saw it as such. The SAE as I perceive it is more active producing white papers and things of that sort, so I never recognized it as a club as much as I would have the Aeronautical Society in London where essentially if you go and hang out there every two weeks, you kind of know everybody in the industry or at least you get a really thick network or a thick address book that you can then utilize for other things.
SAE: Do you think there's going to be a permanent reduction in the amount of time, effort, resources poured into the automated vehicle segment, and that COVID might have been a trigger for something that was already in the works?
T.: The car manufactures are always looking to clean up costs, and I think this will push them to do so in this area. I think the billions of venture dollars will stop. They're turning things down and will be more selective.
J.: I expect this to accelerate a few changes. I hope we come out of this with a little bit less spending, maybe a smaller carbon footprint for all of us.
SAE: What should be the most important takeaway from this conversation?
T.: It’s an opportunity. Traditional automotive struggles with developing software for automated vehicles because they need to look at more of the safety implications. And this is good. But still there's a lot to learn for the infotainment and telematics world for the car companies.
J.: I'm hoping that we can bridge this gap, thanks to this opportunity that we have now -- that we can get the software people to slow down a little bit and to bring autonomous driving to a pace that is acceptable by the automotive industry and also sustained by the infrastructure.