Corporate VCs filling holes on the road to autonomous vehicles – Part 2: Q&A with Brian Lowry, Investment Manager at Caterpillar Ventures

clearpath-robotics-amphibious-robot
Clearpath Robotics’ amphibious robot. Caterpillar Ventures is an investor.

I interviewed Brian Lowry for ‘Venturing and the future of mobility and automotive technology’, a Global Corporate Venturing report to be published later in November ahead of the December 1st conference in London of the same name. If you have strong views on the future of mobility and you’d like to be interviewed for the report, please get in touch (asap please, my deadline is fast approaching). Disclosure: ‘Venturing and the future of mobility and automotive technology’ is sponsored by Denso, Castrol innoVentures and Magna.  Caterpillar and Denso are co-investors in Trilumina.  If you’d like a copy of the report, email me on twhitehouse@globalcorporateventuring.com

Brian is investment manager at Caterpillar Ventures. He sets out below Caterpillar’s venture strategy in relation to mobility and auto-tech. There’s a long standing interest in autonomous technology. Improving fuel economy standards, weight-strength ratio and vehicle electrification are also of strategic important.   But infotainment systems can be left to the OEMs.  The two automotive and mobility investments Caterpillar Ventures has made since it started in 2015 are both in autonomy-related technology, TriLumina and Clearpath Robotics.  Brian drives a 2017 Subaru Outback.

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Tom Whitehouse: Please provide examples from your portfolio of companies active in the automotive arena?

Brian Lowry: We have two investments currently that are related to automotive technology, specifically vehicle autonomy.  TriLumina is developing laser arrays that we believe will be a key building block in the development of cost-effective and reliable LiDAR solutions.  Clearpath Robotics has developed an autonomous vehicle platform that is currently focused on automated logistics vehicles but has the potential to be leveraged to larger vehicles.

TW: Please see why you expect them to succeed?

BL: We identified early on in our development of autonomous vehicles that LiDAR was a key sensing technology to enable reliable systems in this space.  We saw the need to continue to use LiDAR but have the cost points driven down to the point that they were more widely used.  We have seen recently that the automotive suppliers are also realizing that sensor fusion, including LiDAR, is going to be necessary to drive full autonomy.  Thus, we believe that TriLumina and others in this space are going to be successful in gaining traction.  With Clearpath, we like their approach of starting with logistics vehicles and we believe they have a solution for this application that is going to make the company successful and give them the ability to leverage this into other areas of autonomy.

TW: Please explain Caterpillar’s interest in, and investment strategy around, autonomous vehicles.

BL: Caterpillar has had a strong interest in autonomous technology for many years. Our machines are often used in hard to access locations where operating safety is an area of concern.  Removing the operator from the cab keeps machines in a productive environment while improving operator well-being.   Operation of our machines, in many cases, is also highly complex.  Even in circumstances where the operator remains in the cab and in control, smarter machines can allow the operator to complete his tasks more efficiently and safely. Much of our investment strategy is around creating improvements in performance and costs of those systems.  As the automotive industry continues to advance these areas we can leverage their development and investments as they are driving the industry toward these same goals.

TW: Do you think that the industrial use of autonomous vehicles will help pave the way to their widespread use in private transportation? If so, does that make you the early adopters?

BL: I believe that it will.  Many of the adoption hurdles for private transportation are going to come from consumers’ comfort levels with the safety and reliability of the systems.  If they are first exposed to being around autonomous vehicles and can see the successful operation of these over time, then I believe they will be more likely to take the step of putting themselves and their families inside of these vehicles and trust that this same technology will deliver them safely to their destination.

TW: What are the new automotive technologies and business models that excite you the most from a venturing perspective?

BL: There are many aspects that are of interest to Caterpillar.  We have discussed the autonomy space, but beyond that there are also many other areas of automotive technology that will be valuable for us to leverage.  The increased push toward higher fuel economy standards is driving innovation in materials that are lighter weight, higher strength, and reduce friction losses.  Electrification of vehicles that is driving battery technology is also an area of interest for us.  We already see customer pull for electric mining vehicles for underground applications where emissions are a major issue, but even in other areas our customers are interested in increased efficiency and lower emissions products.

TW: Which excite you least?

BL: It’s hard to say that a given technology development area isn’t exciting.  If it wasn’t exciting it wouldn’t be developed.  There are areas though that don’t necessarily apply to Caterpillar such as infotainment systems.  We’ll leave those to the automotive companies to develop and drive value with their customers.

TW: Do you drive? If so, what do you drive?

BL: I do drive.  I just recently purchased a 2017 Subaru Outback with the latest EyeSight technology.  I have tried this system before and found it be very useful and reliable.

2017-subaru-outback

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