Self-driving cars are coming, with implications for the idea of car ownership itself. Pasadena’s Julie Schoenfeld and her company Strobe are in the vanguard of this technological change.
BY: Cuyler Gibbons
The question “what’s going on?” depends, of course, entirely on context for its meaning. Sung plaintively by Marvin Gaye it means one thing, as a rhetorical inquiry between two friends, something entirely less weighty. In the context of a self-driving car however, it means pretty much everything. In fact, providing the answer to that question—in a comprehensive, accurate, and continuous fashion—is essential to the entire concept of driverless vehicles.
Using light, rather than radio waves, LIDAR technology provides exactly this “situational awareness”, a base requirement for self-driving cars. LIDAR “sees” the surrounding environment and transmits a 360 degree view of what is going on around the vehicle, back to the car’s brain, its computer operating system. Strobe is serial entrepreneur Julie Shoenfeld’s 4th tech company launch. On the heels of her 3 previous successes, Strobe and Schoenfeld are working to shrink both the size and the cost of this vital piece of the self-driving puzzle. For Schoenfeld, the rare woman in the world of automotive technology, it all makes perfect sense. She’s been scanning a 360 degree view of her horizons and plotting the best way to get where she wanted to go since she was in high school.
The daughter of an entrepreneur, she was, from the beginning “always in love with figuring things out,” and so early on determined to chart her own course. “That’s just the way my brain works,” she says. Being in charge of her own destiny however, didn’t require reinventing the wheel. At least not right out of the gate. That would come later. Schoenfeld clearly saw an entrepreneurial future, and she’d done considerable research on how to wind up with the best prepared boss possible when it came time to work for herself. In that regard she came to believe that a technical education was the most effective way to prepare for an entrepreneurial career. An intuition supported by the fact that, according to Forbes, significantly more American CEOs hold undergraduate engineering degrees than any other. “It makes sense” she says, “You can’t just cram for an engineering degree. You can’t just party all semester and then cram the night before. You have to build a foundation and you keep learning on top of that. So it requires a lot of discipline to be a good engineer…and a good entrepreneur.”
Throughout Schoenfeld has excelled at building excellent teams. She resists the idea that gender plays a major role in defining her management style, though she says that becoming a mother had a definite impact on her interpersonal behavior generally. “It just made me more understanding, more empathetic…and it also forced me to be really good at time management,” she says, smiling with an obvious nod to an infant’s abundant demands. What she does point to as part of her “style” is a commitment to diversity. “The more diverse your executive team and your work force is, the better the outcome. That’s just been my experience,” she says. “What I typically find is that younger entrepreneurs get comfortable hiring in their own image and that creates the worst kind of executive team, so when you see these photographs of founders that all look the same, all dress the same, I guarantee the outcome will not be as exciting as if you have people from different backgrounds.”
While exciting outcomes lay ahead, Schoenfeld had a plan, and methodically went about pursuing it. So after getting her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Tufts University, Shoenfeld got her MBA at Harvard. Despite the prestigious academic resume however, Schoenfeld felt she still had more learn. A preternatural patience that she has seen rewarded. “I see a lot of kids just start things right out of school, which is great, but when times get tough it’s the first time you’ve ever seen that problem before… so there is a lot of on the job learning.”
Determined to get as much learning as possible out of the way up front, Schoenfeld went to work first for Proctor and Gamble, the original masters of packaged goods marketing. She soon became aware that a particular conceit among venture capitalists of the time held that former Hewlett Packard product managers were especially well prepared as entrepreneurs, with specialized knowledge about bringing technology products to market. So Schoenfeld proceeded in her typically logical fashion and sought out and landed a job with HP.
Timing, of course is often critical to business success, but without the necessary preparation perfect timing can well be wasted. When Schoenfeld decided to venture out on her own, she turned her considerable call center managment experience into an on-line chat based customer service solution. “When I got into this chat solution I found myself at web 1.0, the internet bubble. It was sort of like the gold rush,” she says. “Companies were being created overnight. We started the company in 1998 and by 1999 we were acquired for $319 million.” One success of course, however meteoric, doesn’t guarantee another—nevertheless Schoenfeld was soon involved in launching an online ad tech start up called Perfect Market which was, in short time, sold to competitor Taboola.
With another notch in her belt Schoenfeld found yet another promising technology close to home. In fact she launched OE Waves, making “advanced communications devices for aerospace and military applications”, with one of the Caltech physicists responsible for developing the technology. A man who also happened to be her husband. They soon realized a particular piece of the technology they were working on could be adapted perfectly for self-driving cars. So Schoenfeld spun the sensor technology off from OE Waves, and with entirely separate funding, launched Strobe and, as she says, began “working with OEMs and tier ones in the auto industry to adopt this technology going forward.”
If you’ve ever wondered why “some people have all the luck”, it’s usually because those people are always prepared for when that “lucky” opportunity strikes. In this case it looks like Schoenfeld’s meticulous foundational approach may have once again deposited her on the threshold of a technological advance with immense implications. Though she is more modest. “I just frankly stumbled into it, but the self driving car industry, the implications of that are MASSIVE,” she says. “With [the internet bubble,] the excitement, the velocity…I’m starting to see that again around self-driving technology. Who would have thought we’d see two such revolutions in one lifetime?”
And it is a revolution Schoenfeld sees coming, albeit of a different sort. “The bubble was in many ways a marketing revolution. This is a technical revolution.” She says. In fact, the question, says Schoenfeld is not whether or not we will have self driving cars, but when will there no longer be car ownership. Actually, within our children’s lifetime if Schoenfeld is correct. As she explains, the most fallible and dangerous part of the car is the driver, and driverless cars are most dangerous when mixed with driver-controlled vehicles. In the future Schoenfeld sees, there will be designated lanes on freeways for self-driving cars and there will be entire cities where you park your car outside the city, and then inside you take a self-driving car. In this world “the person that manufactures the car is less important [to the consumer] than the person responsible for running the service,” she says. “Just like now, where Boeing builds the plane and United runs the service.”
Schoenfeld’s goal and timeline is aggressive. While the original Google car’s LIDAR cost $80,000, Schoenfeld says, “They’re down to $7,000 now, but they have 5 of them on the car. So it’s really $35,000. The holy grail is to get to a hundred bucks, or a couple hundred.” She says. “Now we’re a little ways away from that but if you could get it down to something closer to $1000 it becomes much more palatable.”
Schoenfeld hopes to have the initial product to market within 12 months. If past is prolog there is no reason to doubt her vision about what lays ahead for Strobe. But it’s her vision of the future generally, a perspective formed in the creative crucible of an entrepreneurial professional life, that we can all take real comfort in. As Schoenfeld says, “No matter how uneasy you are feeling there are people out there who are beating the odds, who are creating jobs with a real focus [on the contribution of] women and people of color, all diverse backgrounds. This keeps my energy up, it keeps me focused on why I do what I do.”