The visionaries who foresaw driverless cars traversing American streets by now have backed off their original projections by a decade or so. But that doesn’t mean digital technology won’t continue to redefine global transportation—and the manufacturing industries that support it—in the years to come.
In fact, in the view of Chris Thomas, you can still count on such a transformation at some point. “The promise of autonomous vehicles is still very much real,” Thomas, who is a partner in Assembly Ventures, a three-year-old early-stage venture-capital platform based in Michigan that is investing in the mobility-manufacturing sector, told Chief Executive.
“But no doubt it has taken longer to get there than, I would offer, almost everyone thought. We need to begin with specific use cases and geographies first. What we have here is something I believe will be a core component of terrestrial transportation over the course of my lifetime. But it’s been a harder problem to solve than most thought, and companies that have taken a very eyes-wide-open approach are the ones really leading the way today.”
Thomas has a pretty steely-eyed view of autonomous driving. In 2009, he was a co-founder of Fontinalis Partners, which drew Ford Motor Executive Chairman Bill Ford as a major co-founder as well, and heavily invested in and promoted the notion that digital technology would allow autonomous driving to revolutionize the auto business and the economy. But in the last several years, Thomas’s view of how—and how quickly—that would happen has evolved.
The biggest change in his perspective has been how he sees the relationship between electrified vehicles and autonomous vehicles. Thomas said one of the main reasons early expectations about autonomous driving have stalled is that “historically, for the last decade or more, mobility and automotive have thought about the future of technology development through [a paradigm known as] connected autonomy-shared electric,” or CASE, meaning that most sages and players in the developing mobility sector saw all-electric vehicles and driverless ones on more or less parallel and strongly dependent paths.
“But I believe that’s wrong,” Thomas said. “CASE is an acronym that kind of puts together technology platforms and business models, just a bit of a Frankenstein.”
Instead, he said, Assembly Ventures is taking the viewpoint that the future of mobility is being developed across a variety of industry verticals, platforms and transportation modes, “spanning everything from automotive to maritime to aerospace.” His VC’s new framework is based on ISA: infrastructure, systems and applications.
“We’re looking at the digital and physical movement of people, then people and goods, as well as data and energy, across air, land, sea and space. We’re looking with a wide funnel, and it’s at the intersections of those things where we’ll find the most valuable and impactful opportunities.”
Assembly recently announced the successful closing of its inaugural $76 million fund. Four of its investments illustrate Thomas’s new “Mobility 4.0” thesis:
• Metropolis Technologies: This is a mobile-commerce platform powered by advanced computer vision and machine learning, with an initial focus on checkout-free parking.
“They’re looking at incredibly low-cost camera systems with proprietary AI and going into parking garages and other built environments to allow a seamless experience by the user, not involving things like QR codes,” Thomas explained. “In early 2021, [Metropolis] had 20,000 users; now they have more than 4.5 million users because of the value they bring.”
• NAVIT: This startup has created an all-in-one platform for tracking corporate “mobility benefits” and carbon-dioxide emissions.
• Our Next Energy: This energy-storage company is focused on battery technologies with an initial focus on producing an array for vehicles that would give them up to 600 miles on a charge.
• Sortera: This new company brings AI to the recycling industry.
Assembly’s other partners are former Ford mobility executive Jessica Robinson and Felix Scheuffelen, whose mobility investing has been focused in Europe and South America. Assembly Ventures’ backers include strategic corporates such as Arbor Bancorp., Stellantis Ventures and WF Whelan, as well as individual investors including Dan Gilbert, the Detroit-based mortgage billionaire; Joe Hinrichs, a former top executive of Ford; and Dug Song, co-founder of Duo Security, and now with Cisco, which acquired his company.