BERLIN – In a series of talks with inspirational mobility leaders, we are picking the brains of some of the most influential opinion-makers in the industry. Sitting down with the Director of Porsche’s Digital Lab, Anja Hendel, we discuss how new technology can shape and drive the mobility industry forward. Talking AI and ethics, we outline the need for a global framework guiding the usage of intelligent machines and whether or not we need to be afraid of “evil” technology. Read on to find out!
Porsche Digital Lab was founded in 2016 and your mission is to bring digital innovation to every part of the company. This is a pretty big mission, what do you focus on?
The Lab is just one of the ways that Porsche is driving digital transformation. We are about 20 people with a deep knowledge of artificial intelligence, blockchain and IoT. This is our sweet spot. We try to find practice areas for new technology in terms of mobility but also for getting the daily work done. At the moment we focus on building prototypes and piloting them.
Your core topics include AI, blockchain and Internet of Things. Converting your findings into action, where do you think you’ve come furthest in developing solutions that can be applied to reality?
When you work with such early stage technologies, it takes some time to bring them to a daily usage. But we have made quite good progress with our prototypes and MVPs. For example, there are a lot of electronic connections to be done in a car. If they are constructed properly, they’ll give off a little sound. Since it can be loud in production, people don’t always hear these sounds. So we have invented an AI tool that directly shows if the connection has been carried out successfully. This product is not for sale yet, but it is there being tested and taking the right steps forward.
Bringing new innovation from the lab to the larger organization of Porsche, how do you go about that?
Porsche is a big brand but not a large company. We have 30 000 people, and if you compare with all the other automotive companies it is rather small. This helps.
But 30 000 is still a lot of people. It could even be the size of a small village. How do you make sure that your findings make their way to the right people and place within Porsche?
It is all about communications and finding good examples of what we can do (better) with technology. All projects that kickoff in the Lab are introduced with a town hall that we call the Brain Trust. Here the product owners show what they would like to do and test in the next few months. The results are presented in the same format giving everyone a chance to see what we are working with. Sometimes people fear new technology rather than seeing the possibilities, and we try to counterfeit that with having a very open and inviting approach to our activities.
It sounds almost like an internal roadshow for innovation.
Exactly. We don’t build things in Berlin for the sake of building. It has to add to the organization overall. That is why we need the inclusion of everyone.
Porsche is still a very traditional company and I assume that the digital transformation movement has not been easy for everyone to get onboard with. What challenges have you encountered along the way?
First of all, the automotive industry will change more in the upcoming five years than it has done during the last fifty. This is a radical change. We sometimes say: if everything should stay as it is, everything has to change. This stretches from our product and organization, to how bring our services to the customer. If we want to continue being as successful as we have been, everyone needs to understand that change is inevitable.
When innovating an organization, it is so important to be inclusive — and educational in terms of managing change. Otherwise, you might risk ending up with part of your workforce lacking the skills or the knowledge to go with the new times. We always put our employees and customers in the centre of what we do. Our people have a lot of valuable knowledge about mobility. At the same time we need to show possibilities with new technology and create a nice place, like the Lab, where these things can grow together.
A safe space for innovation.
Artificial Intelligence is a sphere where much of the discussion is characterized by fear, outlining scenarios for bad or even evil AI. As someone who works within the field, can AI really promise a better, smarter and more sustainable future?
We should try to see AI as a tool that supports us in various ways. Every day, we do a lot of things we don’t want to do. Some of these things could be completely replaced with automation. One practical usage is how to get from A to B. Using maps on your phone is all AI. Technology is here to help us and this is something that is sometimes forgotten in the discussion. We are far away from a robot society but we need to find a good modus operandi where technology actively shapes a better future.
If we look into the ethics of technology, it would be useful to have a standard technological guideline that we can refer to. A code of conduct if you wish. Do you believe that we can create such a framework for what AI should, could and shall not do?
There is a lot of technology out there that should not be used. The most important part here is to understand it and make sure that we focus on technology bringing real value to as many people as possible. I am part of a network exploring how we can secure that technology is used in a “good” way. The network consists of people within the science field, where we all come together and bring relevant points from various industries and public institutions.
AI is still used in a minority of companies in Europe. This could create a lack of collaboration and representation when developing new solutions, creating a very unbalanced scale of who is forming a technology that is forming our world. How can we tackle this?
Today, it is mainly the large companies that have time and resources to do so. We have to make sure that also smaller companies take part in the development of AI. One way that we over at Porsche are doing this, is through leveraging on interdependencies between ourselves and third party companies. Via association, we can show new use-cases, help setting things up and reach a trickle down effect.
When we’re on the topic of collaboration, are you partnering up with startups in the Lab?
The value of working with startups is something that we, as a Porsche organization, had to learn during the last few years. We have become way faster in identifying relevant startups and developed different collaborative programs. Like in Berlin, we have APX (and you know Jörg) and we have another program in Stuttgart called Startup Autobahn where we really bring startups from all over the world together.
What types of products or projects do you work on together?
It could be totally different things! Since our organization deals with a lot of varied topics, we have plenty of room for startups to come and join us. At the same time, our colleagues get a feeling for new trends and technologies that they might not have discovered otherwise. It also brings in a lot of good energy; if you’re a startup it’s crucial to launch something fast otherwise you might not survive. I think that OEMs can learn from that pace and focus. We need to partner up to stay innovative.
Moving into one of your expert areas: blockchain. How are you working on exploring the opportunities for blockchain in mobility?
The most interesting part about blockchain, is what it can do for society. For mobility it is a huge possibility when looking at all the apps we currently have on our phones. With blockchain, we can create an open platform where everybody could put their offerings and connect them. Another interesting area is the supply chain, like. tracking parts and how they’ve been used before.
Hypothetically, I’m a Porsche owner. Sitting in my car, how could blockchain improve my experience?
One prototype we developed around a year ago, was putting blockchain technology in one of our Panamera cars. The idea was to be able to open and close the car remotely. Say that someone would deliver a parcel to your car, you could then give access to open and close the vehicle in a certain time frame. It is all tracked so you know precisely what happens. This also works offline, like if you’re in a parking lot where the connection is poor. We really liked the results but we need to see how scaleable it is.
You’re also working with Internet of Things. IoT is not widely applied in Europe yet on a consumer basis — but you use it in your factories?
Our next level engineering culture has made sure that we’ve been able to enhance our production with new technology like IoT. When it comes to more consumer focused usage, it is not on the same level here yet as for example in South Korea. This has a lot to do with people’s very critical view on data. It is not necessarily bad to be critical — but we must also be optimistic.
How do you find inspiration?
From the people around me and diversity. It makes the world larger. I also find inspiration from art, books and a good podcast. In the end by stepping out of my own comfort zone. For me that happens when I’m on stage, being interviewed or so. I studied computer science so I feel much more comfortable when I work on technical things rather than talking about them.
Anja, I know that you are commuting between Berlin and Stuttgart. For each city you have different teams but they work together. What is the benefit of having split offices between Berlin and Stuttgart?
Well, my task is to bring all the knowledge together. To bring all the knowhow of Porsche from Stuttgart, and all the possibilities of what we can do with technology from Berlin. I really believe in diversity and I think it is really good to bring two perspectives together and see what they create together. If you want to shape the future you have to understand technology.
One final quick question: What is the best thing about Berlin?
It is the only city in Germany that is transforming into a metropole. You can feel a certain type of energy in a place with this variety of people. It is a real melting pot.
Founded in 2013, Trafi is a Lithuanian tech start-up. Trafi is working shoulder-to-shoulder with cities, countries, and companies worldwide to create the best in class Mobility-as-a-Service alternative for congested cities. Trafi offers cities the possibility to connect all mobility services into one single platform where users can check itineraries and also book their tickets and trips.
Trafi’s mission is to empower cities’ urban transportation with technology and know-how and encourage citizens to use more sustainable modes of transportation by accessing all services into one single platform. Trafi is currently live in 4 continents around the world and 7 cities.