Driven Mobility Moments
Driven – Mobility Moment: Rob Stead, AutoSens

Spring in Michigan means road construction. Yeah, it also means a new season of automobility-related conferences, where people gather to talk tech.

From May 11th to the 16th, 2019, there will be three distinct events taking place here in Detroit, Southfield, and Ann Arbor, all focused on emerging autonomous vehicle technology.

This is Driven’s Mobility Moments Podcast, where we talk with the people building the mobility ecosystem here in the Detroit region. In this episode, I’m talking with Rob Stead, he’s a force behind AutoSens, a community of experts focused on the sensors, processors, algorithms, and AI used in autonomous vehicles and ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. Stick with us and learn about what’s happening, and why you’ll want to get involved.

I’m your host, Claire Charlton.

Claire Charlton

Rob, hello and welcome to Driven’s Mobility Moments Podcast.

Rob Stead

Thanks for having me.

Thank you so much for joining us. I’m excited to talk with you today about some cool upcoming events that are happening actually quite soon here in the Detroit area.

Yeah, no, that’s right. Yeah, we’re just building up to the events in Detroit next month. Busy times and looking forward to it.

You are super busy right now, because there is a major event that you are heading up, that is happening in Detroit in May of this year. It’s called, AutoSens. What is it exactly?

AutoSens, the way we like to describe it is a community of over a thousand engineers and scientists, who have in common that they’re working on developing technologies or doing research into vehicle perception. By that I mean the suite of sensors, processing hardware and software that’s used in current ADAS application, so advanced safety systems in road-going vehicles that are on the market today.

But also, those are the same systems which will be used in the future to form autonomous vehicles of all different shapes and sizes. We have this global community of experts in all of the different technical disciplines associated with those sensors, the processing hardware, the software, really following the data from capturing information by the sensors through the processing optimization of that data. And then kind of tying it all together through a process of sensor fusion so that the computer inside the vehicle has an understanding of the environment around it. So what objects are there, what’s moving, differentiating different types of objects. So that’s kind of the scope of the content that’s discussed. We have two big meetings for AutoSens. One, as you mentioned, is taking place in Detroit next month, and we have an event in Europe that takes place in Brussels in Belgium every September. In Detroit, we’ll also be launching a third event in the series. So exciting times getting all the pieces together for that.


But overall we have … What ties all of this together is, our kind of mantra is, “by engineers for engineers.” So, you know, there are a number of conferences and meetings out there, trade shows, but AutoSens started via conversations with engineers who were kind of working at the forefront of developing systems. The whole objective is to bring the world’s foremost experts together who are working on this technology, and create an environment that they can learn, they can collaborate and help to drive the technology forward. It’s about looking at today’s engineering challenges rather than crystal ball gazing and looking at what might happen in 10 or 20 or 30 years time. The idea is, it’s a really practical and useful event and meeting and community for engineers working on these kind of challenges.

AutoSens takes place May 14th to 16th 2019 at the Michigan Science Center.
Bernal Revert/ BR&U, 2018 AutoSens takes place May 14th to 16th 2019 at the Michigan Science Center.

Talk a little bit about what those who attend this conference can expect. How many speakers will you have, what kind of sessions will there be, what will people be talking about?

I can run through the numbers. We have around 60 speakers at the conference in Detroit, we have a couple of plenary sessions that top and tail the agenda, and then two parallel tracks covering a range of topics. All of the sensor technology and associated technical challenges. The plenary sessions kind of cover those contextual pieces, talking about things like regulation. Talking about how does this vehicle perception technology fit in the wider context of ADAS, of autonomous vehicles, and of smart cities, and the future of mobility in general, as well as the agenda. We have an exhibition with around 40 exhibitors. We have various exciting things going on there, vehicles on show, and lots of demos going on on the stand, so it’s not just about presenting marketing materials. We have people there with the actual hardware and software showing how it works for the attendees.

We’re expecting about 400 people to be there, so that’s a mixture of engineers in this space, academics, some students as well. From all over the world. Of course, we’ll have a strong attendance locally, from the Michigan area, and the US in general, but there’s a good number of people traveling from Asia, from Israel, from Europe, and from wider fields. It’s a really kind of global scale event.

But when you say, “What can people expect from the conference?” And it’s not just about those numbers. For me, what we have that makes AutoSens unique is a sense of community. I see that on site, I see people meeting, I see people collaborating and getting that value. So for us, it’s about bringing those people together and having a nice open and collaborative environment for scientists. Everybody there, whether they’re an engineer or an academic, at the heart of it they’re scientists, so it’s about bringing scientists together to collaborate and do good science.

One of the things that I don’t think we mentioned is that this event is taking place at the Michigan Science Center right in Detroit’s Midtown. Why is that an appropriate space for this particular event?

That’s right, and we’re really excited to be. This’ll be our second year at Michigan Science Center, or MiSci for short. Yeah, we found it quite difficult to find a venue that was the right shape and size to host the event, but for those who know, we like to run our events in a more interesting space than going to a convention center or a hotel. We find that that helps to create the right kind of environment that breeds productivity. But we came across MiSci and just really connected with their philosophy and their objectives. For AutoSens, the two conferences are the flagship events, but we’re also keen to, you know, we don’t just want to be a conference, we are actively involved in the industry helping to support educational initiatives, helping to work on standards work that we’ll touch on a bit later.

When we met the team at MiSci and we heard about the journey that the museum’s been on, about their programs promoting STEM education and encouraging girls to get into science, all those kind of things I think just aligned really well with our objectives. It’s a cool space as well. They’ve got state-of-the-art auditoria there, a brand new Toyota Engineering Theater in the big IMAX room, so that’s where we have our conference sessions. Then this year we’ve moved the exhibition up to the fourth floor. There’s nice big open space there that’s just been refurbished with some new lighting and some other fixtures, so the exhibition will be up there. Again, it’s just an ideal space for our kind of event, and I think that’s going to really encourage collaboration.

The IEEE Standards Association P2020 working group attendees of 2018.

Yeah, it is a very cool space. You talked specifically about the plenary that, from what I can tell, will provide sort of a higher level view of, or a bigger picture, let’s say, of sensors and how they fit into mobility, which is perfect for somebody like me who is not an engineer, but is keenly interested in what is happening in the mobility industry. Can you talk a little bit about why non-engineers might be interested in attending this event?

Yeah. I think the event, the content is engineering-focused, and we wanted that to drive the technical discussions on site, but it’s not all. You don’t need a Ph.D. in automotive sensing to come and follow what’s going on in the rest of the discussion. As I said, if you’re new to this space, or if you’re in a management position, or maybe you work in a different area and you’re interested to learn more about this technology, either to move into this area with a career, or maybe just curious, I think there’s lots of accessible information in via the demonstrations at both the exhibition. And we’re also running a moving vehicle demonstration as well on the Tuesday of the AutoSens week. We have two vehicles on tracks that we’ve custom built in a parking lot space at Wayne State University, just nearby to the museum. There’s a lot going on there that is accessible.

You can get hands on with the technology, whether that’s the vehicles on the demo day or whether it’s sensors and software demonstrations in the exhibition. But again, as I said, the plenary that open and close the event are talking about those contextual issues around the technology development. I feel like it’s accessible whether you’re an engineer in the heart of it, whether you’re interested in this space for career progression or other reasons, or indeed, if you are a sales or marketing person or a business manager from a company who has a relevant product or service, then you’re going to meet a lot of the right kind of people that would help your business by attending the conference as well.

I have peeked into the agenda a little bit, and I’m particularly interested in the fireside chat that is scheduled for one of the mornings. The fireside chat is billed as “The engineers tell us that autonomous driving is still at the research stage, but the product managers tell us that robo-taxis are launching this year. Can both of these be true?” Tell me about what you think might come from this particular session.

That’s a good question, and my genuine answer is, I don’t know. We curate the agenda by working with an advisory board, which includes representatives of all the different parts of the supply chain, so companies from around the globe, from OEMs down through Tier1s, component companies, academics, and we cannot thoroughly test all of these topics. So the agenda that you see listed on the website has come direct from industry. What we do with the panel discussions and some of the plenary topics is we kind of take those questions where there isn’t a clear answer.

I think that’s one of the exciting things, certainly for me every year as we come up to the conferences, there are these questions out there where there is a lot of debate, there’s different viewpoints, and lots of discussion to be had. And the opportunity to bring people together and have those discussions, the Q and A on the stage with some particular experts in this field, or the Q and A with the audience as well, and the audience at the conference have an opportunity to ask questions. I think that’s just really exciting. In terms of this specific panel discussion, there are a number of different perspectives.

You kind of have the balance of the two sides, so many organizations are of course very keen to develop and get this technology to market as soon as possible, and that’s the commercial drivers for making this happen. But at the same time the regulators are moving slowly and cautiously to make sure we have the right infrastructure and regulations in place before there’s wide-scale deployment. Ultimately, we haven’t been here before. These are such exciting times for automotive, for mobility in general.

There’s so many new technologies coming online, which stand to make a real difference in the industry, but for people’s lives as well. And we haven’t done this before, it’s a real sea change. That’s what’s always exciting, is to bring together the different perspectives on these big overarching questions, and I’m really looking forward to this panel to see what comes out of it.

Well, you really took the words out of my mouth because I was about to say that this is what makes it, this uncertainty is what makes this era such a great time to be part of. It’s interesting for engineering, and it’s exciting for automotive, but it’s really also exciting for the impacts of people’s lives that all of these mobility changes have the potential to make.


Let’s switch gears a little bit. In addition to the AutoSens forum conference there are a couple of other mobility related events connected to AutoSens that are happening in the Detroit region. Let’s talk about both of those.

Yeah. The first is we’re running the latest face to face meeting of the IEEE Standards Association P2020 working group, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I’ll just try and deconstruct that for you.

IEEE is the world’s biggest industrial membership organization for electrical engineers in all range of different applications, but a big part of that is automotive with the amount of electronics used in vehicles these days. They have a standards association, which is part of IEEE. There’s many standards used in vehicles, but also in other electronic appliances that you and I may never have heard of, but they’re there and they’re important standards, and they help to push technology forward. IEEE oversees a lot of that work, and we decided to develop a working group specifically to focus on automotive image quality. We have three face-to-face meetings per year, and the next meeting is going to be taking place just prior to AutoSens on the 13th and 14th of May. Big thanks to Phil Santer at Ann Arbor SPARK who very kindly introduced me to the team at Washtenaw Community College, who are going to be hosting the meeting. That’s the first event.

Second, AutoSens is sponsoring a Hackathon targeted at 12- to 17-year olds in the Detroit area who’d like to get hands on and have a go at building their own scale autonomous vehicle. This event is taking place a couple of days before that over the weekend, the 11th and 12th of May. It’s organized by a local volunteer group called Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group, which is one of the local chapters of DIY Robocars. They are a bunch of enthusiasts from all different walks of life, but they have regular meetups to learn about the technologies involved in autonomous vehicles, and to do practical work, get hands on with the technology. They are running this Hackathon, as I said, engaging with school children from the area. That’s going to be hosted at Lawrence Technological University on the 11th and 12th of May. Your listeners can find out more about that by Googling, and look on the events page there.

Now, I’ll tell you what I love about both of the events that you just talked about is that you are bringing in, looping in two, just two, of the many wonderful educational institutions that we have here in the Detroit region. Washtenaw Community College and Lawrence Tech University. I think it’s super exciting that people who haven’t been on these campuses, and haven’t experienced what we have here with regard to mobility education, are going to be surprised about what they see.

Absolutely. There’s such a range of really good quality academic institutions in such a concentrated space. So for us, whether we’re organizing the conference, whether we’re working with volunteer groups for other things, or hosting the working group meeting, I think it’s an ideal place to be because there’s a real richness of … not just the institutions themselves, but all of the time and effort that goes into organizing those programs, organizing the teaching, all the extracurricular activities, there’s a real energy in the area. I think you don’t have the same thing for automotive applications anywhere else in the world really, so yeah, it’s an exciting place to be. We’re really looking forward to getting to know the teams at Washtenaw and Lawrence Tech University by these two events as well.

Excellent. That’s a perfect segue into talking about why Detroit. Why hold AutoSens and the affiliated events that are happening at the same time, or in the same month, why have them in Detroit? What is it about Detroit?

I think, as I said, there’s just such a concentration of academia, of industry, of commercial research. The long history of automotive development in Detroit, and in Michigan in general just means that there’s a high concentration of people who are interested in all of these different activities. It’s a no brainer in a way. But for me, there’s a personal side to it as well. I originally came to Detroit in 2015 on a holiday, would you believe? I came on vacation with some old school friends to the Movement Festival. We’re all music fans, and we’d wanted to come to Detroit for Movement since we were at school and didn’t quite get around to it for 10 years. But obviously, there’s the rich history of Motown as well in Detroit. We had a great time and we met some great people, really felt their enthusiasm for the resurgence that’s going on in Detroit. This was back in 2015, but felt a really strong spirit from the people that we met. I come from a town in the UK called Bradford in Yorkshire, which has a similar story.

It has a history as an industrial powerhouse from back at the beginning of the last century, but has been through some really difficult times as well. So I kind of identified with the story that Detroit has been on. But I was really excited to see all of the new building going on, the new developments. You know, every time I come back I see some more new exciting things. I was in town a couple weeks ago for the SAE World Congress, and I stayed in a really nice part of downtown I didn’t even realize existed before. Just so much new development going on down there. When we were deciding where to bring AutoSens for the first time, when we launched in the US, there was a kind of decision. Is it going to be West coast? Do we go to San Francisco or Silicon Valley, or do we go to Detroit where the heart of automotive is?

For me, it was partly a personal decision, I wanted us to be a part of the journey that Detroit and Michigan is going on. And I’m really happy that we did that because we found some like-minded people, and it’s really great to be a part of seeing the whole resurgence of this historic city.

Let’s finish up by talking about … Obviously, you have an endorsement of the Detroit region. You brought your conference here. How do you picture Detroit in its role as a leader in the mobility ecosystem moving forward?

It has to be right at the heart of it. I think maybe if you go back a few years when the hype and the real interest and the surge of investment was happening in the whole autonomous vehicle space, there was maybe a perception that Silicon Valley would kind of take the lead. You saw various companies thinking it was quite easy to just enter the automotive space like, “We can go build cars.” But I think over the last few years there’s been a realization that it’s not so easy. Wherever you look in the market, then there are a lot more collaborations taking place, and I think that there’s a real understanding that people need to work together. Organizations need to work together building relationships and building collaborations. I think that has brought a lot of the interest back to Michigan where there’s such a heritage of auto making. We’ve seen some big acquisitions by the major OEMs, GM, Ford, and FCA bringing in new capabilities.

Mixing those new disciplines of electronics and AI with the more traditional automotive heritage. When you have that, and you have that bringing new skills, investing in new educational programs to meet the needs of the future of mobility, you have that combined with the history, I think that makes the perfect formula. You’ve also got some new developments such as Mcity and [American Center for Mobility at] Willow Run with extensive testing facilities. Again, testing and simulation are such an important part of development of these vehicles, whether they’re shuttles or road-going autonomous vehicles. Again, having those facilities here I think is a real advantage. But the region can’t just rest on that previous reputation. I think what we’ve seen is some forward thinking and forward looking developments. As long as that continues I think Detroit will remain a really attractive for all kinds of companies who are part of the future of mobility.

Excellent. Is there anything else that you’d like people to know?

I would like to just reiterate that the Hackathon is going on. If there are any listeners, either from the 12 to 17 year old age range, or with relatives or people they know in that space who you think would like to get hands on and learn. Learn by doing. I think that the hackathon is a really great opportunity to get involved in that. The link again is Otherwise, just a big thanks to Ann Arbor SPARK, to Washtenaw College and Lawrence Tech University for hosting these events. We’re looking forward to coming down to MiSci in a few weeks for AutoSens. Thanks to you for your time.

And we are looking forward to welcoming you because it sounds like there’s just some really cool stuff that is going to be happening. I really appreciate talking with you, Rob. And I appreciate you sharing all of the cool events that are surrounding AutoSens this year.

It’s been a pleasure. Hope we can talk again soon.

Thank you.

Special thanks to my guest, Rob Stead, managing director with Sense Media, the group behind AutoSens. Look for details for all three of the events we talked about in the show notes and transcript of this podcast. Thanks so much for joining me for this episode of Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast. Learn more about how the Detroit region leads in next generation mobility at There, you’ll find lots more podcasts, tons of interesting mobility articles, and the latest news about the Detroit region’s mobility ecosystem. Subscribe to our newsletter while you’re there. I’m your Mobility Moments host, Claire Charlton. See you again soon.

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All images courtesy of AutoSens.