Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

(Bloomberg) --
Think of the European automobile industry and countries like Germany come to mind, with its luxury cars whizzing down the speed-limit-less autobahn. Or France’s quirky Citroens and space-age Renaults. Or even the sensible Swedes and their sturdy Volvos.

Austria? Not so much. But the Alpine state is at the forefront of some cutting-edge research that stands to reshape the future of transportation, in particular driverless-car technology. And the epicenter of this push is Linz, that medieval city on the banks of the Danube river halfway between Salzburg and Vienna. It’s here that researchers from Alphabet Inc. to OpenAI, the artificial-intelligence group co-founded by Elon Musk, come calling for advice from Sepp Hochreiter, the head of the Institute for Machine Learning at Johannes Kepler University.

Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

Hochreiter’s academic obsession since his university days three decades ago: artificial intelligence, in particular the development of long short-term memory (LSTM), a once obscure form of machine-learning software capable of processing sequential tasks. As a type of artificial intelligence loosely based on how parts of the human brain work, LSTM has made possible consumer innovations such as Amazon’s Alexa and other voice assistants. His research made Hochreiter a star in tech circles, though he’s politely resisted the Silicon Valley sirens tempting him with riches, settling instead for his love of the mountain peaks and glacial lakes in Austria.

Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

The combination of brilliance and humility, captured in the 52-year-old’s slow-yet-steady ascent to the top of AI, could be Europe’s best chance of catching up to Silicon Valley. Hochreiter talks with the jovial confidence cultivated by winning decades of obscure scientific battles before bursting into the spotlight, and Europe’s battered automakers and technology companies are attracted to the easy optimism that Hochreiter exudes.

“Tesla’s data is worth a lot and the company is very well placed,” Hochreiter, the son of a Bavarian farmer, said in an interview. “But there are different approaches to what Elon Musk and Tesla are doing. What we’re doing is better.”

With more than 90 percent of all Earth’s machine-readable information generated in recent years, Hochreiter calls data “the new oil” that drives the technology behind autonomous vehicles. Musk’s company leads the field with an advantage the brash U.S. executive said in February “is very difficult to overcome.” More than a quarter million Tesla drivers are already behind the wheel, vacuuming up quadrillions of bytes of roadway data and transmitting it back daily to Silicon Valley.

Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

“We have a hundred times more than everyone else combined,” Musk boasted in a podcast with ARK Investment Management last month. “Customers are essentially training the system on how to drive.”

Driverless vehicles are set to first replace transportation that runs over fixed networks in predictable environments, think airport shuttles or forklifts in logistic hubs. Eventually they could slowly creep into cities to help handle bus routes and manage congestion. Fully automated passenger cars that can drive everywhere are likely at least a decade away.

Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

Besides Tesla, Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, is at the forefront of the push since its inception as Google’s self-driving car project in 2009. Today, Waymo is widely regarded the leader in autonomous vehicles. It launched the first commercial self-driving car service late last year in the suburbs of Phoenix and now says it has “several hundred” riders enrolled.

To accelerate adoption, governments could force companies to share data, according to Robert Siegel, the X Seed Capital Management partner who teaches at Stanford University and advises European technology companies. More access to data means safer cars under the new road rules, he said.

Those sweeping changes in the way people get around portend shifts in everything from fuel consumption to labor markets -- one reason that the export-oriented carmakers of central Europe have been slow to embrace the technology. While Austria has no indigenous car brand, about 370,000 jobs, or every ninth worker, relies on car OEMs including Magna International Inc. and Polytec Holding AG.

Musk’s bragging rights aren’t dissuading European challengers. The key to catching up could be in turning the walled gardens of private control into open pools shared among automakers, according to executives tilting at Tesla.

“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” said Georg Kopetz, 44, the co-founder and chief executive officer at TTTech Automotive GmbH, a Vienna-based company that programs the brains inside autonomous systems installed by BMW AG, Volkswagen AG and China’s SAIC Motor Corp. “The real race is to get in with the large OEMs and run on millions of cars.”

Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

TTTech is unique because it’s making a “neutral” operating system, said Kopetz, who’s company is weighing an initial public offering after attracting investments from Audi AG, Samsung Electronics Co. and GE Ventures. Its software is engineered to handle the mishmash of road, weather and traffic sensors designed by original-equipment manufacturers, standardizing the data flows that instruct driverless cars to accelerate, brake, stop or turn -- orders that have to be combined and prioritized within milliseconds on microprocessors to avoid accidents.

“Data should be used by those advancing the system,” said Kopetz, whose company got its start in aerospace and still supplies technology to Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner “For safety, companies must be open to information sharing.”

Researchers like Hochreiter view cars as mini R&D center that collect data needed to train autonomous-driving algorithms. And getting a critical mass of autonomous vehicles safely onto roadways is one of the “grand transformations” needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions and stave off catastrophic climate change, according to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis outside of Vienna.

“We have 1.4 billion cars in the world that drive on average one hour a day,” said Nebojsa Nakicenovic, a director at the institute who advises governments on energy and climate policies. “Autonomous vehicles can drive around the clock like many taxis do today, meaning the world could only need about 200 million cars.”

Austria's AI Brain Has a Plan to Take Down Waymo and Tesla

But Tesla’s head start doesn’t make Musk invulnerable, according to Sanjay Sood, the head of highly-automated driving at HERE Global BV. The Amsterdam-based company where he works was acquired by BMW, Daimler AG and Volkswagen for 2.5 billion euros in 2015 and wants to create an “open ecosystem” where companies pool data, he said.

“Tesla has great cars but they don’t have enough density across the globe,” according to the computer scientist. “There’s no company out there today to provide enough coverage in every country on every continent.”

Two additional wildcards are also looming that could help change the race, according to BloombergNEF analyst Ali Izadi-Najafabadi. One is Europe’s impending completion of its Galileo satellite network, the 10 billion euro project that will improve the bloc’s access to high-precision positioning data.

The other is the onset of 5G telecommunications networks, which will allow autonomous cars to share data with each other, effectively turning them into data servers on wheels. Austria switched on Europe’s first commercial 5G network, with an emphasis on rural roadways where driverless cars can be tested.

Hochreiter, the Linz academic, certainly sees a home advantage. Armed with 25 million euros of funding from HERE, he’s making pitches replete with images of serene Alpine lakes to recruit two dozen new world class AI engineers. They’ll take the petabytes of driving information HERE generates every month and combine it with other data sets -- ranging from climate and pollution to social media and satellite feeds -- that will allow them to construct new simulations of startling complexity, according to the scientist, who said Europe’s stricter regulations force him to take a different approach to teaching autonomous vehicles how to drive.

“Silicon Valley can be much more aggressive,” Hochreiter said. “They put cars on the road even when the system is not completely ready. Here the regulations are much stricter."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.