Interview with autonomous car tech company Mobileye's sales director David Oberman

By Yahsin Huang

(This story first appeared in the Business Next’s Meet Startup news website in October 2017.)

Mobileye is an Israeli autonomous-driving technology company recently acquired by Intel for $15.3 billion. The acquisition represents the largest ever deal in the history of the Israeli tech industry, proving that autonomous vehicles are a sought-after future tech that is much closer to reality than most people think. The alliance aims to build up a fleet of 100 Level 4 self-driving cars to test in the U.S., Israel, and Europe.

Mobileye is best known for its pioneering development of the EyeQ vision technology for camera- based Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) technology. By employing eight camera sensors as “eyes,” the technology gives autonomous vehicles the ability to detect lane changes, pedestrians, or traffic signs. The company is currently developing its fifth generation of EyeQ to act as the central vision for self-driving cars. According to Mobileye co-founder Amnon Shashua, the new system will be twice as powerful as their current product.

David Oberman who leads the company’s global sales and marketing strategies, expects investments in computer vision and other technologies to help turn the company into a global leader. As one of the featured speakers at the Taiwan Israel InnoTech Summit 2017 event, Oberman presented Mobileye’s vision for autonomous cars. In this interview, he further expounds on the company’s current outlook and future plans.

Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into the automotive industry?

Initially, I worked for TransChip, one of the first companies to produce camera-on-a-chip systems for mobile telephones, a job which brought me to Taiwan well over 50 times. Our company, which is now part of the Samsung Semiconductor Israel R&D Center, did groundbreaking stuff at a time when no one believed in the feasibility of single chip systems, or sharing photos via smartphones.

Today of course, smartphone photography is ubiquitous and everybody is sending pictures to their friends. It proves, I think, that if you really want to do something you need to believe in what you’re doing.

(Click the red arrow to listen to an audio recording of the quote in the text.)
“If you really want to do something, you can do something, and you need to believe in what you’re doing”

Afterwards I joined Mobileye in 2008. At that time it already had a big investment from Goldman Sachs over $130 million and was starting to have customers. In the automotive manufacturers segment we had General Motors, Volvo, and BMW, while in the aftermarket we obtained first customers from Israel, Chile, and Holland. In essence, I focused on the aftermarket part of the company and built it up. Today we have over 130 distributors worldwide, including two in Taiwan - Neolec and Adas Mobile.

Neolec has been working with us for six years, while Adas Mobile joined in the beginning of this year. They are both selling our products in Taiwan with a focus on trucks and buses. The latter has been a big market for us because the government decided to give a 49% subsidy for inter-city buses. Additionally, transportation giant Evergreen also began using Mobileye in their trucks and buses.

What is happening currently with Mobileye?

We have a number of different segments in our company. One segment is the chip business, where we work with both car manufacturers and tier-1 suppliers like TRW or Delphi. Most car manufacturers are working with Mobileye, with our chips being equipped in over 340 models.

For instance, we are selling our processor chips to tier-1 companies, who then supply our solutions to companies like Nissan, Mazda, or BMW. In the first segment, we are expanding by adding more companies, working with over 28 manufacturers. This business is now starting to grow in China, too, with the three new customers hopefully being joined by others.

The second segment is the aftermarket, where we sell under our own brand internationally. For example, in Mexico, we are working with the biggest car insurance company, Qualitas, uses our solution to reduce crashes and save money on insurance claims. But we are also cooperating with the governments such as the Israeli one through incentive programs: If you import a car and you install Adas, you automatically qualify for tax waivers for importing the car.

As mentioned earlier, another way are official subsidies similar to the ones for buses in Taiwan. In Singapore, the government subsidizes Mobileye with 70% for any fleet or company, signifying an immense trust in our products. For example, the country’s biggest bus company is using Mobileye.

A third way the government is helping is through legal reforms, as in Japan, China, or Korea. In China, Adas was tested officially in 300 buses and trucks last year to great success, resulting in a push for its wider implementation. Korea did the same. After 2019, these governments will also demand automatic braking, which Europe will also make mandatory. In the United States, however, car manufacturers need to provide automatic braking by 2022.

In addition to the ADAS, Mobileye intends to take mapping technology to a new level. Tell us about REM and other technologies that you are developing.

When Shashua co-founded Mobileye in 1999, Toyota first challenged him to make a system-on-a- chip, which the company achieved over the next decade. Today, we need to take another big leap for the next generation of Level 4 self-driving cars, i.e. cars that can drive themselves without any human intervention under any condition.

To develop these technologies we need to invest a lot on research and development, and it is not only about the visual aspect of our sensors. Of course, we have our expertise in cameras, but for autonomous driving simply seeing is not enough. You also need a special kind of mapping, what we call Road Experience Management (REM), which essentially is an addition to traditional GPS mapping technology. It is a second layer which must be placed exactly on top of the first layer, on top of the GPS perfectly. Ultimately, we need cars to understand the road better than human beings. It takes time, and energy, and a lot of research. But it is possible.

How do you view the efforts of Alphabet’s Google, Uber, or other key players in the industry compared to Mobileye?

I think we handle our data in a more efficient way, particularly in regard to mapping technology we are doing things quite differently from Google. For example, whereas Google uses expensive technology to get very detailed data for each kilometer, REM enables crowd-sourced real-time data for mapping. Our technology extracts landmarks and roadway information at extremely low bandwidths. We only use approximately 10 kilobytes per kilometer, while our competitors use more than 1GB.

In recent years, Israel has become a startup powerhouse despite its small size. What’s the secret to building a vibrant startup ecosystem?

In Israel, we have different populations, including Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The technology comes from the Jewish people. The Jewish people always wandered from country to country as result of their diaspora.

If you are moving to a new country you out of necessity develop a survival instinct. This became critical in fostering an ability to innovate. You are always looking for new ways to solve problems and you have to find something to live by. I think especially in the military technology units, people could obtain crucial experience which allowed them to become entrepreneurs.

I did military service for three years and I needed to return to service for one month every year for 25 years. Everybody is a little different, depending on how important you are for the Army. I learned discipline and responsibility from my military service experience. Also, it is kind of a melting pot. You must learn to speak Hebrew because you have to do the duties of the army and your commanders speak Hebrew. Everybody is prepared to fail.

Of course you want to succeed, but it is okay if you fail. The mindset is we can try again. And we know that next time we will be stronger because next time we will remember our mistakes.