Data Centers on Wheels: How Intel Plans to Capitalize on Mobility

Intel sealed its commitment to become a player in the burgeoning autonomous vehicle industry when it bought computer vision company Mobileye for more than $15 billion in 2017. The venerable Santa Clara, CA-based chipmaker is betting that its data analytics and connectivity chops—as well as its semiconductors—combined with Mobileye’s computer vision and mapping functions, will attract a significant share of business from automakers that want to equip their vehicles for tech-assisted driving, and for the future of fully autonomous navigation.

But beyond in-car technology, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) is also looking toward a role in the ecosystem of data-centric businesses that will grow up to support the transformation of the auto industry into the service-oriented sector dubbed “mobility.” If broad swaths of the population abandon individual car ownership in favor of trip options such as on-demand rides, private shuttles, scooters, bikes, and a re-imagined public transit system—of course, that’s still an “if”—tech companies will be needed to organize all that activity. Those companies will depend on massive amounts of data, and much of it will come from connected cars gathering information about routes, road features, weather, delays, pedestrians, traffic, and other factors. As Intel expressed it in a company presentation on the Mobileye acquisition, future cars will be “data centers on wheels.”

“There is going to be an incredible amount of data,” says Trina Van Pelt, who is group managing director of three core development areas at Intel: automated driving groups, data center and cloud, and artificial intelligence. She is also vice president of Intel Capital, the venture investment arm of Intel.

With two decades of experience in equity investing and mergers and acquisitions behind her, Van Pelt is now responsible for high-level strategic planning for Intel Capital; that means investments that open up paths over the next five to ten years for Intel’s business opportunities “beyond silicon,” as she describes it.

Van Pelt (pictured above) is one of the Intel leaders aiming to expand the company’s reach outside its foundational role as a semiconductor supplier to the tech companies that remake the business world. Intel is staking its own claim to the lucrative business possibilities in data and services, as confirmed by CEO Bryan Krzanich at the Intel Capital Global Summit in May. Reams of data can now be stored cheaply, and advanced analytics can extract valuable business intelligence from it, Krzanich said.

Van Pelt sees mobility management—the online coordination of transportation activity—as a data-centric business arena that could be a central control point that ropes in many other business lines, such as retail and entertainment. Imagine a rider who uses a mobile app to decide what train to catch home, for example.

Someday, Van Pelt says, the rider might also order groceries while still on the train. The groceries could be ready for pick-up in a locker at the train station, and an Uber car would pull up to take the rider and the food the rest of the way home.

Over time, software that facilitates and tracks such rider patterns could improve transportation and other business services through predictive analytics, Van Pelt says.

How data may influence the co-evolution of cities and transportation

Software and other innovations could enable city infrastructures to accept autonomous vehicles once they’re ready for mass adoption, Van Pelt says. Data analysis could help cities make smarter planning decisions for an era of multimodal transportation, she says. For example, she asks, should a city build more parking lots at train stations for individual drivers, or subsidize rates for ride-hailing cars?

Van Pelt envisions end-to-end roles for Intel in the transportation future, from powering devices for intelligent edge computing to offering an “integrated mobility platform” that could be compared to an app store.

Startup companies are already popping up to fill tech support roles for a reconfigured transportation economy, like the first tiles laid down in what may become a completed mosaic of the mobility business ecosystem. For example, San Francisco-based software startup Stratim created an online marketplace to connect car fleet owners more efficiently with maintenance and repair shops. Stratim was acquired in February by big Indiana used-car auction company KAR (NYSE: KAR).

Meanwhile, Seattle-based Convoy and New York-based Transfix are among the companies using data analytics to help shippers find freight hauling companies. The automated services of such companies are laying the technological groundwork for the logistics of operating self-driving car and truck fleets. Autonomic, which created a software development platform for mobility-related apps, called the Transportation Mobility Cloud, was acquired early this year by Ford Smart Mobility. Like Intel, Ford is looking beyond producing automotive technology alone, and investing in projects related to data services, software, and connectivity for the future of transportation.

Another element of the emerging mobility support ecosystem is trip planner apps—from Google Maps to startups like Moovit and Transit—which are starting to become more comprehensive gateways to the growing number of transportation options for riders.

Intel Capital has been investing in mobility-related businesses and partnering with some of them to build toward its own goals. In January of 2017, Intel announced that it had acquired a 15 percent stake in Here, a navigation company whose technology augments Mobileye’s mapping functions.

In February, the Intel venture capital arm led a $50 million investment round in Moovit, which is racing to map the schedules and routes of public transit systems worldwide by drawing on regional transit authority data as well as crowdsourced reports from riders. Moovit, based in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, is trying to attract more than a billion users by 2021.

The Moovit investment heralded a data-sharing partnership among Moovit, Intel, and Intel’s unit Mobileye. Like Moovit, Intel had been coordinating with cities and transit systems to prepare for the future of mobility and, eventually, of autonomous vehicles. Last year, Moovit started offering companies, city governments, and transit systems access to its data on commuter travel patterns, wait times, route usage, walking distances to train stations, and other details through its Smart Transit Suite, a service designed to assist with the management and planning of urban transportation. That data will now inform Mobileye’s services to automakers, fleet operators, and other customers.

Moovit, for its own part, is looking to wider opportunities as a data service provider in business-to-business partnerships with new types of customers, in addition to transit agencies and auto industry players, says Steve Swasey, a company communications executive. The data on transportation patterns amassed through Moovit’s free trip planner app could be valuable to non-transportation entities such as school systems, sports teams, hospitals, and real estate companies, he says. Househunters using a real estate app like Zillow might search neighborhoods for intel on commute times, for example.

As mobility options proliferate, will one app link to them all?

Van Pelt says Moovit’s data on the gaps in public transit routes could be useful to private mobility companies that want to design transportation services to cover the “last mile” for riders who must debark at a train station too far from their homes or workplaces. Some regional governments have already become customers for such mobility companies, by subsidizing rides rather than operating municipal bus routes.

This kind of coordination fits with Intel’s primary focus on … Next Page »

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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