Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week he talks to Mahmood Hikmet, research and development coordinator for Ohmio.
When you think about the companies bringing autonomous vehicles to the roads, you probably think of some of the world’s biggest names – Apple, Google, Tesla, Uber. But what if I was to tell you there was a Kiwi start up that grew from repairing computers and making intelligent signage to inking multi-million dollar international deals for its autonomous shuttles?
Ohmio is the maker of a 20-person shuttle that can be extended to carry up to 40 people. Their breakthrough is to operate on predetermined routes without the need for a driver. It’s kind of like a tram, but with virtual rails, guided by a range of electronic systems.
They’re working with bus operators and new cities built for the autonomous future, and have got manufacturing happening in their own facility in China – with a new focus on expanding AI capabilities and research.
There’s that great idea that a greater number of innovative companies are started by immigrants because of that attitude of starting afresh. Looking for new things is a talent of both an immigrant and an entrepreneur.
It’s a very self-selecting population haha. When we thought about what’s going to happen in the future with the science we said well let’s see how this infrastructure we’re setting up is going to work with autonomous vehicles. What will it take to bring an autonomous vehicle into New Zealand?
So we set up this group of different companies and organisations – we had us, Christchurch Airport, Christchurch City Council, NZTA, the Ministry of Transport, Canterbury University – basically a whole bunch of different stakeholders that were interested to see how to legislate for autonomous vehicles, what it would mean business-wise for them, what research they can do on autonomous vehicles. But for us we wanted to integrate autonomous vehicles with our products, so that’s when we started the Christchurch Airport trial at the beginning of 2017.
And what were the kind of barriers here? Because when you think about autonomous vehicles and getting them going, most of the companies and groups who are starting and running these projects are very big and very well funded. As a successful but reasonably small scale company, what made you take the jump into making these?
That’s a good question, it’s like how are you going to compete against the Teslas and the Googles who have got more money and more funding then you?
And more ‘ins’ with government to get special regulatory allowances to test things.
That one is interesting because in New Zealand we are actually really good with links into the government, so at Ohmio we’ve actually got pretty good relations and accessibility to ministers and the different departments. But as far as how do we exist in the same spaces as these other vehicles, the answer is that we’re not really in the same space. When you look at something like Tesla or even the providers like Uber or Google, what they are wanting you to do is rather than own your own vehicle, they want you to take one of their ride services. They’re looking to replace the consumer vehicle and that’s a huge, huge market to go into, like tens of billions of dollars to go after them. That’s a race that’s constantly happening and it’s got its own challenges.
Environmental Innovation is the focus for this year’s C-Prize challenge – Callaghan Innovation is asking innovators to develop tech solutions with the power to change environmental outcomes. Business advice, mentoring and R&D expertise will support finalists to turn their concepts into reality. Follow the C-Prize journey.
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