Rupert Poole revs up the connected car.
PORTLAND— Rupert Poole, senior collaborations manager for future technology at Jaguar Land Rover’s growing Portland operations, is not just an engineering geek. He’s a self-proclaimed “niche geek,” having earned his career chops in the select, if not esoteric, field of automotive audio engineering.
“I started out my career in making cars quiet,” says Poole. “And whether you want to stop noise or to make noise, automotive audio engineering is an engaging, challenging career environment.”
A nearly 15-year veteran of U.K.-based JLR, Poole, 40, is now in what must be a niche geek’s ultimate dream job. The Stratford-upon-Avon native is building a giant entrepreneurial playground for other auto/digital techies like himself, right in the heart of the city’s trendy outer Pearl.
Jaguar Land Rover’s involvement in Portland started small. In 2012 the automaker embedded a single engineer at Intel, its corporate chip partner for the company’s “infotainment” systems. An office at Portland’s World Trade Center followed.
But by 2014, JLR announced it was opening a 17,500-square-foot facility in the Pearl called the Open Source Technology Center, focused on infotainment. The company received a tax break of $382,000 from the Portland Development Commission and $50,000 from electric-car trade association Drive Oregon, now also a tenant.
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By the end of this year, JLR’s Portland footprint will total 60,000 square-feet of space spread over two buildings, and will consist of office suites for its burgeoning business incubator program, collaborative workspaces and “car experience” simulators.
These spaces have a challenging purpose: to help JLR predict and bootstrap the software services consumers will want in the “connected” and “autonomous” cars of the future.
While carmakers right now call these services “infotainment” or “in-vehicle infotainment” (IVI), they seem to have realized if they want to be part of the future of mobility, especially in cities, they need open-platform software and hardware embedded in cars that can be constantly added to as transportation technology advances.
Oregon Business interviewed Poole only a few weeks after he moved to Portland and assumed his current position, and he says the idea of expanding infotainment’s potential in this new job “quite excites” him. His predecessor Matt Jones (also a Brit), left JLR in August to become lead product developer at Moovel, the urban mobility startup Daimler formed from the acquisition and merger of Portland’s GlobeSherpa and Austin’s RideScout.
The awareness by car manufacturers that they must focus on moving people rather than just driving is only escalating: Ford Motor Co. just announced it bought the app-based shuttle service Chariot and is partnering with the bike-sharing business Motivate to increase San Francisco mobility options.
Poole comes to his Portland job with nearly five years of experience with IVI, which controls audio, video, navigational, and other nonessential but desirable functions like hands-free call dialing and texting in cars.
“Once people have tried some of these [new features], they won’t want to live without them.”
He says automakers are keenly aware of the need to make IVI features enhance safety for all transport users while meeting consumers’ demands for cars that are as smart and splashy as their phones.
Until recently, most auto companies’ proprietary IVI systems were considered pretty awful, with bad graphics, clunky interfaces and inferior voice recognition that competed poorly with smartphones and tablets. But that is changing, with the entrance of both Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto into the IVI market.
“People want to be informed and they want to be entertained, and the vehicle is where people are spending more and more time,” Poole says. “I see the challenge as providing great [IVI] systems so rich with capabilities, they give people back some of their time.”
Along with competition, the demand for high-quality software and services explains why JLR is bankrolling a tech incubator at its Portland digs: It is a way to bring in fresh startups and their founders’ big ideas and validate them — or not. JLR accepted its first three incubator companies in January and its latest three in July.
Each cohort gets 700 square feet of office suite and a cash offering worth up to $250,000, access to JLR’s global group of engineers, and six months to hone their big idea to at least the proof-of-concept stage. JLR takes a minority stake in each incubator company of between 5% and 20%.
JLR’s approach isn’t totally unique. BMW has a similar Startup Garage based in Munich. But Jaguar Land Rover’s parent company, Tata Motors, seems to be sparing little expense in building a significant presence far away from the U.K. headquarters.
Poole says Portland had the unique combination of a great talent pool and affordable, inside-the-city real estate as well as proximity to Intel.
And JLR has big ambitions, planning to work with 120 companies over 10 years. By the end of 2016, Poole will be leading more than 130 people, both JLR employees and entrepreneurs.
“What we’ve tried to do,” Poole says, “is take the best-of-class of features of all different type of [business] accelerators. Nobody can be completely confident about any prediction they make about the future of infotainment. But the companies we are dealing with are interested in building those experiences consumers want.”
The companies JLR has chosen to be in the incubator are working on such disparate ideas as sensors to get health updates on your baby sent to your smartphone and commercial drones able to hover in the air for extended periods. This list begs the question: Why do so few of them seem directly involved in infotainment?
That is exactly the point, Poole says. JLR isn’t necessarily planning to put drone capabilities into Land Rovers but has to be ready with workable solutions for whatever “killer app” might come along as connected and autonomous vehicles develop.
“Once people have tried some of these [new features], they won’t want to live without them,” Poole says. He is most proud of what he called the unique selling point for the JLR incubator: both local physical access and distanced international access via email and conferencing to the company’s global network of expert engineers.
“I thought it was going to be challenging to get [internal JLR] engineers working on what might seem like skunk projects,” he says — in other words, ideas that might never make it to a car.
“I was pleasantly surprised. It’s amazing to see how many connections you can see happening, and how quickly and how relevant they are.”
John Mellesmoen, chief innovation officer for SICdrone, a tenant in the JLR incubator working on those hovering drones, agrees.
“Hardware is a lot of work, constant prototyping and iterations. We want to make drones do things they are not programmed to do, and the biggest help has been JLR engineering resources.”
JLR’s physical space — glass jars of LEGOs, bright colors, open and airy spaces, and different simulators — is designed to encourage incubator cohorts to “fail fast”; in other words, to put their ideas up constantly for peer consideration, critique and collaborative improvement.
Near the end of their six months, entrepreneurs must throw their best work into what Poole calls the “feature hopper,” to see if concepts might be a candidate for a service or feature in a JLR IVI system.
Though one set of companies has already graduated from the incubator program, Poole says all ideas that have made it to the hopper are still considered “possible.”
He’s pleased that companies tend to stick close after graduation and even lease space in the building. Eventually, he hopes some incubator cohorts will be acquired or outgrow the JLR digs but still take part in the ongoing mentoring meetings and community events JLR hosts in its space.
Poole, who moved to Portland in August, hasn’t had much time to enjoy his new city, though he is hoping on free weekends to check out Mt. Hood skiing this winter with his wife, Lorraine, and their two children. In the meantime, he has a lot on his plate, as a large portion of the JLR space is still being renovated; applications for the next set of cohorts are ongoing, and the circle of current collaborations is constantly expanding.
But he seems to take the work and his intercontinental move with equanimity. JLR has expanded the mission in Portland: Where once it was simply to develop the next generation of infotainment for the company’s vehicles, now there’s a recognition that IVI is at the center of automakers’, ability to innovate, not just in what a connected car can deliver to drivers but how it can be at the heart of next-generation urban mobility.
But ironically, perhaps, via its ability to deliver noncar services and internet connectivity, infotainment is also one of the most important keys to help auto companies keep consumers connected to a certain brand of car.
“Now the car is getting to be smart, connected, updating constantly, and everything is connected to everything else,” Poole says. “If we continually innovate and deliver those experiences, it becomes a real reason to purchase a vehicle [from us].”
A version of this article appears in the October issue of Oregon Business.