A decade ago, automotive companies knew exactly who they had to hire to stay ahead of the competition -- the best mechanical engineers, marketers, sales people, financial experts, perhaps computer hardware and software designers. But today, they are casting their net farther and wider, as the old "car industry" transforms itself into a provider of mobility services.
Lear, the seating and electrical systems supplier, has developed a system called BioBridge, which uses sensors embedded in the seat that monitor stress, drowsiness, heart rate and other vital signs. The data can then be used to trigger alerts to wake up a drowsy driver, or in case of irregularities, be sent to an emergency care provider or family member.
There are plenty of computer and software experts on Lear's staff, but to ensure that the BioBridge health and wellness system works effectively, the company turned to the medical profession, CEO Ray Scott told me. Lear now has two cardiologists on staff.
"One of the challenges is hiring the right people to drive the technologies and innovations that we have been talking about," Scott said.
That is particularly true in the quest for self-driving cars. Suppliers and automakers are hiring experts in artificial intelligence, camera optics and machine learning.
"The challenge for autonomous driving is to mimic high-level thinking that goes on in the human brain,” said Luc Van Gool, a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium who works with Toyota on computer vision technology for self-driving cars.
That kind of thinking goes far beyond a vehicle's ability to recognize road signs or stay in its lane. The deepest questions -- so far unsolvable -- involve judgment and ethics. For example, even if a self-driving car has the ability to pass another in the rain, should it? Or, if an accident is unavoidable, what's the alternative that will cause the least damage to property? Would a self-driving car protect itself and its occupants at the risk of pedestrians' lives? In other words, trying to teach computers to do what a human would in a given circumstance.
The answer to these vexing questions isn't brain surgery. It may be much more complex than that.
Ford struck a licensing deal in 2016 with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a startup whose founder "cracked the neural code the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain," the automaker said.
Toyota and Hyundai are among the backers of Perceptive Automata, a startup in Boston that is using neuroscience and psychology to help vehicles develop human-like intuition.
Then, there are the barriers within our own mind.
"How do we give humans this safe feeling when they are being driven around by a robot?" BMW board member Peter Schwarzenbauer asked in an interview last year with the design website Dezeen.
"I think the psychological barriers are probably more important than the legal barriers." Schwarzenbauer said. The executive added that BMW was working with psychologists to "to find out what is the right approach to make people feel really safe."
Cardiologists, neuroscientists and psychologists are a far cry from the grease-stained garage tinkerers who built the auto industry more than 100 years ago. But their skills will be necessary to ensure that it survives. Said Lear CEO Scott: "We are looking at talent that's significantly different than what we have seen in the past."