Startup Week 2017: Driving Ourselves To Embrace Technology Transformation

  • Ford tested its autonomous cars' system for navigatin on snow covered roads in 2016. (Photo/Ford Mortors Inc)

“Remember that almost every new concept was ridiculed, rejected, and laughed at when first presented, especially by the experts of the time.” - Jacque Fresco (American Futurist)


The year is 2025, it's midnight on a snowy November evening in Anchorage, and Mia Harper is about to head home from the restaurant/pub she DJs at on the South side of town.

Just before she walks out of the door, she pops her smartbud into an ear, and casually asks Kima (her smart digital assistant) if everything is okay at home. Kima replies, “Yep all is well, Nick cooked your favorite dinner, I’ve been keeping it warm. Your car will be pulling up to the door in 20 seconds and you’ll be home in 13 minutes.”

Mia jumps into the back of the AutoAuto outside the door and Kima is automatically routed to the car’s “hands free system” (a term that has become antiquated as hands-on driving is really just for classic car enthusiasts).

The AutoAutos supply 75 percent of the vehicles on the road in America today and private ownership of vehicles is quickly becoming a memory; instead, everyone has a subscription to their favorite AutoAutos service (much like cell phone plans).

Mia relaxes back in a chair already adjusted for her maximum comfort and safety, Kima asks if she is ready to go...

Although the story of Mia’s commute home is just a science fiction short for now, these transformative technologies described are very much science fact here and now in 2017.

Startups (high growth, global potential companies) around the USA are innovating self-driving cars, digital assistants, voice recognition systems, artificial intelligence and seamless user experiences heavily supported by venture capital investment funds.

These technologies often generate fears around mass automation, and the public (beyond the entrepreneurs) rarely gets much of a chance to spend a moment looking at the opportunities presented during these historic market transitions. Consider this: Mia in the story was blind and these technologies have transformed her life.

Continuing the example of self-driving vehicles used for mass-transit, towns like Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau could position themselves to take major advantage of this inevitable multi-billion dollar market transition.

Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation made an application to the Google to bring their self-driving car tests to Juneau in early 2016; although this application has not led to a test site in Alaska, it did garner plenty of community interest.

Towns in Alaska have relatively low population density, challenging winter road and visibility conditions, burdensome public transport systems, high insurance rates due to the frequency of car accidents, and vehicles that have to be remote-started just to reach a comfortable temperature to drive…

It’s not a huge stretch of imagination to see self-driving vehicles augment commercial trucking, public transit, commuter transport, etc., offering hassle free pickup and drop off services (you’ll never need to find a parking spot), intelligent routing and servicing (commuter routes will adjust to demand), and even negotiating the ice roads.

Nevertheless, it takes visionary thinking to say in 10 years Anchorage will replace its entire public bus fleet with user-friendly  autonomous mini-vans, which will adjust their frequency and route to demand — providing residents with convenient, safe and personalized transit at little to no additional cost due to overhead savings.

According to David Silver author of the “Self-Driving Car Engineer” courses on Udacity, autonomous vehicles are divided into several levels of automation. We’re a year away from Audi’s new 2018 A8 luxury model that will be the world’s first commercially available Level 3 Automated Vehicle (the car can drive itself in regular highway conditions but a human should be present to respond appropriately to a request to intervene by the vehicle).

As we rapidly approach Level 4 and Level 5 fully autonomous vehicles (which will not require a human driver), extreme weather and adverse condition testing will be evermore relevant.

Cities like Boston, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, Austin as well as Silicon Valley have already welcomed autonomous vehicles; these initiatives, often led by municipalities or local mayors, create welcoming test beds for this future ubiquitous technology.

Now is the time for Alaska to join the ever-growing group of states enabling this industry. By doing so, we will generate an influx of startups and talent who would want to operate and prove out their systems in this extreme environment as they develop these higher level autonomous vehicle systems, just one of many technologies that are in line to transform the local and global economy.

Alaska Startup Week brings entrepreneurs, local leaders, and friends together during 10 days of events and celebration to build momentum and opportunity around our state’s unique entrepreneurial identity. Startup Week is a focal point of the Innovate Alaska (2.0) effort to diversify Alaska’s economic base. For more information and a full list of 2017 events, visit

Nigel Sharp is the Global Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Alaska and is a resource for staff, students and faculty as well as the wider Alaskan entrepreneurial community. Previously, he worked in the same capacity at the University of Colorado Boulder where he co-founded a University spin-out company which raised venture funding and was accepted into the Techstars business accelerator in 2017. In recent years Nigel co-founded software companies working on technologies ranging from voice recognition and gesture control to IT Network security. He has judged, mentored or organized 18 Hackathons/StartupWeekends, started businesses in six countries, participated in four business acceleration programs, and spoken at TEDx. He is here to #GiveFirst to the Alaskan startup community, and welcomes your engagement.

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07/27/2017 - 12:19pm