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Stephen Heck Creates Nauto To Make Transportation Safer

Stephen Heck Creates Nauto To Make Transportation Safer


Motor vehicle crashes cost dearly in lives and treasure. The latest figures available from the National Highway Safety Administration show that in 2019 alone vehicle crashes killed an estimated 36,500 people, injured 4.5 million and damaged 23 million vehicles accounting for $350 billion in costs.

Distracted driving accounted for 29% of those vehicle crashes representing nearly $100 billion in costs. One enterprising former Mckinsey partner and Stanford professor thought he could change those statistics for the better. His name is Stephen Heck, an Austria-born entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in neural networks.

“Every entrepreneur has kind of this ‘aha moment.’ And mine came while biking to work every day, and roughly twice a week, I would nearly get run over on my bike. I started logging what’s causing this, and then I started looking into the the federal and the California State government data, various insurance companies and said, ‘Okay, can I find in the data this cause of collisions, because what I found in my own logging was nearly all the near-miss collisions I had where because the other person was distracted,” says Heck.

Finding a solution to distracted driving then became his focus, which then turned into a business called Nauto. Founded by Heck in 2014, Nauto is a fleet safety and collision prevention solution whose AI-backed human driver technology enables some of the largest commercial fleets in the world to avoid collisions by accurately predicting and helping drivers prevent accidents before they occur.

“I started Nauto with a very simple business model. Let’s not replace the human driver. Let’s be a copilot that helps augment the human driver. The human is fantastic at judgments of complicated situations. What’s this pedestrian going to do? Is the kid going across the road? AI is terrible at that. But on the flip side, AI is fantastic at never falling asleep, never getting distracted,” says Heck.

Heck points to the auto industry’s most successful safety technology to date, namely the seat belt. While it took about ten years to adopt, it resulted in reduced fatalities and serious injuries by 20%. He believes his AI-assisted systems can follow the same curve in reducing traffic crashes, but this time by making sure they never happen.

According to Heck, Nauto provides the only real-time, AI-enabled safety system. But to bootstrap the company and first train the AI model he and his team created to launch Nauto, he needed data. Massive amounts of it. “Our first challenge was getting enough data to actually build the AI. Typically you would hire test drivers and drive around. We did things a little bit differently. I shipped cell phones to all of my friends all around the world. I’ve worked everywhere in the world for McKinsey. And I said, ‘Please just drive with this.’ And it was literally just a data logger,” says Heck.

Next, Heck convinced Taxi fleets to include a SIM card with LTE upload with their video recording devices now required in fleets in major cities. So without having to call a cab back and retrieve the video, the data could be transmitted back to Heck’s team. That was the beginning of both gaining the data needed to train the AI model and to building an always on IOT device to include inside vehicles.

With sufficient data and a device to demo, Heck and team were able to attract their first customers. Today Nauto’s 100 or so employees and some 50 contractors work with Fortune 100 companies with fleets, plus some of the large long-haul fleet owners. Plus, the company is now starting to integrate its safety platform with auto and truck manufacturers like Navistar for large trucks and GM for light commercial vehicles.

“We’re growing very fast. Depending on exactly which years you look at, it’s always between 50% and 100% year-over-year. We’re a couple years away from IPO, markets willing,” says Heck.

Could Nauto’s technology be applied to other modes of transportation? “The vision is that we would be able to make transportation mobility as a whole safer. Right now, like most startups, were focused on things that have four wheels and drive on regular city streets,” says Heck.

Nauto’s growth and market potential has allowed the firm to attract nearly $180 million in funding to date. Their latest funding was a Series B round in July 2017 for $159 million led by Greylock and Softbank Vision Fund. General Motors Ventures and Playground Global led its $12 million A round in April of 2016. Additional investors include Toyota AI Ventures, BMW iVentures, DNX Ventures, Allianz X and and Play Insurtech among others.

Heck was born in Salzburg, Austria and grew up in a small town in the mountains near there. As a teenager, he lived and wen to school in Vienna, and would later come to the US for college at Stanford.

He took college classes in high school and was advanced in math. In his math class, he learned programming on a Commodore PET. When he was 14, he read a book that had a profound influence on him. The book was Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter exploring common themes in the lives and works of logician Kurt Godel, artist M.C. Escher and composer Johann Sebastian Back. The 1979 book expounds concepts fundamental to mathematics, symmetry and intelligence. “And that’s the book that that got me aware there’s this thing called ‘AI’ and neural networks. And I got this crazy idea in my head as a 14 year old I want to go study that,” says Heck. His studies, extensive experience at Mckinsey and professorship at Stanford would lead him to launch his AI platform focused on transportation safety.

As for the future? “The grand vision and dream is to leverage AI as a broad platform to improve the whole industry by saving lives, reducing fuel, making the entire industry more efficient, working with fleets, but also working with insurance companies working with the manufacturers, and ultimately working with the infrastructure owners, the department’s of transportation in the cities,” concludes Heck


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