Cruise’s head of artificial intelligence wants the autonomous-car startup to be defined by its AI innovation

Cruise AV
A Cruise AV in the Bay Area.

For autonomous vehicle startup Cruise, the future isn’t just about artificial intelligence. It’s about machine learning, and that’s why Cruise is teaching its electric vehicles to drive themselves in San Francisco – one of the most complicated urban environments for self-driving cars to operate in.

“Learning how to drive in San Francisco is amazing for AI,” said Hussein Mehanna, the company’s head of AI, noting that the dense and unpredictable streets are ultimately an advantage. “The more interesting the data, the more the machine can learn.”

Mehanna hopes that learning will not only revolutionize autonomous driving, but also plant Cruise at the forefront of the next big thing: AI-based companies.

Taking machine learning to a new level

General Motors bought Cruise back in 2016 for around $1 billion, and through subsequent investment rounds, it’s grown to a nearly $30 billion valuation. The company’s goals are spectacularly ambitious, with CEO Dan Ammann effectively calling for the end of personal-car ownership and spurring Cruise to go after a multi-trillion-dollar future global ride-hailing opportunity.

In order to get there, Cruise needs game-changing hardware and software – a quest overseen by Kyle Vogt, its cofounder and chief technology officer – and high-profile partners, including ones it already has like GM and Honda. But Cruise also needs artificial intelligence and machine learning at a level that, frankly, nobody has seen before.

Hussein Mehanna Headshot
Hussein Mehanna.

As powerful as 21st-century AI sounds, Mehanna said it’s only recently that its full capabilities have been unleashed. Advancements in robotics and machine learning have made that possible.

“I always had a fascination with AI,” Mehanna, whose career path to Cruise included stints at Facebook and Google, told Insider in an interview. But where are all the robots we might have expected to see by now?

Mehanna said the kind of AI we see in demonstrations – dancing humanoids robots on YouTube, for example – doesn’t scale.

“They’re scripted to handle a certain number of use cases,” he said.

cruise self driving car san francisco people walking
A Cruise vehicle in San Francisco in May 2019.

Enter machine learning, which he said has the critical power to generalize.

This is, to put it mildly, huge. At Cruise, Mehnna’s team is tackling a whole new way of undertaking computer science, led by those autonomous EVs cruising through San Francisco.

If it all comes together and Cruise is able to successfully commercialize its service, then Mehanna said that the company could notch an unprecedented achievement: becoming what he termed the first “AI-native company.”

Dreaming of robots that can do much, much more

“It’s a new concept, and we’re inventing it,” he said. The analogy that leaped to mind for him was being able to handle HTML coding for the internet of the late 1990s.

“If you knew HTML, you were a rocket scientist,” he said. The skillset led to internet-native companies such as Google. That history is now staged to repeat with Cruise.

“In five to 10 years, AI natives will be the status quo,” he said.

The endgame of this process should be what he called a “general-purpose robot,” able to learn as humans now learn. It could drive a car, fly a plane, or attend to more mundane tasks.

“My dream,” he said, “is to get my laundry folded by a robot.”

Walmart Cruise self driving car

Talking to Mehanna, one gets that sense that we’re just at the beginning of something radical in changing how the world operates. Cruise has already made huge leaps in teaching a car to drive itself, once the stuff of science-fiction movies. But for Mehanna, those apparent leaps are but small steps toward robotic applications and machine learning remaking numerous aspects of everyday life – aspects that we take for granted or have long assumed would always have to involve natural, rather than artificial intelligence.

In the short term, however, he’s simply contemplating machine learning as a prerequisite to Cruise accomplishing what it set out to do five years ago.

“At Cruise, you can’t have a company without AI,” he said.

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Experts lay out how the chaos caused by pandemic-era panic buying could revolutionize our global supply chain

Stockpiling toilet paper
In the US, one of the earliest stories of the pandemic was the toilet paper shortage.

A year-long struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more headlines than we as a society – as well as the people writing those headlines – can really handle. There’s been speculation, sadness, chaos, fear, isolation, data, and graphs. So many graphs.

But one of the earliest headlines of the pandemic wasn’t about any of that. It was about supply, and the supply of one product in particular: toilet paper.

When Insider mentioned the great toilet paper crisis of 2020 in a virtual roundtable with Hannah Kain, founder and CEO of California-headquartered supply chain management supplier ALOM Technologies, she laughed.

“Yes, we can talk about the toilet paper,” she said. “I never thought I would be interviewed so much about toilet paper.”

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A shopper at a Target store in Brooklyn reaches for disinfectant wipes in March 2020.

When much of the US shifted to quarantine overnight last March, the world’s supply chain was forced into the spotlight. Suddenly, we were ordering more online: our groceries, our home office setups, our bread ingredients, our puzzles. When we did face this new, mysterious virus to go into a store, we were met with empty shelves and freshly printed signs telling us we couldn’t buy more than two jugs of milk. Sales of toilet paper in the US shot up 845%, demand for Clorox products spiked by 500%, and treadmill sales more than doubled.

As we depended on our supply chain more, we criticized it more. After all, how hard could it be to just make some more toilet paper?

As consumers, we focused on the supply side of the equation. But Kain said for the professionals, supply problems haven’t been the story for much of the pandemic – demand shift has.

“Demand shifted so dramatically, sometimes 50% or 100% compared to forecast,” Kain said. “The supply really got constrained, right? If the demand had not shifted, the supply side would have been difficult, but it would still have been flowing really, really well.

“Many [journalists] say, ‘But why don’t they just make more?’ I’m like, ‘Well, guess what, you need equipment to make more toilet tissue, and where do you get the equipment from?’ A lot of times, from China. But even if you use a local equipment maker, they need spare parts from all over the world and it just takes time to deploy it.”

Toilet paper production
The US saw demand spikes as the pandemic took hold, and toilet paper sales shot up 845%.

Kain said demand changed in two important ways: which products people bought and, as people shifted even more of their purchasing online, which channels they bought them through.

Mei Yee Pang, the Singapore-based head of DHL Asia Pacific Innovation, saw similar patterns, illustrating a common theme of the pandemic: how intertwined supply chains are, for better and for worse.

“Supply chains today are so global, you see pretty much the same phenomena everywhere we go,” Pang told Insider. “We too had our toilet paper issues. There was, at some point in time, a global shortage of glassware because everybody started making jams at home and needed glass jars.

“So we do see very interesting demand shapes, and a lot of them, looking back, are something that we can expect. That’s where big data potentially in the future can come in more, better forecasting some of these effects that we normally wouldn’t have expected.”

costco cart toilet paper kirkland
The production of toilet paper came into the spotlight during the shortages, with many asking why companies couldn’t just make more. Experts told Insider it wasn’t that easy.

Changing demand isn’t the only issue the pandemic highlighted. More online ordering didn’t just mean more convenience for the buyer – it meant more waste, too.

“Every time I receive a parcel, I feel bad about it because I’m contributing to waste,” Pang said. “I think this is something that needs to change. We can’t be sending individual shipments using partially utilized vehicles to send stuff around to individual homes.

“It’s not easy, but I think as we go more and more from a less than 20% e-commerce channel to now, some companies are having that switch around to e-commerce as a major channel, we are going to see a lot of waste coming into play and it’s not sustainable.”

Cargo planes
As many places shifted to quarantine, consumers’ online ordering habits expanded.

Kain thinks the switch to e-commerce is here to stay, but said there’s “no easy solution” to making the change more sustainable from a packaging perspective.

“If we go to things like consumer electronics, everything was packaged for the retail shelves,” Kain said. “Maybe now you have a shippable box, and you don’t have a box inside a box.

“We are a little bit in a tough spot right now because recycling and return packaging is of course a big issue because of the risk of infection. I think this is something that we’ve got to develop over time, but I do think that the big carriers are going to come out with support in this area.”

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A stack of delivered packages and boxes sit outside a front door.

Pang, whose employer DHL is one of those big carriers with more than 350,000 employees worldwide, said analytics will help.

“In our organization, we start looking at how we can help our customers look at packaging and use data information to optimize the way we pack, the way we pelletize,” Pang said. “Every small bit counts to really reducing our footprint, and at the same time, lowers cost. So what’s not to like about this sort of solution?”

Peter Evans, CEO of the UK-based sustainable supply chain technology company Orderly, told Insider his company’s main product is something called a “scorecard.” Its goals include reducing waste of both products and packaging.

“It rates everyone who manages supply chain operations, from someone in a warehouse to the CEO, on a scale of zero to five,” Evans said. “Zero being ‘You’re wrecking the planet and you’re wrecking your business,’ five being ‘You’re really making some decent change here.’ We use AI against all this data we pull in to give each person two recommendations each week on what they can do to provide the biggest, most sustainable impact to their supply chain.

“For us, it’s changing people’s mindsets on an individual level, showing them what can be done in the world as well – what can create the biggest benefit.”

ups employee packages delivery
A UPS employee delivers packages.

Kain said that’s important, both in terms of sustainability and social responsibility, as more people think about their relationships with companies.

“Corporate social responsibility has become way more important for decision makers,” Kain said. “It’s driven by consumers. We want companies to be in sync with our values. We don’t want them to be out of sync.

“For instance, early in the pandemic, there was a survey done in the US showing 87% of consumers did not want to buy product from companies that did not keep their workers safe. We’ve never seen sentiments like this before, and it’s very healthy and good. It’s forcing the corporations to think differently about their supply chain in a very healthy manner. In any crisis, there’s a silver lining, and I think that’s it.”

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A worker loads a truck with packages at an Amazon packaging center in Germany.

Another silver lining might be that when or if this kind of global crisis happens again, the supply chain will be a bit more prepared for what’s coming – thanks, in part, to how big of a spotlight its struggles received when the pandemic hit.

“I think there’s a newfound respect for the sector, from the boardroom to the individual consumers at home,” Pang said. “There’s a newfound priority placed on the sector to put in more technology, to put in more innovation, to put in more R&D into making it more agile and more prepared for situations like this, so I’m quite optimistic about what we can see from the sector in the next few years.”

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How the next generation of automation will drive warehouses of the future

MELONEE WISE   Steve Jennings_Getty Images
Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics

COVID-19 has upended many businesses, but none more so than brick and mortar stores that rely on foot traffic. The combination of government-mandated shutdowns and consumer worry made these retailers’ sales tank in 2020, with almost 10,000 U.S. stores closing permanently. But consumers didn’t stop shopping – trapped at home, they took their buying online, which led to an e-commerce boom.

That boom has strained distribution and fulfillment centers, which every online order passes through before reaching a buyer’s doorstep. The pandemic exacerbated existing labor shortages in these warehouses; meanwhile, consumers expect online orders to arrive faster than ever, with two-day shipping the new standard. Warehouses are under tremendous pressure to do more with less.

These challenges won’t go away when the pandemic ends. In fact, IBM research shows that COVID accelerated the shift to e-commerce by 5 years. To keep up with this growth in e-commerce and to compete against the likes of Amazon, companies have begun viewing automation as more than a competitive advantage – it’s now a necessity. Warehouses must embrace new automation technologies like robotics and connected devices. Existing automation has already improved safety and efficiency, and warehouses that embrace the next generation – flexible solutions for monitoring and changing workflows on demand – will flourish. Here’s how automation has already addressed some of the biggest warehouse challenges and what’s next.

Warehouses are at a breaking point

The world has changed drastically in the last half century, but some warehouses haven’t. Many remain labor intensive, relying on workers to find a specific item in a sea of products and walk with it, sometimes miles, to the right processing station.

As the pandemic increased demands on warehouses, many companies struggled to hire staff to keep up while following COVID-19 regulations. Facing growing order volumes, these companies had to rely on staff to walk miles every day to pick products off shelves and keep operations running.

Among warehouses that have embraced automation, the pandemic proved all automation is not created equally. Many warehouses that have automation in place rely on fixed solutions such as conveyors and sortation systems, which can take 6-9 months to implement and are difficult to adjust to support new workflow needs. These fixed solutions were pushed to their limit in 2020, as facilities sought to meet new demands and make changes to their workflows on the fly.

Automation has made warehouses safer and faster

In response, some companies have begun automating specific workflows within their warehouses to reduce pressure on workers and increase productivity. COVID-19 accelerated this trend as facilities had to adopt social distancing rules and limit the number of workers in their facilities. In some of these facilities, employees now work side-by-side with mobile robots that quickly move goods across long distances, reducing physical strain on workers and speeding up production.

Automation also makes it easier for companies to operate warehouses in smaller facilities. As retail foot traffic dried up and online demand soared, some companies outfitted old retail stores that are closer to population centers as distribution centers. Using robots to power operations at all hours, they can fulfill and deliver orders faster.

How the next generation of automation will drive warehouses

Historically, a major sticking point in automation adoption is the time and cost of installation. Installing fixed automation systems requires facilities to cut operations in half for weeks. That obstacle is fading: new flexible automation solutions can be operational in a day. For example, warehouse workers can unbox a mobile robot, connect it to wifi and have it autonomously moving materials within hours.

In the case where there is a large investment in fixed automation that companies want to leverage, but still implement flexible automation like AMRs, cloud-based AMRs offer a way to bridge the gap between these two types of automation. For example, AMRs can autonomously move totes on and off a conveyor system by moving to the end of the conveyor, letting the cloud software know that it is next to the conveyor, and have the cloud software turn on the conveyor system and the rollers on top of the AMR to move a tote on or off the AMR. The same sort of integration can be used with other types of fixed automation.

Even after automation is installed, another challenge is that warehouse work effectively happens in a black box. Facility managers see what goes in and out, but not which aisles are congested or when a forklift moves too fast. Mobile robots with sensors can help by acting as “hall monitors,” showing managers the floor in real-time. Managers can spot inefficiencies and dangers, then create strategies to increase productivity and stop accidents before they happen.

As the shift from physical stores to e-commerce continues, warehouses will be more essential than ever to companies’ relationships with their customers and their bottom lines. With an ongoing labor shortage and heightened consumer demand, warehouses that embrace a new generation of flexible automation will be safer and more efficient.

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Vietnamese budget flyer VietJet Air bucks the global aviation trend by posting a small profit for 2020

NGUYEN THI PHUONG THAO   Linh Luong Thai Bloomberg Getty Images
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, founder of VietJet

As COVID-19 continues to bring havoc to airline markets across the world, a decade-old budget airline in Vietnam is one of the few carriers to have come out of 2020 in relatively good shape VietJet Air, headed by Vietnam’s first female self-made billionaire Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, not only managed to get through the year still in profit, it also did so without laying off any staff. In its financial statements, the airline said it earned US$790 million in consolidated revenue in 2020, with an after-tax profit of roughly US$3 million.

VietJet’s experience is in stark contrast to the aviation sector in general, where airlines have been devastated by global travel restrictions. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) passenger traffic numbers fell by around 60% last year, with just 1.8 billion people taking flights compared to 4,5 billion in 2019.

The financial hit to airlines has been huge, with an estimated loss of around US$370 billion. Before the year had even ended as many as 12 airlines had ceased operations, with many more filing for bankruptcy or making significant cuts in expenditure.

Few airlines have managed to avoid the crash. In mid-March, for instance, Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific unveiled its worst-ever financial results, with losses of around US$2.8 billion. The airline had earlier been forced to lay off some 8,500 staff, roughly 25% of its total workforce. Similarly, Vietnam’s national carrier Vietnam Airlines made losses of over US$480 million in 2020, and has said it doesn’t expect to be generating profit until 2023 at the earliest.

The success of VietJet Air is undoubtedly grounded in the achievements of Vietnam itself in 2020. Vietnam was Asia’s top-performing economy last year, growing at a rate of 2.9% compared to 2018. Vietnam has also excelled in terms of handling the COVID-19 pandemic. With just over 2,500 infections and only 35 total deaths, Vietnam was able to resume economic activities earlier than most of its Asian counterparts

“Strong national economic performance generally, underpins a solid airline operating environment,” agrees Matthew Findlay of Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting (APAC). “The fortunes of many well-run airlines follow or better GDP growth rates – VietJet has benefited in this case from an economy still in positive territory.”

But while a booming economy has given VietJet a leg up, it is only one part of the story. After all, VietJet’s domestic rival Vietnam Airlines has failed to achieve similar results. More important has been how VietJet has innovated its way through the crisis.

A pivot into cargo services

Like all airlines the early part of 2020 was one of uncertainty for VietJet, but unlike many of its competitors the turnaround came sooner than expected. By June it had restarted all domestic flights, and even added eight new routes to its network. Overall, the airline flew more than 15 million passengers in 2020 and domestic air travel fell by just 14% in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Without question, continued domestic demand gave VietJet a strong foundation for recovery, but what really carried the airline through 2020 was its ability to pivot into new business areas, in particular its move into cargo services.

By the end of 2020, the airline said it had delivered more than 60,000 tons of cargo internationally, reporting a 75% year-on-year increase in cargo revenue. This is particularly impressive given that prior to COVID-19, VietJet had no full-cargo aircraft in operation. Instead, passenger craft were reconfigured to enable them to carry goods on the main deck.

The airline also established partnerships with other carriers, which enabled it to extend its cargo network into Europe and the US. In November last year, VietJet announced an air cargo link-up with logistics giant UPS to operate weekly flights from Vietnam to the US, which also signaled the first time a VietJet craft had landed in the US.

This shift into cargo is much more than a temporary fix to pandemic conditions, and VietJet has already said that it plans to build on the mounting demand for cargo transportation. Toward the end of 2020, the airline launched an affiliate company – VietJet Cargo – which reinforced its future commitment to cargo transport. Vietjet Cargo standing vice-president Tran Quang Hoa told Insider that the carrier would continue to diversify its range of cargo services.

“These services will be developed based on our existing products in 2020 which have optimized our fleet and operation and raked in quite a considerable amount of revenue for VietJet in the past year,” he said. “I believe that freight transportation will continue to be our focus sector which brings in breakthroughs and extra revenue for VietJet in 2021.

A new future for aviation

Indeed, the lessons of 2020 look set to play a key role in defining VietJet’s future course. The airline’s success with cargo operations have also accelerated a shift into non-passenger services. Earlier this year, for instance, the company said it had invested into local online delivery platform Swift247 and will in the near future target the express delivery market.

VietJet is also expected to ramp up promotion of its ancillary services, such as souvenirs and in-flight food. In 2020, ancillary revenue accounted for close to 50% of total revenue

VietJet would not be the first airline in the region to open these new revenue streams. In 2020, Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia expanded its cargo and logistics division into cross border e-commerce transportation and last-mile delivery. Also last year, AirAsia launched its own digital travel and lifestyle platform and super app, offering non-flight related services such as e-commerce and food delivery.

Ultimately though, what matters for an airline is getting passengers on seats, and once international routes open up, analysts expect VietJet to expand further its overseas operations, helped no doubt by its positive financial performance in 2020.

“Asian nations have dealt with COVID-19 better than other nations and regions, so an expected return to travel for VietJet will come, benefiting the airline and ensuring its success,” Findlay says. “Wealthy Asian markets will be tempting focus areas for expansion as they focus on core historical visitor markets, while the back-order of aircraft that offer the opportunity to fly further in more economical and lower cost aircraft provides scope for growth into new and existing markets.”

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