Meet Jennifer Haroon — VP, Strategy & Business Operations at Nauto

Founded in 2015, our portfolio company Nauto is committed to making driving safer and smarter. Led by CEO Stefan Heck, the Palo Alto-based transportation technology company has developed an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered data platform that helps improve fleet safety, and offers important insights to further the development of self-driving technology.

Last Sepember, Nauto expanded its leadership team with the hiring of Jennifer Haroon as Vice President, Strategy and Business Operations. Jennifer, who started her career in investment banking and went on to work in strategy consulting, joined Nauto from Waymo where she spent three years as the Head of Business Operations at what was formerly known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Tasked with putting Waymo on the path toward commercialization, Jennifer worked to develop the overall strategy, developed relationships with OEMs and other relevant partners, and worked with cities and states to support Waymo’s expanding testing program.

We spoke with Jennifer about why she joined Nauto, the company’s efforts to enable safer driving, and some of the lessons she’s learned about building successful partnerships between startups and large corporations.

Why did you decide to join Nauto?

When I made the decision to leave the Google family to join a startup, I spoke with many great founders and investors to learn more about the automotive technology space. Nauto popped up in numerous conversations, and when I met with our CEO, Stefan Heck, it was clear that we shared a similar vision for the future of transportation.

In particular, I loved Nauto’s focus on safety, which is also why I had joined Waymo. Nauto’s approach to tackling road safety — with an aftermarket device that leverages computer vision and deep learning-based technologies — was also a big draw. Beyond the problems they’re solving for today, I saw how Nauto has the potential to play a critical role as we transition to full autonomy — a development that I believe will take many years.

In a blog post, you wrote about the role that humans play in enabling autonomy. How can autonomous vehicles learn from human drivers, and how can the data Nauto is collecting help make driving safer?

Understanding how all types of drivers — good and bad — behave behind the wheel is a big part of developing safe, effective autonomous vehicles. This is especially important when it comes to unexpected or nuanced situations, like when a driver encounters a road detour or approaches an urban intersection where navigation depends on driver-to-driver eye contact. We’re already starting to capture these insights through Nauto’s aftermarket device.

The more miles Nauto-enabled vehicles accumulate, the more we’re able to learn about how drivers and vehicles behave, and the smarter the system gets. For instance, if we’re able to see in our data that an intersection has a high rate of collisions and near-collisions, we can see how drivers safely navigate that intersection and apply that learning.

Are there plans to make Nauto’s fleet-based technology available to other drivers?

Our top priority has always been the improvement of driver safety and efficiency. So that we can have the biggest impact in these areas, we made the conscious decision to focus on providing solutions for commercial fleet drivers since they drive much more than your average consumer. With nearly 3.2 million miles driven in the U.S. each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration 2016, and 1 in every 3 of these miles being driven by a commercial vehicle, the opportunity to deepen our understanding of human driving behavior is huge.

Where do you see the company five to ten years from now?

In the near-term, we’re focused on improving driver safety and efficiency for commercial fleets. As we gain a better understanding of road conditions and driver behavior — through our intelligent camera system — we will be able to use these insights to power the development of autonomous driving vehicles. Looking ahead, Nauto will continue to serve commercial fleet customers with ever more advanced technologies that enable them to drive safely. And with our millions of miles of driving scenarios, autonomous technology developers will be able to leverage this data to both improve and validate the safety of their L2, L3, and L4 systems.

Based on your experience, how can startups and established players work together to drive innovation in the autonomous vehicles space?

Communication and feedback is key for any partnership, and that is true for startups and established players. We’re grateful to our partners, like Toyota, who are working with us to navigate their large, complex companies — and in particular, providing best practices for collaborating with their engineers. At the same time, we also share suggestions for how they can better interact with us.

What advice would you give to startups looking to partner with large corporations?

I always tell startups not to take the stereotypes about large corporations at face value — take the time to listen and learn for yourself. I also encourage them to develop relationships with people throughout the organization, because in a large corporation, your startup is not only going to need support from the most senior level people, but also the day-to-day folks with whom your team collaborates.

What about corporate partners — how can they improve the way they think about and interact with startups?

For big companies, my first piece of feedback to startups similarly applies. Making assumptions about how startups operate or what they do (or don’t know) without actually establishing the relationships is sure to backfire. Big companies need to be open to changing the way things have always been done, rather than sticking to a process or procedure because that’s what is written internally.

When it comes to AI and autonomous mobility, which areas of innovation are you most excited about? Where do you think startups can have the biggest impact?

I’m a strong believer in the potential for AI and autonomous mobility to save lives and enhance our ability to get around. Although some people have been working on autonomous mobility for over a decade, we are still in the early days in many ways. That’s where startups come into play.

There’s a huge opportunity to advance what’s being done in this space, whether that’s by developing new sensor technologies or improving perception algorithms. I also strongly believe in the power of competition to drive innovation and bring about breakthroughs that will have impacts we may not be able to define today. Lastly, I believe entrepreneurs can make a positive difference by thinking about this as more than just an interesting technological problem to solve. Instead, I’d challenge them to think about AI and autonomous mobility as technologies that are meant to serve humanity.

Any final thoughts?

The problems that Nauto are tackling have made me an even bigger believer in the power of technology to transform industries. It’s also the reason why I firmly believe that we always need to keep the human element in mind. One of the many ways Nauto keeps the human element in mind is by building a diverse team where 52% of management are women, including our VP of Engineering, Annie Cheng. Everyone drives differently, and having a diverse team means that we’re able to create technology that adheres to a broad set of driver needs.

Nauto is doing a lot in the way of enhancing driving for people who spend much of their time on the road, and I’m proud to be working with the team and our partners to help bring autonomous mobility to the world.

Visit Nauto’s website to learn more about the company (they’re hiring!), and follow @NAUTOdriver and @JHaroon on Twitter.

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