“Chris” is the first digital co-driver, an AI mobile device for your car that enables you to safely concentrate on the road whilst staying connected to your digital world. We spoke to its creator from German Autolabs, Holger Weiss.
Smartphones have rendered most other electronic gizmos for your car (and everywhere else…) obsolete. But there’s still one barrier that makes them impractical for use whilst driving – that you have to take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel to use them. And no email is worth dying for (insert Hillary joke at own risk). This is where Chris comes in.
Chris is just like you, except he’s a tiny device that fits to your windscreen and takes control of all your digital media whilst you drive. And, they promise us, he won’t turn evil like HAL did back in ’01.
Connect Chris to your smartphone whilst driving to read and write messages and emails, make and receive calls calls, build up and play music playlists and input destinations for navigation. But what makes Chris special is that he gets to know you, learns your patterns, and does most of the work for you. You can also talk to him.
I spoke to Holger Weiss, Chris’s Dad.
Holger, why is Chris your best friend?
Because Chris gives you access to your daily digital life while driving in a smart and convenient way. We all know that using smartphones in the car is dangerous, illegal and not fit for purpose. But we all do it because we use digital services like WhatsApp, E-Mail or Spotify all the time. So Chris helps you with all this while driving. It functions as a digital co-driver – a smart AI-device that is equipped with highly intelligent speech and gesture recognition to connect you to your smartphone while it is safely stored away in your pocket. Just like a good friend would do while sitting next to you.
How did you come up with the idea for Chris?
As usual with good ideas, I was in the same situation like many other drivers out there. I was stuck in traffic and used my smartphone to check and answer emails or messages. And you always feel guilty because you know it’s illegal, dangerous and also very inconvenient. I’ve worked for over 15 years in building technology startups and many years of those I’ve focused on the automotive industry. Patrick, my co-founder, has a vast amount of experience in building digital consumer products with a strong focus on mobility, such as his previous role with HERE Maps. We both knew that the smartphone is the gateway to your digital life but not a good device to use as a driver. So we were spinning ideas about a device that could function exactly as if your friend is sitting next to you with your smartphone and tells you when an important message comes in.
You guys produce everything in Germany. Is Germany the new China?
It’s correct. Our suppliers for developing Chris are all from Germany – they are even in Berlin or close to Berlin.
We have some experience in hardware manufacturing in China. I personally lived in Hong Kong for two years. It’s a huge benefit to have everyone not more than one hour away. We are building a high quality device and we feel that the engineering talent and capacities are best for us here. However, since we believe in the success of Chris (and accordingly the big numbers we’d have to produce), I wouldn’t exclude the idea that we will also need to look for manufacturers outside of the EU.
We’ll have self driving cars and drones everywhere soon. Where will Chris be when that happens?
Although I’m very sure that we will have self driving cars and also drones in our daily life, I doubt it will be very soon accessible for everyone. Over 500 million cars in North America and Europe have an average age of 11 (US) and nine (Germany) years and they are anything but connected. With Chris, drivers are connected – totally independent of the age of their car. The other point is that even in a fully-autonomous car, there are needs and demands you’ll have while driving that the car can’t fulfill. Those of us who are fans of Star Trek will remember how Captain Picard and his crew talk to their ship as if it’s an omnipresent friend? You see, Chris has a great career to go.
Your team is in Berlin. Tell us a bit about what makes it great to build a company in Berlin?
First of all it’s our city. I’ve lived here for almost 20 years. Patrick studied here too. We love our city and it’s not a secret that it’s a great place to be.
Secondly, Berlin turned (and is still turning) into this exciting startup and technology hub. People from all over the world are coming to Berlin to build their own companies or to become part of a company. We are less than one year old and have 20 people from 10 different nations in the team. A typical Berlin team.
A third point is that Berlin is really evolving into an ecosystem, where you find the pieces you need to build a successful company. More and more investors come to town. There is not a single car maker or supplier not having any digital activities in the city. As much as we are thinking globally – for automotive tech especially, Berlin is the place to be.
In the past you’ve been quite successful in building companies. What is it that drives you to always start over again?
I had the luck to be part of teams that managed to build companies. It’s an experience that again counts for German Autolabs – you are nothing without a team. I like to build companies, to move things fast. Testing things and stopping them fast if they don’t fly. Amending them, restarting, making them better. It’s a very different style than to work in a big corporate company. They can do amazing things, but they need their time. I was into athletics when I was younger and I never was a long distance runner – I was always a sprinter. Over the years I’ve had to learn that endurance is a fundamental part of being an entrepreneur, but patience maybe not. What makes the current time so overly exciting for me is also the fact that after having been in automotive tech for so many years, now’s the time when everything is starting to change – and we can be a part of it.
If I am in the car with you and ask Chris to help me drive to ‘Holger’s favourite lunch spot’ in Berlin, where will he take us?
“Hey Chris, let’s go for lunch!”, “Do you mean Markthalle 9 in Kreuzberg?”, “Yes!”
Any words for the BLY readers?
As much as we are excited about building Chris, working towards a technology that will learn and might one day have elements of artificial intelligence, the more I believe that we have to focus on real, human interaction and communication. I would love to have Chris next to me, but my wife or a good friend will always score higher.
Thank you for the interview Holger!
Chris. BERLIN LOVES YOU.