6 mins reading

While many of us like to think we can predict what lies over the horizon, few have the boldness or conviction to bring such a vision to fruition. For Melbourne-born autonomous mobility entrepreneur Tim Kentley Klay, reconfiguring the way the future looks is all in a day’s work.

Having founded an animation studio before computer animation was considered a profession, it perhaps should have come as no great shock when Tim Kentley Klay announced to his colleagues that he planned to develop one of the world’s first robotaxis in the early 2010s. “This is before self-driving startups existed besides the X division within Google, and everyone in the studio thought I was crazy going up against automakers with this robotic car concept that had no steering wheel,” he tells The Luxury Report by phone from his Bay Area office in California. “But when I first saw a Google-modified Lexus with autonomous steering, I had the realisation that this was about much more than lane-keeping on a freeway; this would shift us from the age of the automobile to the age of robotics.”

Not only had he become obsessed with the concept of vehicular autonomation at an early point in the technology curve, but the funding sources he would need to mine to turn drawings into design prototypes were far from established. “This was before the notion of venture capital really existed in Australia and it was actually a contact in Silicon Valley who suggested I speak to Niki Scevak, who was just starting Blackbird VC and became our first cheque writer,” he recalls. “To be saying ‘Hey I’m Tim from Australia and I want to start a self-driving company’ was kind of unusual in 2012, but step-changes generally come from people outside of a given industry because we don’t see all the constraints that hold others back.”

The largely Australian-funded robotaxi firm, Zoox, would go on to be incorporated in the US and achieve a valuation of US$3.2bn within four years, before ultimately being acquired by Amazon in 2020. Scevak’s Blackbird returned “for another round of punishment” when Kentley Klay fundraised for his latest venture, AI robotics lab Hypr.

Relocating to Silicon Valley in his late 30s was a no-brainer for the commercial artist turned technical entrepreneur, despite having almost zero local connections. As it so happened, many of Kentley Klay’s early employees chose to follow him Stateside to challenge the likes of Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise. He says:

“The move was motivated by the need for oxygen; if you have a big idea, you need to plant that tree where there’s maximum oxygen to get maximum growth.

I saw very clearly what was about to happen and that the technology was going to level the playing field for a moment, whereby an entrant who understood [how to make the] product experience and service better could get a foothold in the marketplace.” In those days, his advocacy for the vehicle-as-a-service business model was decidedly leftfield.

The archetypal Australian bluntness that helped Kentley Klay make a splash in those early years, however, may have contributed to his shock ousting from Zoox in 2018. He implies that the event continues to have ripple effects but ultimately served to strengthen his mental toughness and prioritisation skills. “When you’re on top of the mountain and get pushed off by your own team, you don’t just fall to the bottom of the mountain, you fall to the bottom of the chasm at the bottom of the mountain—and it’s real dark down there,” he says. “But when you get out of that chasm… you’re vastly stronger in non-obvious ways, [you can clearly see] where your intuitions were on point, and you don’t sweat [the small stuff].” The bidirectional four-seater without manual controls that he dreamed up back in his Melbourne studio entered its real-world testing phase on Californian streets last year.

Kentley Klay is bullish that car transport requires more than incremental change to meet the needs of tomorrow’s urbanites. With Hypr (which will launch publicly later this year), he has set a wider remit to create a machine learning model and robotic infrastructure compatible with all manner of vehicles. He explains: “Most robotic systems before 2020 were hand-engineered and computationally intense, requiring a lot of sensory hardware as well as power to run, all of which is hard to scale. The end-to-end Hypr [solution uses] the lowest-cost hardware, learns on the smallest training dataset, runs on the smallest amount of power, and requires the least amount of software engineers.”

He says the Hypr algorithm (four years in the making) and robot (“unlike anything you’ve seen in a movie”) can safely control a driverless car using as little as 20 watts of power and three days’ worth of efficiently extracted training data. Kentley Klay insists those who question the safety of driverless technology in principle do not appreciate its scope and points out that fatalities from traffic accidents are rising in the US despite despite continual improvement of automobile safety features. “As car technology is getting better, the human driver is tuning out more and more, and the only real way to solve that is for the AI to perform like a guardian angel that intervenes if you’re about to do something dumb,” he suggests. This middle ground, where an AI co-pilot is considered the norm, is only a few years away, according to the future-ready business leader. He adds: “People underestimate how agile and robust these systems will be, [I have no doubt] we will see transport go electric and autonomous in all mediums.”

The size of Hypr in stealth mode certainly belies the scale of its ambition and multiplicity of its outputs across product design, robotics and artificial intelligence architecture. Kentley Klay jokes: “I tell investors they get 120 people for the price of 12 because everyone who works here is a 10X-er.” As to his ever-evolving role, chief navigator might be the best descriptor. “When thinking about which direction to head you’re putting your arm out into a dense fog, one where you can’t even see your elbow, let alone your wrist. The power of the founder comes from where you point your finger, and creativity is reaching into that fog and pulling the future into reality.”