On track for success – The hard work behind AutoSens

Always willing to embrace new ideas (as long as there’s at least some logic and evidence to suggest they might be worthwhile) Rob now leads a business which consistently performs above his own targets, each member of the team contributing a huge amount of effort and passion to create great events.

At the team’s suggestion, he subjected himself to the same grilling we are now in the habit of throwing at our friends and colleagues around the industry, but for us, arguably slightly biased on the inside, we also know that many of the answers here have and will continue to shape everything we do as a company. 

What inspired you to create an event based upon vehicle perception technology?

AutoSens Conference Director and MD of Sense Media Group, Rob Stead

Over the last 12 years working on technical and scientific conferences in a wide range of different industry sectors and scientific disciplines, there’s one thing that stuck out to me as a key enabler for the future.

You see hype about IoT (internet of things), AI (artificial intelligence), self-driving cars, drones and robots, and they all will play a significant role in shaping out lives in the future, but there is a suite of technologies that sits behind these applications, that I believe will drive industrial and consumer technology for many years to come.

For machines or computers to be able to make decisions in the real world, they must be able to perceive it. 80% of human perception comes via vision, and for robots it is the same. But with advanced sensors, they can see so much more than we do. That’s what excites me, and why I believe AutoSens is the right approach for creating a long-term forum to support engineering discussions in the autonomous vehicle space.

How is AutoSens different to any other events out there?

I like to describe us as sitting in between a large academic conference (such as Electronic Imaging), and a trade show. The former is the cutting edge of academic research, very detailed and very niche sessions. The latter is all about sales and marketing.

We are both, and neither at the same time, and occupy this middle ground in what I feel is a sweet spot of engaging and valuable technical content, put in the context of a rapidly evolving business space.

We want engineers to attend and get value from the presentations, but we also want the networking to play a key role. Our events are capped at 400 people. Beyond this is becomes hard to find who you are looking for, and the networking is devalued. Beyond this size, events start to dilute the content and the tracks become too niche or separated from the core focus of the event. We are always open to learning how to do things better, but that’s what I feel we have just right at the moment.

What are your hopes for AutoSens in the coming year and beyond?

We made a tremendous start in Brussels, launching Sense Media’s first event and having 330 attendees come along and a sold-out exhibition space with over 30 stands was beyond even my most positive expectations.

We worked very hard to make that happen, however, so it was satisfying to see it succeed. In 2017 we are building on that base, launching in a new geography which is almost starting from scratch. As many famous musicians have seen, it’s not always a foregone conclusion that success in Europe brings success in the States, so we are not underestimating the challenge to launch AutoSens in Detroit.

That said, we have a lot of great support in Michigan and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. We are bringing something new in terms of conference/exhibition events – none of the established players have run their event at a race track before!

The Detroit project is very exciting and is very much our focus right now, but we are also well underway with the planning for the AutoSens Awards, which will be a significant new addition to the show in Brussels. This will be the only awards ceremony of its kind in Europe, and we have some excitement in store for the lucky shortlisted candidates, sponsors and judges who will attend the gala dinner event in the iconic Atomium venue in Brussels. Watch this space for more on that soon.

Rob, having organised so many events, can you recall one that was a complete disaster? If so, what lessons have you applied to AutoSens?

Haha, that’s a cheeky one! I have run lots of events, some worked great, some just went to plan, occasional ones were a bit ‘meh’. Ending up with an apathetic audience is about the worst thing that can happen when you are running a networking event. Venues that close down, cancelled speakers, flooded rooms, even erupting Icelandic volcanoes spewing ash into the atmosphere can be dealt with. An unengaged audience, however, is much harder to fix as it’s already gone wrong by that point and it’s very difficult to salvage. It has happened to me on occasion, and what I’ve learned is the following:

  • Listen carefully – there is no excuse for a lack of direct research, so you can deliver what they want, not just what you think they want.
  • Be involved in the industry – you can’t just parachute into a community of technical experts for a few weeks once a year and expect to gain their respect.
  • Value expertise – a true expert is a rare thing, so don’t take these people for granted when you meet them.
  • Be generous – plant seeds of generosity, acknowledge those who advocate your activities.

This is by no means and exhaustive list, but all of these things, I believe have helped me to build engaged, active communities and that is core to running successful meetings.

Why Detroit?  Surely all the technology is in Silicon Valley for the next generation of vehicles?

Indeed, there were two obvious options when bringing AutoSens to the US for the first time but deciding on Detroit was quite a personal decision for me. I am a big fan of the music that has sprung out of Detroit since the days of Motown and beyond, and I visited the city in 2015 on a holiday with some school friends.

Of course, I’m also a petrol-head, so I was familiar with the history of the Motor City. But I also knew of the hard times this region had faced over much of the last 30 years. We met many local people when we were here and I could identify with their stories. I am from Bradford, in Yorkshire, a former industrial powerhouse on the global stage but now a city struggling in the face of globalisation.

So, to hear the positivity from the locals, and to see the stories of investment and regeneration, I had to be a part of that and support this new phase of growth and recovery in Detroit and Michigan. There’s so much to be positive about, including the development of the brand-new facility at M1 Concourse. This will be a truly world class destination by the time the development is complete, but it’s already an impressive site and we were enthused after meeting the owners and managers.

Tell us about the venue – how’s the conference going to run in the middle of a race track?

Well, we do like to do things the hard way! It’s easy to default to a conference hotel or a trade show center when running B2B events, but here at Sense Media we like to create a more memorable experience. We find this helps with the learning experience as attendees are more alert and engaged with their surroundings, and it helps with networking for sponsors as there’s a more significant memory to attach your first contact to. It’s also much more fun!

At M1 Concourse, we’ll have lots of space to play with. The site will feature a custom-built tent structure, that will house the conference auditorium and the exhibition space, located in the middle of the site on the Skid Pad, a high specification asphalt surface of around 9000 sq. ft.

The rest of the Skid Pad will feature a display of exotic and sports cars, and extension of the exhibition with static display of autonomous vehicles of our exhibitors, all hosted on the site of a former GM manufacturing facility. M1 Concourse is symbolic of the regeneration going on in Michigan, turning disused land into a regional and even national attraction by the time the development is complete.

We don’t have a hotel onsite, but there are lots of good options nearby, and we’ll have premium catering throughout the event, so while we are embracing the race track environment onsite at AutoSens, we are still providing all the usual creature comforts you’d expect of a 5* conference venue.

What else is going on during the conference week that people can look forward to or get involved with?

Where do I start? There’s something for everyone at AutoSens in Detroit this May. Taking place during the week we’ll have:

  • IEEE Standards Association P2020 working group meeting – this is a separate event from AutoSens but will take place alongside the conference in Michigan to give people the opportunity to combine the working group meeting and the conference where image quality will be an important topic.
  • Press and Industry Track Demos – there’s nothing quite like experiencing a self-driving car on the road, so AutoSens will include the opportunity for attendees to see the technology in action. A range of sensor and processing technologies will be demonstrated as this free to attend Demo Day.

    AutoSens Detroit – a chance to work, learn, do business and enjoy quality networking in a unique setting
  • Workshops – our workshop offering was sold out in Brussels with over 70 attendees, so we are offering a range of workshops this time around for engineers in Michigan and travelling to the state for the conference to learn about a new topic, or refine their skills via our expert-led half-day sessions.
  • Main conference – featuring over 35 speakers and panellists, the main conference agenda will include technical presentations on image quality, camera innovations, lidar, radar, image processing software and hardware, sensor fusion, testing, standards, functional safety, liability, M&A activity, industry trends, HMI, insight into the changing technology ecosystem, and some surprises you’ll have to attend to find out about…
  • Vintage Reception – after conference day 1 we’ll be taking all the attendees to the Henry Ford Museum for a special Vintage Reception featuring a walking buffet dinner, period entertainment, rides in original Ford Model T cars, autonomous vehicle tours, and more. An evening to savour, people will be talking about this one for months to come… and we’ll have to think hard to improve on it next year

How does this event compare with the European event that took place in Brussels last year?

Well, it’s the same, but different. At the top level, we are attracting the same audience – OEM, Tier 1, Tier 2, academia and industry experts who are involved in vehicle perception and image quality.

This event is taking place in the US, with different features, a whole suite of brand new speakers and topics, so it’s a brand new version of AutoSens hosted in a different environment. We are investing just as much time, effort and money into the attendee experience, so we will expect the same strong level of attendance and positive feedback we had in Brussels – which was outstanding.

It’s expected to have a higher level of local attendees, so we’ll expect more US contacts and less European than in Brussels, but this will still be a very international audience. We have been building the AutoSens community over the last 6 months, so we’ll see lots of new companies in Detroit, as well as many familiar faces. Hopefully the main thing that will be the same will be the weather – glorious sunshine!

You’re in the shoes of someone unsure about whether or not to attend – what one thing would you say to convince them?

You don’t have to read our marketing, just hear what the industry is saying and the testimonials they are giving us – AutoSens is the market leader for anyone working on vehicle perception, whether you’re an exhibitor, doing business, or just attending to learn.

We are very pleased the industry tells us that because the team are really passionate about making sure we are delivering what the industry wants – and that’s new technology, new companies, great content, stimulating discussions and the best place to make new business connections.

The AutoSens mission is the be the “Best in Class” event for engineers working on ADAS and autonomous vehicle systems.

The team talks about supporting sustainable business – what does that mean for a conference organiser?

Sense Media runs events, but we are not just an events business. We are actively involved in the industry 12 months of the year, in ways that help us to business objectives and trends, challenges for engineers, and what this support ecosystem needs to accelerate development of vehicle perception technology.

At the most basic level, we are producing content based on this insight and sharing openly with industry, whether via blog articles, or sharing other relevant content when we can. We are supporting increasing the skills of the workforce by running a range of training workshops, and engaging in outreach via our regular networking meetups, particularly in and around the UK.

We’re continually trying to reinvest back into grass-roots skills development, whether that’s providing content and interviews that nobody else does, or uploading our conference sessions to YouTube so everyone can benefit from the latest insights, and we’re getting press coverage outside the industry as well, which I’ve never experienced before.

All of this is designed to help communicate the benefits of developing vehicle perception technologies, encourage new entrants at individual and company level, share the challenges to drive innovation, and up-skill the workforce already engaged in this sector.

Our future plans include a recruitment platform, something we are increasingly told will be a very valuable tool, and a range of digital and print publications.

And on a personal level, I am working with several experts in this field to run the IEEE Standards Association Working Group on Automotive System Image Quality, P2020. This was again driven by industry needs, and is gathering pace as the standards development work has begun, there are over 170 active participants to date, and a very important objective of ensuring vehicle perception technology development happens in the context of a collaborative community and we are doing everything we can as an industry to develop the safest possible systems.

We don’t get drawn into hype, we price our events for maximum participation, and we encourage a networking environment of openness and sharing, not hard sales and marketing.

All of this, in our view, contributes to sustainable business, not just for Sense Media, but also for our community of engineers and their employers.

Rob Stead is Conference Director of AutoSens, chair of the IEEE 2020 working group, and Managing Director of Sense Media Group, the company he co-founded in 2015 after an extensive international events career in the sensor sector.