Driving Change: From Solar-Powered Race Cars to Driverless Vehicles

Megan Smith, Google’s vice-president, new business development, is no ordinary engineer. She is adventurous: she once raced a solar-powered car 2,000 miles across Australia’s Outback. She has a knack for business, helping PlanetOut, a gay and lesbian online community, grow tenfold in reach and revenue, during her tenure as chief executive. And she is a big believer in technology’s ability to bring about social change.

Smith is one of some 80-plus scheduled speakers at DLDWomen, a conference in Munich June 29-30 organized by Burda Media. The conference, which focuses on women’s influence on developments in technology, media, markets and society, is expected to attract  500 women in business and the arts.

The speakers, who include top female executives at companies such as Google, HP and IBM, haven’t just climbed corporate ladders, they have honed their skills by doing everything from bicycling across Siberia to launching satellites.

At Google  Smith has led several of the company’s key strategic acquisitions, including Keyhole (Google Earth), Where2Tech (Google Maps) and Picasa. She also briefly headed Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search giant, helping the company further its social projects by making better use of its more than 12,000 engineers.

In her current job Smith oversees teams that manage early-stage partnerships, explorations and technology licenses. For example, she brokered the first distribution deal with a carrier for Android, Google’s mobile operating system. She is also responsible for a handful of potentially game changing long-term projects at Google which she says could both “ impact society and also have a big commercial impact.”  Most are in stealth mode so Smith can’t talk about them.

One that has already come to light is driverless cars.   Smith and Google aren’t saying much  about the project but press reports speculate that Google’s automated driver system has the potential to become the operating standard for every car in the world – the Windows of motor vehicles.

Google’s driverless cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to detect other cars and develop detailed maps to navigate the road head, taking advantage of the company’s data centers, which can process enormous amounts of information gathered by its cars when mapping their terrain. The company recently asked for permission, in the state of Nevada, for legislation that would make it the first state where cars could be legally operated on public roads without human hands on the steering wheel. Such vehicles “could help people have a better transit experience and increase safety and save lives,” says Smith.

Projects that apply engineering to global problems  get Smith excited. Smith credits her parents – who she refers to as “change agents” –with inspiring her to push to try and make an impact on the world around her. Her father taught in public schools and sought to make them better and together her parents actively participated in obtaining more housing for the elderly and desegregation. Over the years, Smith has personally contributed to a wide range of engineering projects, such as designing an award-winning bicycle lock to thwart wheel theft; working on a space station construction research project; and running a field-research study on solar cook stoves in South America.

Becoming an engineer was an obvious choice, she says. For starters, she was surrounded by them as she was growing up:  her grandfather was a civil engineer who built bridges and highways, an uncle worked as an engineer in the energy sector and she has a brother who is an electrical engineer.

She also liked building things and quickly found out that she was good at it. Smith competed each year in her high school’s science fair, often working on alternative energy projects, which earned her the nickname “The Solar Kid from Buffalo, New York.” And she frequently won prizes, helping her to win admittance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Megan holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, where she now serves on the board. She completed her master’s thesis work at the MIT Media Lab..

It was during her time at MIT that Smith joined a team of students participating in the solar powered car race across the Outback. But Smith didn’t just drive the car – she helped drive the project – an early indication of her business acumen. It was Smith, who claims she can “sell anything”, who convinced United Airlines to sponsor the team’s trip to Australia.

After graduation Smith went to work at Apple Computer Japan , where she helped develop the multimedia market. She spent six years, as product design lead and then as manager at General Magic, an Apple Computer spinoff that made a handheld communications device long before personal digital assistants smartphone and iPads existed.

From there, Smith jumped to PlanetOut, a media and entertainment community exclusively targeting the gay and lesbian community. ( Smith, who is public about being a lesbian, currently lives in San Francisco with her partner Kara Swisher, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who now co-authors the paper’s blog AllThings D. The couple have two children.)

In addition to driving revenues at PlanetOut,Smith helped attract a contingent of high-powered investors including America Online Investments, Eden Capital and Mayfield Fund. “It is harder for women to raise venture capital,” says Smith. “One of the ways around that was that we found other people who could vouch for us, angel investors and advisors, and that was a signal to the VCs that we had already been vetted.” Among the company’s  individual backers were RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser and Internet visionary Nicholas Negroponte.

Smith left to join Google in 2003.  Part of her time was spent heading up Google.org,  which aims to use technology to drive solutions  to global challenges such as climate change, pandemic disease and poverty. Thanks to Smith Google.org now places its strategic focus on those projects that can leverage the resources of Google staff, particularly its engineers.

Current Google.org projects that harness the power of information and its engineers include Google Flu Trends,which uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity up to two weeks earlier than traditional methods. This system has almost 90% accuracy in real time flu prediction, making it a useful tool for healthcare agencies.

Another is disaster relief. In response to the Haitian earthquake, a team of engineers worked with the U.S. Department of State to create an online People Finder gadget so that people can submit information about missing persons and to search the database. Google Earth satellite images have also been used to document the extent of damage. The same technology was used to help people after natural disasters in Queensland, Australia and in Japan, says Smith.

One of the big focuses of Smith’s new business development team at Google is the developing world. “The 900 million people of Africa are coming online and can finally be interconnected with the rest of us and take action for their own lives,” says Smith, who believes that the greater interconnectiveness is a major liberating force. Google has opened seven offices in  Africa and identified 15 countries where  Google can open for business, says Smith. There are big opportunities for Android, Google’s mobile operating system, as use of mobile data and services like mobile money explode across the developing world, driving the kind of change and commercial impact that Smith –and Google –thrive on.

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