DH-Hack: Shaping the future with connectivity

Daimler AG is undergoing a transformation. We are developing from a pure automotive manufacturer to a provider of mobility services.

In other words, if we want our business model to continue being as successful as it has been to date, we must be able to offer an entire ecosystem for mobility that consists of vehicles, services, and infrastructure (such as charging stations). This transformation also requires a new approach to the training that is offered to us, the students at the Cooperative State University. In the future, we want to develop and shape the ecosystem for mobility — but if we think in terms of separate specialist disciplines (courses of study), we won’t be able to meet this challenge.

The in-house training models at Daimler are already being continually adapted to the rapid development of technology. In parallel, we students are also learning to think, act, and understand in increasingly interdisciplinary ways. After all, a student of business management needs to understand how products function, just as the product developer needs to know how to design products that are so practical that they can be marketed successfully later on.

The hackathon format

In the original version of a hackathon, groups of participants that are as interdisciplinary as possible get together for 24 hours at a time and create a product in a process that goes from conceiving an idea to developing a business model and then building a prototype.

 For our hackathon at the (DH-Hack) Cooperative State University, we modified this format and had our groups meet for eight-hour periods on each of two days. Besides the primary aspect of interdisciplinary work, the hackathon format offers additional advantages, including improvisation, embedded programming, and parameterization. In this playful competition, the participants also learn entrepreneurship — in other words, the cognitive process of repeatedly generating new innovations and exploiting business opportunities while taking calculated risks.

 In order to participate in the DH-Hack that we students organized on our own initiative, students from all academic years and all technical and commercial courses of study were invited to submit a creatively designed PowerPoint slide that presented their strengths and weaknesses. This would be the basis for putting together the teams.

The theme of the DH-Hack was “The future face of the digital city — Smart City.” In my opinion, the students on the team that organized the hackathon had come up with an appealing theme that emphasizes the need for an interdisciplinary work model. The aim was to tackle some urban challenges — steadily growing urban populations, an increasing need for flexible individual mobility, decreasing resources — by means of intelligent networks that connect vehicles, infrastructure, and people.

Cooperation with the specialist departments is just as important as the connections between the students. That’s why we were glad that a representative of the van development department at Daimler gave an inspiring keynote speech on the theme of smart cities at the opening of the hackathon.

Under time pressure — The route to digital innovation

After the keynote speech, the starting whistle sounded and we started our work. There was no time for a round of introductions, so we moved on directly to the generation of ideas.

We considered what kinds of problems exist in a conventional city and how they could be solved in a smart city. After a short brainstorming session in which we used various techniques to spur creativity, we compiled a list of different problematic issues in a major city, such as the annoying search for a parking space and the trash collection service, which is often complicated and inefficient.

After a short discussion and a vote on the ideas we had come up with, we decided to find a solution for the time-consuming search for parking spaces in the city. We began by thinking in greater detail about the problems involved in looking for a parking space, and we quickly generated some initial ideas for solutions.

The drivers’ daily drama normally begins just before they have reached their destination. They’ve arrived where they wanted to go, but they first have to look for a parking space — ideally, one that doesn’t cost too much.

Our idea for solving the problem was to offer a cloud platform on which public and private parking spaces could be offered and rented. We therefore wanted to develop an app and a website that could be used to offer and rent the parking spaces. We also considered implementing a parking space monitoring system that would track the utilization of parking spaces in real time.

After the basic concept had been established, we went on to implement it. The other members of my team were Laura Sämann (engineering management), Franziska Wächter (mechatronics), and Theodor Nguyen, who, like me, is studying electrical engineering. I took on the task of creating and programming the parking space monitoring system, while Franziska and Theodor were responsible for setting up the website. Laura created a business model based on the Business Model Canvas principle.

Business Model Canvas is a template that is often used at startups in particular for the fast and simple planning of business models. Because we are studying different subjects, each team member could optimally focus on his or her special area and take full advantage of his or her potential.

After I had picked out all the components I needed for the prototype from the hardware development kits that were available to us, I started to put together the prototype. For most of the day I was busy rounding out the programming of our parking space monitoring system. By the end of the first of the two days, I had already completed the parking space monitoring system, and our website was already looking very concrete.

This is what our idea looks like in practical terms: The parking space monitoring system consists of a box containing a microcontroller, a status LED, and a display. The box is directly set up at the parking space, and it registers the cars that are parked there. The status LED shows whether the parking space is open (green), reserved (orange) or occupied (red).

In addition, the system registers cars that are parked illegally and sends this information to the person who is renting out the parking space. The monitoring of the parking spaces makes it possible to create a very precise real-time overview of a major city’s parking spaces and their utilization. This is valuable information that can help city governments to plan new infrastructure.

At the beginning of the second day, we continued to work on the website. To make the overview even clearer, we embedded a map that shows the open parking spaces. The map also shows additional information that is relevant to the drivers renting the parking spaces, such as the maximum parking time, the dimensions of the space, and the parking fee.

We also came up with another idea for the app: We could integrate a smart parking meter that notes the distance between the driver and his or her parked car and tells the driver when it’s time to return to the car without exceeding the paid-for parking time. We initially had some problems when we were setting up the website, because we first had to figure out the HTML programming language. Thanks to expert professional support from the team of assistants, we were able to surmount this obstacle.

At the beginning of the second day, we also continued to refine our business plan and supplement it with additional facts and figures. Because my team member Laura is studying engineering management, it was no great problem for her to create a business plan and make the initial cost and revenue calculations.

Before preparing to make our presentation, we thought about what to name our project. We quickly came up with the name “Alparka,” which is a combination of “parking” and the name of the animal “alpaca.” We still had a bit of time left, so we also created a matching logo.

Finally, we prepared to make our presentation. We found it very difficult to present all of the important information about our complex theme to the jury in just three minutes. But after some discussion, we finally found a guiding thread.

Showdown — The results

Our efforts had been worthwhile. The “Alparka” and the other five teams all made excellent use of their three minutes to present their great ideas to the jury. To make sure the ideas could be properly evaluated, the jury consisted of representatives from our development departments for cars, trucks, and vans, as well as the head of the department for training and continuing education and the head of the human resources unit at the powertrain plants, Dr. Leitner.

It wasn’t easy for the jury to make a decision, as we could tell from its lengthy deliberations. The competition was won by a smart shopping cart called “mywaegele.” The team’s idea was to build a shopping cart that downloads the user’s shopping list from the cloud onto the cart’s display. Depending on the list, the display would show the most efficient route through the supermarket, as well as proposed recipes for individual products.

This idea obviously appealed to the jury — in other words, the prototype, business model, and presentation of the “mywaegele” team impressed the jury most and thus won first prize. The competing ideas were a ride-sharing portal that can be used not only for people but also for transporting packages and other goods, an in-house autonomous package pickup and delivery system, an autonomously operating trash removal system, smart storage boxes for the household, and our “Alparka” system.

And this is where we go from here…

The most innovative ideas will be presented to the corresponding specialist units. Together, we will discuss the degree of innovation — in other words, which ideas are perhaps already being worked on, and which aspects are absolutely new. Ideally, we students will be able to continue developing our ideas during our next practical phase or in a specialist unit after it has adopted our hackathon idea.

But apart from whether or not a new business model or patent has been developed, the greatest gain for all of us is the fact that the students at the Cooperative State University bring added value to the specialist departments in the form of an expanded network and experience with interdisciplinary work.

Simon Hofbauer, a student of electrical engineering at the Cooperative State University who is working at Mercedes-Benz Cars, is looking forward to exciting new blog posts. Sebastian Busse, the head trainer for electrical engineering at the Cooperative State University and the DH-Hack advisor, helped to support Simon’s writing process.