A fork in the road

Cars have always been part of Mark Preston’s life. Now, that means being part of a technological revolution. 

BY CHRIS JOHNSTON

Mark Preston was born to the idea of, in his words, “playing around with cars”. His family were wreckers and ran salvage yards in Geelong. “I’ve always been around them,” he says. 

Then, when he was 10, they moved to Condobolin, near Dubbo in New South Wales. “More cars and then tractors,” he says. “I was always trying to fix things in the farmyard.”

In the 1980s, Preston started a mechanical engineering degree at Monash. He was, he recalls, then the owner of a Datsun 1600 that he was always trying to tune, despite having no money. Very early on, Rolls Royce came to Monash to do a presentation and if he hadn’t known it already he soon did: his work would be cars, cars and more cars. 

In the decades since, he has become one of the leading thinkers, strategists and engineers of electric, autonomous (self-driving) cars in the world. 

His UK-based start-up company is at the leading edge of a competitive industry: Streetdrone aims to have the vehicles they are building – in partnership with Renault – not only on the road but also on the racetrack. 

While still a student at Monash, Preston worked part-time for a company called Borland, which was the only manufacturer of racing cars in Australia.

He ended up designing suspension for its Formula 4 cars. 

After university, he worked for Holden but dreamed of bigger, faster engines, so he moved to the UK as a 26-year-old and landed a job with the Arrow F1 team, first as a stress engineer then as head of research and development. 

After six years, he joined the McLaren F1 team as principal designer before running their vehicle technology labs. Then he set up his own F1 team, Super Aguri, which in 2014 morphed into an electric racecar developer and racer. He also did an MBA. 

“I almost got bored of F1,” he says. “It became more like a process innovation – getting better and better at incremental discoveries. I thought, I’ve always wanted to be at the absolute forefront of new technologies. Nobody is really doing much in this area of autonomous cars.” 

Streetdrone is essentially building an autonomous car template for research facilities and universities to buy and improve. In that sense it is open-source and the technologies go to the deepest available reaches of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, sensors and coding. 

The company has collaborated so far with Cambridge and Warwick Universities. 

Back in the late 1980s, Preston started primitively coding vehicle suspension by using a Monash computer lab and floppy disks. 

“I made it up as I went along, which was probably a lot better for me than being able to look up solutions on the internet. I used to have to go and find journals and order them and wait for them to come to the library.” 

Now, in a sense, his company is giving back their project to the university sector to improve. “We are about opening the idea up to the masses and hoping more innovation will happen.”