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GM’s purchase of Cruise fuels interest in self-driving car kits

April 19, 2016

Kits

Most car companies are remaking themselves into tech startups as they move toward offering fully autonomous self-driving vehicles. Yet thousands of tractors already use self-driving kits as do hundreds of tugs, lifts and trucks. Self-driving aftermarket kits are beginning to be offered in multiple markets. What's going on?

Cruise Automation just got acquired by GM for $1 billion. Up until now, Cruise was known as the developer of a $16,000 aftermarket kit to turn select cars into self-driving cars. Does GM want to supplement their parts business with self-driving kits? Or did they spend all that money to acquire talent?

Cruise Automation isn't the only kit developer: Comma.ai promises a $1,000 kit by the end of this year and just got a $3.1 million seed round of funding; Perrone Robotics is already selling a high-end kit for R&D and testing with funding from DARPA and the IIHS. Other companies are listed below. What's going on? Are aftermarket kits really that much in demand? 

Media today seems most focused on suggesting that the industry is quickly moving toward preventing crashes from ever occurring instead of just protecting occupants from crashes even though there are many other reasons for self-driving cars (eg, fuel efficiency, lowering carbon emissions, enabling safe transportion for the elderly, and improving traffic congestion).

Andrew Ng's timetable for self-driving cars

From an interview in Wired of Andrew Ng, Chief Scientist of Baidu; and Chairman and Co-Founder of Coursera.

I think self-driving cars are a little further out than most people think. There’s a debate about which one of two universes we’re in. In the first universe it’s an incremental path to self-driving cars, meaning you have cruise control, adaptive cruise control, then self-driving cars only on the highways, and you keep adding stuff until 20 years from now you have a self-driving car. In universe two you have one organization, maybe Carnegie Mellon or Google, that invents a self-driving car and bam! You have self-driving cars. It wasn’t available Tuesday but it’s on sale on Wednesday.

I’m in universe one. I think there’s a lot of confusion about how easy it is to do self-driving cars. There’s a big difference between being able to drive a thousand miles, versus being able to drive anywhere. And it turns out that machine-learning technology is good at pushing performance from 90 to 99 percent accuracy. But it’s challenging to get to four nines (99.99 percent).

Scramble for talent

As car companies move in the direction of providing self-driving cars, most have proprietary roadmaps and big needs for software and other engineering talent. They have all set up research facilities in Silicon Valley and throughout academia. The Wall Street Journal mapped car company locations in Silicon Valley (shown below) which attests to their proliferation. Not included on this map are the new tech startups profiled in this article.

Self-driving kits and embedded software for cars, buses and trucks

Because the auto industry is so much larger and visible to the consumer public, the remainder of this article will focus on self-driving kits and other software and AI offered to the auto, transportation and trucking industries, as well as to the consumer aftermarket.

Self-driving kits

  • Cruise Automation just got acquired by General Motors for what Forbes reported as “north of a billion dollars.” GM has stated their goal of creating the industry’s biggest driverless-vehicle fleet which is why GM paid such a steep purchase price for Cruise, invested $500 million into Lyft, and another $25 million to acquire the employees and technology left over from Sidecar, a ride-sharing service that shut down last December. Certainly these acquisitions are both a talent and a technology grab to help them facilitate their fleet-vehicle goal.
  • Comma.ai, a San Francisco startup headed by George Hotz, the hacker that, at age 17, was the first person to unlock an iPhone, and at 21, cracked the encryption schema on the PlayStation3, got $3 million in funding from Andressen Horowitz and others for his plans to produce a self-learning, self-driving kit for under $1,000 and deliver that kit by the end of 2016. Nvidia donated $30K of their new GPUs, which are tailor-made to run deep learning algorithms, to Comma. Nvidia GPUs already run the infotainment systems in Tesla cars.
  • Perrone Robotics, a Charlottesville, VA funded by DARPA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), has created and patented a general purpose autonomous vehicle operating system to assist researchers and auto engineers in developing and testing their vehicle applications including testing their security to protect against hacking.
  • Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz, a Gurgaon, India-based robotics integrator, has branched out into driver assistance systems in the form of aftermarket solutions primarily built onto the embedded ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) provided by the car manufacturers.
  • ASI (Autonomous Solutions), a Utah-based provider of autonomous driving kits for the mining and farming industries, and testing kits for the automotive and R&D communities, has a whole product line of hardware components that allow users to control vehicles both manually and robotically as well as their Mobius command and control AI and software system. ASI, like Andrew Ng, believes that the charge to fully autonomous self-driving vehicles will likely be a 20-year trickle-down process.
  • RobotCar, a project with the UK Department of Transportation and researchers at the University of Oxford, is testing what could be a $150 kit that learns as it goes: “As you drive your RobotCar to work or to the store, the car's systems will be keeping a close eye on the route and, eventually, will know enough to take over for you.”

Embedded software and specialty processors

  • Elektrobit is a Finnish supplier of embedded car software for Mercedes, Ford, VW, BMW and Audi, and sold its business to Continental AG last year for $680 million. Elektrobit provides connected car, sensor and autonomous driving systems as well as car company factory automation systems so that the car companies can focus on engineering and building cars.
  • Nauto, which just got $12M from Andy Rubin's new incubater Playground, is building automotive networking and safety features for self-driving cars. One particularly valuable technology will be similar to airline black boxes: stored sensor and visual data to help fleet managers and insurance companies detect and understand the cause of accidents and reduce liability claims.
  • nuTonomy is developing perception, mapping, localization, and decision-making software for autonomous cars. They are developing algorithms to navigate complex environments, handle parallel, head-in and back-in parking and software that interprets the rules of the road to safely navigate complex itersections.
  • Drive.ai, a Silicon Valley AI startup founded by former graduate students out of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, is using deep learning methods to provide solutions for autonomous vehicles from perception to motion planning to controls. Drive.ai just got $12 million in equity funding from undisclosed sources. (Drive.ai is not to be confused with DriveAI, a NJ non-profit working on similar activities and funded by an insurance company.)
  • NVIDIA, a long-time provider of graphic processing units (GPUs) to gamers, data centers and the auto market particularly for their infotainment systems, at their recent GPU Tech conference, showed their deep learning self-driving car which boasted 3,000 miles of learning. Nvidia also introduced their new super-computer in a box specially designed to run deep learning programs, the DGX-1. Nvidia donated $30K of these new GPUs, which are tailor-made to run deep learning algorithms, to George Hotz's Comma startup.

Public transport, AGVs and governmental services

  • RoboSoft, a French provider of mobility systems to government defense departments and municipal transportation systems. RoboSoft has worked with public transport groups on shuttles, buses and off-public-road shuttles and car fleets and also with warehouse and factory people on AGVs. 
  • Zoox is building an autonomous robot taxi fleet and a comprehensive set of systems to support them. “Zoox is developing fully autonomous vehicles and the supporting ecosystem required to bring the technology to market at scale. Zoox aims to provide the next generation of mobility-as-a-service in urban environments.” Zoox joins 11 other companies given permits by California's DMV to test drive autonomous vehicles in California.
  • Robot Taxi, a joint venture of Dena and ZMP, is also building an autonomous robot taxi to operate, at least on a test scale, by 2020 in time for the Japanese-hosted Olympics. ZMP's deep learning technology and multi-neural networks will learn about the objects that need to be recognized by their appearance. This technology will then be capable of detecting and recognizing pedestrians, vehicles and other obstacles in real time. Combined with multiple laser sensors the aim is to develop a robust and reliable environment recognition technology that is aware of the vehicle’s situation in ever-changing, real world scenarios.
  • Key players working on self-driving vehicles
    • Google Driverless Car Project, US
    • GM-Carnegie Mellong Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab, US
    • Uber Advanced Technologies Center, US
    • University of Berlin, DE
    • Technical University of Braunschweig, DE
    • Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, DE
    • Bundeswehr University Munich, DE
    • VisLab, University of Parma, IT
    • Oxford Mobile Robotics Group, UK
    • INRIA IMARA, FR
    • Navya Technology, FR
    • Griffith University, Intelligent Control Systems Lab, AU
    • Singapore-MIT-Alliance for Research & Technology, SG
    • ETRI, KR

    Bottom line

    Perhaps the Deere tractor example applies to cars. Deere has had self-driving, autonomous, cab-less concept tractors such as the one shown on the right available for discussion and possible sale but thus far they haven't replaced the self-driving kits which they have been selling for 15 years. Farmers want the air-conditioned and cushioned cabin on their tractors to house all the monitors and other computer and automation technologies for the implements the tractors are towing. They want to remain in charge and the cab has become the hub of computerized farm automation. They say they are waiting for the right time – when fully autonomous tractor systems provide all the services they want and need. And that time is far off in the future.

    Maybe car drivers want to remain in charge but are willing to have fun experimenting with low-cost partial self-driving kits or incremental add-on features on new cars until the time – far off in the future – when fully trustworthy autonomous self-driving vehicles take over the transportation marketplace. Maybe the public isn't ready yet to fully trust cars, trucks and buses without drivers. Perhaps self-driving kits are an interim step along the way. 

    Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series... read more


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