By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario — August 28, 2016 — Singapore is trying out the world’s first self-driving car service, MIT and DARPA have teamed up to put LIDAR on a microchip, a UK start-up is developing technology to allow autonomous vehicles (AVs) to do without pre-generated maps and Domino’s autonomous pizza delivery robot is starting trials in New Zealand.
– According to a report from Venture Beat, the “world’s first public trial of a self-driving car service has officially launched in Singapore today [Thursday] as US autonomous car startup NuTonomy beats Uber to the punch by a matter of days.” Last week it was reported that Uber would begin testing AVs in Baltimore this fall. Looks like a company from Cambridge, Massachusetts has beat Uber to the punch. According to the report, “The company raised a chunky $16 million in May of this year. The round was led by Highland Capital Partners but also included participation from EDBI, the corporate investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board. Earlier this month, NuTonomy revealed a partnership with Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) to initiate trials of an ‘autonomous mobility-on-demand transportation service.’
– The hype building around AVs is beginning to have something of the feel of the late 1990s tech boom that saw Internet stocks climb to hugely inflated prices. Today, the hype is around AVs, and the stories and press releases hailing the latest advance in AV tech are coming fast and thick. Here’s a perfect example: A press release explains how a company managed to put LIDAR—a radar-like device that uses lasers—on a computer chip that is “1,000 times cheaper” and scans “1,000 times faster” than other similar devices. This device will be key to helping to “revolutionize self-driving cars, drones, and robots.” LIDAR is considered one of the important technologies for AVs.
According to the release, the cost of LIDAR will come down in the year ahead. As it is, “commercially available high-end LIDAR systems can range from $1,000 to upwards of $70,000, which can limit their applications where cost must be minimized … The new LIDAR chips are produced on 300-millimeter wafers, making their potential production cost on the order of $10 each at production volumes of millions of units per year. They also have the potential to be much more robust because of the lack of moving parts.”
The new “on-chip LIDAR system” can detect objects at ranges of up to two metres, though the company hopes “to achieve a 10-metre range within a year. The minimum range is around 5 centimetres. We have demonstrated centimetre longitudinal resolution and expect 3-cm lateral resolution at 2 metres. There is a clear development path towards LIDAR on a chip technology that can reach 100 metres, with the possibility of going even farther.”
– A London-based autonomous driving startup called Five.ai recently raised $2.7 million in a July financing on a promise to deliver fully autonomous vehicles to the market by 2019. This is two years ahead of similar projects announced by Ford and BMW according to a report on Quartz.
“Five.ai claims it will use more ‘sophisticated machine-learning that will help a vehicle understand its surroundings without the need to constantly compare its data against ultra-precise, three-dimensional maps created by radar systems,’ which is the approach being used by Ford and Google.” A Five.ai vehicle will use a “convolutional neural network” to perceive an object’s depth instead of relying on data from high-resolution 3D maps. “This gives the vehicle greater autonomy, the startup says. ‘They will have an ability not to rely on existing 3D models,’ says Alex Flamant, an associate at Notion Capital, an investor in the startup. ‘There are a lot of incumbents not targeting this strategy because it’s not low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to rely on maps.’”
Five.ai’s approach “requires the vehicle to carry a lot more processing power on board.” The founder of the company estimates that a Five.ai vehicle will need “three to four times as many computers as Google’s driverless car.” Nevertheless, “Observers of Europe’s artificial intelligence sector think Five.ai has a shot at success. ‘There’s room for new teams who set out to solve specific problems along the value chain,’ says Nathan Benaich, a venture capitalist at Playfair Capital in London.”
This is the early “Wild West” days in the AV world when the companies that will define this space begin to carve out their territory.
– Uber announced this week it is buying up a self-driving truck company started by former Google employees. According to a report on Business Insider, “Otto is only a six-month-old startup, but it already has four trucks on the road 24/7 and is sprinting toward … the not-so-distant future of self-driving semis, where existing trucks can install one of Otto’s $30,000 kits to produce autonomous-driving capabilities.”
– Announcements of funding through stock issues in the AV world are picking up. This week a company named Quanergy raised $90 Million in Series B Funding. Quanergy is, according to a press release, “the leading provider of solid state LIDAR sensors and smart sensing solutions…” The parts maker, Delphi Automotive, that has announced it will create an AV system for cars, was involved in the financing. So was Samsung Ventures. According to industry experts, the LIDAR market is expected to exceed $1 billion by 2020 and $3 billion by 2022.
“Innovation in LIDAR technology represents one of the largest opportunities unfolding around the globe, and this infusion of funding will enable us to accelerate development, scale faster and expand our world-class engineering team,” said Dr. Louay Eldada, Quanergy CEO.
– A press release from the Toyota Research Institute reports that organization has partnered with the University of Michigan to accelerate artificial intelligence research.
“Research focused on artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous driving at the University of Michigan (U-M) will get a major boost thanks to an initial $22 million commitment from the Toyota Research Institute (TRI),” according to the release.
A Toyota exec is quoted as saying, “…we are excited to expand our collective efforts to address complex mobility challenges through artificial intelligence … We look forward to collaborating with U-M’s research faculty and students to develop new intelligent technologies that will help drivers travel more safely, securely and efficiently. We will also focus on expanding the benefit of mobility technology to in-home support of older persons and those with special needs.” Under the agreement, TRI will provide an initial $22 million over four years for research collaborations with the U-M faculty in the areas of enhanced driving safety, partner robotics and indoor mobility, autonomous driving and student learning and diversity.
U-M also operates, “Mcity, a unique ‘mini-city’ on a 32-acre site on campus that allows researchers to test emerging vehicle technologies rapidly and rigorously in a safe, controlled environment.”
The release goes on to say that “The challenges that TRI faces with autonomous cars will leverage our labs’ research into complex behaviors, like merging and understanding the intention of other vehicles from their actions,” added Olson, associate professor at U-M … This collaboration is an effort to leverage robotics to improve quality of life in a variety of ways.”
– We have reported on this story before in this space, but any update on the pizza delivery robot that Domino’s Pizza is working on is a delicious bit of news.
The pizza chain has announced that it will trial a battery-powered delivery robot in the New Zealand city of Wellington, describing the bot as “the world’s first autonomous pizza delivery vehicle.” Known as DRU (Domino’s Robotic Unit), the four-wheel robot “was developed in Australia and is capable of completing deliveries within a 20-mile radius on a single charge. DRU stands at just under three-feet tall, and uses an array of sensors to avoid obstacles. Up to 10 pizzas can be stored in the bot’s heated compartment, which can be unlocked with a code that customers are given when they order.” This is real progress.
-Tech-based website The Verge reported this week that a “who’s-who of carmakers, technology companies, and ride-sharing startups are joining forces to pressure the federal government on the issue of self-driving cars.”
Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft, and Volvo announced Tuesday the formation of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group with the express purpose of advocating autonomous driving, according to the report. The story suggests, “It’s a power move by some of the most high-profile names behind the still nascent technology, made at a time when regulators and policymakers in Washington, DC, are still wrapping their heads around the concept of self-driving cars.”
The coalition will be headed by David Strickland, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Self-driving vehicle technology will make America’s roadways safer and less congested,” Strickland said in a statement. “The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards, and the Coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles.”
According to the report, “The timing of the announcement is significant because NHTSA is about to convene the second of two public hearings on self-driving cars. The first was held in Washington, DC. The second is Wednesday at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley.”
– Apparently all this talk of AVs is old news compared to a recent story in the corporate magazine produced by Airbus. According to the story the European plane-maker is hoping to produce a prototype of the world’s first autonomous flying taxi for “dense urban areas where traffic congestion is a real and growing problem.”
The company’s A3 division is a Silicon Valley-based organization focused on innovative products. The company is said to be working on “building a self-flying vehicle platform codenamed Vahana, which is designed to carry both individual passengers and cargo, which could also help it act as a last-mile provider for companies like Amazon.”
The leader of the project says a prototype could be “in the sky by 2017,” since the individual tech pieces needed to do that are “most of the way there,” including batteries, motor and basic avionic underpinnings. “One of the biggest challenges the team currently faces from an engineering standpoint is building a comprehensive obstacle avoidance system – like the ones that help Google’s driverless cars navigate roads, but optimized for skyborne vehicles.”