Silicon Valley startup Aeva aims to give driverless cars better vision

In January, with funding from Lux Capital and other venture capital firms, two former members of Apple’s Special Projects Group, Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, started Aeva.

The company aims to improve the ability of self-driving cars to see their surroundings, according to New York Times report. Salehian and Rezk are reimagining Lidar—that is, Light Detection and Ranging—technology, which today’s self-driving cars use along with cameras, radar, GPS antennas, and other implements to create a picture of the world around them.

Aeva’s lidar, the company says, measures distances more accurately than other such systems. And, unlike other lidar systems, Aeva’s judges velocity. It is also smaller and less expensive than today’s lidar technology.

Aeva aims to have it on the market by 2018.

Traditional lidar devices emit pulses of light and measure their wavelength and return times to determine how far away a given object is. Then, computers use the data to construct three-dimensional models of the surrounding world.

But, today’s lidar systems can only detect objects that are relatively close, and cannot always differentiate between one object and another, the Times notes. As a result, they do not perform well in bad weather or when moving at high speeds.

Radar, which uses electromagnetic waves rather than light waves to map the world, can detect objects at greater distances, making it more suitable when traveling at high speeds, and cameras can “read” street signs and differentiate between, say, a pedestrian and a crosswalk.

So, cameras, radar, lidar and other devices work together to “drive” today’s autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars will likely continue to employ this combination for the foreseeable future, as multiple detection systems represent multiple layers of security.

Lidar devices, along with the rest of the ensemble, are expensive. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a self-driving car with the necessary hardware. The prohibitive cost of production prevents companies from marketing self-driving cars to average consumers. So, the first self-driving cars are not privately owned; rather, they have debuted in the fleets of companies like Lyft and Uber.

But, the Times cites a report by the Boston Consulting Group that projects that the self-driving car market will be worth $42 billion by 2025. For that to happen, companies must find ways to produce the vehicles more affordably.

The Times equates Aeva’s system to a cross between lidar—which is ideal for judging distances—and radar, which is best at detecting speed. Rather than emitting a series of light pulses, the device sends out a constant wave of light. This approach, Rzek told the Times, allows Aeva lidar to produce a better resolution, work better in inclement weather, and handle reflective surfaces better than standard systems do.

“I don’t even think of this as a new kind of lidar,” Tarin Ziyaee, co-founder and chief technology officer at the self-driving taxi start-up Voyage, who has seen the Aeva prototype, told the Times. “It’s a whole different animal.”

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a similar continuous-wave lidar system back in 2014, the Times notes. Other companies that develop lira technology, such as Velodyne and Oryx Vision, are exploring similar options, according to said publication.

Lidar’s applications go well beyond driverless cars. Law enforcement uses the technology to create automated speed traps. Lidar may one day track a user’s movements for virtual-reality environments.

Today, video game systems like the Xbox Kinect do not use Lidar, because Lidar devices are too expensive, too bulky, and too power-consumptive for the purpose. But, continuous-wave Lidar systems are cheaper and lighter than pulse-based ones.

Behnam Behroozpour of U.C. Berkeley told phys.org in 2014 that he envisions that Lidar can be used for “a host of new applications that have not even been invented yet.” For instance, cell phones could use the technology to recognize a user and detect his hand motions from across the room, allowing him to control the device with simple hand gestures.

BMW’s first level-5 self-driving offering, which the company plans to release by 2021, will allow human riders to use hand gestures to order Amazon packages, make a dinner reservation, and perform a range of other actions.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Tesla’s semi-truck will be electric, Autonomous

Tesla will meet with the California and Nevada Departments of Motor Vehicles to talk about testing a semi-truck in those states, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. 

In April, CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the company planned to “unveil” an electric semi-truck in September. Many had speculated that that vehicle would be autonomous or semi-autonomous.

“It’s at least a semi-autonomous truck,” Ben Kallo, an analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co., told Bloomberg in April.

The reported discussions between Tesla and the DMVs confirm that the semi will drive itself to some degree. A DMV spokeswoman told CNBC that Tesla had “requested the meeting to talk about…efforts with autonomous trucks,” but added that the DMV “is not aware of the level of autonomy of the trucks.”

In an email to a Nevada DMV official, Tesla regulatory official Nasser Zamani wrote, per CNBC: “…our primary goal is the ability to operate our prototype test trucks in a continuous manner across the state line and within the States of Nevada and California in a platooning and/or Autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle.”

“Platooning” involves programming vehicles to autonomously follow one another in a formation or “platoon,” CNBC says.

Tesla is headquartered in Palo Alto, CA. It’s only production facility is in Fremont, CA, and its battery gigafactory is in Sparks, Nevada, just over 15 miles east of the CA-NV border, Bloomberg noted. So, it is logical for Tesla to begin testing its autonomous trucks in those states.

However, the electric automaker will face regulatory hurdles. A spokesman for the Nevada DMV said, per Bloomberg, that Tesla does not have and has not as yet applied for a testing license in the state. According to CNBC, “no companies yet have tested self-driving trucks in Nevada without a person in the cab.”

Moreover, California Highway Patrol does not permit testing of vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds (as Tesla’s truck will). However, a California DMV spokeswoman told Bloomberg her department is working to draft regulations governing the testing of such vehicles.

Many companies are developing autonomous long-haul transport vehicles. CNBC says commercial transport may be the ideal early market for autonomous technology, as trucks maintain constant speeds, and encounter minimal traffic on most interstates.

Nobody anywhere has developed an electric long-haul transport vehicle; battery range has been prohibitive. Tesla’s luxury Model S and Model X offerings are among the longest-range electric vehicles on the market today. The former can travel 335 miles on a single charge, the latter 295. A tank of diesel, on the other hand, can carry today’s trucks for 500 miles, CNBC says.

CNBC cites Venkat Viswanathan, a lithium ion battery researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, as saying that the battery needed to sustain a long-haul-transport electric vehicle would be so large they would become the trucks’ cargo.

Still, Musk maintains his trademark confidence.

The development of the semi is another in a string of recent efforts by the progressive automaker to expand into a wider array of markets. Tesla is set to mass produce its Model 3, a mid-market car priced around $35,000. The company also plans to release a “next-gen,” convertible version of its first ever car, The Roadster, Musk said in a comment on the April tweet referenced above. In another comment on the same tweet, he said the unveiling of a pickup truck was scheduled for 18-24 months’ time.

“The important thing is that while everyone is focused on the Model 3, there are a lot of other projects going on at Tesla,” said Kallo in April’s Bloomberg report. Per the same article, analyst James Albertine of Consumer Edge Research said Tesla’s ventures into new markets should excite investors.

The automotive industry is accelerating toward a future of electric, autonomous vehicles, and Tesla looks poised to capitalize on both fronts. Investors are showing their faith. Since December 30, the company’s stock has climbed almost 70%. Since Musk’s April 13 Twitter statements, Tesla shares are up 18.4%.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Asian Ride-Hailing Company Grab Has Raised 2 Billion and Counting in Latest Investment Round

China’s most prominent ride sharing company, Didi Chuxing, and SoftBank, a leader in the Japanese telecommunications and internet services industries, have invested a combined $2 billion in southeast Asian ride-hailing company Grab, Johana Bhuyan of recode.net reports. Grab expects to collect an additional $500 million dollars during this round of funding. It will use the money to expand geographically, as well as to bolster GrabPay, its mobile pay service.

Grab, founded in Singapore in 2012 as “MyTeksi,” now operates in 65 cities across 7 countries in Southeast Asia. The company serves three million daily users, Bhuyan says, and claims to hold 95% of the taxi market and 71% of the ride hailing market in the region.

Didi initially invested in Grab in 2015, during the latter company’s $350 million Series E round. SoftBank led Grab’s $250 million series D round in 2014.

Didi owns Uber’s China operation, and holds stake in Lyft, as well as in India’s largest ride-hailing company, Ola, and Brazil’s leading ride-hailing company, 99. SoftBank invested $100 million in 99 back in May, and a $210 million in Ola in 2015.

Rather than compete with one another across foreign markets, many ride-hailing companies are  choosing to cooperate, sharing their driver networks with each other. As a result of the Lyft-Didi alliance, for instance, a Lyft user traveling in China will find Didi cars listed when he opens his Lyft app, and vise versa. When it closed a $5.5 billion funding round in April, Didi said it planned to use the money to create a “sustainable global mobility ecosystem.” The investment in Grab marks another step toward doing just that.

Uber took a different approach toward establishing itself in international markets: it went head to head with established local companies like Didi in China. Its attempt to break into the Chinese market cost Uber about $2 billion, Kara Swisher of recode wrote last August. In the end, the companies called a truce: Didi gained control of Uber’s Chinese assets, adding $7 billion to its valuation, but Uber was granted a 20% stake the expanded Didi company, which] invested $1 billion in Uber.

SoftBank is also making inroads into self-driving technology. Just last week, it co-led a $159 million investment round in Nauto, which develops technology in driverless cars.

According to Arjun Kharpal of CNBC, Nauto plans to “use the money to grow and develop its camera technology and install it into more cars globally.”

Self-driving technology may be intertwined with the ride-hailing industry for the foreseeable future. Last week, Lyft announced intentions to add driverless cars to its network by the end of this year. Last September, Grab partnered with NuTonomy, a Cambridge based MIT spinoff that specializes in autonomous car technology, to allow users to try driverless cars for free. Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, founded in 2015, employs some of the industry’s top minds in the effort toward self-driving technology. Lyft will create a similar operation, it said in the aforementioned announcement.

Cooperation is doing much to spur the ride-hailing as well as the autonomous car industry. GM and BMW also participated in Nutonomy’s investment round last week, and such automakers will likely team with ride hailing companies, which can provide platforms for the honing of autonomous technology.

The expansive alliance network that includes Didi, Left, Grab, and others is making it easier for customers to find rides around the world. Of course, the easier that becomes, the more ride hailing will pull ahead in the transportation space.

But Uber, having lost billions in a more or less futile attempt to infiltrate the Chinese market, may be left behind, unless that company can outstrip competitors in the race toward autonomous technology.

Featured image via Flickr/Jon Russell

Faraday Future Debuts New Electric Car, FF91

Faraday Future revealed its FF91 model at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, the company’s first production electric car. Its 130-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack gives the car a range of 378 miles. At a power output of 1,050 horsepower, the FF91 can go from zero to 60 mph in less than 2.4 seconds.

The reveal event at the Consumer Electronics Show did not go smoothly, however, as the FF91 failed to park itself during a live demonstration.

The FF91 comes equipped with four different cell modems from four major telecommunications carriers, which are supposed to keep the car connected at all times, anywhere. It also has rising lidar sensor that ascends from the hood of the car, as well as touch sensitive panels on the B-pillar, the vertical roof support structure between the front and rear doors.  The lidar sensor is a crucial part of the technology that allows for autonomous driving modes, as it projects lasers to bounce off of objects in order to create a fast, accurate 3D scan of the surrounding environment. The FF91 is the first car to attempt to package all the above components into a single vehicle.

According to Jia Yueting, a Chinese billionaire and CEO of LeEco, as well as a substantial supporter of Faraday, this could make the FF91 much pricier than its competitors. In a recent interview, Jia said that the electric car will cost “less than 2 million Chinese yuan,” which is around $290,000.

There is speculation that the price Jia referred to could reflect taxes, shipping costs, and import duties, should Faraday build the FF91 outside of China. However, if this figure is the FF91’s international price, then it is vastly more costly than its rival electric cars, and several other new non-electric cars as well.

A Tesla Model S  P100D, with a range of 315 miles and a 100 kilo-Watt hour battery, currently sells at $135,700. While Lucid Motors had not announced the price for its new luxury sedan, Air, it is thought to be closer to $100,000 when it goes in to production next year.

In any case, the FF91 must reflect the cost of lithium-ion cells in its sizable battery pack, as well as its numerous autonomous-driving components.