We heard about this company whilst researching other small technology companies in the automotive space – and with the constant chatter about autonomous cars, here at Motoring Weekly, we felt that we should look at those companies that aren’t so well known today.
Drive.ai was spawned from the Stanford University where the Artificial Intelligence Lab was developing systems. Moving to Mountain View in Silicon Valley in 2015, the original idea was to retrofit their kit to existing cars – a path that many of the autonomous vehicle platforms tried and moved away from. Only Waymo appears to be the only one travelling this path with their announcement to take production cars and add to them.
Drive.ai says that they are building the “brain of self-driving vehicles” and secured $12M in funding during 2016 and then followed that up a year later with an extra $50M. They have also recently received a further $15M to continue their development which appears to be going rather well. They now have a small fleet made up of Lincoln MKX and Nissan NV200s – the vehicle that was to be the taxi of tomorrow in New York, however never really made it.
With drive.ai, these cars are painted in a bright orange colour with a big “Self-Driving Vehicle” notice emblazoned on the sides. They also have two LED displays mounted fore and aft with two more fitted above the front wheels. These displays are there to provide information to other drivers and pedestrians.
The vehicles are a mix of commercial components and internal development – each vehicle has ten cameras, four LIDAR systems and one Radar system fitted, all controlled by an internally developed brain. They also have triple-redundancy 4G connections in case something goes wrong and an operator can take remote control of the vehicle. Thinking about it, is that where the new jobs will be: being remote operators for robo-taxis?
The interesting thing about the vehicles is that they are focused on learning about the environment and providing safety for those around it, yet the additional equipment mounted at a height that could do some damage to a pedestrian is a concern! Apparently the signs were originally fitted to the roof with the electronics, however they were not seen by pedestrians! The cars are however, very brightly painted, so one would think that a pedestrian would notice them. Having said that, several years ago a jogger was killed one evening locally to our offices when she ran out in front of a garbage collection truck that had warning lights and its headlights on!
We think it is a good idea for vehicles to be able to communicate in some form with pedestrians and the LED panels is a good start, maybe in the future the V2P (can we claim to start a new acronym: Vehicle to Pedestrian?) will be via mobile signal that interrupts the audio or visual that the pedestrian is looking at. Another advance would be to fit flexible OLED screens to the panels that would be safer in a collision.
The one area that we are always concerned about is the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) – is it really intelligent in that it is considering all options and making a genuine decision, or is the system simply coded to do something in particular geographical locations and weather/traffic conditions. Testing of these vehicles is always contained in a small suburb or area so the ultimate test is really to drop one of the vehicles in an area that it doesn’t know and see if it can figure its way around. To a degree, drive.ai have reached that point with the company recording a video of one of their cars driving in the rain – at night – around Mountain View:
The company has been testing in Frisco, a suburb of Dallas for over 18 months now and has been testing without any drivers on board and even tested a human-less ride-hail service within a very small geo-fenced area. So drive.ai is one of those quiet achievers that suddenly breaks cover when a bigger player gobbles them up. Maybe within a few years, their AI Brain will become a standard component on cars manufactured by one of the big companies.
Images and video provided by drive.ai