Merritt Group Blog

In Self-Driving Cars, Every OEM Still Needs a Smart Tech Geek

Pretty much every major auto manufacturer around the world is looking to go driverless — from traditional players like Toyota, Ford and Audi to newcomers like Tesla. But some of the industry’s formative players are still making their own impressive moves to enable OEMs with their own path in bringing autonomy to driving.

Many of the players that got their start over 10 years ago in DARPA’s Grand and Urban Challenges are still pushing the industry envelope, transforming their efforts as the self-driving industry pushes to more autonomy and less driver intervention.

TORC Robotics, which grew out of Virginia Tech’s teams in those races, used to operate entirely in the military autonomous driving realm. But their latest news fresh off CES sees the company pivoting to the commercial market.

“We think the automotive industry is at an inflection point,” CEO of the Blacksburg, Virginia company, Michael Fleming, recently said in an interview with The Roanoke Times. “You see a lot of folks making comments about how this technology will be commercially available in the next three to five years. We’re working with a lot of big players to make that happen.”

The company is in the midst of a safety trial with AAA using TORC’s “Asimov” self-driving system. The criteria could serve as a blueprint for any of the auto manufacturers approach the safety of their vehicles, according to AAA.

Perhaps the earliest adopter of self-driving cars fresh off DARPA’s industry push was Google, now Alphabet, with their efforts eventually headed up by Carnegie Mellon’s Chris Urmson, a former DARPA participant.

Now Urmson is focusing his energy on Aurora Innovation, his startup that focuses on analyzing self-driving car data through machine learning. The one-year-old company, whose founders also include Tesla and Uber alums, is current working with Volkswagen and Hyundai to launch mobility-as-a-service solutions and and Level 4 autonomy consumer vehicles by 2021, respectively. A quick look at the company’s hiring page indicates Aurora is about to become a major player in this space and more OEM partnerships are likely.

For consumers, it’s easy to get caught up in the partial self-navigation features coming from automakers now, but it’s that push to Level 4 automation that companies like TORC and Aurora are focusing on that holds the most safety promise. In the phases prior to Level 4, driver distraction can still play a role in accidents, most prominently seen in the 2016 Tesla accident, where the driver assumed the car’s Autopilot didn’t require as much intervention as it does.

While all auto manufacturers know they need to move to self-driving cars, not just as a competitive advantage but as a safety tool, the latest trend proves that those embedded in the technology’s formative years aren’t going anywhere. If anything, it’s these engineers that are ushering in the full potential of self-driving cars for OEMs, navigating passengers — safely — into the future.

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Topics: IoT public relations emerging technologies 2018