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AI pioneer Raquel Urtasun launches self-driving technology startup with backing from Khosla, Uber and Aurora

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One of the lingering mysteries from Uber’s sale of its Uber ATG self-driving unit to Aurora has been solved.

Raquel Urtasun, the AI pioneer who was the chief scientist at Uber ATG, has launched a new startup called Waabi that is taking what she describes as an “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, starting with long-haul trucks. Urtasun, who is the sole founder and CEO, already has a long list of high-profile backers, including separate investments from Uber and Aurora. Waabi has raised $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures, with additional participation from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC and Aurora Innovation, as well as leading AI researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others.

Urtasun described Waabi, which currently employs 40 people and operates in Toronto and California, as the culmination of her life’s work to bring commercially viable self-driving technology to society. The name of the company — Waabi means “she has vision” in Ojibwe and “simple” in Japanese — hints at her approach and ambitions.

Autonomous vehicle startups that exist today use a combination of artificial intelligence algorithms and sensors to handle the tasks of driving that humans do, such as detecting and understanding objects and making decisions based on that information to safely navigate a lonely road or a crowded highway. Beyond those basics are a variety of approaches, including within AI.

Most self-driving vehicle developers use a traditional form of AI. However, the traditional approach limits the power of AI, Urtasun said, adding that developers must manually tune the software stack, a complex and time-consuming task. The upshot, Urtasun says: Autonomous vehicle development has slowed and the limited commercial deployments that do exist operate in small and simple operational domains because scaling is so costly and technically challenging.

“Working in this field for so many years and, in particular, the industry for the past four years, it became more and more clear along the way that there is a need for a new approach that is different from the traditional approach that most companies are taking today,” said Urtasun, who is also a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.

Some developers do use deep neural nets, a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allows a computer to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data. However, developers typically wall off the deep nets to handle a specific problem and use machine learning and rules-based algorithms to tie into the broader system.

Deep nets have their own set of problems. A long-standing argument is that they can’t be used with any reliability in autonomous vehicles in part because of the “black box” effect, in which the how and the why the AI solved a particular task is not clear. That is a problem for any self-driving startup that wants to be able verify and validate its system. It is also difficult to incorporate any prior knowledge about the task that the developer is trying to solve, like, oh, driving for instance. Finally, deep nets require an immense amount of data to learn.

Urtasun says she solved these lingering problems around deep nets by combining them with probabilistic inference and complex optimization, which she describes as a family of algorithms. When combined, the developer can trace back the decision process of the AI system and incorporate prior knowledge so they don’t have to teach the AI system everything from scratch. The final piece is a closed loop simulator that will allow the Waabi team to test at scale common driving scenarios and safety-critical edge cases.

Waabi will still have a physical fleet of vehicles to test on public roads. However, the simulator will allow the company to rely less on this form of testing. “We can even prepare for new geographies before we drive there,” Urtasun said. “That’s a huge benefit in terms of the scaling curve.”

Urtasun’s vision and intent isn’t to take this approach and disrupt the ecosystem of OEMs, hardware and compute suppliers, but to be a player within it. That might explain the backing of Aurora, a startup that is developing its own self-driving stack that it hopes to first deploy in logistics such as long-haul trucking.

“This was the moment to really do something different,” Urtasun said. “The field is in need of a diverse set of approaches to solve this and it became very clear that this was the way to go.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/08/ai-pioneer-raquel-urtasun-launches-self-driving-vehicle-startup-with-backing-from-khosla-uber-and-aurora/

Automotive

Honda Developing Shoe-Based Navi System For Visually Impaired

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Honda Motor Co., Ltd. announced a new firm called Ashirase, Inc. It’s the first startup that came from Ignition, Honda’s new business creation program.

Ashirase, Inc.’s first technologically advanced product is quite revolutionary, but it isn’t for cars. The company is developing an in-shoe navigation system to support visually impaired individuals with walking. Honda aims to begin sales of the system, which is also named Ashirase, by March 2023.

The Ashirase uses a smartphone app and a 3D vibration device with a motion sensor that’s attached inside the show. With the use of vibrations, the Ashirase will tell the user when to go straight, turn right, turn left, and stop. Honda said that the product should enable an intuitive understanding of the route so users don’t have to constantly mindful of directions for a safer and more relaxed walk.

Of note, the route guidance is provided by Global Navigation Satellite System while the vibrators are aligned with the foot’s nerve later. Vibration via the foot also allows freedom with the user’s hands, which can be used for other functions such as holding a cane.

We’re pretty sure a healthy lot of you know that Honda isn’t just an automaker. It’s also a tech company that constantly develops new-age products to aid in various walks of life.

Last year, Honda introduced the Ropot, which is practically a blind-spot warning for 7-year-old kids in Japan when walking. All of these technological devices sprung from a need for it, with the Ropot coming from the sheer number of accidents involving kids and walking.

With the Ashirase, Honda reported that there are quite a number of visually impaired individuals that needed aid when walking, thus the birth of this intuitive device.

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Source: https://www.motor1.com/news/513570/honda-ashirase-shoe-based-navigation/?utm_source=RSS&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=RSS-category-technology

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Artificial Intelligence

The rise of robotaxis in China

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AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.


Enterprising governments

Worldwide, regulations play a great role in the development of autonomous vehicles. In China, policymaking for autonomous driving is driven from the bottom up rather than a top-down effort by the central government, observed executives from the three Chinese robotaxi startups.

Huan Sun, Europe general manager at Momenta, which is backed by the government of Suzhou, a city near Shanghai, said her company had a “very good experience” working with the municipal governments across multiple cities.

In China, each local government is incentivized to really act like entrepreneurs like us. They are very progressive in developing the local economy… What we feel is that autonomous driving technology can greatly improve and upgrade the [local governments’] economic structure. (Time stamp: 02:56)

Shenzhen, a special economic zone with considerable lawmaking autonomy, is just as progressive in propelling autonomous driving forward, said Jewel Li, chief operation officer at AutoX, which is based in the southern city.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/11/the-rise-of-robotaxis-in-china/

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Automotive

Why Mate Rimac is working on electric robotaxis

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Mate Rimac, the founder and CEO of Croatian electric hypercar and components developer Rimac Automobili, started a separate company nearly three years ago to work on electric robotaxis.

Little is known about the company, which still operates in stealth. Rimac told TechCrunch this week at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 he hopes to keep this separate company under wraps until the team is ready to showcase what it has been working on.

Rimac did provide some details on what he described as an electric robotaxi company. He said the company has offices in Croatia and the U.K. and could expand to other locations. Rimac also said the company intends to be a global operator and he expects to reveal what the team has been working on early next year.

“Why stealth mode?,” Rimac asked during the interview. “Because there’s so much hot air in this industry, and so many PowerPoint companies, you know, announcing big things and not delivering and so on. We didn’t want to be that company, we wanted to do a lot of stuff — and like under-promise, over-deliver.”

Few even knew of the company’s existence until last month when local media discovered a Croatia Ministry of Transport filing that described a proposed project involving an urban mobility ecosystem that used electric autonomous vehicles. While Rimac noted that was an unfortunate discovery, he wants to reveal their work properly.

“People see us as the hypercar company,” Rimac said, noting the company is viewed as one focused on ultra-high net worth individuals. (Indeed, Rimac Automobili unveiled a production version of its Concept 2 vehicle. The renamed Nevera has a $2.44 million price tag.) “We have many other things cooking and have a longer-term outlook. I think that the new mobility will be really a shift in society. Just like phones didn’t just change the phone industry. Apple didn’t just disrupt Nokia, but changed our lives. I think the next big change that we’ll have is mobility.”

Rimac didn’t get into details about the autonomous driving system, sensors or design of the vehicle.

“We think that a lot of people are missing the bigger picture and focusing on some of the building blocks, like the autonomous driving system itself,” he said. “We believe maybe that’s not the differentiator itself, that there are some other differentiating factors within the ecosystem of autonomous mobility.”

Rimac later added that the user experience of the robotaxi is one area that he is focused on and believes it can be different than what others are developing.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/11/why-mate-rimac-is-working-on-electric-robotaxis/

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Automotive

Apple confirms hiring of Ulrich Kranz, former CEO of EV company Canoo

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As former senior executive of BMW AG’s electric car division, Kranz oversaw the development of the sporty electric i3 and i8 cars at BMW, which might give us a hint into the potential aesthetic of the future Apple Car. Anonymous sources say he’ll report to Doug Field, who runs the Apple Car project and previously led development of Tesla’s Model 3.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/10/apple-confirms-hiring-of-ulrich-kranz-former-ceo-of-ev-company-canoo/

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