In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 sci-fi classic Total Recall, the protagonist gets into a heated argument with a self-driving cab, driven by an artificial intelligence- challenged automaton.
(It ends badly for the robotic taxi driver.) The film takes place in 2084 on Mars. But fully autonomous cars will be a reality right here on Earth by 2021. That, anyway, is Mobileye CEO Ziv Aviram’s vision of the not-too-distant future.
Aviram founded Mobileye in 1999 with Prof. Amnon Shashua of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their company is best known for inventing a technology to alert drivers to obstacles. Using that proprietary obstacle-sensing sensor system to gather millions of kilometers of driving data, Mobileye is working with many of the world’s biggest auto manufacturers to pave the way for self-driving cars and trucks.
In August 2014, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, raising $890 million in the largest Israeli IPO in the United States. With the exception of Toyota and Mercedes, Aviram said Mobileye is working with all the big names in car manufacturing. He reportedly held a secret meeting with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in recent weeks.
“No comment,” Aviram told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Tuesday. “We still like to call ourselves a start-up, but we are a global, international company, operating and doing R&D in Israel, supplying a huge industry, and growing,” he said.
On behalf of Mobileye, Aviram will be receiving The Jerusalem Post 2016 Prize innovation award at the newspaper’s annual conference in New York on May 22. The award recognizes the company’s revolutionary approach and life-saving technological breakthrough.
Aviram laid out his road map for bringing fully autonomous cars onto city streets and highways.
“Autonomous cars are not a dream anymore. It’s not a matter of if. It’s matter of when,” he said.
The first of three phases, he said, was the advent of semi-autonomous driving, which is already available in some cars today, including Tesla’s Model S. Drivers can push an “auto-pilot” button when they’re on the highway, and the car will remain in its lane and avoid other vehicles. But the driver must still remain attentive, and the technology is not suited for city driving.
By 2018, the next phase, called automated driving, will be available. That system, which will require three cameras, will allow drivers to focus on other things during highway driving.
By 2021, Aviram said, he anticipates fully autonomous cars will hit the road.
For that, he said, a much wider array of sensors will be necessary.
“We think you need eight cameras, four corner radars and additional configurations of LEEDR [Laser Environmental Effects Definition and Reference] sensors and sonars.”
Together those different cameras and sensors will create enough redundancy in data that the system will be able to gauge the environment with “99.9999 percent” accuracy.
But that is just the beginning, Aviram enthused.
In addition to the ability to detect objects, Mobileye wants driverless cars to have an idea of where the road is leading, an accurate map of what’s over the horizon or around the corner.
To do that, the company has put to use the visual data on 14 million kilometers of highways its cameras have recorded, creating a crowd-sourced map. The concept recalls another Israeli driving innovator, Waze, which uses crowd-sourced GPS data to assess traffic and map out new roads.
“The supplier that eventually has the map of the road will control the market,” he said.
While Google has a far more expensive system that travels down roads several times to map them, Mobileye’s system is less expensive but benefits from its ubiquity, he explained.
“We still do not know how they’ll maintain the accuracy of their map. They’ll need tens of thousands of vehicles to keep the map updated. We use tens of thousands of vehicles to crowd source,” he said.
The last element needed for autonomous cars is what Aviram calls “driving policy,” which refers not just to rules and regulations but interactions between drivers. For example, if four people reach an intersection at the same time, it’s generally not a problem; a combination of eye contact, flashing headlights, or just subtle movements can indicate who has the right of way. Computers might just wait forever for a break in traffic if they don’t have ways to navigate human behavior.
“The reason that we need to teach the computer driving policy is that autonomous driving is not going to be presented in one day. The transition will take at least two decades. So from 2021, the autonomous cars will drive alongside humans, who don’t always follow the rules of the road. They’ll need to understand how to merge into traffic,” he explained.
Of course, other challenges will present themselves as well.
There is concern about cyber security, and someone being able to take control of a car remotely. Inevitably, a driverless car will be involved in a fender-bender or more serious accident. While driverless vehicles are expected to significantly reduce vehicular mortality, they will also likely lead to unprecedented civil lawsuits.
There’s been considerable volatility in Mobileye stock.
Aviram attributes the swings – from a 12-month low of $23 to a high of $64 – to global financial instability. Some analysts fret that the company has too many eggs in one basket, and has made unrealistic projections.
Aviram begged to differ.
“If you follow the majority of the analysts that cover us, many give a much higher target price than we have today, that we’re not at full potential. That’s what we believe too. We are a tech company but have the privilege of playing in the auto field, which has the advantage of a very long [development] arc,” he said.
Since the auto industry works on cars for many years before bringing them to market, working with them gives Mobileye some financial security. The company’s projecting revenue of $1.5 billion in 2018 is based on deals it’s already struck.
Aviram takes a multi-year perspective.
His vision of reshaping the world through a technology that will revolutionize everything from commuting to shipping is driving Mobileye full speed ahead.