Israel, the US and the development of driverless cars

Where do leading US companies go to seek the technologies they need to stay in the race?

A SELF-DRIVING car by Google is displayed at the Viva Technology event in Paris, France, in June. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SELF-DRIVING car by Google is displayed at the Viva Technology event in Paris, France, in June.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most people think of US-Israel relations as a one-way street: the US provides billions of dollars to Israel each year and stands by our side in international forums such as the UN. While that part is generally true, it is by no means the full story. The fact that these relations also benefit the US in many different areas does not receive the attention it deserves. One of these aspects is the tremendous flow of Israeli technology that helps leading US companies maintain a strong position in the global competition.
Last week we witnessed an example of how this works, this time in the area of autonomous vehicles.
The development of autonomous vehicles is considered by many to be one of the new frontiers in today’s economic world. A future in which convoys of trucks travel along the highways with nobody on board, fleets of driverless taxis will serve major metropolitan areas and affordable cars rid their passengers of the need to drive is around the corner. This modern gold rush is happening worldwide and is most evident in the US. Major US-based companies, including giants from the automotive industry and others from the established IT empires (including Google, Apple and others) have joined the race to lead the autonomous vehicles marketplace. This race is not about developing new technologies that will improve existing automotive technologies (better engines, safer chassis, smarter gears, etc.). Rather, it focuses on technologies that can convert existing cars into autonomous platforms – topics such as computer vision, communication systems, navigation, and above all artificial analysis that will replace the human driver in analyzing the driving environment and making continuous decisions in operating the car.
Israel has never been an important player in the automotive business. There were a few attempts in the 1950s and early 1960s to develop some car manufacturing capacity but these initiatives were quickly proven ineffective and economically misguided, mainly due to the small size of the domestic market.
In contrast, Israeli universities (mainly the Hebrew University, Technion, Tel Aviv University and Weizmann) are globally renowned for their research and educational programs in the IT fields that are at the heart of the race for autonomous vehicles.
Hence, where do leading US companies go to seek the technologies they need to stay in the race? Two cases reported in this week’s news provide the answer. First, Ford Motors purchased SAIPS, an Israeli company that developed machine learning technologies, an important pillar in the artificial intelligence framework needed for autonomous vehicles.
Second, Uber purchased Otto, a California-based company led by Israelis which developed technologies enabling convoys of driverless trucks to act as a well-coordinated flock, where messages are communicated internally in real time from the lead truck through every truck in the convoy and decisions are made simultaneously.
To be fair, I should mention that companies are buying such technologies not only in Israel. But the rate in which such purchases take place in Israel, when factored with the population size, stands out as the highest in the world, by a wide margin.
Graduates of the Technion, where I am on the faculty, hold key management positions in both SAIPS and Otto. Udy Danino, co-founder and CEO of SAIPS, graduated the Technion MBA program in 2007 while Lior Ron, co-founder and CEO of Otto, received his BSc and MSc in computer science from the Technion in the late 1990s before moving on to receive his MBA from Stanford. Their role in such companies is not an exception. A recent study by the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research indicated that Technion alumni founded or led more than 1,600 companies in the past 20 years (a rate of 80 per year).
More than half of these new companies were in the IT field and were established by graduates of the computer science and electrical engineering departments.
The mutually beneficial relations described above are just one of many such two-way bridges that connect US and Israel in a diverse network of fields, including medical devices, environmental protection, homeland security and defense, chip design, advanced materials and much more. It’s high time to make the mutually beneficial nature of these relations more commonly known as this knowledge will help us, on both sides of the ocean, not only maintain the existing relations but strengthen and expand them moving forward.
The author is vice president for external relations and resource development at The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.