The U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co. will begin test-driving an autonomous car on Israeli roads within a few weeks, after obtaining permission from the Transportation Ministry.
Operated by the company’s research and development center in Israel, the driverless Ford Fusion will be equipped with cameras, radar and lidar sensor technology. The goal of the test is to enable the R&D team to personally see the algorithms they have developed operating in real-road conditions, said Udy Danino, the founder and CEO of SAIPS.
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Tel Aviv-based SAIPS has been playing a major role in Ford’s autonomous-vehicle effort since it was acquired by the U.S. giant in 2016.
“After four years of working by remote, we realized that we need to move to the next stage. Until now, we’ve been developing software, sending it to the United States, getting feedback and so on. We want to shorten the process,” Danino said.
Over the last few years, tests of self-driving vehicles have been conducted in Israel by the Mobileye unit of Intel, General Motors and by Russia’s Yandex. Ford has staked out a prominent role in the global race to develop autonomous cars, developing the technology in partnership with a company called Argo AI, in which it and Volkswagen each own a 40% stake.
The plan is to launch a robotaxi service of autonomous cabs in several U.S. cities by the end of 2022. The taxis will be equipped with so-called Level 4 technology, meaning their automated driving features can drive the vehicle only when certain limited conditions are met.
“An American consumer with a car that costs $20,000-$30,000 won’t spend another $50,000 on an autonomous car, so the private-car market is less important,” explained Danino.
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“By comparison, the robotaxi market is more attractive financially. The cost of a driver for services such as Uber is 70% of the total travel cost, which means the technology cost of an autonomous vehicle pays for itself quickly,” he added.
Ford announced in April that due to the coronavirus pandemic it was delaying the launch from 2021 to 2022. But there are bigger challenges to getting self-driving cars on the road.
“Without a doubt, people were quickly disappointed with the timetable for the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Danino said. “The industry now understands that the problems are more complicated than it thought at the start. Some are saying that what’s delaying the coming of autonomous cars is regulation, but that’s far from true. The problem is still technology. I believe that the minute that a reliable manufacturer brings a quality solution, regulators will be hard-pressed to oppose bringing the technology to the streets. If they object, it would mean a death sentence for tens of thousands of people dying every year in auto accidents.”
Ford’s Israel R&D center, which is based on SAIPS, is responsible for developing the algorithms connecting with the exacting three-dimensional mapping needed for driverless vehicles. They need to show not just the roads themselves, but sidewalks, traffic lights and road signs to help the car manage the driving environment. The Israel center is also working on other projects, some of them long term, connected with the technology needed for making decisions while driving.
The autonomous vehicle industry has recently undergone a consolidation process, with many small companies swallowed by bigger ones – most recently Zoox by Amazon. The big players that are emerging from the process, Danino said, are Waymo (formerly a Google unit) as No. 1, followed by Argo-Ford and then by GM’s Cruise.
“Mobileye and Intel are without a doubt among the top five and it would be a big mistake to underestimate them. They’re doing excellent work,” he added.
In fact, Ford and Mobileye occupy much the same space in the industry, making them head-on competitors.
“Ford and Mobileye have a complex relationship,” said Danino. “On the one hand, Mobileye supplies Ford with ADAS (advanced driver-assistance systems). They compete on the more advanced levels of autonomy, but they do so in a gentlemanly way with a lot of mutual respect.
As to the team SAIPS has developed: “Our strategy is to target the top developers. We have the best team in Israel by far. We have 40 algorithm designers. It’s harder to get accepted by us than to get into Harvard. Our philosophy is that a small, high-quality team will bring more value than a large average team can.”
Over the long run, said Danino, the industry consolidation is likely to be a threat to companies developing lidar technology, which enables self-driving vehicles to identify what’s around them. Several of them have opted to go public through special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs (see story on this page), in the past year, such as Luminar and Velodyne. Israel’s Innoviz is planning a SPAC merger, too, at a $1.4 billion valuation.
“Because it’s such a complex issue, I believe that only a small number of manufacturers will dominate the autonomous-vehicle market,” Danino predicted. “We’ve seen that the big companies prefer in-house development of lidar and not rely on outside suppliers, for instance, Waymo, Argo and Mobileye. I’m not saying there won’t be room at all for outside suppliers, but if there are three main manufacturers developing their own lidar, that could be a threat to the lidar industry.”
Danino warns that there are other obstacles threatening the future of Israeli automotive tech startups. Many companies have developed a range of sensors with the hope of getting them into the next few generations of self-driving cars. But manufacturers think the prices, which come to hundreds of dollars, are too high.
“There are a lot of startups developing sensors, which among other things help cope with bright lights and bad weather,” said Danino. “Out of the big group that began, fewer and fewer players remain in the game. Only those that have a very high-quality product. I think natural selection will play its part.”