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As Uber faces the heat from Alphabet over its self-driving truck technology, today another self-driving truck startup is going to market to capitalize on the burgeoning autonomous vehicle industry.
Founded out of San Mateo, California in 2016, Embark — not to be confused with the public transit startup acquired by Apple back in 2013 — is officially unveiling its self-driving truck smarts after a period in stealth.
The company has built a highway autopilot system that it hopes will become the truck’s “central cortex” — the intelligence to power autonomous trucks. As with other similar technologies at the moment, Embark uses a combination of sensors, radars, and cameras to understand its environment and avoid collisions. The technology also taps machine learning to improve over time.
“Analyzing terabyte upon terabyte of real-world data, Embark’s DNNs (Deep Neural Networks) have learned how to see through glare, fog, and darkness on their own,” said Alex Rodrigues, CEO and cofounder of Embark. “We’ve programmed them with a set of rules to help safely navigate most situations, how to safely learn from the unexpected, and how to apply that experience to new situations going forward.”
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Embark’s near-term vision isn’t to unleash 100 percent self-driving trucks onto roads — its specific use-case is for long stretches of highways between conurbations where the vehicles are less likely to encounter pesky cyclists and congestion. It wants to help truck drivers avoid boredom and fatigue and make it possible for them to focus on other things while on the road. When a truck fitted with Embark’s technology approaches a city or town, the truck notifies the driver and passes control back over. The technology could also help alleviate driver shortages by enabling existing drivers to remain on the roads for longer periods of time.
“The American Transportation Research Institute estimates there is currently a shortage of 100,000 truck drivers in the industry, which is poised to only get worse as baby boomer drivers — the bulk of the industry’s workforce — retire over the next decade,” continued Rodrigues. “Embark’s goal is to increase productivity per driver and prevent the shortage from becoming a crisis.”
For vehicles to maneuver themselves at high speeds through traffic and potentially poor weather conditions they must be equipped with quality cameras and sensors capable of processing detailed imagery, and this is why we’re seeing significant investment in this area. Just last week, California-based TetraVue raised $10 million from Samsung, Foxconn, and others to help arm self-driving cars with ultra high-resolution 3D image-capturing smarts.
Elsewhere, Intel recently acquired computer vision startup Itseez for its automotive efforts, while deep learning startup Neurala raised $14 million to help build brains for drones and autonomous cars. BMW and Intel also recently committed to testing 40 self-driving cars throughout 2017, and to help this effort they’re using Mobileye, an Israeli computer vision company that specializes in building driverless car technology.
Embark won’t reveal how much funding it has received so far, but it does say that it’s backed by Maven Ventures, “with some of Silicon Valley’s most distinguished angel investors” on board. For the record, Maven also invested in Cruise Automation — a self-driving car startup acquired by General Motors last year for more than $1 billion. Embark also says that it has recruited talent from SpaceX, Audi’s self-driving division, and StanfordAI.
Embark is now gearing up to expand its test fleet of trucks and ready itself for a national rollout. “We are committed to proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that this technology is safe and reliable,” continued Rodrigues. “That means performing extensive tests and working with our partners in the government to get it — and the market — ready.”
The timing of today’s launch is notable, albeit coincidental, as it comes just a day after Waymo, the self-driving car unit that lives inside Google’s parent company, Alphabet, revealed it was filing a lawsuit against Uber for patent infringement relating to Uber’s recent acquisition of self-driving truck startup Otto.
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