Self-driving less like Elon Musk, more like Domino’s pizza robots – .

Self-driving less like Elon Musk, more like Domino’s pizza robots – .

Refraction AI’s 4.5-foot-tall, 150-pound, three-wheeled robot vehicle from Refraction AI delivers pizza to Austin, Texas. The company believes that the future of autonomous driving is “zero occupants”.
Source: Refraction AI
As companies like Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk come to Austin, Texas, the booming city and new tech hub have grown to such an extent that they have struggled to live up to their “stay weird” motto.
But since early June, when residents of the South Congress, Downtown, or Travis Heights neighborhoods order pizzas from Southside Flying Pizza, their pies could arrive inside a three-wheeled robot – the REV-1. But it’s not a fully autonomous Tesla.

About two dozen REV-1 vehicles now ply the roads of Austin and Ann Arbor, Mich., Where the company behind the robots – Refraction AI – was first launched in 2019 with the aim of exploiting driverless technology in a new way.

Autonomous vehicles, and their potential to disrupt the way people move, have been on the horizon for years. But the technology has not matured as spectacularly as early investors had hoped. Tesla says it is going full speed with autonomy and is launching its latest beta test on July 10, but the company has missed many self-imposed deadlines and Musk recently admitted that fully autonomous driving is more difficult than it is. had not foreseen it. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have sold off their self-driving research divisions in recent months.

For start-ups like Refraction AI, however, the goal is to accelerate the arrival of a driverless future by starting small, with smaller systems focused on moving packages rather than people.

“We believe this is the future of autonomy,” said Luke Schneider, CEO of Refraction AI.

A 150 pound challenge to Alphabet, Waymo

While the electric REV-1 could technically be called a driverless vehicle, it is a completely different beast from the multi-ton LiDAR-equipped vans in development from Alphabet-backed Waymo, General Motors-backed Cruise and other multi-billion dollar companies. Musk has criticized LiDAR in the past, calling it a “crutch,” although recent reports indicate that the company has recently used the technology for reasons that remain unclear.
The REV-1 trikes are 4.5 feet tall and weigh 150 pounds, making their profile more like bicycle couriers than delivery vans. And they also act like cyclists. After a restaurant worker places the “payload” in the storage compartment of a REV-1 (which can hold about six grocery bags), the robot uses a set of sensors to navigate its way. roadside or, if available, a cycle path. It then moves away at a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour to its destination, where the customer greets it at the curb and unlocks their meal or package with a unique code.

If the vehicle encounters problems along the way, which may include unusual obstacles like a curved sofa, or common but difficult-to-automate movements like turning left through traffic or navigating crosswalks, a dozen or so “Pilots” stand at a distance and temporarily take control of the REV-1.

It’s going to take a lot more money and a lot more time than we thought. It won’t be an overnight toggle switch.

Luke Schneider, CEO of Refractive AI
For Schneider, these accolades give the REV-1 a crucial delivery advantage. Small, slow carts cannot do much damage if it malfunctions. They don’t monopolize the road. And outsourcing the most delicate driving to pilots means the company is ready to deliver food today. Spending years and billions of dollars developing a fully autonomous 4,000-pound vehicle, and then using it to deliver pizza to Schneider, is overkill. “I call it bringing a ballistic missile to a knife fight,” he said.

So far, the company appears to be making progress in solving this facet of the overall autonomous driving challenge. They recently reconfigured the REV-1’s sensors to give it night vision, allowing it to operate during the most popular time for meal delivery. Schneider says the REV-1 fleet carried seven times more meals at the start of the year than at the end of last year, and has continued to make more deliveries each month since March. The 50-employee company recently raised $ 4.2 million in seed capital, for total funding of $ 8 million.

Domino’s, FedEx and Nuro “zero occupant”

Refraction AI is not the only independent start-up to think small.

Nuro, a California-based company that has raised around $ 1.5 billion in funding according to Crunchbase, has developed a golf cart-sized delivery vehicle called the R2 capable of driving at 40 km / h. In April, the R2 began delivering pizza for Domino’s Pizza in Houston, Texas. Last week, the company announced that its next-generation vehicle will deliver packages in partnership with FedEx.

Domino’s is testing Nuro, an autonomous car for delivering pizza to Houston.

Source : Domino’s

Nuro was founded by Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, two former engineers of Alphabet whose independent company became Waymo. They were motivated by a similar hypothesis to the one underlying refractive AI: removing people completely from the equation would allow for a lower-stakes first application of driverless vehicles.

“We set out to build a new class of vehicles, designed just for hauling things,” Ferguson wrote in a 2020 Medium article. “A vehicle without an occupant. “

A Chinese startup, Unity Drive Innovation, has taken a similar approach to handing out vegetables and lunch boxes during the pandemic.

Dream of autonomous driving, economic reality

Even as mini delivery carts begin to venture onto residential streets and bike lanes, autonomous behemoths continue to stubbornly pursue the full potential of technology: vehicles that can haul anyone or anything. anywhere without a driver.

Alphabet’s Waymo initially rolled out a partially self-contained beta test of its carpool calling service, Waymo One, in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2018. Last October, it opened the service to the public, simultaneously making it fully self-sufficient, without driver or remote control. pilots – although it uses a “fleet response team,” specialists who feed information into cars when machines cannot interpret an ambiguous situation, such as road construction or closures.

Waymo also worked with UPS in Phoenix to transport packages between UPS stores and a local shipping center. And two weeks ago, he announced a partnership with trucking company JB Hunt to autonomously haul goods on a highway in Texas, initially under human surveillance.

Company management remains confident in what Julianne McGoldrick, a spokesperson for Waymo, describes as a flywheel effect. Once you have developed a vehicle that can navigate the roads as well as a human being, you can use it for a number of applications that will be mutually reinforcing.

“We’ve seen that all of the advancements we make on ridesharing and passenger cars feed directly into the trucking and local delivery areas, and then the advancements we make there are also coming back to carpooling,” said McGoldrick.

Waymo, Nuro, and Refraction AI prove that machines can navigate the world well enough to start hauling people and pizzas in small numbers.

But the billion-dollar question remains: will either model prove to be profitable enough for autonomous vehicles to become mainstream, potentially reducing carbon emissions and car crashes in the world. world?

Ashley Nunes, a transportation researcher at Harvard Law School, says driverless vehicles could complement current pickup and delivery services in places such as densely populated urban areas and in mild weather. But he suspects that the harsh economics of competing with personal vehicle ownership will call into question the truly transformational benefits. He points out that all autonomous fleets require surveillance, whether in the form of remote pilots or a fleet response team, and that the cost of this human labor limits the affordability of vehicles.

“‘Autonomous’ or ‘driverless’ does not mean ‘without human’,” he says.

But that won’t stop companies like Nuro and Refraction AI from aiming to bring a future teeming with driverless vehicles closer, one pizza at a time.

“It’s going to take a lot more money and a lot more time than we thought,” Schneider said. “It won’t be a toggle switch overnight. “


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