After a brief hiatus, technology pioneer Anthony Levandowski has reappeared on the autonomous vehicle scene, but has dialed back his initial vision for driverless trucks in favor of a new safety system designed to assist drivers behind the wheel.
Levandowski sat down with John Kingston, editor-at-large of FreightWaves, on May 6, to talk about the future of autonomous vehicle technology. He discussed his “change of heart” when it comes to driverless trucks in favor of drive-assist technology at Transparency 2019, a three-day freight technology event at the Georgia International Conference Center in Atlanta.
“We’ve made some great improvements in the last 10 years, but we’ve kind of hit the ceiling where it’s difficult to generalize circumstances that exist on the road and have computers be able to handle all of [possible issues] that happen,” he said.
His new company, Pronto AI, has developed a new aftermarket safety system called Copilot, which sells for around $5,000 per truck. Copilot is a camera-based software suite that controls braking, throttling and steering. It’s a Level 2 safety system, which is a far cry from the Level 5 technology he was pushing a few years ago that sought to completely remove drivers from behind the wheel of commercial trucks.
“From what I have learned in the last 15 years – some hard-learned lessons there – creating an evolutionary step where you are building a business that makes sense along the way is a lot better than trying to go for this mythical idea of having a truck with nobody in it,” Levandowski said.
He said he “imagines a world in the near future” where a safety system like Copilot will be “standard on every truck.”
“Let’s take the existing trucks that are on the road, add cameras and computers to them and now make them a lot safer and easier to drive,” Levandowski said. “You are not removing a driver there, but you are bridging the gap by making that truck safer.”
His career in autonomous technology has not been without controversy. Prior to starting Pronto, Levandowski also founded self-driving truck startup Otto, which was acquired by Uber back in 2016. He also formerly worked in Google’s self-driving division, which is now Waymo. Waymo and Uber settled a $245 million lawsuit over allegations that Uber stole trade secrets from Waymo.
Levandowski said he has received “mixed reactions” since returning to the autonomous driving space.
“There are clearly some people that are excited to see more building and are like, oh okay, this is totally something that you can deliver and ship on a timeframe that is realistic,” he said. “Some are bitter and that’s life and you have to move on.”
Pronto is currently working with selected existing Tier 1 manufacturers to build the hardware for the Copilot safety system. Trained technicians can retrofit the technology on existing trucks in about a day, Levandowski said.
“I am just really excited about what we are doing, which is actually shipping real products instead of talking about that and setting the vision for the future,” Levandowski said. “It’s great to support, but I am more of a shipping person than a visionary person.”