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ICAV Tel Aviv: Forgetting David

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 22, 2019

A funny question was asked at an automated vehicle tech conference last week. But, first, some context.

The biggest news in Israel last week was Mobileye’s announced plans to introduce Israel’s first autonomous ride-hailing service early in 2020. According to a report in VentureBeat, self-driving cars will operate along pre-selected routes in Tel Aviv in Volkswagen vehicles provided and managed by Champion Motors using technology provided by Mobileye.

The VentureBeat report indicates that the second phase of the Mobileye effort – targeted at 2022 – will be to deploy ‘a few dozens’ of vehicles on public roads that will travel unrestricted between destinations with Israel-wide deployment in 2023. This effort is contributing to an Intel-Mobileye hiring binge sweeping Israel with Mobileye employment ballooning from 780 to 1,400 in Tel Aviv along with plans for a Jerusalem campus to house 2,500 employees and ‘several hundred’ engineers and data scientists in Petah Tikva, according to VentureBeat. (Intel acquired Mobileye in 2017 for $15.3B.)

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Intel-Mobileye competitor Nvidia’s speaker at last week’s Inaugural Connected and Automated Vehicle (ICAV) conference – put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Logtel and Spotam – was asked after his speech whether Nvidia intended to collaborate on self-driving technology with Mobileye. The question might have been seen as provocative or crass in a different setting, but was most likely just naïve coming from a Mobileye-focused Israeli audience.

Nvidia and Intel reside in competing camps with their opposition embodied and embedded in their chip architectures: Nvidia using GPUs and Intel using CPUs and FPGAs.  Just as audience members at ICAV debated the merits of LiDAR, radar and mono-, stereo- and quad-vision cameras to enable autonomous driving, the debate over Nvidia, Intel, Renesas or Qualcomm hegemony over autonomous vehicle development remains robust.

What everyone was forgetting is the very reason they were attending the ICAV event in the first place. Israel is the land of the underdog, the upstart or, in more modern terms: the start-up. Israel is known as start-up nation for a reason and it isn't just the 500 automotive-focused startups vying for attention.

Israel itself is a startup AND an underdog. Of courses it is also home to the David vs. Goliath legend. In this context it is shameful for Israelis to become so focused on Mobileye. The race to conquer autonomous driving is a David vs. Goliath scenario if there ever was one. It is impossible to say what company or technology or combination of components is going to solve the autonomous vehicle riddle. Anyone or any team could do it with a slingshot, a dream and maybe a lot of code.

Mobileye and Nvidia have many, many partners. They clearly recognize they cannot solve the problem alone.

Nvidia introduced DRIVE AutoPilot earlier in January at CES. Nvidia describes DRIVE AutoPilot as “the world’s first commercially available Level 2+ automated driving system.” Autonomous vehicle developers can adopt DRIVE AutoPilot to accelerate their activities toward a 2020 launch of Level 2+ automation – more or less equivalent to Tesla Motors’ Auto Pilot capabilities or for supervised self-driving. Nvidia further introduced DRIVE AV and DRIVE IX software stacks for external (signs, traffic lights, etc.) and internal (driver monitoring) applications, respectively.

DRIVE AutoPilot uses NVIDIA’s Xavier SoC processor but Nvidia’s AGX Pegasus is available for higher level automated driving applications. At CES, Nvidia announced autonomous vehicle partnerships with ZF, Continental and Mercedes-Benz.

Receiving less fanfare at CES 2019, was Nvidia’s restart of its own vehicle testing. Nvidia began testing automated driving on its own platform sometime after CES 2018, at which time the company announced a strategic partnership with Uber.

By March of 2018 the picture had dimmed in the wake of a fatal crash involving an Uber self-driving car in Phoenix, Ariz. Following the crash, Nvidia quietly decided to pause its own self-driving car testing, while fellow Uber partner Velodyne announced its intention to cooperate with National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Uber, which paused its self-driving car testing, was ultimately found to be uber-responsible for the crash though it is now on the road again.

By September of 2018, Nvidia was back in the self-driving car testing business as well. While companies like Cognata are leading the way in developing automated driving simulation software to accelerate development of the technology, it is clear that there is no complete substitute for real-world driving.

Nvidia was kind enough to send a representative to the ICAV event in Tel Aviv last week to describe Nvidia’s self-driving car development plans. Nvidia has dozens of development partners and is aggressively driving and promoting the technology worldwide.

Mobileye chose not to present at ICAV, but the company should be held accountable for its regular shifting of the goal posts – even if they are now closer. In 2016, a Mobileye executive predicted the company would field manned autonomous vehicles by 2020 and unmanned by 2026. Nvidia is notably already on the road.

More interesting than these putative Goliaths, though, is the rising tide of Davids in Israel and around the world. Even the mightiest, wealthiest and biggest players in automated driving are keeping a keen eye out for the tiniest startup with a slingshot and a dream.

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