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If you can make it there: Mobileye self-driving car plies New York City streets

Jerusalem-based maker of autonomous vehicles, acquired by Intel, starts a pilot in the ‘complex urban area’ of New York

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A Mobileye car doing a pilot drive in New York City, July 2021. (Courtesy)
A Mobileye car doing a pilot drive in New York City, July 2021. (Courtesy)

If New Yorkers keep their eyes open while they drive in the Big Apple, they may just spot a driver in the adjacent lane with no hands on the steering wheel, just enjoying the ride.

Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based firm that has developed self-driving technologies, has added New York City to its global autonomous vehicle program. The company was acquired by United States giant Intel Corp. in 2017 for $15.3 billion.

Mobileye’s entry into NYC – the largest city in North America and one of the world’s most challenging driving environments – shows how advanced the company’s technology is, the Israel-based firm said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Driving in complex urban areas such as New York City is a crucial step in vetting the capabilities of an autonomous system and moving the industry closer to commercial readiness,” Amnon Shashua, senior vice president of Intel and president and CEO of Mobileye, said in the statement.

A video presented by the firm shows a Mobileye car, a white Ford equipped with the firm’s computer vision technologies along with radar and LIDAR systems, driving through the city on highly congested streets peppered with pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, double-parked vehicles, construction zones, emergency vehicles, tunnels and bridge.

The video shows the Ford, with the driver’s hands on his knees, sailing past the Wall Street Bull statue, halting at a stop sign, avoiding people working on the road, and halting for pedestrians at a crossing, who are completely unaware the self-driving car is waiting for them. The car merges into a busy lane and drives past Radio City and its bright lights at night.

The NYC pilot started after Mobileye Recently Mobileye applied for and received a New York Autonomous Vehicle (AV) testing permit to drive autonomous cars on the congested streets of New York City. The firm said it is the only company currently holding such an AV testing permit. The company got a permit to drive its cars on the roads of Munich in Germany in 2020, and has been holding test drives in Jerusalem as well.

Mobileye’s autonomous driving car is getting advanced driving experience, the statement said. This involves learning the behavior of NYC drivers, including cabbies, who are proving to be much more assertive than drivers in other cities, the statement said.

Although car ownership in NYC is low compared with other large US cities, the number and variety of road users is high: NYC has more than its share of cabs and limousines, buses, trucks, food carts, horse-drawn carriages, emergency vehicles, bicycles, scooters, skateboards, all making their way somewhere in the city. Double-parking is ubiquitous, and autonomous vehicles struggle with this: the video shows Mobileye’s AVs taking clues from other road users to decide when to maneuver around the parked cars.

A Mobileye car doing a pilot drive in New York City, July 2021 (Courtesy)

In addition, NYC is one big construction zone, and based on its constantly updating maps, the Mobileye vehicle knows to avoid closed lanes and the bollards or cones that often alert for these conditions, as well as navigate through tunnels and bridges.

The high amount of light stemming from the city’s bright night lights also pose a challenge to the car, challenging its sensing system. The company said it managed to overcome this with a little bit of tuning to the algorithm managing the car.

During a media event Tuesday at the Nasdaq exchange, Mobileye’s CEO Shashua showed how the technology is getting ready for commercial deployment, sharing videos of the autonomous vehicle handling NYC’s streets during both day and nighttime driving, as well as during heavy rainfall.

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