Intel self-driving venture will start with robotaxis, Mobileye’s Shashua says

Eager for costs to drop, regulation to catch up and maps to improve, the auto industry is realizing that private autonomous cars have to wait their turn

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

Amnon Shashua, co-founder and chairman of Mobileye arrives at a Mobileye and Intel Workers Conference in Jerusalem, March 14, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Amnon Shashua, co-founder and chairman of Mobileye arrives at a Mobileye and Intel Workers Conference in Jerusalem, March 14, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The first self-driving cars will likely be taxis rather than private vehicles, according to Mobileye founder Amnon Shashua.

Shashua, considered a pioneer in the autonomous car industry, laid out his vision, and Intel’s strategy, in an op-ed published Tuesday on the website of Intel Corp., which acquired Mobileye for $15.3 billion in 2017.

There are three aspects to autonomous vehicles, Shashua explained: advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), robo-taxis, and fully autonomous private cars that will replace the cars we use today, which Shashua refers to as “series-production passenger car autonomy.”

With ADAS, which is already in use, drivers are in control of their vehicles but the autonomous system intervenes when necessary to prevent accidents.

“This critical phase of auto-tech-AI is well underway, with today’s penetration around 22% and expected to climb sharply to 75% by 2025,” Shashua wrote, referring to ADAS.

The ‘brains’ inside Intel Corp.’s/Mobileye self driving car (YouTube screenshot)

The next stage will see the rise of robotaxis, autonomous vehicles that are hailed via an app.

“Series-production passenger car autonomy must wait until the robotaxi industry deploys and matures,” Shashua wrote. This is due to three factors: cost, regulation and geographic scale.

“Getting all factors optimized simultaneously has proven too difficult to achieve in a single leap,” he wrote. “Many industry leaders are realizing it is possible to stagger the challenges if the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) aims first at the robotaxi opportunity.”

The price tag of a self-driving system (SDS) — with the necessary cameras, radars, lidars and high-performance computing — “is in the tens of thousands of dollars and will remain so in the foreseeable future,” he wrote.

“This cost level is acceptable for a driverless ride-hailing service, but is simply too expensive for series-production passenger cars. The cost of SDS should be no more than a few thousand dollars — an order of magnitude lower than today’s costs — before such capability can find its way to series-production passenger cars.”

Mobileye provides technology in the area of software algorithms that could enable autonomous cars. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Regulation “is the stickiest issue,” according to Shashua. “Beside the fact that laws for granting a license to drive are geared towards human drivers, there is the serious issue of how to balance safety and usefulness in a manner that is acceptable to society.”

“It will be easier to develop laws and regulations governing a fleet of robotaxis than for privately owned vehicles,” he added. “In contrast, licensing such cars to private citizens will require a complete overhaul of the complex laws and regulations that currently govern vehicles and drivers.”

The auto industry is “gradually realizing that autonomy must wait until regulation and technology reach equilibrium, and the best place to get this done is through the robotaxi phase,” he wrote.

The last factor is scale. This involves the challenge of creating high definition maps that are continuously updated, to allow self-driving cars to navigate their way everywhere.

Unlike private cars, robotaxis can be confined to “geo-fenced areas,” so the issue of scale can be deferred until such maps are ready.

“When the factors of cost, regulation and scale are taken together, it is understandable why series-production passenger cars will not become possible until after the robotaxi phase.”

Intel and Mobileye’s strategy, he said, is to continue to be at the forefront of ADAS development.

The firms are also “focused on the most efficient path to reach passenger car autonomy,” he wrote. “It requires long-term planning and for those who can sustain the large investments ahead, the rewards will be great.”

But the firm is also “all-in on the global robotaxi opportunity.”

He wrote: “We are developing technology for the entire robotaxi experience — from hailing the ride on your phone, through powering the vehicle and monitoring the fleet.”

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