The car passing you on a Jerusalem road may be self-driving

Tests have been quietly underway in capital for months, will expand to California, Arizona; autonomous vehicles must be assertive as well as safe, Mobileye chief tells Intel confab

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

Prof. Amnon Shashua, left, senior VP at Intel and CEO of Mobileye, arrived on stage at CES in the backseat of an autonomous car during the preshow keynote of Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich, right, in January 2018. (Walden Kirsch/Intel Corp)
Prof. Amnon Shashua, left, senior VP at Intel and CEO of Mobileye, arrived on stage at CES in the backseat of an autonomous car during the preshow keynote of Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich, right, in January 2018. (Walden Kirsch/Intel Corp)

Israel-based Mobileye has started testing its self-driving cars on highways around Jerusalem in recent months and plans to expand the tests to California in the next month and later to Arizona, the co-founder and CEO of the company that was acquired by Intel Corp. last year said on Tuesday.

In a briefing with journalists at the sidelines of Intel Capital’s Global Summit in Palm Desert, California, Prof. Amnon Shashua said the cars of his company’s test fleet were driving “every day” in and around Jerusalem “completely autonomously.” The company does not advertise in any way that the car is autonomous, he said, to avoid having pedestrians and other cars jump in front of the vehicle to challenge it, he said.

The cars are part of a fleet of 35 self-driving vehicles being built by Intel and Mobileye, with that number planned to rise to 100, he said.

Mobileye is a developer of chips for car cameras and driver-assistance features. In January, Intel and Mobileye unveiled their first autonomous car, equipped with 12 cameras and sensors that enable the cars to navigate the traffic by providing the vehicle with different fields of view.

Mobileye co-founder and CEO Amnon Shashua speaking at the Intel Capital Global Summit; May 8, 2018 (Courtesy)

In a keynote address at the summit, Shashua showed videos of the car navigating heavy traffic on an Israeli highway, changing lanes in heavy traffic, and balancing safety considerations with being “aggressive enough” to get ahead on the road.

“In Israel, if you are not assertive on the roads you may as well stay at home,” he said, amid laughter.

Striking a balance between safety and aggressiveness is key to the success of the autonomous cars venture, he said.

“We can be extremely safe by driving defensively, but then we will be completely useless,” he said. Assertive driving by autonomous vehicles is necessary, because otherwise they will clog up traffic and the industry will not take off.

The self-driving cars industry must define the parameters of safety, he said, and also ensure economies of scale — to enable the transition of autonomous cars from being just a “science project” to a mass production industry, he said.

In October, Shashua and a team of researchers presented their vision of how to define safety in autonomous vehicles and proposed that their model  become an industry standard. The Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) model, as it is called, envisages that the vehicles be programmed to never be the cause of an accident.

The model, he explained, says the vehicle can take any action, including violating the law, in order to avoid an accident.

Prof. Amnon Shashua speaks to attendees of Intel Capital’s Global Summit; May 8. 2018 in Palm Desert, California (Courtesy)

At the summit, Wendell Brooks, Intel senior vice president and president of Intel Capital, the investment arm of Intel Corp., said both Intel and Intel Capital have tried to “think about the verticals that are going to matter and make a difference over the long term.” Autonomous cars, he said, through Mobileye, “was clearly a big bet on our part.”

“It is a space we want to win and it is a space we intend to win,” he said. “We made a big bet; we continue to bet around that.”

Intel acquired Mobileye in 2017 for a whopping $15.3 billion to gain an edge in the autonomous car business. The American chipmaker hopes the purchase will position it as a leading technology player in the fast-growing self-driving car market. The deal, the largest ever purchase of an Israeli high-tech company, was hailed across Israel as a sign of the country’s technological prowess.

Out of its Jerusalem headquarters, Mobileye will spearhead all of Intel’s activities in the sphere of autonomous vehicles.

The writer is a guest of Intel Corp. at the summit.

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