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Levandowski: From courtroom to comeback

Levandowski: Is he the one to get autonomous trucks really rolling?

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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Levandowski set to keep on truckin’, Baidu blazes on and toasters on wheels: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

After some serious digging, TechCrunch has revealed that Anthony Levandowski is most likely back in the game. The former Uber engineer has been linked to Kache.ai: a new autonomous trucking company currently still in stealth mode.  

Little is known about the company to date but much is known about the man. So much so that a comeback is almost inevitable. In the autonomous tech world, Levandowski holds ‘Founding Father’ status. He cut his teeth on the DARPA challenges alongside Chris Urmson and Sebastian Thrun, before co-founding the Waymo self-driving car project at Google. When he left Google, he formed Otto – a self-driving truck company that was later acquired by Uber. And that’s when the trouble started. Lewandowski found himself at the center of the Waymo vs Google trade secrets case regarding LiDAR design and he was soon out of a job.

Since then, controversy has turned to the downright bizarre: Levandowski was even said to have founded his own religion not so long ago, worshipping AI. But no-one denies the man’s talent; and this just might be a case of “the Savior cometh.”

At 2025AD we have long promoted the idea of self-driving trucks as one of the most obvious business cases of autonomous technology applied. As an enabler, the benefits of platooning are clear, as our infographic shows, yet the whole industry has been somewhat slow to take off. To me, Levandowski and his formidable “aura” could provide just the impetus it needs.

Oh, and ‘Kǎchē’ is ‘truck’ in Chinese. Just fancy nomenclature or something more? We’ll have to wait and see. 

The Chinese year of commercialization

Speaking of China, when it comes to automated driving, China and Baidu are pretty much synonymous and it seems the internet giant is upping its game.

Firstly, at the Baidu Create Developer Conference in Beijing last Wednesday, a 6000-strong crowd witnessed a livestream of the 100th Apolong driverless bus roll off the production line marking the beginning of “mass production” of the people-mover style vehicles. The buses will be first put to commercial use in geo-fenced areas (read tourist spots, airports, power stations, shopping malls etc.) throughout China’s biggest cities, and even exported to Japan. “2018 marks the first year of commercialization for autonomous vehicles,” said Baidu Chairman and CEO, Robin Li during his keynote address.

Secondly, Apollo 3.0 was also unveiled at the conference: the most recent update to the firm’s  open-source autonomous driving platform. It’s an alliance that over 100 partners have joined, with so many big names that it’s easier to notice the ones that are absent (hello Waymo). The most recent addition being Intel/Mobileye whose Responsibility Sensitive Safety software will be integrated and commercially deployed into Apollo and its pilot programs.

And last but not least, the conference saw the release of “Kunlun” – a new AI chip for running the sort of intensive computing autonomous driving requires, but for other applications such as public clouds and data centers too.

That’s three big moves from a big player in a big market. Baidu clearly has a mandate to support the country’s aim of becoming the world leader in AI, and it’s just turned up the heat. For me, this trio of announcements is one big warning shot to “people-mover” makers (France's Navya and Easymile, Australia's Intellibus and South Korea's KT); to Waymo and any in-house system developers and finally to NVIDIA, Intel and the chip-makers. Look out: the beast in the east has awoken.

A toaster on wheels

And no, I’m not talking about the VW Sedric (which I’m a big fan of). Kroger, the 135-year-old grocery retailer, has just teamed up with Nuro – an autonomous vehicle startup – to launch a pilot offering same-day delivery. Based out of Mountain View California, Nuro’s mission is to “accelerate the benefits of robotics for everyday life”. This pilot aims to use its self-driving vehicles (which have been rather cruelly referred to as “toasters on wheels”) to complement human delivery as a means of overcoming the last mile problem in the delivery of goods and services.

Driverless delivery isn’t anything new, with Dominoes and Amazon already exploring the consumer sphere. But with the bigger picture in mind, I find these applications important for two reasons. Firstly, they are baby steps to gaining public acceptance – it’s naturally seen as lower risk if the vehicles are small and there are no humans being transported – and secondly, we will soon rely on these services as human delivery drivers are becoming harder and harder to find. Don’t believe everything you hear about technology stealing jobs.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                         

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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