Automobility: The Bot in a Box Boom

Automobility: The Bot in a Box Boom
by Roger C. Lanctot on 11-20-2016 at 4:00 pm

 The Automobility event, which starts today ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show, will be remembered for introducing the bot in a box. While Ford Motor Company President and CEO Mark Fields will take the stage this morning to tout Ford’s leadership in transforming transportation with new vehicle ownership models and mass produced self-driving vehicles coming by 2021, a little company called PolySync will be announcing its Open Source Car Control – an affordable and open source kit for autonomous vehicle development.

Coming on the heels of Comma.ai’s NHTSA-aided exit from the autonomous vehicle aftermarket, the PolySync announcement reflects the ever widening opening of the automotive industry to new thinking and rapid prototyping around self-driving technology. Thanks to both Ford and PolySync (and others) no university engineering program worth its credentials can fail to offer a self-driving car program.

The PolySync development platform, initially tuned for use with particular Kia models, reflects the growing democratization of self-driving vehicle development. Already, around the world, there are 19 self-driving pod/shuttle systems in operation.

These systems have been fueled by the availability of six development platforms from the likes of Renesas and Nvidia and PolySync. These efforts have further fostered six aftermarket offerings, including the now-defunct Comma.ai Comma One, and contributed to 61 self-driving car announcements from OEMs such as Ford and the emergence of 73 startups and small companies focused on self-driving technology.

Comma.ai, the George Hotz-founded self-driving car startup that announced a $999 aftermarket device capable of enabling autopilot-like functionality on certain Honda and Acura vehicles, was asked in a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to answer a range of questions as to how its system worked. Hotz, who famously told a Techcrunch crowd that his neural network-enabled device ran on 2,000 lines of code and 50M of stored information, knew he really could not “explain” the functioning of his black box to the satisfaction of NHTSA. Ergo: Exit, stage right!

Observers note that the Comma.ai approach, which required essentially hacking into the safety systems of the cars in question, was unlikely to ever receive a NHTSA endorsement. PolySync is avoiding the NHTSA debate entirely by offering its kit for development purposes only.

In its press announcement PolySync notes that “Open-source technology proves that democratizing access accelerates innovation, and bringing that same transparency and freedom to the development of autonomous vehicles is essential to its widespread adoption.”

PolySync says its OSCC enables engineers to build their own self-driving development vehicle using by-wire technologies on the 2014-or-later Kia Soul. Companies seeking to foster this kind of aftermarket development are essentially seeking cars already equipped with self-parking and lane-keeping technology which can be modified to achieve self-driving performance.

OSCC says it is launching on GitHub and can be integrated into a new or used vehicle for less than $1,000. “By lowering the barrier of entry we’re enabling developers to safely capture data and test models at a scale that just wasn’t possible a year ago,” says PolySync CEO Josh Hartung. “For the cost of a single development vehicle today, engineers can be working on 10 OSCC-enabled vehicles tomorrow.”

The system allows developers to connect the Arduino-based OSCC modules, along with their own hardware and software, to the vehicle’s internal control systems, including the Controller Area Network (CAN). PolySync says this enables communication to the steering and throttle controls using either the PolySync Core platform or other software. Braking is enabled with the addition of a commonly-available, repurposed automotive brake-by-wire module.

PolySync expects the OSCC approach to enable a wider range of Kia and non-Kia models to be tapped for autonomous vehicle development. “Theoretically, it should work on almost any modern car with electronic power steering, throttle-by-wire, and standard hydraulic brakes,” says Hartung.

PolySync is launching a GitHub repo with all supporting materials and algorithms. The company says it will make a limited number of OSCC hardware kits available and pre-orders will be available on GitHub. The kit is intended for R&D and off-road use only. The University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center is the first customer, outfitting two Kia Souls, PolySync says.

While the PolySync initiative is limited in scope it points the way to a future in which self-driving car kits could become the over-the-counter equivalent of the Heath Kits of the 1970’s and 80’s – NHTSA resistance notwithstanding. Ford has contributed its own hefty leverage to accelerate self-driving car development by investing in Velodyne’s relatively low cost so-call “hybrid” solid state LiDAR technology.

Velodyne’s solution isn’t competitive with emerging solid state LiDAR systems from companies such as Quanergy, but its lower cost does broaden the development landscape. Meanwhile, at the L.A. Auto Show, Ford’s Fields will explore in his talk the societal impacts of self-driving car technology including its influence on future vehicle ownership use and behavior. Fields may also shed light on what is thought to be more than two dozen mobility experiments the company is conducting around the world.

For Ford, self-driving vehicles are likely to be a networked phenomenon serving both public and private transportation needs. But the groundswell of development support at the grassroots from companies like PolySync and Ford are not only helping to reduce costs and attract engineering talent, they are contributing to growing enthusiasm for the transportation sector as a source of employment and an economic engine.

Will there be a bot in a box under your Christmas tree this year? Not likely. But the onset of the self-driving car is a gift to the industry and society. It might even revive the moribund automotive aftermarket.