Lately, I’ve reported on the automotive industry’s zeal over self-driving vehicles. Billions of investment dollars by the likes of Ford Motor Company, Tesla, Toyota, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz and just about everyone else indicate a fast track approach to autonomous driving systems.
Recently, General Motors advanced the trend by purchasing Cruise Automation, a San Francisco startup working on autonomous technology, for a rumored amount exceeding one billion dollars.
So, given such automotive manufacturer investment, coupled with determined research, development and testing by Uber, Google and Apple research, the goal is obvious: Be the first and best to develop cars that don’t require a human in the driver’s seat.
Now, the race seems to be heating up even more. For example, Automotive News just reported that George Hotz, a 26-year-old programmer, made a bold proclamation at a speech in Austin, Texas. In cocky, confident fashion, he said that others like Uber and GM are pursuing obsolete technology. He claims that the company to watch is his 3-month-old startup, Comma.ai. As a message to others who are developing driverless cars he warns, “We’re coming for you.”
This sort of pomposity is becoming common with Silicon Valley’s growing network of self-driving startups. With the billions being spent by the “big guys,” numerous “small guys” want a piece, or even all, of the proverbial pie. As a result, a steadily growing number of programming “geeks” are now chasing the next big autonomous “prize.”
GM’s acquisition of Cruise foreshadows that automakers, not typically investing in high-priced, high-risk technology deals, are outwardly trying to keep pace with Google and Uber, both of which expect to offer driverless cars that can be summoned via smartphones.
The capital expended by auto manufacturers indicates that they don’t have the expertise “in house” to develop autonomous systems, but believe in its reality enough to spend big bucks to acquire the technology.
Cruise Automation is known for working on an aftermarket setup that enables a highway autopilot system for late model Audi A4 sedans. They are located in Silicon Valley, a virtual breeding ground for the emerging autonomous technology.
Zooks, of Menlo Park, California, received permission from California lawmakers last month to begin testing self-driving cars on public roads. Drive.ai, in nearby Santa Clara, borne of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, is developing revolutionary self-driving software.
And again, there’s the outspoken Hotz. He claims to have been courted by Tesla after developing a self-driving Acura in his garage. First widely known at age 17 for hacking the security that Apple had developed for the iPhone, he made more news when he demonstrated his autonomous Acura to Bloomberg Business news reporter. He has also received a cease-and-desist order from the California DMV after publishing accounts of hands-free driving on California highways.
Hotz does have clout. Operating out of his home, he claims he will develop the first “super-human driving agent.” Others seem to respect that clam, as Andreesen Horowitz, one of the largest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley just pledged 20 million dollars to Hotz.
Niche markets are also proposed, as by Jim DiSanto of Motus Ventures, who envisions a network of self-driving cars operating on private compounds like college campuses, retirement communities and resorts.
All of the heads of these startup companies are looking for investors, as DiSanto puts it, “with money burning a hole in their pocket.” The future looks bright and the possibilities seem endless.
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