Self-driving pariah Anthony Levandowski claims California to New York breakthrough
Anthony Levandowski - Pronto AI self-driving
Screen grab / Pronto.AI

Self-driving pariah Anthony Levandowski claims California to New York breakthrough

Controversial ex-Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski has reportedly completed a four-day, 3,099 mile journey from California to New York in an autonomous vehicle, without having to disengage the self-driving system.

Levandowski informed the Guardian that, although he was sitting in the driver’s seat the entire time, he did not touch the steering wheels or pedals, aside from planned stops to rest and refuel.

If true, the road journey would be the longest undertaken by an autonomous vehicle without driver intervention.

The unverified feat coincides with the launch of Anthony Levandowski’s new self-driving venture Pronto.AI, which, from early next year, will provide an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) called Copilot. The highway safety system is designed to be fitted to trucks to reduce lane departures, collisions, and driver fatigue.

A time-lapse video on the Pronto.AI website shows the journey from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, to the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan:

A new beginning?

Anthony Levandowski announced his return to the industry, and Pronto.AI’s emergence from stealth mode, in a blog post:

“I know what some of you might be thinking: ‘He’s back?’ Yes, I’m back.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve witnessed numerous advances in self-driving technology. I’m proud to have played a big role in it. At the same time, I’ve admittedly grown frustrated?—?and at times impatient?—?with the industry’s inability to deliver on its promises.

He also took the opportunity to take a pop at others in the industry, hinting at Uber’s recent safety report:

“[The industry] avoids intellectually honest conversations about road safety through aspirational platitudes and glossy marketing materials that are passed off as ‘safety reports’.”

Revealing his frustration at being painted as a ‘villainous caricature’ over the past 18 months, the Pronto.AI founder touts his low-risk approach to self-driving development:

“One thing I continue to stand by is my safety record, which is second to none in this industry. My teams have a demonstrably impeccable track record. At every company where I have worked, safety was better during my tenure than before or after.”

Internet of Business says

In 2017 Anthony Levandowski was accused of stealing more than 14,000 confidential documents before leaving Waymo to found his own self-driving truck start-up, Otto, which was bought by Uber before the case emerged.

He was ordered to return the documents and fired by Uber, who settled the case with Google.

Therefore, it’s noteworthy, from both technology and legal standpoints, that Pronto.AI is doing away LiDAR for its technology. Most autonomous driving companies employ Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), which uses pulsed lasers and records the rebounded light, for object detection and mapping a car’s immediate surroundings.

The technology plays a key role in Waymo and Uber’s self-driving efforts but Pronto.AI relies solely on footage from low-resolution cameras and the software that interprets it.

If the coast-to-coast journey claim is true, Pronto.AI’s tech shows real promise, and has achieved an important milestone on the road to level 4 autonomy.

However, the technology would likely face difficulty in more urban environments, where LiDAR is helpful for detecting pedestrians, cyclists, and other hazards. This is probably why Pronto.AI will only be selling driver assistance systems for trucks at this stage, which come into their own on long stretches of highway.

Many in the industry will be questioning whether the founder’s chequered past will make potential investors wary, and stunt the company’s ability to scale.

Anthony Levandowski’s criticism of approaches to road safety in the industry come soon after reports surfaced of an internal email sent to the head of Uber’s autonomous vehicle division complaining about near misses that frequently weren’t investigated properly or even ignored, and about backup drivers who lacked proper training and vetting.

The email reportedly claimed that Uber’s fleet was “hitting things every 15,000 miles,” and that a vehicle was damaged “nearly every other day” in February 2018.

Elsewhere in the industry, Google offshoot Waymo has introduced Waymo One – a self-driving ride-hailing service that promises to be the future of shared mobility, while Elon Musk, earlier this week, unveiled a high-speed transport tunnel prototype.