Pronto AI is the Latest Levandowski Robo Truck Scheme

It’s deja vu all over again. Anthony Levandowski is back on the autonomous vehicle scene with robo truck start-up Pronto AI,  but this time he’s not shooting the moon.

Photo of Pronto AI Founder Anthony Levandowski Getty Images

Pronto AI Founder Anthony Levandowski
Getty Images

Anthony Levandowski, the engineer whose alleged theft of trade secrets landed him in the middle of a blockbuster self-driving car legal fight, has stepped back into the spotlight with a new company. Pronto AI, he announced on Tuesday, is developing a $5,000 aftermarket driver assistance system for semi-trucks, which will handle the steering, throttle, and brakes on the highway.

Anthony Levandowski, the engineer whose alleged theft of trade secrets landed him in the middle of a blockbuster self-driving car legal fight, has stepped back into the spotlight with a new company. Pronto AI, he announced on Tuesday, is developing a $5,000 aftermarket driver assistance system for semi-trucks, which will handle the steering, throttle, and brakes on the highway.

To prove it works, Levandowski used the software to send his Toyota Prius across the country. In October, Levandowski says, the car drove 3,099 miles from San Francisco to New York City. At no point did he take control away from the computer, except to handle the non-freeway bits, chiefly to refuel and rest up.

Levandowski has been quiet since February 2017, when Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber. Levandowski, a founding member of the Google team that became Waymo, had left that company in January 2016 to found a self-driving trucking company, Otto which was acquired by Uber.

Levandowski insists that Pronto AI will get robo trucks on the highway. “Put simply, the self-driving industry has gotten two key things wrong,” he writes. “It’s been focused on achieving the dream of fully autonomous driving straight from manual vehicle operation, and it has chased this false dream with crutch technologies.” He is referring to detailed maps and lidar.  I agree with the first premise, but not the second.

Instead of lasers, the Pronto AI system uses six cameras to watch the road, while a pair of neural networks analyzes their images and makes driving decisions. Cameras see much farther than lidar, and in much greater resolution, but it takes very smart software to interpret the the 2D seas of pixels they cough up. Understanding lidar returns is much easier. But working with cameras is seeing improvement, thanks to recent advances in machine learning and tensor processing hardware. In his Medium post, Levandowski says this is “different, ultimately much more promising, path toward solving the self-driving challenge.”

Time will tell.

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