Self-driving cars have countless obstacles to contend with on the road, chiefly drivers who don’t always act predictably — or responsibly. There’s inclement precipitation and wind to worry about, plus jaywalking pedestrians and zippy electric bikes and scooters. That’s not to mention alleyways and busy intersections that no amount of Google Maps data can elucidate.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Ghost Locomotion, a stealthy startup headed by former Yahoo CTO and Pure Storage cofounder John Hayes, isn’t tackling a full stack autonomous car platform just yet. Instead, it’s honing in on the task that constitutes two-thirds of all miles driven in the U.S.: highway driving.
“Many self-driving companies are attempting to solve the driving experience from end to end, and have not yet perfected any element of as a result,” wrote the company in a press release. “Ghost is simplifying the problem by focusing on exit to exit driving, to start. As complexity of city driving pushes self-driving timelines further and further into the future, Ghost is laser-focused on building real self-driving for highways and providing a huge benefit to people sooner, and expanding from there”
Ghost today emerged from stealth after spending two years and change developing an aftermarket self-driving kit to retrofit existing cars. It’s raised $63.7 million in capital to date from Founders Fund’s Keith Rabois, Khosla Ventures’ Vinod Khosla, and Sutter Hill Ventures’ Mike Speiser, and it’s promising compatibility with “popular” car models from 2012 onward when its product launches next year.
According to Hayes and cofounder Dr. Volkmar Uhlig, a computer science PhD and a veteran of IBM Watson Research, Ghost’s differentiation lies in its approach to automation, which incorporates imitation learning. The pair are careful to draw a distinction between Ghost’s technology and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) like Nissan’s ProPilot Assist and Tesla’s current implementation of Autopilot. Unlike those systems, which rely heavily on rulesets, Ghost begins with human observation, recording what real-world drivers see and how they react to create a ground truth. The company’s AI uses this to model correct driving behaviors, creating a capable, dynamic autonomous control policy that can scale to almost any modern car.
Ghost holds out a set of real-world data samples that aren’t used to train the model, which it uses for testing. It also says it constantly adds more scenarios and retrains its model “in pursuit of perfection.”
It’s an approach similar to that of Cambridge, U.K.-based startup company Wayve, whose driverless cars self-improve by learning from safety driver interventions. (Every time Wayve’s system makes a mistake that causes a driver to take over, it learns from that mistake.) Wayve asserts that it’s far more scalable than the data-heavy techniques currently pursued by Waymo, Uber, Cruise, Zoox, and Aurora, and to this end, it demonstrated that a car on its platfom could navigate roads using AI and satellite navigation alone. That’s in contrast to systems like Waymo’s, which partly lean on high-definition maps and heuristics.
Ghost’s forthcoming kit will pack a small computer built with “the latest consumer hardware … available in smartphones,” along with eight low-profile cameras that affix to a car’s windshield, side windows, and rear window. It’s in this respect akin to Openpilot, the open source semi-automated driving system developed by Comma.ai, the company founded by hacker icon George Hotz. Like Ghost’s system, Openpilot running atop the Eon DevKit and other third-party hardware imbues cars with increased compute, as well as enhanced sensors and driver assistance features like lane centering and adaptive cruise control.
But unlike Openpilot, Ghost says it’s taken pains to empirically verify its system using processes typically reserved for aerospace and defense industries. It compares its driving model “numerically” to the way real drivers safely navigate public roads, in an effort to illuminate the gap between its system and the human standard. Presumably, this extra step will also help to ensure Ghost doesn’t run afoul of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, noncompliance with which landed Comma.ai in hot water three years ago.
In any case, Ghost has a pedigreed founding C-Suite that counts among it David Purdy, formerly senior manager for safety at Uber; Jay Gierak, previously a general manager at Uber; and Justin Erickson, who’s held senior roles at both Cloudera and Microsoft. Its board of directors includes managing partners and founders at Sutter Hilland Khosla, as well as the Founders Fund, and Sila Nanotechnologies cofounder Gene Berdichevsky.
They’re chasing after a lucrative market, to be sure. According to marketing firm ABI, as many as 8 million driverless cars will be added to the road in 2025, and Research and Markets anticipates that there will be some 20 million autonomous cars in operation in the U.S. by 2030.
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