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December 21, 2015

nuTonomy: Reimagining the Role of the Car

Emilio Frazzoli leads autonomous vehicle research efforts aimed at enabling driverless car-sharing fleets.

Eric Brown

MIT Professor or Aeronautics and Astronautics Emilio Frazzoli is one of the world’s experts on autonomous vehicles, both in the air on the ground. So when we sat down to talk to him about his autonomous car technology firm, nuTonomy, we expected to hear a lot about computer vision systems, safety algorithms, real-time operating systems, and the latest sensor technologies. But Frazzoli wanted to talk about something much bigger: reimagining the role of the car.

Emilio Frazzoli
MIT Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics

nuTonomy CTO

Frazzoli believes the self-driving car will fundamentally change the role of the automobile from an extension of our bodies to a shared resource, from mechanical horse to motorized appliance. “One way we can think of autonomous cars is as appliances that happen to move from place to place, perhaps something like an elevator,” says Frazzoli, nuTonomy’s CTO.

While Frazzoli concedes that this conceptual switch “could be controversial,” and that it “will not help selling the car as a product,” he’s not particularly concerned. Frazzoli believes that the first wave of autonomous vehicles will not be sold as personal vehicles, but as services. In particular, nuTonomy is going after the ride-sharing and fleet management industries.

“It could be decades before we will be able to walk into a car dealership and buy an autonomous car and have it drive us home,” says Frazzoli, who launched nuTonomy in 2013 with CEO Karl Iagnemma, director of MIT’s Robotic Mobility Group. “But much sooner than that we will see autonomous vehicles offered as mobility-on-demand services running in well-defined locations during the day under good weather conditions. We don’t want to develop the vehicle itself, but rather provide software and system design, including the selection of sensors and actuators. We hope to eventually provide services.”

nuTonomy started as a consulting business for Tier 1 suppliers and automotive manufacturers like Jaguar/Land Rover, helping them add more autonomous functions to their human-controlled vehicles. More recently, Frazzoli and Iagnemma have set their ambitions higher, and now nuTonomy’s main focus is on developing software for fully autonomous cars aimed at the service industry. Angel investors have anted up, and now the company is looking for more substantial investments.

While Frazzoli says that both semi-autonomous and autonomous approaches will succeed in the coming decades, nuTonomy is betting on a fully autonomous model over the long run. NuTonomy’s vision is closer to that of Google’s self-driving car than the automobile industry’s numerous assisted driving projects. In part this is due to the difficulty in handoffs between human and computer drivers, but it also stems from nuTonomy’s focus on car sharing and fleet services.

“For the service model, we favor a clear demarcation between the authority of the automation vs. the human,” says Frazzoli. “When one is in charge it should not rely on the other taking over and vice versa.”

NuTonomy’s software provides a unique approach to autonomous decision-making. “Our advantage is that our cars can automatically and systematically satisfy all the rules of the road,” says Frazzoli. “Back when we were doing the DARPA Urban Challenge, we had to hand-code all the different options for all the different things that could happen on the road. This is very hard to do by hand and even more painful to debug.”

Having “vowed to never do that again,” Frazzoli and Iagnemma, came up with a more systematic solution that not only saved countless hours of coding, but resulted in a more reliable system. “We provide the software with a list of rules, and then the car automatically satisfies them without the need for hand-coding.”

The software is also flexible enough to know when a traffic rule should be broken. “We teach our cars to use judgment to violate some of the rules when it is both safe and necessary, like driving around a double-parked car,” says Frazzoli. “But there is a danger in trying to humanize the car. Autonomous cars are not meant to replicate the human. That’s tantamount to saying humans are the perfect paradigm for driving, and they’re not.”

Transforming Urban Landscapes with Mobility as a Service
After spending much of his career researching Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Frazzoli came to MIT and began working on autonomous car research. He was a member of MIT’s 4th-ranked team at the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, and later joined the MIT SMART (Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) program on the Future of Urban Mobility. Frazzoli is now the Lead Principal Investigator at SMART’s autonomous car project, which recently demonstrated the world’s first public autonomous vehicle pilot in Singapore.

The experience of envisioning Singapore’s transportation future helped Frazzoli realize that “this technology has a big potential for a very profound impact on our lives.” Typically, says Frazzoli, people talk about benefits such as safety, as well as the reduction of congestion and smog due to increase driving efficiency. In the case of fully autonomous technology, added benefits include improved accessibility for those who can’t drive, and the greater convenience and productivity of being able to do other things in the car instead of driving.

“Yet these benefits only improve on the status quo,” says Frazzoli. “I realized that the killer app for autonomous cars is car sharing. Cars cost a big chunk of our disposable income, and yet they sit idle 95 percent of the time, often using up expensive real estate. We pay for the privilege of not using the car. If the car can drive itself why leave it parked in the garage? Let it go pick up and drive somebody else, take your children to school or take your spouse to their job, or share it publicly.”

The problem with current car-sharing services is either the lack of availability of a car or a parking lot, says Frazzoli. “ZipCar requires you to return car to same location you picked it up, which limits flexibility,” he says. “The service is experimenting with something like Car2Go’s one-way service, but it doesn’t solve the problem of having to park the car. Self-driving cars eliminate all these problems. We envision a model in which whenever I need a car, I can book it on my phone, and it will pick me up. When I get to my destination I don’t have to worry about parking or refueling.”

Autonomous car sharing could also change the way people think about cars, says Frazzoli. “This could actually be liberating for car guys like myself,” he says. “Like many people I like driving fancy sporty cars, but because I am raising three children, I bought something more practical. What if I could share an autonomous minivan for commodity transportation, taking kids to soccer practice and grocery shopping, and then still have a fancy car to drive on weekends? Many of us can get by without a second car, and can buy the cars they like rather than the cars they need.”

If this vision of shared driving doesn’t do much to cheer car manufacturers, it’s certainly intriguing to fleet operators. “When you compare the cost of a driving service, including the cost of the car itself, with the standard way of providing the service with manned vehicles, it’s very compelling,” says Frazzoli. “Say a taxi driver makes $50,000 a year, and I need to cover three shifts, so it’s now $150,000 a year. We are amortizing the higher expense of a self-driving car over the life of the service and the car.”

At the SMART project, Frazzoli studied the potential impact of shared autonomous vehicles in Singapore. He found that about 300,000 shared autonomous vehicles could provide the same level of mobility available now with 800,000 passenger vehicles.

“You could sell those half million cars to another country, and reclaim the space of a million and a half new parking spaces, which can be given back to people for entertainment, residences, businesses, and parks,” says Frazzoli. “This is very important in a geographically constrained place like Singapore. A lot of the space in big cities is devoted to parking lots, so there’s a big potential in urban development. I grew up in Rome, which is a beautiful city, but the effect is spoiled by double- and triple-parked cars. Our beautiful hidden monuments are hidden behind layers of metal and rubber.”

The path to nuTonomy’s mobility as a service vision will take time. The company is planning a staged rollout, starting with very controlled environments, such as daytime shuttles at corporate campuses, before moving out to car sharing and taxi services over prescribed routes on public roads.

“In the short term, we are looking for the sweet spots where we can offer a service that does not require the car to face bad weather or other difficulties,” says Frazzoli. “In the long run, however, this has the opportunity to change the way people think about cars forever.”

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