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Former Head of Uber ATG Launches New Autonomous Trucking Startup

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【Summary】Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG) and the man at the center of Waymo’s lawsuit against the ride-hailing company Uber for theft of intellectual property, has emerged out of stealth with a new company called Pronto. The new company will focus on autonomous long-haul trucking.

Eric Walz    Dec 19, 2018 4:45 PM PT
Former Head of Uber ATG Launches New Autonomous Trucking Startup

SAN FRANCISCO — Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group (ATG) and the man at the center of Waymo's lawsuit against the ride-hailing giant Uber for theft of intellectual property, has emerged out of stealth with a new company called Pronto.

Pronto.ai will focus on autonomous long-haul trucking, picking up from where Levandowski's former self-driving truck startup left off.

Since being fired from Uber in 2017, Levandowski has been keeping a rather low profile. However, in a blog posting today, Levandowski indicated his desire to return his work on autonomous driving technology.

"I'm back because it's my life's passion to make the life-saving potential of autonomous vehicles a reality. "Reality" means real autonomous vehicles solving real problems for real people, while actually improving safety on real roads."

According to the company's website, Pronto's mission is to deliver the safety benefits of self-driving technology for the benefit all road users. The company's first product is called "Copilot", which was built specifically for the commercial trucking industry.

Copilot is a highway safety system for trucks designed to reduce lane departures, collisions, and driver fatigue. It enhances the performance of alert drivers, reducing their workload during those long days on the highway.

Pronto claims that Copilot offers the most advanced highway driver assist features and is designed specifically to increase operational and occupational safety, maximize fleet investment, while reducing the carbon footprint for trucking companies around the world.

In addition to making the roads safer, the company is also looking to improve the driving experience for truck drivers, a difficult job with long hours that fleet operators are having a hard time filling.

Coast to Coast with No Human Intervention

A video released today by Levandowski that was made in October shows a sped up version of a cross country trip using Pronto's self-driving technology. Pronto claims the entire trip was done with no disenagements, meaning the human backup did not have to take manual control of the test vehicle during the entire 3,000 mile cross-country journey, except of course for breaks and overnight stops.

Levandowski wrote that Pronto is taking advantage of recent advancements in machine learning and tensor processing to achieve this level of autonomy.

"Over the past three years, amazing gains in machine learning and a new breed of tensor processing hardware have made it possible to pursue a different, ultimately much more promising, path toward solving the self-driving challenge. That's what my new company  Pronto is all about."

Levandowski added that Pronto is taking a unique approach to self-driving challenges. The startup is building neural networks from the ground up that combine experience-based AI, end-to-end deep-learning, and crowdsourced data with advanced computer vision to deliver a highly scalable and flexible self-driving software stack.

In his blog post, Levandowski said that Pronto is taking advantage of better prediction and decision-making software, enabling trucks to autonomously navigate difficult to solve "edge cases," including low light, direct sunlight glare, heavy rain, snow and construction zones—in a safe, scalable, and repeatable manner on a wide variety of highways without mapping them.

"Nobody else is doing this." he wrote.

Pronto's initial focus will be on delivering a commercially-viable advanced driver assist system (ADAS) that makes driving safer for everyone. This system can be added to commercial trucks and reduce the cognitive workload for truck drivers, allowing them to focus their full attention on monitoring the road ahead.

On the company's blog, Levandowski stressed that Copilot it is not an autonomous vehicle or a substitute for safe driving. "Truck drivers still must remain attentive and drive defensively at all times while using it."

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Anthony Levandowski at Otto's San Francisco headquarters in 2016.

At the Center of the Waymo Uber Lawsuit

Levandowski is well known in the autonomous driving space. He was a top engineer at Google, where he worked on the search giant's early self-driving car program for nearly a decade and built Google's first self-driving car.

In 2016, Levandowski suddenly resigned from Google and founded self-driving trucking startup Otto, taking key employees with him. Otto was purchased by Uber just months later for a reported $680 million.

Uber purchased Otto as a way to jumpstart their own autonomous driving program and it's what brought Levandowski to Uber. After acquiring Otto, Levandowski was tapped by then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to head up Uber's new autonomous driving division Uber ATG.

Levandowski was reportedly given $250 million in Uber stock for Otto as part of the deal.

However, Levandowski brought will him to Uber ATG trade secrets that he alleged stole from Waymo before resigning, according to the lawsuit filed by Waymo. In February 2017, Waymo said the former engineer downloaded gigabytes of IP, drawings and other files related to lidar design from the company's private servers and took those to Otto—and eventually to Uber.

Although subpoenaed to testify, Levandowski refused to take part in the court proceedings citing the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. Uber and Waymo eventually settled their lawsuit in February 2018 with Waymo acquiring a $245 million stake in Uber.

Although Levandowski was depicted as a thief by Waymo for stealing IP, he still is revered in some Silicon Valley circles as a leading self-driving car engineer. Levandowski's new company is a way for him to move forward from the turmoil of the past two years and help make roads safer with new technology.

In a blog posting, Levandowski wrote: "Over the past 18 months, as I've been painted into a villainous caricature, I've had lots of time for introspection. In some sense, the deeply personal hardships my family and I've had to endure have provided an important opportunity to step back and honestly reassess my past as well as plan for the future. One thing I continue to stand by is my safety record, which is second to none in this industry."

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