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lvl5 Looks to Crowdsourcing for Help Building HD Maps for Self-Driving Cars

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【Summary】lvl5 is a new start-up founded by ex-Tesla employees, including former Tesla Autopilot Director Sterling Anderson, with a mission to create HD maps for autonomous driving.

Original Eric Walz    Jul 19, 2017 6:00 PM PT
lvl5 Looks to Crowdsourcing for Help Building HD Maps for Self-Driving Cars

lvl5 is a new start-up founded by ex-Tesla employees, including former Tesla Autopilot Director Sterling Anderson, with a mission to create HD maps for autonomous driving. Lvl5 co-founder Andrew Kouri was a member of Tesla's Autopilot team when the owner of a Model S sedan, Joshua Brown, died in a Florida crash in May 2016. Brown's car had been in Autopilot, the vehicle's semi-autonomous mode, at the time. Kouri didn't take the incident lightly.

After talking it over with Tesla colleague Erik Reed, they realized the crash could've been prevented if the Tesla Model S had been equipped with more accurate, high-definition maps.

This was the idea behind the company lvl5, to focus on building maps for autonomous cars—something Kouri calls the "biggest challenge" that remains to bringing self-driving vehicles to the public.

"There should be one dedicated company that focuses on this," Kouri told Jalopnik an interview last week. "What we found is that there really isn't that isn't set up to do HD mapping only."

Most developers of autonomous vehicles are relying on LiDAR, a laser-based radar that creates 3D images that allows a self-driving car to "see." But Kouri says the cost of LiDAR is prohibitive, and has prevented a more-rapid expansion of autonomous vehicles in the world.

Need for HD Maps

"If you don't have the right maps it's dangerous," Kouri said. "There's just no other way to put it. Especially in a system where people tend to rely on it more than they should, you need to have good maps."

With the Brown incident, Kouri said, the Model S thought the underside of an oncoming truck was a bridge. If it had access to high-definition maps—maps that are constantly updated—the car would've realized there was indeed no bridge and hit the brakes, Kouri believes.

Kouri says that no automakers racing to develop self-driving cars have the necessary maps yet in place to make a fully-autonomous car by 2021 even remotely feasible. "I know nobody makes the maps," Kouri said. "This is the kind of thing that worries me," he continued. "I've seen what happens if you don't have this kind of maps."

So Lvl5 is taking a different approach instead of LiDAR: dash mounted cameras—and the public.

lvl5 Turns to Crowdsourcing with the Payver App

It's a heavy burden to send mapping cars around the U.S. like Google or Tesla. Kouri said they realized lvl5 could cover more of the U.S. sooner if it turned to crowdsourcing. In just three months, lvl5 said it has mapped out 90% of U.S. highways.

The initial step involves getting people to download the lvl5 dashcam app called Payver, which is offered anyone who's willing to mount their smartphone to their windshield, point it forward, and record the road in front of them.

The startup has been working with more than 2500 Uber and Lyft drivers across the U.S., and it says that it pays between $0.02 and $0.05 cents per mile driven and upload the footage throughout the day. (Payver's currently only offered on iPhone at this time.)  

While the Uber drivers are transporting passengers or just driving around to wait for their next ride, Lvl5 will pay them $0.05 per mile that their phone is recording data (which include photos and GPS information). Should they take a route already mapped, the company will pay $0.02.  For drivers looking to help collect data for lvl5's maps, the app can be downloaded here: lvl5 app from the App Store.

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The camera's feed gets uploaded to Lvl5's central hub (via Wi-Fi by default), where the startup's software identifies key features, including traffic lights, lane lines, and stop signs to build the map. Once the footage is received, the company has a computer vision algorithm that translates GPS data and the images into HD maps. The startup says the maps are accurate down to 10 centimeters.

"We fuse all that data together, and once we get a certain amount of passes on that road, we can start making maps on that road," Kouri said.

Some autonomous tech developers believe they're on the verge of a LiDAR breakthrough, however. Google, earlier this year, said it cut LiDAR costs by 90 percent, and a startup called Quanergy says it should have a $250 solid-state LiDAR on the market later this year. One of the leading manufacturers of LiDAR said demand is so high right now that it's causing shortages across the industry, according to the tech publication The Information.

"This is literally the only way that self driving car maps can feasibly be made," he said.

The startup raised $2 million in seed funding to launch, and hopes to hire 100 employees by the end of next year.


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