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Robotaxi Startup Voyage Shares Details of its Latest Vehicle Designed to Operate Without a Safety Driver

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【Summary】In a new blog post this week, Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron shared an overview of the advanced technology included in the company’s latest robotaxi that will support the rollout of a commercial robotaxi service for senior citizens. Voyage’s latest vehicle is called the G3 and it's the company's first production-ready robotaxi. The G3 is also designed to operate without a driver behind the wheel.

Eric Walz    Aug 26, 2020 5:10 PM PT
Robotaxi Startup Voyage Shares Details of its Latest Vehicle Designed to Operate Without a Safety Driver
Voyage is operating a robotaxi service in The Villages retirement community in Florida and San Jose, CA.

The race to develop self-driving cars has shifted somewhat over the past several years. Rather than privately owned self-driving vehicles, the first deployments will likely be for commercial purposes, such as robotaxis and self-driving delivery vehicles.

One company at the forefront of robotaxi development is Silicon Valley robotaxi startup Voyage. For the past several years the company has been developing and testing its self-driving fleet of minivans at The Villages in Florida and San Jose California, two of the largest senior communities in the U.S.

Voyage says the U.S. is not ready to support the transport needs of the rapidly growing senior population, so the company is focused on offering senior citizens a safe and affordable robotaxi service. Voyage is providing its robotaxi service to residents of The Villages communities, a group with the most need for mobility solutions. 

With roughly 160,000 residents, The Villages community in Florida is also the largest retirement community in the state. Soon residents will be picked up in Voyage's brand new purposely built robotaxis.

In a new blog post this week, Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron shared an overview of the advanced technology included in the company's latest robotaxi that will support the rollout of a commercial robotaxi service in The Villages. Residents can summon a self-driving Voyage minivan to shuttle them where they need to go around the community.  

For many residents of the Villages, Voyage is providing a valuable service, since many of the older residents no longer drive on their own or have physical limitations that prevent them from safely getting behind the wheel.

Voyage's latest vehicle is called the G3 and it's the company's first production-ready robotaxi. The G3 is designed to operate without a driver behind the wheel, the company said. 

The G3 is a modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan that comes equipped with what Voyage calls a "driverless-ready vehicle platform." The platform is combined with a safety-critical computing platform running a real-time operating system.

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Voyage said that its latest robotaxi employs three distinct yet important systems for operating without human supervision in the vehicle, including software that Voyage calls "Commander", which acts as the brain of the G3. It's capable of autonomous point-to-point driving within communities and towns. 

Commander is powered by state-of-the-art perception, prediction, and behavioral modules, all running atop a safety-certified middleware and monitored by Voyage's self-diagnostic systems. Voyage developed all of its technology in-house specifically for operating at lower speeds within The Villages communities.

Another advanced safety technology Voyage built in-house is called "Shield." Shield acts as an advanced driver assist system (ADAS) with collision avoidance, but in this case its designed to operate without an actual "driver" behind the wheel. 

The Shield collision mitigation system acts as a backup system to bring the vehicle to a safe stop if necessary, such as when a pedestrian or cyclist is crossing a street or an unexpected obstacle is blocking the road. 

For the Villages in Florida, this might even include wild turkeys crossing the road, which is a common occurrence around the community. Voyage even trained its perception systems to deal with the large wild birds.

Voyage designed Shield to be independent of its Commander. Shield is powered by its own robust, automotive-grade hardware and perception algorithms for the highest level of safety. The company's prediction engine uses a combination of advanced probability models, high-definition maps, and time-based behavior models to predict what's happening at all times around its vehicles. 

Voyage's Latest Robotaxi Supports Remote Tele-assist

The third system Voyage developed is called "Teleassist" and it makes operating without a safety driver behind the wheel possible. Its designed to handle any unexpected situations on the road. 

Teleassist allows an operator to control the G3 minivan remotely over a cellular connection to the vehicle. The remote operator can manipulate the G3's steering, braking, shifting, turn signals and other vehicle functions from hundreds of miles away using a cellular connection connected to the vehicle's controllers.

The system is designed to handle cases where the vehicle's software encounters a situation its cannot deal with on its own. For example, if some construction cones or other obstacle is blocking the route ahead. In this case, a human can take over control remotely, using the live feed from the vehicle's onboard cameras to steer around the obstacle, or reroute around it as if they were sitting behind the wheel. 

Voyage built a remote telassist station that resembles a racing video game, complete with a steering wheel and pedals and large monitors that show a live feed of the vehicle's surroundings.

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The Voyage "Teleassist" allows a human to take over the G3 remotely if needed, even from hundreds of miles away.

Remote telassist technology is viewed as a stepping stone in the industry to eventually removing safety drivers entirely from autonomous vehicles. Until a self-driving vehicle's software can handle just about any unexpected situation, remote teleassist is a novel, interim solution, and its being implemented by other companies like Waymo that are developing self-driving vehicles.

Voyage wrote in its blog post that the combination of Commander, Shield and Teleassist allows for safe commercial deployment of its robotaxis without a human safety driver in the vehicle.

In addition to the robust hardware and software, Voyage added features to assist its primary customers—senior citizens. 

The G3 minivan includes a two-way voice communication system, as well as extra lighting to illuminate the cabin to improve visibility. Voyage also added a more intuitive in-cabin user interface that caters to vision-impaired riders.

Voyage teamed up with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to integrate Commander, Shield, and Telessist into the purpose-built G3 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, developed specifically by FCA for the integration of autonomous driving technology during production. 

The same vans are also used by Alphabet's self-driving unit Waymo for its own planned robotaxi service called Waymo One

Voyage and FCA jointly worked on the connections between the self-driving software, sensors, and embedded systems. The partnership between FCA and Voyage also included autonomous vehicle design requirements, such as safety-critical steering and braking systems, as well as fail-safe power systems for the sensors and software.

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The passenger interface in the G3 is designed for ease of use.

Voyage is Using NVIDIA DRIVE Computing Power

For all of the G3's autonomous driving systems to work as designed, the vehicle requires a massive amount of processing power on board. So Voyage tapped chipmaker Nvidia to supply its automotive-grade NVIDIA DRIVE autonomous driving platform. Nvidia's DRIVE products are some of the most widely used for autonomous vehicle development around the world.

The G3 was built on the NVIDIA DRIVE AGX Pegasus platform. The hardware is housed in ruggedized aluminum housing in the back of the G3. It contains all of the necessary redundancies to support autonomous driving. 

The AI-powered NVIDIA DRIVE AGX Pegasus platform uses two Xavier SoCs and two NVIDIA Turing GPUs to achieve an unprecedented 320 TOPS of supercomputing power. The platform is specifically designed and built for highly advanced Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous systems, including robotaxis like the ones Voyage plans to operate. 

Nvidia's Xavier SoC contains 9 billion transistors to process vast amounts of data, as well as thousands of safety mechanisms to address any random hardware failures.

"The DRIVE AGX platform is architected for safety, and delivers the high-performance, automotive-grade compute necessary for Voyage's G3 vehicles to operate autonomously," said Danny Shapiro, NVIDIA's Senior Director of Automotive.

The powerful Xavier SoC includes six types of processors—ISP (image signal processor), a VPU (video processing unit), PVA (programmable vision accelerator), DLA (deep learning accelerator), a Nvidia CUDA GPU, and CPU. Xavier provides the compute power necessary to run multiple deep neural networks simultaneously for robust perception, prediction, and path planning, Cameron said in Voyage's blog post.

The DRIVE AGX platform processes data from the vehicle's cameras, radar, and lidar sensors to perceive the surrounding environment, localizes the G3 to a high-definition map to plan a safe path forward. The platform also supports in-cabin functions and driver monitoring.

The G3 Blackberry's QNX Real-time OS

Cameron said that all of the technology used to safely drive itself requires each hardware and software layer to be architected to the highest safety standards, so the G3 runs a "real-time," operating system, so the self-driving software can execute commands without interruption.

Cameron wrote that the real-time OS is particularly important for safety-critical systems like for Voyage's collision mitigation system Shield.

Also for the G3's OS, Voyage selected BlackBerry's QNX, which is based on Blackberry's Neutrino real-time embedded OS. It's certified to ISO 26262 ASIL-D, the automotive industry's highest functional safety level. 

"BlackBerry's pedigree in safety, security, and continued innovation has led to its QNX technology being embedded in more than 175 million vehicles on the road today and we're honored to see Voyage's third generation of AVs powered by BlackBerry QNX software," said Grant Courville, VP, Products and Strategy, BlackBerry QNX.

The G3 is Designed for a COVID-19 World

With most of its riders in The Villages being elderly, Voyage thought of one more important system for its robotaxis during the pandemic that has decimated Uber's ride-hailing business since March—a system to sanitize the interior of the vehicle after each trip to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Voyage partnered with GHSP, a leading global supplier of automotive systems, to create an "ambulance-grade" solution to automatically disinfect the robotaxis after each ride. GHSP's grēnlite solution uses ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light to destroy bacterial pathogens, including Streptococcus and COVID-19 inside the vehicle.

The UV-C technology has been used in medical environments to sterilize ambulances and hospital rooms. It is proven to be up to 99.9% effective in eradicating pathogens, including human coronavirus and the seasonal flu.

"Our partnership with Voyage to integrate grēnlite into their G3 vehicle is a game-changer. This cutting edge UV-C treatment technology helps create a safer environment for all passengers, especially senior citizens. We're pleased that our grēnlite brand can help provide a safer environment and reduce the worry of travel and disease transmission within shared vehicles," said Marc Smeyers, GHSP's Chief Technology Officer in a statement.

Voyage is one of the most promising new startups coming out of Silicon Valley over the last several years. In 2018, Cameron was recognized by Forbes in its annual 30 Under 30 list, chronicling the most innovative entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Canada. The company has also made some high-profile hires as it grows.

In June 2018, Voyage announced it hired engineer Drew Gray as its new CTO and Director of Autonomy. Gray worked as engineering director at Uber's self-driving division Uber ATG, as well as stints at Cruise and Tesla. The company also hired Davide Bacchet from Tesla where he worked on the company's Autopilot. Bacchet now serves as Voyage's VP of Engineering.

All of Voyage's in-house and partner's technology have come together in the G3 to make it one of the most advanced and safe autonomous capable vehicles, a requirement if the company plans to pick up passengers with no one behind the wheel.

Beta versions of the G3 are being tested in San Jose, CA beginning this week, with production vehicles and commercial driverless vehicles to follow next year. 


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