The smarter substitute

Alex Kreetzer discusses with Nauto’s Frank Bunte why retrofit products could be a safety solution that does not require us to wait for the move to full autonomy.   

Reimagining transportation through technology is an incredibly complex and difficult job for software engineers, who have to design autonomous systems that are safe and secure for the driver, pedestrian and the ecosystem that surrounds them. Nauto is a San Francisco Bay Area artificial intelligence-based automotive technology company that is improving the safety and productivity of commercial fleets today and of the autonomous fleets of tomorrow. Nauto’s intelligent camera system assesses how drivers interact with the vehicle and the road ahead to reduce distracted driving and collisions. With this knowledge Nauto is powering the development of self-driving technology that brings the best of human driving to autonomy. It does this by using the aggregated and anonymized driving data to understand real driving behaviour and identify trends and challenges across its network of customer fleets. This data can then be used to develop, train and validate autonomous systems which, in the future, would allow any vehicle to operate on its own.   

I speak to Frank Bunte, Nauto's Head of Europe, to discuss how Nauto’s technology as well as autonomous driving has the potential to save lives, revolutionise the automotive industry and change the way we navigate. He explains that this area, which has grown in attention during the last five years, and has caused a major shake up for global automotive companies and their suppliers. While many automakers are targeting the 2020 timeframe for level 4 autonomous vehicles, we will still see limitations in their roll-out. “In order to have a self-driving car, you need a lot of self-driving experience,” he continues. “To achieve 99.9% reliability in autonomous vehicles you need to have over 200 billion miles of experience, which is incredibly difficult and time-consuming for any one company.” Nauto believes that collaborations between itself and autonomous technology developers, such as automakers, will help make this a reality.  

Improving road safety today

One of the benefits of Nauto’s business model is that by offering a retrofit device, it is helping commercial fleets improve road safety today. While Nauto’s system can provide insights regarding standard vehicle telematics indicators such as ABCs (acceleration, braking and cornering), the visual data provides both drivers and fleet managers with richer context of those indicators. For instance, the driver may be hard braking because a child ran into the street, chasing a ball. While standard vehicle telematics would consider the hard braking a negative indicator, Nauto would consider it an indication of safe driving in this instance. 

Nauto also detects and scores drivers on distracted driving. “We believe this is the automotive industry’s first aftermarket platform that uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect whenever a driver’s eyes divert from the road or engage in other forms of distraction,” said Bunte. Nauto automatically uploads it and scores its severity. Bunte reminded me that distracted driving is believed to be the cause of 68% of all collisions. So Nauto is using its retrofit device to address one of the largest safety issues on our roads today. 

While doing this, Nauto is also building a knowledge base about how the best human drivers behave behind the wheel. “What we see is that about 20% of a fleet’s drivers never cause a collision. And 5 or 10% of a fleet’s drivers account for a large majority of its risk and damages,” said Bunte. This is important because Nauto’s automotive partners can use the knowledge base (anonymized and aggregated) of how the best human drivers drive in a variety of situations. This way, autonomous vehicles will not just drive like robots, but like the best human drivers combined with artificial intelligence. 

The end result

Following on from huge automotive and technology events around the world, such as the Frankfurt Motor Show and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we have seen the large number of companies tackling various aspects of autonomous driving. It will be difficult for any one company to have the experience or ‘know-how’ to tackle every aspect of this new approach to transportation, which has lead some automakers to either acquire software specialists or collaborate with them. Nauto is a big believer that all of the major OEMs will team up on this journey towards a self-driving future. While Nauto is providing commercial fleets with products to improve road safety today, it is also learning a great deal about good and bad drivers. This is an area where collaborations with OEMs and other autonomous technology developers will be very useful. “It will be difficult for any of the large OEMs to manage to obtain sufficient data libraries to improve their algorithms alone as it takes so many miles to achieve this level of accuracy,” he says. “This is why Nauto is an independent player in the industry. We learn from every vehicle that is using and benefiting from our technology, such as commercial fleets. We want to team up with these OEMs to provide everyone with this level of learning.” One issue that can be found through this process is collaboration between rivals. I have said many times before that it is vital for us as an industry to come together in order to accelerate this development and create a safe and secure ecosystem for connected vehicles to thrive in. These automakers need to accept that they will be gaining this data through rival companies as the device will be fitted in all brands. At the end of the day, a vehicle is a vehicle and it comes down to the human driver. The focus has to be on capturing the experience and the patterns in day-to-day driving, rather than segregation between automakers and the data.

Similar to mapping companies like HERE, Bunte believes that there will be co-ownership of the technology and platform players will not bet on only one supplier. “This is why we are in Japan, Europe and North America at the same time, for a broad spectrum of information to help the OEMs accomplish what they want faster,” he continues. Improving road safety is of global importance and Nauto’s retrofit device is helping enable this today while also helping speed the development of autonomy for our future.

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