Although many have not heard about autonomous self-driving vehicles until the last few years, scientists and academic researchers have been working in the field of robotics for a long time. Jan Becker, co-founder and CEO of Apex.AI has been working in robotics and autonomous vehicles for over twenty years. In an interview with Auto Futures, Becker tells how he participated in the waves of autonomous driving software through the years and is now creating software stacks to accelerate the future of AVs.
“It all started really simply, I wanted to do something interesting and exciting that had never been done before,” says Becker. He started working on research for Volkswagen for testing vehicles. Formerly VW had drivers who would drive around the track for 10,000 km testing every feature on the car. The driving was very stressful for the driver. At that time, there was no way for a computer to control car directly therefore, a computer robot was built to work with the actuators which had many arms and legs drive the vehicle. However, VW didn’t use the robot because it was too expensive.
Becker joined Bosch in Germany and then moved to Palo Alto in California to work in robotics and autonomous vehicles. At that time, Scott Hassan started Willow Garage to see why robotics wasn’t moving as quickly as other technology such as computers and wireless phones. Willow Garage found that the PhD students would keep redoing the code from scratch and creating separate systems. There needed to be a standard. Willow Garage created ROS (Robotics Operating System), an open source software with fundamental programming for robotic functionality. Since 2008, ROS is used by the majority of companies developing applications for autonomous vehicles and by most academic labs.
“We were the first company to support ROS and Willow Garage,” says Becker. Bosch was working on two cars using ROS. But the team found that there were problems with the software that didn’t always work perfectly and found it didn’t have the reliability of safety-critical software for automotive.
“ROS is fine if for a robotic vacuum but not in the case of automotive,” says Becker. “It became obvious that most companies that use ROS don’t have a solution. We saw it as a market opportunity.”
In 2017, Becker formed Apex.Ai with fellow researcher Dejan Pangercic who also worked on ROS. Apex.AI ’s launch coincided with the launch of ROS 2.
“When there is a central ECU that is to be the brain of autonomous driving, there needs to be a software framework software that uses ROS 2 code underneath it,” says Becker. The Apex.OS software is currently being used by some customers for automotive, aviation, tier-one suppliers and drones. The first product release will be in the second half of 2019.
“Our customers are very happy because we bridge the gap between automotive and modern software development. We offer automotive grade certification,” says Becker.
“We can save forty-to-fifty developers for our customers because we abstract and develop in-house, “ says Becker about Apex.OS, that works with Intel, ARM, CAN Bus architecture and ethernet. The first software product from Apex is Apex OS which is the framework and the next software will be Apex.Autonomous that offers separate building blocks for autonomous driving including libraries for 3D perception, localization and planning.
Becker believes that in the future there will be a mix of robotic commuting taxis, autonomous delivery autonomous, flying taxis and long-haul robotic trucking. But still, there will be instances when people would like to drive at the weekends.
He says that for commuting for the purpose of getting from A to B there is no reason for driving which is not productive and he would prefer to be driven in an autonomous vehicle. However, he would still like to keep his car for driving in the mountains and for fun and leisure. In fact, he still likes to drive his late model air-cooled 1997 Porsche 911 S for enjoyment.
“In the 1930s 40s and 50s and even the 1990 ‘s they were saying autonomous driving was 20 years away. They kept saying that. But now autonomous cars are coming sooner than that and it is the first time in history!” muses Becker.