You would be wrong to think that Torc Robotics, an autonomous vehicle company headquartered in Blacksburg, Virginia, is just another start-up within the mobility sector.
The company came to fruition off the back of a highly-successful DARPA Urban Challenge, a prize competition for American autonomous vehicles, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the sole purpose of accelerating the development of self-driving technology.
Torc teamed up with Virginia Tech to create an autonomous car for the competition, which finished third – an impressive debut for the company. But this wasn’t the end of a short competition partnership. Many members of the team continued working together and immediately moved into the commercialisation of autonomous technology in defence and mining.
Since the challenge, Torc has been profitable every year. Now, the company’s mission is to save lives through self-driving technology, providing a full level 4 software stack and sensor integration expertise to its partners, including automakers, industrial companies and mobility providers.
CEO Michael Fleming, pictured above, spoke to Auto Futures to discuss the company’s position in the market and the importance of autonomous software in the transport sector.
“As computing and sensor technology advanced, Torc saw the potential commercial applications for autonomy,” he says. “Torc has installed its autonomous system in demonstration cars, and proven its level 4 technologies capabilities on the road in multiple environments, with zero accidents.”
Milestones for Fleming and his team include an autonomous coast-to-coast trip in the US and several successful demonstrations in complex urban areas such as Las Vegas. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, with Torc announcing in January a new partnership with Transdev to develop autonomous last-mile shuttles in France and, more recently, a collaboration with Daimler Trucks on level 4 self-driving vehicles.
“We believe the fastest way to commercialise our technology is by partnering with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs),” adds Fleming. “We combine our expertise in providing and integrating autonomous systems with their proven vehicles and infrastructure.”
By offering an end-to-end autonomous software stack that can be applied to different applications, Torc is able to attract companies from different areas of the automotive industry, from self-driving mining trucks with its partner Caterpillar to autonomous EVs for Chinese automaker Bordrin.
Using Autonomous Technology To Reduce Fatalities
Fleming believes that autonomous technology has the potential to enrich lives by providing easy and accessible mobility for more people and the efficient transport of goods. But, more importantly, it has the potential to save lives.
“Today’s traffic fatality numbers are unacceptable, and autonomous vehicles can play a huge role in changing that statistic,” he says, looking at how the different levels of autonomy. “Currently, we are seeing the industry moving in two directions with automation: those who are implementing driver assist systems at levels 2 and 3 and those developing self-driving systems for level 4.”
Although very different, both systems significantly improve safety in different markets. For example, level 2 and 3 are the basic levels of ADAS, which are put in place to help the driver, who is in control of the vehicle at all times. With more advanced level 4 systems, the vehicle is programmed to take the decisions away from the driver, increasing the ‘hands-off’ experience for consumers.
However, Fleming believes that it is vital to make the public understand the different levels of autonomous technology so that we don’t see any more issues with ADAS-enabled vehicles on the road today.
“Level 4 is not an incremental change from level 3 and that there is not a safe way to move between them,” he warns. “As an industry, we must make sure that consumers with driver-assisted vehicles understand that they must remain vigilant and in control at all times the vehicle is operating.”
Slow ‘n’ Steady
Innovation shouldn’t be rushed, especially when it comes to autonomous technology. I ask Fleming how true this rings for Torc, who says that there needs to be an organic rollout of autonomous technology in order to prevent serious accidents in the future if not developed correctly.
“Creating level 4 self-driving vehicles is a difficult challenge and one that we have been developing for more than 12 years. However, even life-saving innovation should be introduced as safely as possible. We believe that safely implementing this technology onto real-world roads is a marathon, not a sprint.”
And that’s it. Despite the overwhelming market potential, developers of this technology need to understand the damage that could occur if this turns into an aggressive competition between companies. The only people that will feel the pain will be the consumers that the industry is trying to help.
Fleming says that the first step to achieving a safe environment for self-driving vehicles is education and collaboration within government and regulatory groups. This will help the industry prepare for connected infrastructure, both inside and outside of the vehicle.
“One of our roles as a leader in the field is to assist with education and testing that will allow for rapid and safe adoption,” he adds. “We’ve worked with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, various government groups, and continue to work with AAA NCNU to develop appropriate regulations and safety standards for the industry.”
For Torc, this preparation starts at testing and creating environments that help to organically develop autonomous technology in a safe and reliable manner. The company continues to safely deploy new capabilities through reliable – yet challenging – testing environments.
“Our team strives to push the envelope, uncovering actionable data to improve the self-driving system,” says Fleming. “We are passionate about using our technology to save lives. With our strong partnerships, we believe we are in a position to revolutionize transportation for the better.