Anuja Sonalker sees herself as being someone who was in the right place at the right time. If you look at her plans for STEER in the future, she may just be ahead of her time. Auto Futures talks with Anuja Sonalker PhD, founder CEO of STEER Tech, a company that has a unique vision of driverless autonomous vehicles
Sonalker’s background is in the technology in cybersecurity working at Batalle and Tower Sec security that was bought by Harman. She is a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland College Park, a master of science in computer engineering from North Carolina State University and a bachelor of engineering from the University of Mumbai.
“I was in the right place at the right time and I have many people and mentors helping me. I was having dinner with Sachin Lawande, CEO of Visteon. We were seeing what was going in the driverless space. Back in 2016, we realised that it would be a very long time before the automakers and major players would not be able to deliver autonomous vehicles soon. Level 5 would be a long way off,” says Sonalker.
“We saw a new niche in the market. We would be providing thin middleware. It would focus on and target deep ECU platforms,” says Sonalker, who notes that the plan for STEER was written on a paper napkin.
The baseline for their plan is that the vehicles with steer-by-wire could be retrofitted. Cars with the feature were sold as early as 2012 or 2014. Customers don’t have to buy new cars. STEER’s package adds a computing module that contains its own camera and connections to the platform. Sonalker explains why STEER started by offering driverless parking.
“Parking is a very thankless job. Nobody out there is saying, ‘I’m dying to go out and spend hours looking for parking and waste a lot of time,’” says Sonalker. On average it takes about twenty minutes to park a car.
Totally Hands-off Valet Parking
A good thing about the driverless-parking space is that since parking is usually on private property it is not as highly regulated as other self-driving locations. Also in parking lots vehicles can drive very very slowly. The advantages of STEER parking is it is driverless and it is very safe now.
Unlike other autonomous parking platforms that require clearly delineated parking space lines, STEER powered vehicles can park on their own without clear lines. STEER will also function under extreme weather conditions.
“If a driver can drive in the weather, STEER can drive through it too,” says Sonalker.
STEER offers two driverless parking options. The Level 2 style is something like Hyundai Smart Park where the car is operated from outside the vehicle. It allows drivers to park or summon their cars using the STEER app on their smartphones.
She says Level 2 good for things like getting in a tight spot or home garage. STEER works with Chamberlain or LiftMaster garage door openers with myQ smart technology, the garage door will open and close for the vehicle automatically.
STEER also offers Level 4 driverless parking that is totally hands-off valet parking.
The whole system is very complex. The beauty of STEER is that only the basic functions are performed on the vehicle computer system itself for the last minute. Other functions are uploaded to the STEER cloud, says Sonalker.
First you have to educate people. It takes time and they have to understand how it works.
Navigating the autonomous space can be confusing. Some people think all you do is just go out and buy a Tesla. Sonalker points out some problems with Tesla’s system. It’s not parking but Smart Summon. It only summons the car. The person has to be nearby in a line of sight to operate it.
Also, the vehicle may not travel in the line of cars if there is an open parking space or whatever it will just go across it warns Sonalker.
STEER is very competitive, cost-effective and time saving for fleet vehicles and more. Currently STEER is working with automotive OEMs and tier 1 suppliers and they have contracts with fleets as wells as a contract for testing for U.S. Department of Transportation.
The STEER contract with BWI (Baltimore Washington International Airport) airport for valet parking is delayed due to Covid-19. However, STEER is also consulting with retail outlets for valet parking. For STEER to work at level 4, retailers or airports sign up as a STEER partner. Then they upload the Mappr function. She says that the area must be checked for signal strength.
An example of what could be done with STEER valet parking is in case of a disaster. At a Florida airport, 300 rental cars were in the path of a fire. There was no way to move them all away in time with human drivers. STEER’s Level 4 features could have been used to move the cars out of harm’s way. Or, in Covid-19 times, driverless valet parking helps car owners feel safe.
“In this day and age with social distancing people don’t want to take the risk of driver valet parking,” says Sonalker, who reports people are saying good things about STEER and the companies that are using it like it.
In fact, STEER has a waiting list for consumers who want to buy their own STEER systems.
“First you have to educate people. It takes time and they have to understand how it works,” says Sonalker. She imagines many use cases for the self-parking features, “Just think of real estate agents how many times they park and STEER will be able to save so much time.”
STEER is also working with apartment buildings for driverless valet parking for residents.
What’s the next step for STEER? Sonalker’s answer – “After a while, these units can be upgraded with more features.”