Listen to this article
Recently out of stealth mode, Waabi is building the next generation of self-driving truck technology. Auto Futures caught up with Raquel Urtasun, Founder and CEO of Waabi, at NVIDIA’s GTC conference. She reveals how Waabi World and Waabi Driver are set to accelerate self-driving safety and commercialisation.
Urtasun is best known in the mobility space as Chief Scientist and Head of R&D at Uber ATG before it was sold to Aurora. She also serves as a Full Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. She is a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI. She founded Waabi in June 2021.
The Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, called her an international star and an extraordinary talent. She was named one of ‘The Top 25 Women of Influence for 2022’.
Waabi’s Focus & Mission
Urtasun defined the company and its mission. “Waabi is an AI company where we are building the next generation of self-driving technology for trucking focusing on an L4 (Level Four) hub-to-hub autonomous solution. Which basically means that the majority of our driving is going to be on highways.”
This is deliberate because driving on highways is simpler than driving in cities. And, at the same time, Waabi can automate a large variety of operational domains while having similar capabilities, she says.
From the point of view of business, it makes a lot of sense because there’s a chronic shortage of drivers. And with the pandemic, it is getting worse. People do not want to be truck drivers because they have to be away from their families.
Truck driving is one of the most dangerous jobs in North America. Automation can have a significant impact on moving cargo that is having a significant impact on all of us, reports Urtasun.
“We have a very collaborative approach. In particular, we are collaborating with OEM partners to integrate our solution into their redundant truck platforms. Fleets and carriers are our prime customers. With our solution, we would basically increase the operation efficiency, safety and cost of moving their freight,” she says.
“We are a company where we are very focused on the commercialisation of our products. We are not focused on building demos – we are building a real product.”
When Will We Have Self-Driving Vehicles?
Urtasun notes that self-driving commercialisation or deployment is being done in limited domains. She explains why.
“The process of driving is actually really hard. People underestimate the difficulty of this problem. If you think about the decisions that you make as you’re driving – they’re actually pretty complex and nuanced because a small change in the environment might totally change the manoeuvre that you should do. And this is difficult to do. On top of this, there are potentially many situations that might arise that the vehicle needs to handle,” she explains.
She points out that, even worse is the fact that many of these situations happen rarely. You might see them only once in millions of miles.
Urtasun says that today’s simulation technology cannot test and verify at scale. It is capital intensive. A new approach is needed that is less expensive.
What is Better And Different About Waabi Self-Driving?
Waabi has created a new paradigm that combines the existing approaches to self-driving with the Waabi integrated AI-first autonomy stack that features high-fidelity simulation. It is scalable and more affordable than current self-driving approaches, she says.
Urtasun showed a promotional video that spells out how Waabi Driver and Waabi World work.
It states it could take thousands of self-driving vehicles driving for millions of miles for thousands of years to experience everything necessary to drive safely. Some things happen very rarely. Waabi World’s high-fidelity driving simulator is the ultimate school for self-driving vehicles.
Waabi World reconstructs from real-life sensor data. It can reconstruct objects such as cars, SUVs or trucks. It can digitally recreate reality to create an endless number of diverse virtual worlds. It can be done across different sensor configurations as though the driver were in a car or truck, automatically and at scale.
In Waabi World, the Waabi Driver can see and behave exactly as it would in the real world. Waabi World then can create traffic scenarios to test the Waabi Driver. Waabi World generates variations of streets and traffic patterns while the Waabi Driver reacts in real-time, then traffic reacts. Waabi World can multiply and evolve scenarios infinitely.
It can evaluate how the driver performs in simulation and use AI to automatically generate challenging and realistic scenarios.
Waabi World does not just test the driver to its limits but also helps it learn new skills. Ultimately, the Waabi Driver will learn on its own to drive safely in any vehicle in any scenario anywhere in the world.
“At the end of the day, what you can do with this type of approach is develop this technology at a fraction of the cost at a much faster speed,” says Urtasun.
When Will Waabi’s Solution Be On The Highways?
Some think that Waabi World is a competitor to simulation tools such as IPG Carmaker, Cognata, Tass Prescan and Applied Intuition. Urtasun reveals how the company will use its Waabi World simulation.
“Our simulation is an internal product and not something that we will license to other companies to use. Our product is the Waabi Driver, which is our solution to L4 trucking (no human driver). Our simulation technology is very different from those companies. Think about it as a next-generation simulation. It is built to scale from day one. It is immersive, reactive and super high fidelity. The domain gap is nearly zero, which is very different from current simulators.”
Waabi teams work in Toronto and San Francisco. Its self-driving vehicles have not been seen on roads yet.
‘What is in the future for Waabi? When will the Waabi Driver drive on public roads?’ asks Auto Futures.
“You will see Waabi testing on roads very soon. We have very exciting things to show. We are building an L4 solution for trucking, meaning that we can choose where and when to operate. So we don’t need to solve the super hard snow storm problem from the first day,” replies Urtasun.