One of the main obstacles to the autonomous vehicle industry is “infrastructure,” but not in the sense typically associated with the term. Since autonomous vehicles come in all shapes, sizes, and powertrain types (gasoline, electric, and hybrid), and a wide range of degree of automation, the key infrastructure issue is not with the roads or the need for a worldwide network of guidance wires, rails, or charging stations, but ensuring the safe integration of autonomous vehicles into the world of human drivers. Enter “Nauto.”
Nauto is an artificially intelligent tracking device for cars, made by the Palo Alto company co-founded in 2015 by Stefan Heck, Ph.D., a Stanford Consulting Professor and former McKinsey & Company senior partner, and CTO Frederick Soo Ph.D., a neuroscientist-turned hardware engineer and entrepreneur. The Nauto device, which resembles an oversize computer mouse, is mounted inside the windshield just above the rear-view mirror. A new version with added capabilities will debut in January, 2017. The current version, out for just three months, costs $399 plus a monthly service fee of $25 to $100, and already has thousands of users. Heck says that a new version with added capabilities will debut in January.
Nauto uses GPS and an accelerometer to track motion and sends the data to the cloud for analysis. With cameras facing inward and outward, Nauto – currently used by car-fleet managers, professional drivers and insurers – also evaluates drivers with a credit-rating-like score, using artificial intelligence and a collection of anonymized data to gain insights into driver behavior. Nauto-equipped vehicles have begun gathering and learning street and driving patterns in cities around the world, from Bangalore and Vienna to Mexico City and Boston, and are already in commercial use in the San Francisco and New York City areas.
“Real human drivers don’t follow the DMV rules to the letter of the law all the time,” Heck said. “If there’s a biker on the right, they’ll cross the yellow median to give him more space. At stop signs, they’ll inch forward to indicate who yields. If the speed limit is 65 but everyone else is going 70, they’ll go 70. They’ll make eye contact with pedestrians and wave.” These are all actions that an autonomous vehicle following the “rules” may have trouble with without the help of the intelligence provided by services like Nauto.
As the database grows, vehicles using Nauto will better understand the people sharing the road and what they’re likely to do. The Toyota driving next to you may actually know it’s driving next to you, and may also know that you’re a statistically less-than-excellent driver who may bend the rules on occasion, and might be able to avoid you altogether.
Because Nauto is already in use, other companies can gather that data now, he said. Nauto users — all professional drivers at present— include Stanford’s Marguerite Shuttle system, San Francisco’s CityWide Taxi, limo fleets and many individual Uber and Lyft drivers. “Nauto is a great opportunity to better understand driver behavior and dangerous situations,” said Jim Adler, a director at Toyota Research Institute in Palo Alto, in an email. “Autonomous driving will require billions of miles of testing across all types of weather, traffic, and driver conditions (and) trillions of miles through both actual driving and simulation.”
Nauto is poised to make its mark on the autonomous vehicle industry, with Toyota, BMW, insurance giant Allianz, and other major carmakers entering into strategic partnerships with Nauto and making investments in it. Nauto already has more than $14 million in backing. Given the speed at which the technology is developing and the autonomous vehicle market is likely to expand, Nauto may soon experience many competitors.