This year has seen its fair share of autonomous trucking news, but the space shows little sign of cooling off. Earlier this month, a new competitor entered the arena, led by a team of industry veterans and backed by a prominent software company.
Ike, the latest company to emerge from stealth in the autonomous trucking world, wants to take a sober approach to developing the technology.
“We’re building a company focused very much on the long-term,” co-founder and CEO Alden Woodrow said. “In autonomous vehicles in particular, there is this tendency to really rush to try to get a product built. We’re trying to bring some patience and some maturity to this problem, in large part because this is a safety-critical technology.
“The trucks that Ike powers will be driving alongside many other people on the road, and we need to make sure they can do that safely and reliably.”
Ike’s name is a nod to President Dwight Eisenhower, who signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, enabling the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The company will develop technology strictly for highway driving.
Truck outfitted with Ike's branding. (Ike)
This limited scope is pragmatic, Woodrow said. Rather than try to address the challenges that come with inner city driving, for instance, the company will work to develop a self-driving truck for highway hauling, in which conditions are more predictable. Early concepts include roadside transfer hubs, where loads could be exchanged between self-driving trucks and human-driven trucks, with human drivers handling all noninterstate transit.
“It would actually be very foolish of us to try to build a truck that could do all of the things that a truck driver could,” Woodrow said. “That is potentially impossible. It would certainly take a very long time.”
Ike already has established a software licensing partnership with Nuro, a company developing a self-driving local commerce delivery vehicle. Ike has given Nuro an equity stake in the company in exchange for the mapping and visualization software it built for its own self-driving vehicle. Moving forward, Nuro will act as a silent partner, with the two remaining separate entities.
The Nuro software, which Ike has forked and started to build upon, uses lidar sensor data to build a comprehensive image of a vehicle’s surroundings — a crucial part of functional autonomous driving. The partnership has sped up Ike’s development stage by about two years, according to Woodrow.
“It’s going to allow us to focus on the harder problems now, instead of having to spend all this time solving computer science problems that have already been solved by Nuro,” he said.
Ike co-founders have experience in the self-driving realm. Woodrow was the product lead for self-driving trucks at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, and he’s joined by Nancy Sun, formerly the engineering lead for self-driving trucks at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, and Jur van den Berg, formerly a senior staff engineer at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group. Sun, Ike’s chief engineer, and van den Berg, Ike’s chief technology officer, joined Uber via the Otto acquisition in 2016.
Using lidar data, Nuro’s software can visualize roadways in nuanced detail. An interstate interchange south of San Francisco is pictured here. (Ike)
Woodrow says this experience gives Ike an edge in understanding the pitfalls of past self-driving technology efforts as well as how to best engage civic leaders and the public.
“We are really big believers in engagement with all the stakeholders that we’ll need to work with for this project to be successful. That includes partners in the industry,” he said. “And it’s important we help the public, more broadly, understand why we’re so excited about this technology, and why it has so much promise, and answer some of the very understandable questions and concerns about whether self-driving trucks can be safe.”
Woodrow said that Ike’s team is intentionally avoiding the temptation to try to optimize its development model for a hastier product release. The goal is to build a commercial product at scale, a milestone that still is years away, he said.