Driverless Shuttles Are Coming Soon to a Campus Near You

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While most of the focus and media attention around autonomous vehicles has centered on self-driving cars from the likes of Google, Tesla, Uber, or the traditional auto manufacturers like Ford, BMW, or Daimler, there is a company in Silicon Valley that is taking a different approach, focusing on university campus shuttles rather than traditional light-duty vehicles. Auro Robotics, founded by graduates of IIT Kharagpur in India (the same school that gave us Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google), is working to develop “last-mile autonomous public transport”.  Auro Robotics is also a graduate of the Spring 2015 batch of Y Combinator. It’s an interesting use of the term “last-mile”, which has traditionally been telecom speak to describe the portion of a communications network that is closest to the customer premise. Auro’s founders have been working on autonomous robots since 2011 when they founded the robotics group at their alma mater, but since joining Y Combinator, they have pivoted the business idea to driverless shuttles for in-campus travel.

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(Source: Auro Robotics)

For Auro, the last mile strategy brings unique advantages to environments that are closed and controlled, like a university campus, such as avoiding the hassles of government regulation or obviating the need for intensive training of the vehicles to identify everyday obstacles. For example, Google’s self-driving car project has already driven a million miles on public roads and is still in the process of learning about the various hazards it can face. On the other hand, for an autonomous shuttle to navigate through a university campus, it will mostly be avoiding slow-moving pedestrians, cyclists, and the odd skateboarder, and it doesn’t need to worry about traffic lights or 4-way stops.

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(Source: Auro Robotics)

Auro is testing its driverless shuttle prototypes at universities across the United States and uses computer vision technology to create 3D maps of their surrounding environments. Unlike Google’s self-driving car, which is still a few years away, Auro is very close to deploying live shuttles at Santa Clara University this fall. The vehicle is also equipped with a GPS system, multilayered scanners, automotive-grade radar, and a long-range camera. Auro has also partnered with Harbrick LLC to use that company’s Polysync software platform, which is specifically targeted at autonomous vehicles. Polysync aspires to be the Android or iOS of autonomous vehicular systems, providing the backend infrastructure plumbing so that developers can focus on the intelligent algorithms and machine learning parts of the system.

Auro is working on two models, one following a fixed programmed route with scheduled stops, and the other being a dynamic, on-demand, Uber-like system where the passenger can enter their destination through a touchscreen or mobile app. Auro plans to launch its first model, Auro Prime, in 2016 at a university campus, but also has eyes on other last-mile environments like office campuses, industrial sites, theme parks, gated residential communities, and airports, among others.

Auro is a good example how a startup robotics company today can quickly pivot, test, and launch products using off-the-shelf components. It also opens the door for autonomous vehicles in closed, privately-owned environments where they could have a huge impact. London’s Heathrow Airport has been using autonomous self-driving pods since 2012 to shuttle people from car parks to the airport, but these only run on guided paths, unlike Auro’s self-driving shuttle that doesn’t require any specialized infrastructure.

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(Source: Ultra Global PRT)

Apart from ferrying passengers within and outside the airport, autonomous vehicles could be invaluable on the airport tarmac for transporting luggage, fuel, or even technicians from the terminal to the planes. At the end of the day, it’s about regulation, or the lack thereof, and convincing private companies to have autonomous vehicles operate within their premises. Compared to universities, airport ground transportation is closely regulated and therefore Auro is smart to focus on universities as its entry market. In any case, for anyone following autonomous vehicles, Auro Robotics is definitely a company to watch.

As a part of Tractica’s ongoing research coverage on Automation & Robotics, and an upcoming report that will provide comprehensive market sizing and forecasts for the global robotics industry, we will be looking more closely at the autonomous vehicles market, especially enterprise or service applications, that go beyond the traditional consumer vehicle space.

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