Self-driving cars rev up Pittsburgh’s tech sector

September 20, 2018

Credit for this prowess goes to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which opened its Robotics Institute in 1979 to address the decline of the steel and aluminum industries. In fact, CMU considers itself the birthplace of self-driving cars, starting with the “Terregator” mobile robot in 1984. In 2007, a CMU racing team won the $2 million DARPA Urban Challenge race with a self-driving SUV named Boss.

A generation of CMU graduates has since advanced the city’s AV sector, which comprises both established companies and startups, and today employs about 3,000. According to Donald F. Smith, Jr., president of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania (RIDC), many of those companies are “in aggressive growth mode” and that number that could eventually rise to over 10,000.

CMU Cylab launches IoT security initiative

September 19, 2018

Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab launched the Secure and Private Internet-of-Things Initiative this week.

The initiative aims to use collaborative research to create new capabilities in privacy and security for the IoT, said Vyas Sekar, who will co-direct the initiative with fellow CMU professor Anthony Rowe. CMU Cylab is the university’s security and privacy institute.

Sekar said there are a lot of concerns regarding IoT security, and rather than just hypothetical fears he said many of the concerns are real threats. He referenced the Dyn Cyberattack of 2016 in which hackers gained control of smart IoT cameras and caused major internet services and platforms to become unavailable.

Researchers and students will partner with Amazon Web Services, Infineon Technologies and Nokia Bell Labs for the initiative. Sekar said Cylab will continue to consider partnerships with up to a total of ten companies who are leaders in the IoT industry in both hardware and software aspects.

Ohio State interns help build Smart Columbus Operating System

September 18, 2018

Two graduate students from The Ohio State University are helping to develop the operating system that will power the Smart Columbus project.

The Smart Columbus Operating System is the “technological backbone” of the smart cities project. The operating system is an open data platform to collect and share data. Data collected and developed as part of the Smart Columbus project will help develop programs to make connected vehicles avoid accidents, help develop a common payment app for services or solve parking problems for major events.

“So if you’re a student who wants data for a project, you can use it and then share your findings back to the operating system,” said Anirudh Ganesh, one of the interns who worked on code application and data design for the operating system project.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx tapped by Carnegie Mellon University

September 18, 2018

Foxx — who served as the nation’s transportation chief under the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017 — has been appointed as a distinguished executive-in-residence for the 2018-19 academic year at the university based in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

“It’s an honor to be joining an institution that is at the forefront of using technology and policy to transform city life,” Foxx said in a statement. “I look forward to sharing my passion with the CMU community and sharing our model for innovative future cities with the world.”

Foxx will be working with CMU’s College of Engineering, Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and Metro 21: Smart Cities Institute.

How infrastructure can improve mass evacuations

September 13, 2018

Sean Qian, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said the country’s state transportation departments have been able to amass considerable information about driving patterns and the use of highways and main arterials during the last decade. That data could be useful in creating models that can inform officials’ plans for high-capacity events like a mass evacuation. Closing lanes, reprogramming traffic signals and emergency traffic routing are some of the measures on the table when trying to get people from point A to point B safely and efficiently in such a situation, he said.

Emergency information should be managed and dispensed from a centralized, informed state agency, he said, as current crowdsourced driving apps, like GasBuddy, have not proven reliable for such large-scale, coordinated use as a mass evacuation.

Argo AI is its own company poised for IPO — not just a self-driving department at Ford

September 6, 2018

When two veterans in the self-driving car world with a shared academic lineage at Carnegie Mellon University began a startup to create the “brains” for autonomous vehicles back in late 2016, the scrappy company was virtually unknown.

Then in February 2017, Ford invested $1 billion into the company that Google’s former director of hardware for self-driving tech, Bryan Salesky, had quietly started up with Peter Rander, who was once engineering lead for Uber Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District.

Argo AI was officially on the map…

But Mr. Rander — the fast-talking president of Argo AI who stands at a desk not behind closed walls but in the open-layout office space with the rest of the company’s engineers — wants to make it clear that the company is not some sort of department at Ford.

Argo is an independent company that will eventually go public on the stock market one day, he said without giving specifics.


September 4, 2018

Just about a decade into the race to develop self-driving cars, this young industry has its own supergroup: Aurora Innovation, formed by three of the biggest names in the field and veterans of its highest-profile efforts. At the end of 2016, Chris Urmson, Drew Bagnell, and Sterling Anderson created the startup to deliver fully self-driving technology—no human involvement—and will start with operations in geofenced areas (somewhere), slowly expanding as the cars prove themselves.The trio’s experience runs deep. After helping lead Carnegie Mellon’s efforts in Darpa’s Grand Challenges, Urmson became a founding member of Google’s self-driving team, which he ran until 2016. Anderson worked on the tech at MIT before bringing his talents to bear on Tesla’s Autopilot system. Bagnell, another CMU alum, is a machine learning expert who helped build Uber’s autonomy effort.

What risks are we willing to accept for a world of self-driving cars?

September 4, 2018

Burns later agreed to sponsor a team from Carnegie Mellon as it embarked on the biggest challenge yet: piloting an autonomous vehicle through an urban environment. This is not exactly the realm of “The Right Stuff.” Here we have slow-moving cars bumbling through parking lots and patiently navigating four-way intersections. But you can sense the excitement in Burns, an engineer at heart, as the team works through the night in unheated trailers in Pittsburgh winters on what would eventually be the winning entry: a modified Chevy Tahoe, named Boss, that successfully completed the 60-mile course.

For Burns, this was more than a proof of concept, it was a nascent revolution, the sort of mobility disruption he hoped to see: He longed not only to take the internal combustion engine out of the vehicle but to remove the driver.

Kan visits Pittsburgh to talk infrastructure, transportation policy

September 4, 2018

Derek Kan, the under secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, visited Pittsburgh Friday to consider technology, policy and infrastructure in a city that paved the way for autonomous vehicles.

Kan participated in two roundtable discussions and toured the local offices of Uber Technologies Inc. and Argo AI. He said the conversations with officials from some of Pittsburgh’s autonomous vehicle companies, as well as universities, focused on how to regulate autonomous vehicles.

He also emphasized that the need to continue developing those policies is imminent.

“It’s not when self-driving cars are 100 percent of the cars on the road or when it’s zero percent,” Kan said. “It’s going to be when it’s 5 percent of the cars on the road, and we are starting to see that.”

Byton Teams Up With Aurora To Test Autonomous Cars In America

August 31, 2018

While at Pebble Beach, Byton founder Daniel Kirchert told Tech Crunch that the company will complete 100 pre-production prototypes of the M-Byte at its factory in Nanjing by the end of 2018. Ten of them will be shipped to America, where they will be fitted with Level 4 self-driving technology developed by Aurora. The first M-Byte vehicles will be Level 2 capable — equivalent to the current Tesla Autopilot system. But with Aurora’s input, Level 3 and later Level 4 functionality is planned.

Aurora was founded by several autonomous vehicle superstars. Sterling Anderson was in charge of the Autopilot team at Tesla as well as chief program manager for the Tesla Model X. Chris Urmson headed the self-driving car program at Google from the early days when attempting to win the DARPA competition until Google became Alphabet and the autonomous program morphed into Waymo. Drew Bagnell is an associate professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, repository of some of the brightest robotics and autonomous car engineers in the world.

Another AI winter could usher in a dark period for artificial intelligence

August 31, 2018

Since its earliest days, AI has fallen prey to cycles of extreme hype—and subsequent collapse. While recent technological advances may finally put an end to this boom-and-bust pattern, cheekily termed an “AI winter,” some scientists remain convinced winter is coming again…

“If we were shooting for the early 2020s for us to be at the point where you could launch autonomous driving, you’d need to see every year, at the moment, more than a 60 percent reduction [in safety driver interventions] every year to get us down to 99.9999 percent safety,” said Andrew Moore, Carnegie Mellon University’s dean of computer science, on a recent episode of the Recode Decode podcast. “I don’t believe that things are progressing anywhere near that fast.” While some years we may reduce the need for humans by 20 percent, in other years, it’s in the single digits, potentially pushing the arrival date back by decades.


August 28, 2018

Raj Rajkumar, who researches autonomous driving at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks those assumptions concern one of Tesla’s key sensors. “The radars they use are apparently meant for detecting moving objects (as typically used in adaptive cruise control systems), and seem to be not very good in detecting stationary objects,” he says.

That’s not nearly as crazy as it may seem. Radar knows the speed of any object it sees, and is also simple, cheap, robust, and easy to build into a front bumper. But it also detects lots of things a car rolling down the highway needn’t worry about, like overhead highway signs, loose hubcaps, or speed limit signs. So engineers make a choice, telling the car to ignore these things and keep its eyes on the other cars on the road: They program the system to focus on the stuff that’s moving.

Former GM R&D Boss, Larry Burns Tells The Tale Of The Automated Car In New Book

August 27, 2018

While we know which teams ultimately succeeded, Burns and Shulgan fill in much of the back story of what happened over the next four years as this robotic driving technology evolved. If there is one downside to the tale, it’s the focus on the teams from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford with very little told of the other programs.

It’s not that there isn’t plenty to tell with these two teams. Many of the engineers and researchers that staffed those programs later went on to become the core of the Google Self-Driving Car project, known internally as Chauffeur before it eventually morphed into Waymo. That team included Sebastian Thrun, Mike Montemerlo, Chris Urmson, Bryan Salesky and of course the now infamous Anthony Levandowski among countless others.

Strange: Leaner, faster, stronger — Building a better community through Montgomery’s smart city efforts

August 27, 2018

Improving infrastructure is another big component of Open Data Montgomery and the broader Smart City push. Most recently, Montgomery partnered with RoadBotics, a civic technology startup, to collect even more data we will use to prioritize road repair and construction. Another partner, Rubicon, is piloting a project imbuing IoT sensibilities into our sanitation service through an app that tracks route times, collection data and any other issues needed to be addressed along the routes. The technology is especially helpful in anticipating residents’ needs. Every garbage truck is now a “mobile data center” and another set of eyes and ears for City Hall to discover issues facing neighborhoods throughout the community. Public Safety and MPD are also embracing technology; using it to fight crime and protect our residents. Several new techniques will roll out in coming weeks, while the MPD GIS Map offers a glimpse into daily crime and code enforcement.

Volkswagen reportedly tried to buy Aurora, Pittsburgh’s self-driving car startup

August 24, 2018

Volkswagen apparently wants to be more than just friends with Aurora Innovation, a self-driving car company testing autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh.

The German auto giant has already partnered with Aurora to develop self-driving technology, but according to Bloomberg, VW made a pass at buying the startup.

Bloomberg reported that Aurora, founded by a trio of self-driving superstars from Google, Telsa and Uber, turned down the offer…

Aurora was founded more than a year ago by Anderson, the former head of Tesla’s Autopilot program; Chris Urmson, who helped start Google’s self-driving car program, and Drew Bagnell, who led autonomy and perception at Uber’s Advanced Technology Group in Pittsburgh. Urmson and Bagnell have ties to Carnegie Mellon University. The company has offices in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Palo Alto, California.

Lyft and Aptiv have completed 5,000 paid trips in their self-driving taxis

August 23, 2018

Lyft and self-driving technology company Aptiv have been operating a small fleet of self-driving cars in Las Vegas since the Consumer Electronics Show last January. And today, the companies say they’ve reached a new milestone in their partnership: 5,000 paid rides.

Lyft and Aptiv claim to be operating the only commercial robot taxi service in the US, and perhaps the world. And while there are a number of ride-hailing pilots taking place around the country — Waymo in Phoenix, Cruise in San Francisco, Voyage in Florida — none are yet charging customers to ride in their self-driving cars. Waymo is expected to launch a commercial ride-hailing product in Arizona later this year.

Electric cars: the race to replace cobalt

August 22, 2018

Most carmakers are moving towards batteries that use more nickel and as much as 75 percent less cobalt. These products are expected to pick up market share over the next few years.

Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says cobalt can be reduced using liquid electrolyte chemistries. “Ionic Materials is one pathway to making low cobalt cathodes but a liquid electrolyte pathway is also something that many battery makers are working on and have feasible solutions,” he says.

Yet, even with a shift to lower cobalt batteries, demand for the metal is still expected to more than double by 2025, according to Wood Mackenzie. “Zero cobalt is hard, low is possible, [but] zero is very tricky at this point,” Mr. Viswanathan says.

Ivanka Trump tours Astrobotic, meets Girls of Steel robotics team during Pittsburgh visit

August 15, 2018

Presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump took in Pittsburgh’s robotics scene Tuesday.

The president’s daughter visited Astrobotic, a space delivery company in the Strip District, talked with the Girls of Steel robotics team and met with leaders from some of the city’s top tech companies, said Brian Kennedy, senior vice president for operations and government affairs at the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which helped organize the visit.

Kennedy said Trump talked about the need to educate students and train workers for jobs in the high-tech economy…

Edge Case Research, a company searching for bugs in self-driving car software, had its office in a former ice-making factory. Nearby, Carnegie Robotics sits on the site of the former Heppenstall Steel Company mill and RedZone Robotics, which sends robots into sewers, works out of the old Geoffrey Boehm Chocolates factory.

Many of the companies have spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.

Can electricity use predict a bad morning commute?

August 13, 2018

Why are some morning commutes so much worse than others?

New research shows that nighttime and early-morning energy use can be a good predictor of morning traffic congestion.

Sean Qian, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ph.D. student Pinchao Zhang created a model that mined data on electricity consumption from 322 homes in Austin, Texas, and used artificial intelligence to predict what traffic would look like the next morning.

The anonymous electricity data was collected by Pecan Street Inc., which had enrolled hundreds of homes in the Austin area in an advanced metering infrastructure, or smart meter, program that tracks energy consumption. Travel time data came from the National Performance Management Research Data Set.

Can dynamic pricing help ease Pittsburghers’ parking headaches?

August 13, 2018

Dynamic pricing was first tested in Pittsburgh in 2013, when Mark Fichman and Stephen Spear, both professors at Carnegie Mellon University’s [CMU] Tepper School of Business, designed a pilot program to see if dynamic pricing would make it easier to park near the university.

Using data they gathered, Fichman and Spear started submitting requests for rate adjustments to PPA every month to balance the supply and demand for parking on four streets adjacent to CMU.

“[If the] price is too low … the parking gets all filled up and basically you arrive there and you can’t park,” Fichman said. “If the price is too high, no one parks there. So finding the right price is kind of key.”

Steering the future in the right direction

August 13, 2018

As part of a commitment to be leaders in the future of transportation technology, five state agencies and seven academic institutions in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania formed a multi-state partnership…

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) also are founding members of the Smart Belt Coalition.

“We recognize that our customers do not see agency boundaries and that we must work with other agencies to prepare for connected and automated vehicles while delivering safety, mobility and customer value,” said Leslie Richards, PTC Chair and PennDOT Secretary of Transportation.

Pennsylvania has taken a leading role to lay the groundwork for highly automated vehicles (HAV). Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has been researching this technology for decades and has played a key role in attracting important HAV players to Pittsburgh. PennDOT began working with the university on this topic in 2013, and in 2016 formed an Autonomous Vehicle Task Force to develop guidance and proposed legislation to oversee HAV development in a safe and effective manner.

The next major innovation in batteries might be here

August 13, 2018

In its discharged state, the Pellion battery has its lithium ions sitting snugly inside the cathode. The magic happens when the battery is charged for the first time, and the lithium ions travel from the cathode and deposit as a layer of lithium metal on the copper anode. The first charge is carried out in a state when the battery is completely sealed from the outside environment, and thus the newly formed layer of lithium metal is protected. This configuration is called “zero-lithium” or “lithium-free.”

“It is quite an impressive feat,” says Venkat Viswanathan, a battery expert at Carnegie Mellon University.

How much do Uber’s ride-hailing services actually contribute to the Pittsburgh economy?

August 6, 2018

Lee Branstetter, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for the Future of Work, noted that ride-hailing in general makes it possible for residents and visitors to patronize places they may otherwise forgo.
Most businesses have the ability to accommodate more customers than they currently do with the resources they have, Mr. Branstetter noted.

“If Uber is allowing more people to go more places and spend
more money,” he said, “it’s allowing businesses to generate more output without having to actually purchase an equivalent amount of inputs.”

In other words, with the same setup, a business can make more money if more people are stopping in. That increases gross regional product.

City hopes $12 million in paving needs can be managed with high-tech solution

August 2, 2018

City leaders and citizens can look forward to a more accurate scope of the city’s $12 million in paving needs after a high-tech survey company wrapped up its work this weekend.

Montgomery announced last week that it had partnered with Pittsburgh-based Roadbotics to analyze some of the city’s worst roads to improve upon their binary system of road rating. The new analysis will rate about 200 miles of road. Officials hope the new technology will make picking roads for repair less subjective as budget talks draw near and the annual tussle over paving needs begins.

“We have been making a really big effort toward open data and smart cities initiatives and things that can help us with our operations, things that can inform us maybe a little better,” said Chris Conway, director of public works. The road survey will accompany a slate of other data portals on the city’s website.

EQT’s use of technology helps improve truck safety

August 2, 2018

Trucks hauling water and doing other duties for EQT Corp. and its contractors are expected to drive 24 million miles all told this year. Safety on the road is a top priority for the Pittsburgh-based natural gas driller, and over the past year, EQT (NYSE: EQT) has been rolling out more safety measures.

The initiatives are partly hardware, like incorporating an operations center for its water dispatch and scheduling as well as installing GPS and cameras on its water trucks. But they’re also using the power of big data — and the help of Carnegie Mellon University professors — to gather data from its operations and analyze it to find trends and figure out ways to improve safety and cost-effectiveness.