Johnson-Roberson and Vasudevan, who jointly direct the University of Michigan and Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles, cofounded Refraction AI, the latest self-driving outfit to announce plans to change the way people and their things move about the planet. While a juggernaut like Waymo can take on everything from robotaxis to trucking, this 11-person startup is focused on the local food-delivery market. “Trying everything would be a death sentence,” Johnson-Roberson says.
He has been making robots since 2003, when, as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, he worked on the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a seminal event in the self-driving space. Sixteen years on, with self-driving vehicles still struggling to enter commercial service, he’s eager to see robots have a real role in the world, beyond the Roomba that vacuums his house. “It feels like a bummer that we don’t have anything,” he says.
So Refraction, which came out of stealth mode last week, will avoid the hard parts of driving by acting not like a car, but like a bicycle.