Torc Robotics unveils self-driving system for consumer cars

Another new entrant has joined the field of those offering self-driving tech to consumer carmakers — but this one likely has a bit more experience than most. Virginia-based Torc Robotics has been working on autonomous vehicle tech since 2007, when it finished third in the DARPA Urban Challenge, and it has applied autonomy in a range of commercial, industrial and military applications.

Now Torc is setting its sights on the consumer car market, with a self-driving car project based on its decade of experience, with more than 1,000 miles logged of autonomous driving in recent tests using two modified Lexus RX vehicles. These have been active on roads since February 2017, driving in “all weather” conditions according to Torc, and equipped with Torc’s in-house localization, mapping, navigation and object detection/tracking systems.

One of Torc’s test vehicles performed a demonstration long-distance drive, making the 1,000 mile round trip from their Virginia HQ to Ford’s Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit — a symbolic debut voyage to the heart of U.S. car country and the birthplace of the original Model T.

Why now for the automotive push? Torc CEO Michael Fleming told me that the time is finally right, both in terms of the state of available technology, but also in terms of the appetite for autonomous products from consumer automakers — which weren’t always as eager to develop and invest in self-driving.

“What we’ve found is that were some other markets that were early adopters to this technology, and there wasn’t a great deal of interest in the automotive industry coming out of the DARPA Challenge,” explained Fleming. “Google is really the early adopter of this technology, with some key folks from the Carnegie Mellon and Stanford teams from 10 years ago, and they’ve done some great marketing, and they’ve been on the forefront of this technology in the automotive space.”

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Fleming clearly gives Google a lot of credit in terms of its role popularizing autonomous driving and making it a more familiar, comfortable subject for public discussion. But I wondered if Google’s own efforts to build a comprehensive self-driving system (now under Alphabet’s Waymo) might not inhibit Torc’s ability to operate in the same market.

“Our role is more of an enabler,” Fleming said. “We work with OEMs, tier 1s and tier 2s in the automotive space, taking our 10 years of experience and working with these organizations, outlining their road map moving forward. This is fairly new technology to a lot of the players in the automotive space, but this is something we’ve been doing every day for the last 10 years, and we’ve tried just about every combination of technology, so we knows what works and what doesn’t work.”

Torc can act as a sort of “guide” helping players new to the space navigate the hype that is omnipresent in autonomous driving tech, Fleming says. But in addition to roadmapping, Torc also aims to integrate its own platforms with those of clients and partners bringing commercially viable self-driving tech to market. In other words, it sees itself as one of a number of partners working together, which fits with the current model being embraced by most automotive OEs.

Fleming says we can expect to hear more from Torc on the autonomous car front in the coming months, including updates regarding its technology and partners. It’s early days yet for its consumer automotive business, but it does possess a rare thing in the burgeoning market: experience.