Inside VW, Mobileye’s deal to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service in Israel

In the world of autonomous vehicles, the news comes in repetitive short bursts with formulaic precision: Company X is launching a robotaxi fleet/test program in city Y by [insert date]. These announcements are promptly forgotten until the first self-driving vehicles are spotted, an accident occurs or a new partner joins the test program. Rinse. repeat.

The recent announcement between VW Group, Intel’s computer vision subsidiary Mobileye and Champion Motors was treated no differently. The Volkswagen Group, Intel’s Mobileye and Champion Motors said they plan to deploy Israel’s first self-driving ride-hailing service in 2019 through a joint venture called New Mobility in Israel.There were elements of the announcement that were overblown, and others pieces that didn’t receive the attention they deserved. Here’s an effort to clarify what’s been misinterpreted and dig into the details that matter.

Nuts and bolts

The New Mobility robotaxi service will not be operating as a commercial business at scale in Israel next year. Sure, some coverage has interpreted it as such. But it’s not. Here’s what is happening.

The New Mobility in the Israel group’s proposal was formally accepted by the Israeli government during a private ceremony at the Smart Mobility Summit 2018 in Tel Aviv last Monday. The group will begin testing next year in Tel Aviv and roll out the service in phases until reaching full commercialization in 2022. (Intel and Mobileye began testing self-driving cars in Jerusalem in May 2018.)

VW and Mobileye didn’t — and wouldn’t, when pressed — disclose which city they plan to test in. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted during remarks at the Smart Mobility Summit gala dinner that the group would be testing in Tel Aviv.

The project will begin with dozens of self-driving vehicles — each one with safety drivers behind the wheel. An early rider program, which would give vetted members of the public access to the service, will likely launch in 2021, one unnamed source familiar with the deal told TechCrunch.

Each of the three companies in the joint venture is providing a piece of this self-driving vehicle business puzzle: Champion Motors will run the fleet operations and control center; VW is going to supply the electric vehicles; and Mobileye is handling the self-driving system. All three companies will add the mobility platform and services to be able to deploy a commercial service.

The Israeli government is also contributing, with plans to provide legal and regulatory support, share the required infrastructure and traffic data and provide access to infrastructure as needed.

What it means for Mobileye

Mobileye will provide its Level 4 AV kit, which was introduced in September at the CITI 2018 Global Technology Conference. This is the kit that provides the visual perception, sensor fusion, its REM mapping system, software algorithms and driving policy that will “drive” the cars. Importantly, this system’s driving policy, or the decision-making of the car, will be influenced by “Responsibility Sensitive Safety,” or RSS, a mathematical model introduced by the company in a white paper last year.

The RSS is an open, non-proprietary proposal for all AV companies and tries to formalize an interpretation of the law applied to self-driving cars. The authors, who include Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua, argue that the interpretation, if followed by everyone in the AV industry, would eliminate self-driving car accidents and should lead to a useful driving policy. In their view, a useful driving policy means an “agile driving policy rather than an overly defensive driving, which inevitably would confuse other human drivers and will block traffic and in turn limit the scalability of system deployment,” according to the paper.

The Tel Aviv self-driving service will be an important test piece for Mobileye’s AV kit product, which will include its EyeQ5 system-on-chip. The EyeQ5 has 10 times faster teleoperations per second than its EyeQ4 chip, which just launched this year with BMW, Nio and VW.

What it means for VW

VW’s electrification plans are in transition at the moment. The company still sells the e-Golf and the e-up! It’s working toward bringing a new generation of fully connected, all-electric vehicles to the market in 2020. VW is calling this I.D. series, which will have a new modular design for electric cars called MEB design.

Initially, this Tel Aviv program will use one of VW’s plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The company wouldn’t disclose the model. But the joint venture will likely use a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (or PHEV) that is currently available in Israel. The VW Passat GTE PHEV is one such vehicle.

As the program in Israel evolves, VW will have a ready testbed and customer for its new line of electric vehicles. However, the joint venture in Israel is just one small piece of VW’s overall autonomous vehicle and mobility plans. Let’s not forget that it has a partnership with self-driving startup Aurora. Volkswagen and Aurora have been working to integrate self-driving systems in custom-designed electric shuttles for VW’s new Moia brand. Volks­wagen is launching two kinds of test fleets that use Aurora’s tech, including one for ride-pooling using Moia shuttles.

A few takeaways

Ultimately, the launch in Tel Aviv will allow Mobileye to prove out its RSS, a hypothesis that other autonomous vehicle founders in the industry have privately questioned.

This self-driving taxi service has broad government support, which could accelerate the deployment of the program and push Israel ahead of other countries like the United States that has a lot of autonomous vehicle testing activity.

This new pact will undoubtedly fuel the AV-startup craze in Israel, too. Four or five years ago, there were about 60 autonomous vehicle-related startups. Now, there are at least 500, according to Netanyahu.