For the last two years, Professor Amnon Shashua has been driving between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem largely without touching the steering wheel of his car.
“It’s illegal, don’t tell anyone,” says Shashua, a computer vision and machine learning expert at Hebrew Univerity and co-founder of the Israeli company MobilEye.
“If I enter a traffic jam, I go to sleep or read,” he adds. MobileEye has developed a computer chip that alerts drivers to pedestrians and unintended lane departures and can even apply the brakes on your behalf if it detects a hazard.
The technology relies on complex computer algorithms and a little camera on the rear view mirror that watches the road ahead analysing the terrain, other cars, road markings and signs and which works day or night.
The so-called active safety system is already in cars like the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Honda Civic Tourer as a standard feature and MobilEye will sell six million of its chips this year.
Last year, as Israeli forces undertook a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks, Shashua was at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate MobilEye’s public listing. Shashua and his co-founders sold a chunk of the company for US$890 million, a record for an Israeli company and valuing MobilEye at nearly US$8 billion.
Now MobileEye is what they call in Israel a “unicorn” – a company that resists outright acquisition in favour of staying independent and raising money to go global.
Much of that staggering share market valuation prices in the really intriguing future potential of MobilEye – to have us all reclining in our seats while our cars do the driving.
When it comes to driverless cars, Google gets all the headlines, with its fleet of autonomous vehicles roaming the highways of California and Nevada, largely without incident.
But MobileEye, with technology already in over three million vehicles and a long track record in car safety systems, may get there first. Initially, it will involve a system that will do the driving for you on motorways, like a super-intelligent version of cruise control.
But the ultimate goal of both Google and MobilEye is to do away with the steering wheel entirely and let the car make all the driving decisions on your behalf.
“Take my word for it, its not science fiction, its just around the corner,” says Shashua who expects the technology to be commercial released by 2020. Hands-free driving on motorways could come as soon as 2017.
He sees driverless cars transforming transportation.
“You could send your car away while you are at work. Ownership of cars could change. You can think of Uber-type cars driving around 24- 7.”
But an overhaul of traffic and car safety regulations will need to happen all over the world to make the driverless car revolution happen.
Safer than humans
While extensive testing by Google, MobilEye and others has shown the technology to drive more safely than humans, there are a myriad range of what-if scenarios pre-occupying lawmakers and insurers.
But Shashua is fairly relaxed about the regulatory issues.
“Consider airbags, they save millions of lives, but they also kill people, a few deaths a year,” he says.
“The industry learned to live with it because the technology has an infinitesimal chance of killing you. In the US there are 35,000 deaths a year in road accidents. We are talking about reducing this to ten. Not 10,000, but ten.”
Regulation is already proving a blessing for Shashua. By 2018, the type of active safety features he has built his business on will become mandatory features of new cars sold in most developed countries.
Driverless cars will no doubt arrive on the market priced at a premium but Shashua believes the increased safety and the convenience factor will see the market develop quickly. Indeed the Boston Consulting Group predicts the autonomous driving technology market will be worth US$42 billion in 2025.
Which gives us about a decade to get used to the idea of catching some extra shuteye on the daily commute to work.
Peter Griffin visited Israeli tech start-ups as a guest of the Government of Israel.