Three West Coast startups recently announced their partnership with Mcity, a 32-acre site on North Campus created to test and improve technology for autonomous vehicles. The companies — PolySync, Zendrive and Civil Maps — will work on technologies including augmented reality, 3-D mapping and smartphone sensors.
The partnerships are part of an effort launched last February by the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center and the Center for Entrepreneurship TechLab. TechLab encourages collaboration among UM faculty, students and startups to improve autonomous vehicle technology.
MTC Deputy Director Carrie Morton, who helps to identify companies that could benefit from utilizing Mcity, said there was high demand from companies interested in joining TechLab.
“We have had a lot of interest in TechLab,” Morton said. “The team and I work (to) find startups that are emerging with positive disruptive technology that could benefit from Mcity.”
Zendrive — a company that utilizes smartphone sensors to understand driving behavior — was the first to announce its plans to work with TechLab. Zendrive supervised four UM undergraduate students last year and hosted two of those interns, at a summer internship at TechLab.
Morton said she hopes students will have a similarly positive and rewarding experience interning for Civil Maps and PolySync.
“They have been thrilled with the progress the students have made in regards to solving technology challenges the company faces,” Morton said of Zendrive. “The students have really relished the experience of working in a startup environment.”
Engineering senior Ziqi Guo and Engineering junior Mohan Kothari, the two summer interns with Zendrive, said they acquired valuable skills while assisting the company in developing and improving their technology.
Kothari said he became involved with Zendrive because of his interest in the technology of autonomous vehicles and desire to work at a startup, ultimately working on a main project to enhance machine learning algorithms to analyze the behavior of drivers in regard to hard braking.
“I learned a ton, everything from scaling a company to acquiring customers, building strategic relationships and signal processing, just to name a few,” Kothari said. “I definitely hope to work with TechLab for a long time to come.”
Guo said his main task over the summer was developing a media detector and data set to evaluate whether a driver makes a hard turn or not, adding that he was considering working for Zendrive in the future.
“After graduation, it is very possible that I will join Zendrive,” he said. “I am really passionate about their mission, which is to make the roads safer through an infrastructure that is already developed, which is the smartphone.”
One of the new startups coming to TechLab is Civil Maps, a 3-D mapping company utilizing localization technology, artificial intelligence and augmented reality to improve the safety and efficiency of self-driving cars. Richard Hurlock, Civil Maps vice president of business strategy and development, said the environment of Mcity — and the infamous cold winters of Michigan — will be conducive to the improvement of the mapping technology.
“We believe that for truly autonomous vehicles to provide a safe and comfortable ride, they have to work everywhere, under every possible combination of conditions,” Hurlock said. “Testing at the Mcity facility under those extreme conditions will inform our efforts to further strengthen the capabilities and performance of our technologies.”
Morton said one unique aspect of TechLab is the involvement of a large network including insurance companies and infrastructure providers.
“We create a real world laboratory where we can learn about legal implications, private security challenges and all other societal impacts,” she said. “We can learn about the potential impact of the technology on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption.”
Hurlock said Civil Maps is looking forward to the opportunity of working with the two other West Coast startups.
“We look forward to learning more about Zendrive and PolySync through the program,” he said. “If their products complement our crowdsourced, dynamic 3-D mapping technology, we’ll certainly explore options for working together.”
The third startup, PolySync, developed an operating system that allows software code writers to enable vehicles to perform more functions independently. Like Zendrive and Civil Maps, PolySync is enthusiastic about receiving input from UM students. Peter Brink, PolySync’s director of engineering, said while the students benefit from TechLab, the company also benefits from receiving the outside perspective of students who often offer valuable insights, potentially leading to innovation.
“We get students who know how to do software and systems engineering,” Brink said. “Students get a practical or empirical background in terms of what constitutes everyday engineering as opposed to what you might get out of just an academic context.”
As Mcity and TechLab move forward, Morton said there are still some major hurdles to overcome before autonomous vehicles can hit the roads and the work of PolySync, Zendrive and Civil Maps can be implemented.
“Some of the largest obstacles are the cost of the sensors that are on our current vehicles,” Morton said. “Also understanding the validation of the technology so we know that our cars are safe enough. We need to be critical to putting them on the roadway.”