Ex-Uber engineer drove coast-to-coast in a Prius without touching the wheel

Uber fired researcher Anthony Levandowski during its lengthy, high-profile legal battle with Waymo over stolen intellectual property. The engineer has little interest in getting his job at the ridesharing giant back. Instead, he founded a new company named Pronto that specializes in self-driving technology, and he claims to have taken one of its autonomous prototypes across the country with no human intervention.

Levandowski explained he started Pronto to build the best self-driving stack in the world. To achieve this ambitious goal, he enlisted some of the best minds in the business, including old colleagues and young talent fresh out of school. His approach focuses on software. “After all, the best and safest drivers don’t necessarily have the best eyes. They have the best brains and the most experience,” he wrote in a lengthy Medium post.

Making a car drive itself on a sunny day is easier than sending it out on its own in the pouring rain. Levandowski’s team aims to develop technology that can navigate even complex situations like low-light conditions, heavy rain, snow, and construction zones. And, interestingly, Pronto is tackling the challenging parts of self-driving before turning its attention to simpler, more straightforward conditions. Levandowski said this approach has already paid off.

In October 2018, Pronto fitted its technology to a Toyota Prius and sent it on a 3,099-mile trip from San Francisco to New York City without the slightest human intervention. That’s an impressive feat, and Pronto doesn’t downplay its significance, but it realistically points out the technology that powered it is a level-two system at best. It’s on par with Tesla’s Autopilot technology in terms of capacity, and it doesn’t work without a human driver permanently keeping an eye on the road ahead. Levandowski sees it as a solid foundation on which to build a true autonomous level-four system.

Until that happens, Pronto needs to make money. It has bundled some of the features it fitted to its Prius prototype into a suite of driving aids named Copilot that was developed specifically for class-eight trucks, a classification which encompasses a majority of the semi trucks meandering across America on a daily basis. Copilot is a highway safety system that reduces lane departures, collisions, and driver fatigue, according to Pronto’s website. It doesn’t replace the driver, however.

“It will be the first stand-alone real product for a real market that the self-driving industry has delivered,” Pronto promised. The company will release additional details about Copilot in early 2019.

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