Curious about the genesis of automated vehicle development? Wonder why the AV industry plunged into that wild hype cycle? Need to figure out where the actual AV market is today? For answers to all such questions, Bibhrajit Halder, co-founder and CEO at SafeAI (Milpitas, Calif.) is your guy.
Halder has lived it. His career trajectory is a microcosm of the bumpy ride of AV history. And he’s still living it.
Halder got hooked on autonomy in 2004 when, still a PhD student at Vanderbilt University, he encountered the first DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge. His pursuit of AV technology got him jobs at practically every notable firm on the AV hit parade — first at Caterpillar, then Ford Motors, followed by Faraday Future and Apple.
Last year, he took a deep breath and founded SafeAI. The startup retrofits mining trucks with autonomy hardware and software to turn them into self-driving vehicles.
Caterpiller's Cat autonomous truck stages for loading (Photo: Caterpillar)
The mining industry might not necessarily strike you as the sexiest market segment for AVs.
But as Halder told us, the heavy equipment industry — mining and construction — is a hotbed of AV technology, where autonomous features have been in “commercial use” for ten years.
If an AV software developer who writes good code wants to see it running in “real vehicles” [instead of test vehicles] and is excited to take his technology to production, “Come and work for us,” Halder said.
When Halder wanted to pursue his AV dream after graduation, only two choices were available: either go into the defense industry or mining.
The first big job he landed was with Caterpillar.
As a senior engineer, he designed autonomous mining vehicles. Over his seven years there, Caterpillar’s AV output went from zero to 40 trucks. Komatsu also built a similar number, Halder estimated.
It’s important to note that mining is a big industry.
According to a 2019 mining report, the mining industry generates $700 billion in revenue per year. The report said, “The Top 40 [in the mining industry] continued to see steady growth in revenue and profitability… Capital expenditure showed an increase for the first time in five years, albeit still below 2008 pre-boom levels.”
Agricultural is another huge market that relies on enormous industrial machines that are also getting automated for the same reasons. It's not a coincidence autonomous vehicles for agriculture involves some of the same companies, including Caterpillar and Komatsu, along with other industry stalwarts such as John Deere.
Adding “autonomy” to mining trucks, loaders and excavators is neither a luxury nor a hobby for mining companies. It is a matter of survival. Their competitiveness lies in the ability to substantially increase safety and boost efficiency. Autonomous technology means unmanned vehicles that work 24/7 and drive inside areas that are “environmentally so unsafe,” Halder noted. PwC report concurred: “Technology is becoming a critical differentiator for the world’s leading miners. Automation and digitization continue to gain momentum, as companies are focused on harnessing technology to reduce the cost of maintenance and extraction.”
At SafeAI, Halder explained, “We essentially take mining companies’ dumb trucks and turn them into autonomous vehicles by adding hardware (a variety of sensors) and software (the brain of the AV),” explained Halder. “We are a retrofitter.” He noted that his business model is to license the software and make money from recurring revenue from mining companies.
SafeAI now has “one of the world’s top five mining companies on its back,” said Halder. SafeAI last month secured a $5 million investment led by Autotech Ventures, including participation from Brick & Mortar Ventures, Embark Ventures and existing investor Monta Vista Capital.
The autonomous mining equipment market is dominated by Caterpillar and Komatsu. If any mining company needs autonomy trucks, they have to go to a market locked down by these two giants. “SafeAI can go in and tell them to use us,” said Halder.
Both Caterpillar and Komatsu not only want to sell their equipment but also want to mine the mining companies’ data. If a mining company wants to control its own data, it needs its own equipment. Halder said, “Data is not ours. Data should belong to mining companies.” Another reason to hire SafeAI.
Key building blocks of SafeAI solution (Source: SafeAI)