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Uber’s self-driving cars are returning to the road in Toronto — but just to collect data in manual mode

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Months after a self-driving Uber operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman in the U.S., the company is returning its test fleet to Toronto’s streets  — but with humans at the wheel.

Last March, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck and killed just outside Phoenix, Ariz. The death prompted intense scrutiny of the company’s technology and the safety precautions it had in place.

The California-based company, which says it has implemented new safety measures, in November convinced U.S. transportation officials that its cars are fit to return to the road in autonomous mode.

Uber, which took all its autonomous vehicles off public streets in North America after the death, plans to resume autonomous driving in Pittsburgh this week.

The company’s high-tech cars will also be back on the road in Toronto beginning today (Thursday), but vehicles operating in and around Canada’s biggest city will still only be driven manually — as they were before the crash — with one Uber staffer behind the wheel and another in the passenger seat at all times.

That’s because in Toronto, the focus is primarily on data collection and analysis that can be used to improve the safety and performance of Uber’s fleet of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles, rather than testing the self-driving capability itself.

Raquel Urtasun, chief scientist of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and head of the lab’s Toronto office, said that her team will spend time driving both city streets and highways. They’ll be testing new approaches to building the maps that most self-driving cars rely on to make sense of where they are in the world, and what they’re seeing.

Raquel Urtasun, chief scientist of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), expects to have 100 people working on self-driving car research in Toronto alone next year. (Anand Ramakrishnan/CBC)

Mapping, says Urtasun, is traditionally “a very expensive process and time-consuming process” involving frequent trips in a car dedicated to data collection, as well as lots of human labour to annotate important features like lane markers, crosswalks and stop signs.

Uber is trying to automate the creation of new maps by training AI to do the tedious work of annotation. Its self-driving vehicles already collect new mapping data while they move through the city — eliminating the need for a dedicated mapping car.

“This technology can allow us to build maps super fast and cheaply, which is one of the things that prevents everybody from going to scale,” Urtasun said.

Another effort focuses on teaching Uber’s self-driving vehicles to build new maps on the fly when encountering an area where maps aren’t available, or when the car has trouble figuring out where it is. All othis data could then be used to further train Uber’s self-driving software in simulations.

Uber ATG Toronto is currently housed within the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub that is home to numerous tech companies, but will move to a new location in the city in 2019. (Uber/Handout)

Uber announced in September that it would be expanding ATG in Toronto and opening a new engineering lab — its first in Canada. The company plans to spend $200 million on the Toronto hub over the next five years, which will eventually bring its head count in the city from 200 to about 500 employees.

Urtasun expects to have 100 people working on self-driving car research in Toronto alone next year in a new research and development office.

Trying to tackle safety concerns

As part of its bid to return to the road, Uber submitted its first voluntary safety report to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the beginning of November. It is only the sixth autonomous car company to do so, joining other major players like Waymo, Ford and GM. 

In its report, Uber pledged to have two people in each of its vehicles at all times, to ensure its vehicles’ automatic and emergency braking systems are always enabled as backup measures, and to make overall improvements to both its software and employee training.

The Informationreported last month that an Uber engineer raised concerns about inadequate staff training just days before March’s fatal crash, noting that routine accidents were “usually the result of poor behaviour of the operator or the AV technology.”

Companies like Uber typically tout the promise of self-driving cars as one day being safer than traditional human drivers, believing that fully autonomous vehicles will greatly reduce collisions and fatalities — which would also include those caused by Uber itself. The Fifth Estate recently investigated the company’s safety record in Canada, after a Toronto man died in an Uber crash in March.

In addition to its efforts in Toronto and Pittsburgh, Uber will resume manual driving in San Francisco this week.

Still, by some measures, Uber is playing catch-up to one of its chief competitors, Waymo. The Alphabet-owned company recently launched a self-driving taxi service for the public in the suburbs of Phoenix, after months of private testing with a small group.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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