How Minnesota’s Own VSI Labs Is Steering The Autonomous Vehicle Movement

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Did you know Minnesota is home to a niche company working with the likes of Uber, General Motors, Toyota, and Hyundai on self-driving cars?

 

Founder & Principal Phil Magney talks about the genesis, role, and the future of a global movement:

What is the high level overview of Vision Systems Intelligence, also known as VSI Labs?

We examine the building blocks for autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies. We’re essentially a research and advisory company focused on automated/self driving technologies, artificial intelligence and similarly enabling technologies.

When, how and why did you start VSI?

I’ve been into IT my entire life and automotive since 2000, and since all automotive technologies since then. I was a senior director for 14 years with IHS focused on telematics, infotainment, interior electronics.

Ready to do something else, about three years ago I took my experience, network, and interests to start VSI to conduct research in the weeds on the enabling technologies of active safety systems and automated driving technologies.

Who are some of your customers?

Uber was our first customer, actually. We continue to engage with them and it has now expanded to General Motors, Toyota, Hyundai — among other brand names. We largely provide value to R&D departments there and we also work with tier 1 suppliers, automotive OEMs, semiconductor companies.  We’re not trying to build a better car or algorithm, but to provide customers with resources.

Locally we’re working with 3M on their machine readable sign project.

What type of resources?

I can’t speak to any one specific customer relationship, but in general we do contract research, data, testing, IP discovery like finding new and emerging technologies on behalf of customers.  Technology road maps around things like sensors, processing, controls, artificial intelligence, etc.

Also applied hands on with enabling technologies, for example, Texas Instrument’s millimeter wave radar or Nvidia Drive PX2 — their state of the art car computer.

Different use cases for different customers but generally under planning, R&D, and engineering.

 

Are you the sole owner of VSI?

Primary and my right hand man who is also a partner is Danny Kim who has worked with me off and on over the years.

How many employees do you have?

We have about nine now, starting to hit our stride as we get our name out there more especially in the automotive sector.

What kind of tech skills do your employees have?

Python, C++, Simulink, computer vision, artificial intelligence

What do you think about the near term future of autonomous vehicles?

I think companies like Uber, Lyft, Tesla, etc. are in a great position to apply self-driving cars. Say what you want about Uber’s management issues, their demand is incredibly high and they are still quite active in the space.

Google and Apple will definitely be there in one form or another, somewhere in the stack, with big chunks of IP. The vehicles will continue to be manufactured by traditional automakers, one way or another coaches will be there.

Overall, I’m pretty bullish.  I think the end game is level 4 or 5 automation, pure driver less.

Do you think that Tesla is the closest to achieving that based on their plan for the Model 3?

Level 4 is structured driverless mobility that that is geofenced, contained within a restricted area for example and level 5 is like door to door.  Tesla so far is for the most part is around level 2, basically staying in the lane. GM just introduced their version, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, etc — they all have this in their own name.  With that said, Tesla is dominating the incremental space, and I see them as a proxy for future vehicle architecture.  I suppose I would say that Tesla is on the right path and ahead of everyone else. I think this is because they got a ton of people using it early and were able to start logging data to make it improve.

What about the big rigs/commercial fleets?

There are two or three companies out there that really specialize in this…Volvo and Daimler are in it. I think they will platoon their approach, not like all of a sudden the roads are going to be full of driverless trucks…there will be an operator in every vehicle for quite some time even if it is tethered.

Who else in Minnesota do you know in the space?

Not based here, but with an office still here is Honeywell, which makes inertia measurement, among other components.  Polaris is making automated systems for various applications.  3m, which I mentioned earlier. Banner Engineering, Facet in Eden Prairie makes a Lidar scanner. They’re out there, just not mainstream.

What will be the most interesting developments in the space over the coming year?

The most tangible thing for people as we inch towards critical mass is that automation will start making cars and driving safer. That’s the big thing.

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