The future is iffy for autonomous trucking startup Pronto.ai following criminal charges against co-founder Anthony Levandowski for alleged theft of trade secrets from Google.
But the 18-month-old company, which plans to sell a retrofit package of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), was in question before Levandowski’s surrender on federal charges on Tuesday, August 27.
“Any company working with Pronto had to be aware of trustworthiness issues,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst with Navigant Research.
The Pronto.ai camera- and software-based Copilot system offers fully adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and proactive lane centering. But it isn’t unique, Abuelsmaid told FreightWaves.
“Most trucking companies interested in this technology are either developing it themselves or purchasing it from one of several suppliers that offer it,” he said.
Daimler Trucks North America offers its Detroit Assurance 5.0 system on the 2020 Freightliner Cascadia. Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems sells its Wingman Fusion system to original equipment makers (OEMs) including Volvo Trucks North America, Navistar International Inc., Peterbilt Motors Co. and Kenworth Truck Co.
“Retrofitting is probably not going to be the dominant way to implement this technology,” said Michael Ramsey, senior director in Gartner’s CIO Research Group.
Abuelsamid said the Pronto.ai system is based on open-source software used by
Comma.ai, which sells a retrofit kit for cars that allows automatic steering, acceleration and braking within its lane.
Pronto.ai is the latest startup from Levandowski, who worked on the original Google driverless car project. Google spun off those efforts into Waymo. Levandowski left Google to start his own company in 2016. He joined ride-hailing service Uber later the same year.
Levandowski is charged with 33 federal counts of theft and attempted theft for allegedly downloading more than 14,000 Google documents onto a personal computer in 2016 and using them to form Ottomoto, which he later sold to Uber for $600 million.
Google sued Uber for theft of trade secrets in 2017 and settled four days into a federal civil trial in 2018 for $235 million. Levandowski was not named in the suit, but the judge in the case referred Levandowski to the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Northern District of California for investigation, resulting in an August 15 indictment unsealed Tuesday.
“Obviously, it’s not a good thing for Pronto, indicated by the move to replace him as CEO,” Ramsey told FreightWaves. “Even if prosecutors can’t convict him, the charges hang around him.”
Levandowski is believed to be the biggest investor in Pronto.ai, according to Axios.com.
Pronto said it stands behind Levandowski, 39, and his family. But it also said the LiDAR-based data Levandowski is accused of stealing was not used at Pronto. LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging, a system which works like radar, but uses light from a laser.
Robbie Miller, formerly chief safety officer at Pronto.ai was named CEO, replacing Levandowski. Miller, who joined Uber with Levandowski, sent a “whistleblower” email to Uber executives in 2018 warning about the safety of its autonomous cars. Five days later, a pedestrian was killed by an Uber self-driving test vehicle in the Phoenix, Arizona area.
Pronto.ai said it still plans to begin shipping the $5,000 Copilot system later this year to unnamed fleet customers.
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