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.

Bibhrajit Halder
Bibhrajit Halder

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.

Caterpillar CAT

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.

Why mining?

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.”

top40 mining companies

(Source: PwC)

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.

safeAI turnkey

Key building blocks of SafeAI solution (Source: SafeAI)

Challenges for autonomous vehicles

Halder was the guy that Ford Motor Company picked to open its first Silicon Valley office in January 2015, to lead the development of software for Advanced Driver Assist Technologies. After an 11-month stint at Ford, Halder put in eight months at Faraday Future, leading its self-driving software development. Then he switched to Apple where he was senior architect for autonomous vehicle development.

Halder refrained from talking about specifics on the Apple project, but noted, “A lot of people say a lot of things about Apple, but Apple will do just fine.” After he left Apple in September 2017 and established SafeAI, Halder found big customers for the autonomy segment, other than GM or Ford, rather limited. That’s when SafeAI got a contract from one of the world’s top 5 mining companies.

SafeAI’s responsibility is to retrofit a $5 million mining truck with autonomy features. “Over the next 12 months, we will prove that our autonomous trucks operate absolutely safely and get the job done.”

Compared to passenger vehicles that must drive on highways and surface roads among vulnerable pedestrians and unpredictable human drivers, autonomous mining trucks operate in a constrained environment. “That makes our job at SafeAI much easier,” said Halder. But he made it clear that the company is not using outdated or limited AV software. Its AV technology software can handle a four-way stop or a small child running after a ball, even though children tend not to show up in mines.

SafeAI safety strategy

SafeAI's safety strategy (Source: SafeAI)

Can you scale?

Asked where the challenges of the autonomous mining trucks lie, Halder said, “Ten percent of our job is about AV algorithm, 50 percent of the task is about production of autonomous trucks. The rest is about figuring out how to scale up.”

The mining industry thus far has produced 500 autonomous mining trucks in total, estimated Halder. To scale the business up from 500 to 50,000 trucks, a huge gap must be bridged. Today, the mining company is spending $500,000 to equip a $5 million truck with AV tech, explained Halder. That technology cost might not seem huge for a $5 million truck, but to scale the business, it still must come down.

Whether an automotive OEM is developing a robotaxi or a mining company needs an automated loader, Halder believes that being able to share the advancements of AV technology while reusing common AV hardware and software is pivotal.

In an opinion piece this year, Halder observed, “AV companies are largely developing their cars as a package deal, which requires extraordinary expertise and investment in vehicle technologies, software and cloud-based systems.” But in his opinion, “This strategy could ultimately take a toll on innovation and competition by limiting the possibility of interchangeable components that could drive down costs and bring AVs to market faster.”

If you are Waymo, you might be able to sustain a vertically integrated approach, developing all of the tech stack either in house or within proprietary partnerships.

Halder, however, argued, “This means that an AV's components will be tied to just one company's ecosystem, even though it's unlikely any one company will dominate the field across vehicle, software and cloud.”

In developing a passenger AV, undoubtedly there is room for further development in the AV software stack. But what could substantially delay the commercial launch of the AV isn’t just technology but cost. The AV industry’s reluctance to share components will sustain the prohibitive cost of automated vehicles for fleet owners and end users, Halder predicted.

Asked where he envisions himself to be in the AV industry 10 years from now, “I will be happy to stay in the mining industry.”