In the early 2000s, competitions like the AUVSI Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition and the DARPA Urban Challenge incentivized engineers, designers and researchers to take on the challenge of creating autonomous systems.
Competing and placing in both of those competitions were teams from Virginia Tech University -- including a group that earned a million-dollar grant and placed third in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Born out of those trials and triumphs was Torc Robotics, which stationed itself close by the Hokies campus in Blacksburg. For over ten years now, Torc has designed innovative solutions for a wide variety of commercial projects ranging from autonomous military vehicles to robots that make mining safer and more efficient.
Now, Torc is returning to the realm of self-driving cars for consumers, the same field in which it made waves in that 2007 challenge.
This month, Torc Robotics announced that it was developing a self-driving car system for consumer automobiles. All of the technology has been developed internally, including the essential localization, tracking and object detection systems that seemingly every automaker has been racing to build, as well as mapping and navigation systems built by Torc.
The company is not building the cars themselves. Instead it is creating technology that could, theoretically, live inside any make of vehicle. Although it's possible that Torc could find an exclusive OEM for its products, the company seems more interested in its current business model of catering to a wide number of clients.
"Our role is more of an enabler," CEO Michael Fleming told TechCrunch. "We work with OEMs, tier 1s and tier 2s in the automotive space, taking our 10 years of experience and working with these organizations, outlining their road map moving forward. This is fairly new technology to a lot of the players in the automotive space, but this is something we've been doing every day for the last 10 years."
Given Torc's years of experience with automated vehicles, it should come as no surprise that its car technology is already far along despite just recently announcing it. Two Lexus RXs equipped with Torc's system have been on public roads since February, with one of them successfully making a 1,000-mile drive from Blacksburg to Detroit.
With the company's origins rooted in self-driving cars, it's curious to see that it is now leveraging its technology to enter that market in earnest. So what took so long? According to Fleming, Torc was just waiting for everyone else to catch up.
"What we've found is that some other markets that were early adopters to this technology, and there wasn't a great deal of interest in the automotive industry coming out of the DARPA Challenge," he told TechCrunch.
It's clear that Torc has long had its eye on the self-driving consumer car space, and that the company was strategic and calculating in choosing when to jump into it. The fact that an AV pioneer like Torc is once again working with automobiles serves as further validation that this is an exciting time to be involved with self-driving cars.