The automotive world is on the verge of a potentially epic business disruption. Autonomous vehicles, for some, remain science fiction, but as artificial intelligence, internet of things, and virtual reality become, well, reality, the distant future becomes not so distant. The future of self-driving vehicles is being developed here in Pasadena. GM-Cruise Automation recently acquired Pasadena-based Strobe, Inc., a company poised to catapult autonomous vehicles into a 21st century reality by commercializing LIDAR technology. Dr. Lute Maleki, Quantum Physicist and Senior Distinguished Engineer at GM-Cruise Automation, sat down with the Future Yourself Here Team to discuss the critical technology component needed to make autonomous vehicles a reality, a real page-turner and book recommendation for your summer reading list, and why Pasadena is a city uniquely suited for high tech companies.
What is the GM-Cruise Automation story?
A few years ago, it was clear to automakers that the future of transportation was in autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles represent a new paradigm for the movement of people and things, could result in fewer accidents (once you take away the potential for human error), and potentially reduce traffic and congestion if there are fewer cars on the road.
One automaker in particular, General Motors (GM), flew under the radar, so to speak, in developing self-driving car technology. GM has quietly pursued a number of initiatives that underscores its interest in unconventional transportation and so, in 2016, it acquired San Francisco-based Cruise Automation with the intent of integrating its technology into the assembly and manufacturing process.
The future of autonomous vehicles, however, depends on a critical piece of technology that just so happens to be the core focus of Strobe, a Pasadena-based company operating in the Hastings commercial area of the City. In early 2019, it was announced that GM-Cruise had acquired Strobe in order to incorporate LIDAR (a.k.a. “Laser radar”) into the first wave of autonomous vehicles.
LIDAR is a sensor technology that creates high-definition images for vehicles, which allows the operating system to create a three-dimensional map of a vehicle’s operating environment. This means it can not only visualize roads, but also driving conditions. Unfortunately, commercially available LIDAR is bulky and very expensive. The engineers at Strobe, however, have been able to develop LIDAR in a much smaller package than what was previously seen on the market and at a much lower cost.
What GM-Cruise Automation accomplishments are you most proud of?
We are taking brand new technology straight from a lab demo to a product that gets put on cars in a period of time of under 18 months. Typically, this process takes a long time, but we have a talented team working hard and smart. This is an entirely unique situation because we are the only company working directly with an automaker, which in my opinion makes the process all the more efficient. We are at the forefront of this technology and I am so proud of my team for what we have accomplished thus far.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced in building your company?
Thus far, our biggest hurdle was finding space large enough to house our clean room facilities. We recently signed a lease on a much larger space in Pasadena. This will give us the opportunity to expand our offices and grow from 32 to 50 employees. We anticipate that our brand new clean room and laboratory will be open by this summer and it will make a big difference in our progress.
What was the last book you read?
Strange Angel by George Pendle. It’s a historical novel that depicts the incredible history of how JPL started starting with the ripped from the headlines story about a rocket scientist who was killed in an explosion in his home along Orange Grove Avenue, once dubbed “Millionaire’s Row.” It’s historical, biographical, and covers a whole bunch of history pertaining to Pasadena. It’s a must read.
What makes Pasadena an attractive place to do business?
Pasadena is a city nonpareil. It is home to a world-class university, with other world class and top-tier universities a stone's throw away making it conducive to recruiting talent for high tech. With JPL nearby, we also have access to talent and expertise in technical areas of mutual interest. Pasadena, in that respect, is extremely unique. When you add Art Center College of Design and Pasadena City College to the mix, you really have the whole package here.