Last month, Torc Robotics, a company developing autonomous trucks, decided to go with Amazon for its cloud computing needs. When I first saw the headline, I wasn’t sure why it would need cloud computing, but it turns out that it is generating a lot of data that needs to be sifted through by teams in Virginia, New Mexico, and Germany. To do all that, it needs a lot of computer resources, and Amazon’s cloud gives it that.
A Quick Funny Side-Story:
Another thing I wondered was whether “Torc” meant more than a clever way to spell “torque” different for marketing and a unique name. Decades ago a small town called Hot Springs had a lot of fans of the radio show “Truth or Consequences.” The host, Ralph Edwards, said if a town changed its name to match the name of his radio show, he’d air a special episode from the town. The town quickly changed its name, and he did the show. He also showed up once a year for a special parade for the next half century.
Today, people in the state often call the city “T or C” to shorten it up, but alas, Torc wasn’t named after the town. The company does, however, have a team in Albuquerque, about 120 miles up the road from the place.
Back to the story…
Why All The Data?
It turns out that running an experimental autonomous truck fleet requires handling a lot of data. The test fleet in New Mexico is already generating petabytes of data (a petabyte is a million gigabytes, or 1000 terabytes — that’s 2000 times more storage than my laptop). Torc’s software uses raw data from a variety of camera, lidar, and radar sensors mounted to the vehicles, and they are all collecting that data in high resolution to aid in better analysis back at the company’s offices. By training its software to use higher resolution data, Torc will be able to detect objects from further away.
“The race to develop self-driving vehicles generates massive volumes of data from many types of sensors. With AWS, Torc engineers have the speed, flexibility, and insights they need to design tests, run simulations at scale, and refine their experiments using a broad range of highly specialized compute instance types,” said Wendy Bauer, Director of Automotive Sales, AWS. “By pairing Torc’s industry-leading technology with AWS’s reliability, security, and deep expertise in autonomous vehicle development, Torc is positioned to remain a leader and introduce the benefits of self-driving trucks to society.”
Amazon cloud computing is about a lot more than just handling large volumes of data. It allows you to install software on virtual servers to actually process things. Many popular websites are hosted on it, as well as services like Netflix. Many people just use it as a computing resource, even when not meant for public consumption. Researchers, students, and others are all using it.
“Our software is tested in simulation using a combination of synthetic scenarios and replayed sensor data,” said Ben Hastings, Torc’s CTO. “These tests often stack up in ways that create significant peak demands for compute resources. With AWS, we get a solution that can dynamically scale to meet the needs of the engineering and virtual testing teams without having to acquire and maintain our own datacenters.”
Flexibility is the big advantage here. Just processing data from a small drone efficiently takes a $4000 computer, and it was only that cheap because I hand-built it. Being able to get extra resources for computing without spending that kind of money helps. Being able to rent extra for a few minutes helps more.
What’s The Company Doing?
Ultimately, the company’s goal isn’t to do “Full Self Driving” the way Tesla says it will. Instead, they’re aiming for SAE Level 4 autonomy. A Level 4 vehicle can operate without a driver like a Level 5 vehicle, but only under certain operating conditions.
Like many autonomous vehicle efforts, it got its start competing in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. After that, it worked on smaller projects, often for the military, to build up experience and its business instead of trying to gather together big money from investors. In 2019, it became part of the Daimler Trucking company, and focused on trucking instead of other types of autonomy.
“We believe this relationship between Torc and AWS brings together two very strong teams and is another milestone on our road to Level 4 trucks,” said Dr. Peter Vaughan Schmidt, Head of Daimler Trucks’ Autonomous Technology Group, which Torc is a part of. “Daimler Trucks’ goal is to enable safe deployment of self-driving trucks and shape the future of the trucking and logistics industry at large.”
Featured image provided by Torc