"If you're an OEM developing a new vehicle, and you want some of your engineers to be developing some of the advanced driving features, like automatic emergency braking, but you don't have a test vehicle, we provide those vehicles to OEMs," says Baldwin.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration granted funding to the University of Iowa for a study on autonomous driving in the rural U.S., and AutonomouStuff helped build the Ford Starlite Transit bus for the project. "We basically reverse-engineered the vehicle and made it so that an autonomous driving system -- in this case, Apollo -- could control the vehicle," says Baldwin.
“The focus is shifting to the commercial market,” he adds. "The future is production off-road autonomy. There are a lot of companies trying to solve production-grade autonomy for on-road, basically all the OEMS are and Tesla. Basically, you've got all these companies putting billions into it, so we're going to focus on other areas. One of the first ones is mining. Mining, for more than a decade, has been on the forefront of autonomous vehicles. And why is that? It's because they've got a lot of cost drivers. They've got labor shortages, safety issues, and they have to build mining towns in the middle of nowhere."
For example, AutonomouStuff is working to develop autonomous road trains with a mining customer in Australia.
AutonomouStuff continues to supply sensors, software, and other technology to several markets, including agriculture, as well as offering integration and engineering services. "Where they're building a machine and don't have the skills to do every autonomy piece of it, we can help them," says Baldwin.
Many products are manufactured by AutonomouStuff in Morton and Hexagon at other locations. "Where we need to manufacture stuff, we will, if we can't go find it," says Baldwin, highlighting PACMod kits as an in-house product.
The bulk of the R&D takes place in Morton, but AutonomouStuff teams with Hexagon staffers in Canada and Germany. That's a big help: Hexagon has roughly 24,000 employees worldwide, including more than 800 in the autonomy and positioning division.
AutonomouStuff itself has grown by about 50 percent since the acquisition, and now has 135 employees, primarily engineers.
Challenges: "The machines are getting more complicated, with safety and stuff like that, so it's not just a slam dunk to take someone's machine and make it autonomous," says Baldwin. "Sometimes, the OEMs aren't exactly the most cooperative when they find out we're trying to take their machines and make them autonomous. Some of them have embraced it, but a lot of them don't like you touching their machine."
Other customers sometimes are attempting too big a technological leap into autonomy. "If you haven't gone through the journey, it's probably going to end in tears," says Baldwin.
Opportunities: Off-road autonomy for mining, agriculture, and other markets. "As autonomous machines become more prevalent, they'll be accepted more," says Baldwin. "If you just look at on-road, that's one of the biggest things: Will people accept it?"
"That's where I think off-road has made more progress, because you can control the environment," he adds. "It's been proven at autonomous mine sites that productivity goes way up and safety goes way up."
Another big opportunity is offering solutions, "...that work across manufacturers, so you don't have to keep buying the same trucks over and over, you can get a deal from somebody else," says Baldwin. "That's where the OEM-agnostic drive-by-wire comes in. Our heritage has been reverse-engineering vehicles for some time, so using that knowledge we've got on passenger vehicles to do it on other machines is invaluable."
"You don't have to go buy Komatsu's truck or Cat's truck, you can go buy a Hitachi truck or a Liebherr truck, and we can make that work with our autonomy system. That's big."
Needs: "We need robotics engineers," says Baldwin. "Competition for talent is pretty fierce, so you've got to get the right person that wants to live where your business is."