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Rivian hires former Waymo exec for new autonomy, AI role • TechCrunch

Rivian has adopted former Waymo manager James Philbin will lead autonomy and AI at the automaker, a new role that signals the company’s interest in automated driving technology.

Philbin was director of software engineering at Waymo for two years. Before that, Philbin spent five years at Amazon’s self-driving subsidiary Zoox, where he led computer vision and perception.

“Looking at our future roadmap and the integral role of AI/ML, James’ arrival couldn’t have come at a more impactful time,” Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe wrote in a LinkedIn after.

Scaringe reiterated that point Wednesday while onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt. Scaringe said he expects Level 2 and Level 3 systems that can handle a lot of driving tasks and still have a human driver taking over if needed to get better over time and scale faster than the more hardware-heavy Level 4 systems designed to handle all driving under certain conditions.

“I think what we’ve seen happen with the hardware-heavy systems is that it takes a lot of capital and the roadmap is much longer than most expected,” Scaringe said.

Companies such as Aurora, Argo AI, Cruise, Waymo and Zoox have spent billions developing autonomous vehicles for rides and delivery, but have yet to be widely commercialized.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of consumer and commercial vehicles today have “hardware-limited” vehicles or vehicles with fewer sensors and lower autonomy.

“So there’s a great learning experience you get from the deployed fleet. And while there’s less hardware, the role AI and ML (machine learning) can play in training your camera, so your scheduling algorithms, is pretty powerful,” says Scaringe. “And so our vision as a company is basically a system with more hardware that can be applied to many vehicles in millions and millions of miles, a platform that will have the better long-term potential.”

Over time, Scaringe said Rivian will add new detection modalities to its vehicles. As chipmakers increase computing power, the automaker could expand to level 4 autonomy, he added.

Improving Rivian’s autonomous features isn’t just a move to attract customers looking for the next replacement for Tesla’s Autopilot. Scaringe said that Rivian’s insurance products actually encourage people to use Driver+, Rivian’s advanced driver assistance system.

“The reason for that is that it’s much better than the best human,” Scaringe said. “The vehicle is not going to check its phone for a text message, it will not be distracted by anything from the window. So the safety aspect of moving to these Level 2, Level 3 systems that deliberately drive to more and more time to be driven by the vehicle itself makes sense and is real.”

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