Six months ago, online education startup Udacity set out to train a new legion of self-driving car engineers.
The school for robo-cars has been so successful that it’s now spinning out of Udacity into its own company, Voyage.
The self-driving car company will join a crowded market filled with heavyweights such as Google, Tesla, and Uber. Voyage will focus on creating a fleet of self-driving taxis using retrofitted mass-production automobiles rather than building and selling its own autonomous car.
And it’s doing more than just creating a car that can drive itself — Voyage wants passengers to control the whole experience.
The new spin-out will be lead by Oliver Cameron, a Udacity VP that was spearheading a lot of its self-driving car curriculum. The company broke the news to its employees Wednesday morning.
Udacity will have a stake in the newly-formed company as part of the deal, said the Udacity’s CMO Shernaz Daver. Voyage also recently closed a seed round of funding that included Khosla Ventures, Initialized Capital, and Charles River Ventures.
Voyage has been hot in Silicon Valley investor circles because of one big name linked to Udacity: Sebastian Thrun. Thrun, who founded the education startup, is also nicknamed the “Godfather of self-driving cars” for the work he did at Google and helped launch the self-driving car nanodegree program at Udacity.
Thrun, though, says he’ll have no connection with Voyage even though it’s spinning out of his company. “Because of personal conflicts, I have excused myself from any involvement in Voyage. I wish Oliver and his team all the best,” Thrun said in a statement to Business Insider.
The autonomous taxi startup wants to bring about the end goal where autonomous cars can carry people anywhere for a very low cost, Cameron said. It already has permission to deploy its self-driving cars to ferry passengers in a few places over the next few months, but Cameron declined to specify where.
“We want to deploy these not within five years, but very soon. We think in terms of weeks, not in terms of years or months,” he told Business Insider in an interview.
The new kids on the block
Cameron and most of Voyage’s team had been at Udacity working on its open-sourced self-driving car project.
This fall, Udacity’s open-sourced self-driving car hit a big milestone for the company. The car drove itself 31 miles up El Camino Real, a busy thoroughfare in the Bay Area, through 140 stoplights, a myriad of crosswalks, and crazy pedestrians during the hour-and-a-half drive.
It was one of the best days of his career, Cameron said, and he realised he also wanted to be building a business out of it.
Despite being a spin-out, Voyage will not be using any of the technology that Udacity’s students have built, said Udacity’s CMO Daver.
Instead, it’s retrofitting other vehicles, purchasing the necessary sensors, and building software so they can drive themselves. But beyond just the self-driving tech, Voyage will be concentrating on building out the whole experience of being in an autonomous taxi.
“When you step into a Voyage car, you don’t just say ‘Hey, safety driver,'” Camerson said. “All you do is say ‘Begin Voyage.’ We’re building the experience to assume you’re the driver.”
While there has to be a safety driver in the autonomous taxis for now, Voyage wants the passengers to use voice controls to do everything from changing the music to instruct the car to begin and stop its journey.
Creating a startup designed to ferry people from point-to-point sounds exactly what Uber is trying to accomplish, down to retrofitting other vehicles rather than building its own from scratch. Cameron doesn’t want to address Uber specifically, but he’s aware that there are plenty of big-name, well-funded incumbents in the space.
Cameron thinks Voyage’s approach of building a product, the whole Voyage experience, and not just the technology will be able to separate it from the rest. And there’s no guarantee Uber has a lock on the field.
In the US, only 30% of adults have used a ride-hailing app like Uber, according to a recent survey from Statista. That means Uber hasn’t won the market by default yet, and Cameron thinks that Voyage could just be one of many options for people to get around easily and at a low cost in the future.
“What we believe in is that an autonomous taxi can be cheap,” Camerson said.