Ro Gupta, co-founder and CEO, CarmeraHis startup is creating a "street-intelligence platform" for self-driving vehicles
For a human driver, Google maps may be good enough to find one’s way around. But for a self-driving car, officially known as an autonomous vehicle (AV), a lot more information is needed to safely navigate a complicated place like New York City. Brooklyn-based startup Carmera aims to solve that problem with its “street-intelligence platform,” a high-definition mapping service for AVs of the not-so-distant future.
Robo-cars are always asking themselves three basic questions, Carmera CEO and co-founder Ro Gupta told us in our podcast. One is, “Where am I, exactly?” Another, essentially, is “What am I seeing?” which the AV figures out by redundantly cross-checking its sensors. The third is, “Where do I go next?,” the planning function, Gupta explained.
Carmera not only provides HD maps to help answer those questions, but continuously updates the data to account for changing conditions. After a couple of years in stealth mode, Carmera publicly launched last year with $6.4 million in funding from investors who included Brooklynites Bre Pettis, co-founder of MakerBot, and Notation Capital.
Why did Carmera decide set up shop in New York City? “One of the things that’s hardest about what we do is keeping the maps up to date,” said Gupta, “but the other thing that’s really hard about high-definition maps is doing them in dense urban areas as opposed to highways. Highways are much easier to map for autonomous vehicles. But there is so much granularity and chaos in cities. There’s also urban-canyon effects with GPS that cause your maps to be inaccurate. We wanted to prove we could do this in one of the hardest areas in the country.”
A native of Kolkata, India, Gupta studied civil engineering at Princeton and earned his MBA at Northwestern. Among other roles in business before launching Carmera, Gupta was vice president of business development at Disqus, where he was on the forefront of building massive online-discussion communities. “That was part of what made me want to start a company in the data space. But my background in transportation came from my undergraduate days in Princeton back in the ’90s,” he says. “I was even working on autonomous transit back in 1998-99.”
“Another reason that subconsciously influenced me was being born in a developing country in India, and also having spent some time in other developing countries,” he says of his inspiration. “When you’re living in that environment you don’t take infrastructure for granted, especially roads.”
Carmera’s mission didn’t come into focus overnight, says Gupta. His first idea was simply a dashboard-mounted camera for cars, to be sold as a consumer product, but he moved past that idea. “The way we approached it was like, ‘Let’s get confidence that the model and problem we have is a big enough problem to pursue.’ So I did my homework, talked to people at Google and some of these driverless-car companies, often off the record. I also did my homework on how to keep these maps up-to-date. I had a few ideas of how I could do that, and started to talk to fleet drivers and managers and got confidence in that.”
Carmera now partners with fleets to gather information from sensors mounted on their vehicles. Along the way, Carmera discovered other prospective uses for its information. “The data we collect can be useful for nonautomotive industries like city planning, construction, architecture,” says Gupta.
The last big step in launching the company was building a team, which meant carefully acquiring talent in “some of the hardest-to-recruit disciplines like machine learning, computer vision, robotics, and geospatial engineering.” In some of those areas, New York City has talent second to none, he says. “New York is also really good because it’s almost like its own country in terms of GDP and population and things like that, so you can really test things out here and be pretty confident that, ‘Yeah, this is a big sample size,'” he says.
Part of the company’s Brooklyn attachment, though, is just personal for Gupta and his team (including co-founder Justin Day). “Honestly, a lot of it was because we live here. We have kids and personal lives here. We were both in New York tech for over a decade and our networks were here.”–By Kora Feder