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Using artificial intelligence and computer vision, Netradyne aims to make driving a safer experience

RA Chandroo

It takes both passion and gumption to get off a winning horse and start afresh. And Avneesh Agrawal exhibited both in 2015, when he moved on from his role at Qualcomm as president (India and South Asia). His decision was largely influenced by three technology trends, which he believed were set to take off in a big way — computing power on the device side was increasing at a dramatic pace, bandwidth was coming in by the gigabyte and artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning were making a lot of progress.

“I realised that if these three trends were combined, you could create intelligent devices that work with cloud infrastructure and process information. I also felt I could progress much faster if I move out rather than stay in the confines of a big company,” says Agrawal. 

Agrawal’s vision was supported by David Julian, a colleague at Qualcomm whom he first met when they were pursuing their PhD at Stanford. From creating a platform for IoT devices to drones and autonomous driving, they explored it all. But they realised that autonomous driving would be a long-term bet and require billions of dollars of investment. That is when they had their ‘aha’ moment.

“There is a demand for good drivers and road safety is a huge issue globally. So instead of waiting for autonomous driving to solve the problem of road safety, which may take 15-20 years, we can use the same technology to teach drivers to drive safely. It is almost like I am putting an expert navigator next to every driver,” says Agrawal. With this idea, the duo founded Netradyne in 2015, which provides vision-based analytics through its device — Driveri — for fleet management, automotive, security and surveillance industries. 

Once they hit the right idea, the drive was fairly smooth for Netradyne. Today, the dual-headquartered company — at San Diego, California and Bengaluru, India — has 85 employees and works on a B2B model. It has about 20 clients which include insurance companies, cab aggregators and private fleet managers across the US and India. In 2016, the start-up raised $16 million from Reliance Industries’ subsidiary, Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings and is in talks with investors to raise a second round. Arup Roy, senior vice-president (research), Gartner, says, “Netradyne uses technology to monetise and incentivise right behaviour. This could be extrapolated to several other applications such as insurance and surveillance as well, in the future.” 

Powering up

The start-up’s name is a hat tip to its Indo-Western roots — ‘netra’ stands for the ‘eye’ or ‘vision’ and ‘dyne’ is ‘force’ in Greek — and translates to the power of vision. During the development stage, the founders’ background in technology augured well for them. “The tech part was cracked by us within six months,” recalls Agrawal, sitting in a meeting room called ‘Tesla’ in their office in Bengaluru. What took time was developing the hardware. 

“Designing from scratch is painful. It has to go through multiple iterations,” says Teja Gudena, pointing towards a palm-sized black-coloured device placed on the table. Gudena, who worked at Nokia for over 14 years, also had a brief stint with Micromax before joining Netradyne in 2016 as vice-president (engineering).

What made it challenging was the fact that the device had to last at least three to five years, that too in a very tough operating environment weathering vibrations and temperature variation. The focus was therefore on fine-tuning the device and making it robust through trials. The device, which uses, artificial intelligence algorithms in real-time was finally ready by June 2017. “It can detect all the critical traffic incidents for any vehicle. The platform is expandable for sensor fusion techniques to offer driver assistance, reliable in all weather conditions, thereby making it a unique platform for advanced driver assistance strategies of OEMs and fleet owners,” says Seshu Bhagavathula, chief technology officer, Ashok Leyland.

The device is mounted onto the windshield behind the rearview mirror and connected to the car battery for power. “It can see everything the driver is seeing and experience all the forces that the driver is experiencing,” says Agrawal. The device is equipped with GPS, bluetooth, LTE and an NVIDIA Jetson TX1 video analytics platform. It also houses four high-definition cameras that capture footage during the day and night and a teraflop processor capable of 1 trillion calculations per second. One camera watches the road, two cameras watch the sides and one watches the driver. From tailgating and lane detection to speed and time to collision, the device tracks, records and analyses a wide range of data. It also provides data-backed maps to relay heavy traffic congestion, dangerous intersections, and incidents of vehicle damage to enable fleet managers and drivers to plan their daily routes better. All this data is uploaded onto the cloud for easy viewing, and can be used for coaching purposes.  

The device also stores data of about 50 hours, which comes in handy in case there is no LTE connectivity. Besides storing and uploading the data for analysis by the fleet manager, the device alerts the drivers in real-time. “For instance, whenever the driver is driving too close to the vehicle ahead, skipping signals or starting to feel distracted, we can alert him to pay attention,” says Agrawal. The device also has a button for the drivers, which they can press if they face a safety issue and get aid from their fleet manager. Driveri’s RealTimeCoach alerts drivers with immediate audible notifications inside the vehicle, helping them proactively reduce risk while driving. “We have different beeps for alerting the driver. Some alerts require immediate attention of the driver. Those are harsh. Others are slow warnings. But the goal of our coaching is to reduce the number of beeps. As simple as that,” says Agrawal. 

Earlier, the information was collected and reviewed at a later date rather than taking corrective measures on a real-time basis. He adds that drivers have been responding positively to their innovation, because it is a question of life and death for them. “A lot of these accidents are basically about the split second that you were not looking and that is what we are trying to solve,” he adds. Netradyne’s MobileCoach app enables just that. Fleet managers can send selected video clips to drivers to review their driving and take immediate corrective measures instead of waiting for a fortnightly or monthly review. This works really well during long-haul rides where the driver is away for a longer duration.  

Smooth drive

Netradyne’s innovation helps fleet managers assign a driving score, identify errant drivers and coach them as well as set incentives to reward good drivers. This has been made possible through Netradyne’s ‘GreenZone Driver Score’. A sophisticated dashboard shows up on the screen as Agrawal explains the value-proposition of this technology for companies. The dashboard can be used by fleet managers to sift through the data uploaded by Driveri and take action accordingly. Similarly, insurance companies, too, can use this data to quantify risk accurately and set incentives for safer driving — such as lower premium. 

Netradyne’s focus is on the B2B market, as it is untapped. “This is where the economic cost of accidents is most easily perceived. Also, with ride-sharing taking off, the trend is more towards B2B instead of B2C,” observes Agrawal.

Though the US is currently the biggest market for Netradyne, it manufactures the device in India at a factory in Gurugram with a production capacity of 1,000 units per month. Agrawal refuses to share the cost of manufacturing and selling the device, but states that the investment should be looked at as a cell phone contract. “We provide the device and the service as well. We sign up people for three year contracts, and the devices are fully upgradable,” he says. To highlight the return on investment, Agrawal shares that globally, the total cost of road accidents annually is approaching a trillion dollars — with tangible and intangible costs, such as lost lives, productivity loss as well as setback for the brand. These losses could be avoided with Netradyne’s innovation, he believes. 

The founders also believe that there is tremendous growth opportunity in India. Agrawal has the statistics at his fingertips: there are 50,000 deaths every year due to traffic-related accidents in India, whereas in the US, it is 35,000. “Thus, while the concept of safety is new to India, the cost of safety is dawning on companies,” he says. The start-up is in talks with prominent automotive players in India to test their devices.

“The idea of utilising artificial intelligence to make driving safer has already taken off and is certainly going to become the rule than the norm in the coming years. Almost all the major global automotive stakeholders have already deployed or are planning to deploy AI-based technologies in their vehicles,” says Satendra Kumar, principal consultant, BIS Research.  

Speed breakers

In their ride to success, availability of broadband in developing nations could be a possible bump. But Agrawal opines that they have worked around this by ensuring the device continues to work offline. “The computer is on the device, the storage is on the device and it is giving direct feedback to the driver. Only the videos don’t get uploaded to the cloud,” he shares. The videos can be accessed offline and the real-time analytics function irrespective of availability of internet.

Kumar of BIS Research adds that AI-based driver assist systems massively depend on driving conditions such as proper lane markings, traffic signals and road signs. Unavailability of these infrastructure especially in tier 2 and tier 3 cities might create technological limitations towards the use of AI-based safety systems.

Also, while Agrawal claims to have a product superior than most competitors, they need to guard against technology obsoletion. Roy of Gartner cautions that ‘technology obsoletion’ is a big threat to companies operating in this space. “If their proposition is primarily based on their technology, then they are sure to perish sooner or later. There is always going to be a company that will pop up and be better than you. Application and business proposition needs to be the differentiator,” he says.

The team at Netradyne is cognisant of this fact. They are already looking at significant expansion of the application. The first is the surveillance market. “We already have capabilities to detect people. We could use it to do biometric recognition of driver and license plates.”The other area they are exploring is autonomous driving. “There is a lot of competition in the US. Here [in India] there is no one else,” says Agrawal. He quickly clarifies that autonomous is not the same as driverless. There are multiple levels of autonomous. It is only the extreme level, at four or five, that the driver is not present. Everything that is happening in the US right now is in level one to three, where the vehicle takes over in some situations. “Our vision is, can I take over if, say, the driver is not braking when necessary? We have developed the perception part of autonomous driving. Now we are looking at taking action.”The company’s automatic driver assistance system takes control of the car in certain circumstances, when it detects threat of accidents. 

To be sure, the start-up faces competition in the international market from players such as SmartDrive Systems, Lytx and LightMetrics but Agrawal, remains unfazed. He says competition still has some catching up to do. According to him, some of them are only looking at only how much the driver is braking. “But it is a flawed way of analysis for India. Here, you brake a lot!” he says, adding that without computer vision, it is like driving blindfolded. “People have started looking at other metrics such as tailgating, lane detection, speed detection and time to collision but no one has the level of accuracy and sophisticated technology that we can provide,” he states. 

They are also looking to expand operations to new markets including South-East Asia, Middle East and Europe. The algorithms can be tuned to suit the safety norms and traffic conditions of the respective country, and Agrawal is excited about consolidating business in the US and India as well as entering newer markets. It is evident that for Netradyne, the journey is more important than the destination.