Over the past 15 years New Jersey native and automotive software pioneer Paul Perrone has made Crozet his home. He shops at the local grocery, his kids attend Western Albemarle schools, he sips coffee at Mudhouse and he’s stoked about the recent addition of the Crozet Bicycle Shop. Now, in hopes of spearheading the community’s longstanding effort to transform the downtown area into a hub of thriving commerce and local-roots business, Perrone has committed to move his own company, Perrone Robotics, Inc., to the Barnes Lumber site.
The relocation makes PRI the first major business to, in the words of developer Frank Stoner, a senior partner at Milestone Partners, the development firm behind the project, “buy into the Master Plan’s long-term vision for downtown Crozet.”
While the company will initially erect a temporary, 5,000-square-foot modular structure on the site, once the Crozet Square project moves into Phase 1—that is, when construction starts on the community plaza and the restaurants, businesses, apartments and offices that will surround it—PRI will build a permanent office and testing facility that, according to the company’s current projections, may be home to as many as 120 employees by 2022.
But what, specifically, does PRI do? “Simply put, we design the software that allows cars to drive themselves,” said corporate operating officer Greg Scharer.
With ambitions to become “the Microsoft of autonomous cars,” the company employs a workforce of highly educated software and development engineers, and competes with Silicon Valley firms (think, Google) for talent. According to Perrone, he chose Crozet because his company ethos is one of family values and long-term commitment. “Crozet is a beautiful place and a great spot to raise a family,” said Scharer, himself a born-and-bred, 45-year Crozet resident. “We want the people who come to work for us to buy into the company and stick around for a long time. We want them to love where they live and we think that when you consider the slated development of downtown, the proximity to the mountains and the proximity to Charlottesville, Crozet is the perfect place to make that happen.”
Founded in Leesburg in 2001, PRI was the result of Perrone’s lifelong passion for robotics and computers, which began when he was a small child growing up across the bay from Atlantic City. It was the early 80s, the dawning of the age of personal computers, and science-fiction films featuring artificial intelligence and robotics were all the rage.
“I recall making sketches of robots and even robot cars as a kid,” said Perrone. “The robot car was driverless and had a swimming pool on the roof, and inside there were vending machines, a bed and video games…. TV shows with robotic cars like Knight Rider and, of course, the movie Love Bug fascinated and inspired me.”
As if struck by fate, when Perrone spotted a computer screen illuminating a Christmas-time display in a storefront window in his hometown, he had to have one. “The moment I laid eyes on that device I knew I wanted to work with computers,” he said. “Soon thereafter I was able convince my parents to get me an 8-bit Commodore 64… I saw getting this computer as my vehicle for starting to tinker for real; I wanted to make smart machines.”
The bug stuck. Soon enough, it was 1992 and Perrone was attending Rutgers University where, as an engineering student, he dove headfirst into researching brain-emulating artificial neural networks. By the time he entered graduate school at the University of Virginia, the interest led to research designing safety-critical software for automated machines and, specifically, the automatic control of trains. The research led to a commercial gig developing software platforms. “A software platform is software that’s used to build other software,” explained Perrone. “It’s like a foundation and a set of tools that lets you build a house more rapidly. Only, with a software platform, it lets you build other software applications more rapidly.”
A breakthrough came in 2001. “I set out to fuse the prevailing concepts I’d been working on—namely, my love of robotics and artificial intelligence, and my developed expertise in safety-critical system design and software platforms,” said Perrone. The attempt resulted in the creation of a software platform for robotics that Perrone dubbed MAX.
The acronym stands for “Mobile Autonomous X,” with x being a variable allowing developers to plug in whatever sort of robot they want—i.e. a car, airplane, pool-cleaner, or whatever. “It’s basically a software platform that lets you create whatever sort of robot application you want quickly and robustly,” said Perrone. “I didn’t see anything like it at the time, so I ran with the idea and created Perrone Robotics around it.
“It allows robotics developers to avoid having to rebuild things they would otherwise have to create themselves over and over again across and sometimes within organizations when building applications,” said Perrone. “It also allows hardware independence, which means we can integrate different sensors, controls, algorithms, computer platforms and what not…. This is not unlike an operating system like Windows or Android that provides services and abstractions for computers and smartphones respectively. We like to say MAX is to robots as Windows is to computers or Android is to smartphones.”
For the first few years PRI amounted to little more than its namesake tinkering around in his basement workshop building small-scale home-robots meant to showcase MAX. “The robots ran around the house, annoyed my cat, and just did basic request and deliver operations,” chuckled Perrone.
That’s how things looked until, in late-2004, a friend hipped Perrone to a Pentagon-sponsored competition—the DARPA Grand Challenge. “They were offering a $2 million dollar prize for someone who could build a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle capable of traveling from L.A. to Las Vegas across the Mojave Desert in 10 hours or less with no one onboard and no one in remote-control. The vehicle had to be 100 percent autonomous and robotic,” said Perrone. “So I looked at my home-robot named Beaker and thought, well, if I can make the jump from this scrappy little thing to one of the world’s first self-driving cars, then I’ll know MAX has the right stuff and that I was truly onto something.”
Seized by inspiration, Perrone and his wife bought a chunk of land just outside of Crozet and returned to the Charlottesville area. Building what he describes as a “silver, egg-shaped dune buggy,” the designer enlisted the help of some friends and began automatizing and subsequently testing “Tommy,” PRI’s first fully-automated vehicle. In the end, three-hundred teams from all around the world applied to enter the contest and, of those, only 40 vehicles—including Tommy—were selected to compete. While Tommy didn’t win, what happened was pretty astonishing. Within the span of 10 months Perrone wrote all the software for Tommy as well as the software extension for automated cars—MAX-UGV, or Unmanned Ground Vehicle—that would lay the foundation for PRI’s future.
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In the 11 years post that first DARPA Grand Challenge, PRI has expanded from a basement-based operation to a company of 15 highly sought-after employees that, in the last year alone, attracted more than 150 visitors from Silicon Valley and beyond. Last fall, PRI partnered with tech-giant Intel to scale-up marketing and development of its MAX platform with intentions of making the technology available to the world marketplace; they’ve received numerous patents, including, most recently, the General Purpose Robotics Operating System; and are working with an undisclosed “major insurance agency” to develop crash-testing and avoidance technologies—an endeavor which, in October, spawned a subsidiary company.
Perrone describes the offshoot as a happy accident. “We’d been working to build hardware that would facilitate our testing of automated vehicles,” said Perrone. “This included a kit that lets you convert an automobile of any size into a self-navigating vehicle within 30 minutes or less by dropping in equipment to turn the steering wheel and control the brake and throttle. Additionally, we’d designed a platform that’s about 4 to 5 inches tall, 12 feet long, and 5 feet wide that drives around 55 mph, on top of which you can place a foam or balloon car. The platform has ramps and a hardened shell so that, if you collide with it, you drive right over it.”
Powered by MAX, the kit and self-driving platform are used to safely test PRI’s automated vehicle software’s collision avoidance capabilities. And while according to Perrone both systems have sophisticated fully autonomous capabilities, as the hardware portion of the effort was beyond the scope of PRI’s business goals, they “spun off a subsidiary, Perrone Automotive Robotics Test Systems, to encapsulate that work and its physical assets, which focuses on automated vehicle testing using MAX and the hardware equipment mentioned.” The systems have proved invaluable to private insurance companies and government agencies alike.
While the PARTS spinoff is exciting, Perrone prefers to focus on the implications of his company’s partnership with Intel Corporation. The result of an undisclosed investment made by Intel Capital—Intel Corps.’ global investment organization—PRI received a portion of $38 million in capital split between 12 tech companies described by Intel’s senior vice president, Wendell Brooks, as being run by “visionary entrepreneurs developing breakthrough technologies to transform lives and industries.”
“We’ve entered into an agreement under which we’re collaborating with Intel regarding certain technical, marketing and sales activities in the autonomous vehicle [marketplace],” said Perrone. “After witnessing how rapidly and effectively we can integrate MAX for the automation of vehicles, Intel agreed to help us commercialize our software so that we can put it in the hands of others to use. It’s a big deal for us because we’ve been able to use MAX to do amazing things, and now the world will be able to use MAX to do the same—we’ll see massive scale from this.”
As might be expected, the investment has caused a major strategic shift within the company. Prior to the partnership, PRI mainly concentrated on building customized software for individual customers—a time-intensive process which could take as long as 3 years from sale to completion. Now they’re preparing a small armada of cars intended to show major industry players and automotive producers what MAX can do.
“We’ve gone from a company that focused on great, custom engineered robotics that serviced maybe one or two customers at a time, to creating software that, with the right partnerships, will serve a global audience,” said Scharer.
With Google testing fleets of autonomous cars and Budweiser making the world’s first automated beer shipment in late-November of 2016, PRI’s future looks very bright indeed. “Moving into the future, you’re going to see more and more autonomy in cars,” said Scharer. “By 2025, we think a majority of the cars will probably be autonomous, and by 2030 or 2035, the preponderance will be autonomous… and we intend to have a major share in that action.”
Both Scharer and Perrone’s confidence in the growth capacity of the autonomous industry derives from safety considerations. “There are between 33,000 to 40,000 traffic fatalities a year in the United States alone, with around 747 crashes occurring every week that kill everyone involved,” said Scharer. “Once automated cars become the dominant mode of transportation, we predict that rate will be reduced by almost 75 percent immediately. As the system becomes standardized, total fatalities will go down by another two orders of magnitude.”
This is good news for Crozet. With projections that his company will double in size for each of the next five years, Perrone envisions a downtown where his employees shop, socialize and convene with family and friends. “These are great high-paying jobs for extremely talented and well-educated people we’re talking about,” said Scharer. “So there’s definitely a correlation between the downtown development and the attractiveness of our company. We believe in the Crozet Square vision, and we believe that its development is going to be integral to enabling us to attract the great world-class talent we need moving forward… We’re invested in Crozet and intend to be here for a long, long time.”
For more information, visit PerroneRobotics.com.