Commentary

Pearl Automation, Self-Driving Tech Start-Up, Runs Out Of Power

The $50 million three former Apple engineers raised from venture capitalists to develop and market autonomous driving technology is now in the rear-view mirror. Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Pearl Automation shut down yesterday after a three-year run.

“The move comes just a year after the company unveiled its first product, a wireless rear-view camera, which began to ship last September,” write Kia Kokalitcheva and Dan Primack for Axios in breaking the story yesterday. 

Pearl’s solar-powered RearView system, which can be easily installed on older vehicles that lack the technology, gives drivers a 180-degree field of view, eliminating the “blind spot.” It also issues audio alerts when the rear bumper is close to hitting something.

“The RearVision was marketed as an easy-to-install backup camera system comprised of a license plate cover with two wide-angle cameras, an OBD II-based adapter that would receive the video signals from the cameras and relay them to the driver’s iPhone or Android device, and a corresponding iOS or Android app that provided a live video feed and audible and visual alerts,” reports Jim Tanous for The Mac Observer

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“Back into something, and you’ll learn the hard way how expensive it is to repair even minor damage. The average bumper collision repair costs over $3,000, plus the risk of an average insurance premium increase of 40%. Ouch,” reads Pearl’s pitch for the device on its homepage. 

But it retailed for $499.99. Ouch, too.

“The devices proved too expensive in a market with less elegant but cheaper alternatives,” writes Vindu Goel for the New York Times.

“We ran out of money,” Bryson Gardner, Pearl’s chief executive, tells Goel. “We were probably two years ahead of our time.”

But they were also a bit behind it. All new cars sold in the U.S. will be required to have rear-view technology by early 2018, Justin Hughes reports for The Drive. And, in the meantime, “Rear-view cameras are increasingly standard or at least optional on cars, and people with older vehicles may have simply decided to save their money for a new car or other expenses,” maintains Roger Fingas for Apple Insider.

“Mr. Gardner and his colleagues had hoped to build a company that adopted Apple’s keen passion for design without its secrecy and top-down management style. Pearl’s failure shows that a positive corporate culture is not enough to escape the laws of economics,” Goel concludes.

Gardner and his partners, Joseph Fisher and Brian Sander, worked on the iPod and iPhone at Apple and set out to make “the same transformative change in the auto industry by delivering advanced and adaptive driver assistance features to all 1.2 billion cars on the road,” the Pearl website claims.  

Many of its 80 employees were also from Apple, according to multiple reports.

Besides the high price — “you can pick up a wired camera for just $20,” points out Hughes in The Drive — there were also design issues.

“When we tried it firsthand, we found that the system was quite easy to install, configure, and use, but its physical implementation still needed some refinement. The cameras and solar panels built into the license plate frame covered the state, and the frame stuck out far enough to block illumination from above,” Hughes writes. “Either of these issues could get you a ticket.” 

“CEO Bryson Gardner told  Business Insider in September that the RearView was only the first in a planned set of tech accessories intended to augment traditional cars — but it looks like they will now never come to fruition,” Rob Price writes for that publication.

Bottom line: the path to the autonomous future may be a slippery, steep, dimly lit, S-curved ascent but anyone who thinks we’re not getting there is clutching the 21st-century equivalent of horse reins.

For one thing, as a Wall Street Journal piece wishfully titled “Can Auto Fatalities Go To Zero?” pointed out last week, “many say self-driving vehicles could drastically reduce — or even eliminate — the tens of thousands of traffic fatalities that occur annually in the U.S.”

“Self-driving vehicles are constantly monitoring the roads, and they’re never drunk or distracted,” Brandon Schoettle, a researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute tells the WSJ’s Adrienne Roberts.

That’s because they are looking forward and backward and sideward, all at the same time. 

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