How the Covid-19 crisis became a defining moment of opportunity for us

When the news of lockdown in Wuhan started coming in around January 2020, we had not realised the full impact of what the Covid-19 pandemic would mean for the world. We were faced with the reality of massive dislocations in investor sentiment and customer demand, sending huge ripples throughout the automotive industry and especially self-driving cars.

I must confess, the reality as it has panned out seems to have left a more significant trail of damage than I had suspected back then. As a small start-up that had spent nearly three years building, testing and demonstrating a full software stack for highly automated highway driving systems targeted at the automotive industry, we had to make some hard decisions very quickly; should we stay the course and hope that things will normalise in a V-shaped recovery as many of the economists had been forecasting at the time, or should we change course and rethink our fundamental product and market strategy based on a re-imagination of what a post pandemic future might look like.

Such a decision is anything but simple with the stakes so high - it boiled down to whether we will survive and thrive or go down fighting. We took a top down approach of analysing what the future outlook holds for the real economy in terms of end customer demand for the automotive sector, what factors will affect it in the short and medium to long term, what other factors will interplay in creating higher levels of uncertainty and complexity and how long this will likely last before signs of normalcy start to emerge.

Our conclusion was rather stark, Covid-19 will permanently change the world (we expect still greater market dislocations on the horizon through end of 2020 to 2021) but, the role of robotics, wireless communication, cloud services and machine intelligence capabilities built on the bedrock of our core self-driving technologies would play an increasingly important role in the coming months and years. What was once a niche, deep tech, R&D type area will become the battleground for commercialisation opportunities to provide new types of end user utilities that may not have been obvious until now.

This insight became the foundation for the development of Challau, our robot powered virtual tourism platform that allows anyone from anywhere to connect to a robot to experience distant places through a two-way real time audio-video and kinetic connection. Challau is a Hindi and Urdu language instructional action verb that means; drive, operate, initiate, and such like. It is used in a wide variety of contexts but always signifies motion. We chose it as the name of our service as it implies an invitation to anyone, anywhere in the world to “Challau” a robot. We see a massive opportunity to deliver a new end-customer utility of remote tourism through shared, real-time, online experiences based on (borrowing from quantum physics), ‘robotic-action-at-a-distance’. We see a clear need for such a technological service, that has emerged due to the confluence of demand destruction in air travel and hospitality, compounded by sporadic quarantines with strict social distancing requirements at public places. We expect to deliver remote real time travel experiences to a global customer base that historically couldn’t financially afford such excursions, and to those who could afford it before Covid-19, but now simply cannot due to health risks.

Our service and technology design thinking had to expand beyond the obvious. Our robots had to be highly intelligent with full autonomous capabilities yet allow the end user to exercise agency in deciding where a robot goes. Our deep expertise in self-driving technologies cut across operational design domains; starting with off-road pedestrianised environments to urban driving all the way to fully automated highway driving. This gives Challau a unique advantage of a large and well-tested portfolio of underlying machine intelligence capabilities.

For example, our perception technologies that integrate robust computer vision systems with AI-based neural networks have been tested on over 10,000 miles of driving. Our proprietary high definition mapping technologies provide a level of accuracy that opens up applications for Augmented Reality (AR) layered in large scale outdoor environments (not the table top variety of AR and without the need for headsets or glasses).

Challau’s well tested and deep machine intelligence edge-technologies make it a safe experience for others around the robot and at the same time open up the possibilities for enhancing the end-user experience through an enrichment layer augmenting the real scene. Finally, we believe we have a one-of-a-kind matching up of outdoor intelligent autonomous robotics and cloud service platform infrastructure, to allow anyone from anywhere to not only be able to “Challau” a robot and interact with others around it, but for thousands of concurrent users to enjoy a robot’s live remote experience.

We are getting ready for our partner site trials in the coming weeks to emerge as the phoenix of a two-sided robot powered tourism market place from the ashes of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are launching Challau in Beta mode soon! Keep a lookout at https://propelmee.com