A briefing session with Sandeep Ohri, the Vice President of Products and Strategic Partnerships at Phantom AI
Computer vision (CV) in automotive, predominantly contributes to the execution of advance driver assistance system and ability of the self-driving vehicles to see and analyze the scenario. It is the stage of perception in the ecosystem of vehicle autonomy. It is indubitable that the ADAS and autonomous vehicle industry offers a multi-billion-dollar market opportunity for computer vision players. Investments are burgeoning in the CV space; for instance, since 2020, the industry has recorded more than $5 billion of funding alone in the AI, deep learning, and computer vision segments. Also, the automakers and tier-1s are aggressively pursuing the strategy of collaboration or acquisitions of the AV stack providers.
One such renowned start-up in the AV software space ‘Phantom AI’ is focusing on providing full stack for ADAS and self-driving vehicles. It has raised $22 million in Series A funding round last year. This highly development-oriented company is focusing on bridging the gap between the state-of-the-art AI and standard automotive technologies with its computer vision, sensor fusion and control capabilities. Its solutions offer unparalleled flexibility, reliability, and scalability that perfectly fits the criterion of automakers and Tier-1s, on top ensuring high level safety across all levels of vehicle autonomy.
M14 Intelligence has recently got an opportunity to speak with Mr. Sandeep Ohri, Vice President of Product and Strategic Partnerships, Phantom AI. The discussion was aimed at understanding the Phantom AI’s journey, challenges that the company acknowledges, its short- and long-term goals, strategic developments, competition, and perspective on the changing market dynamics.
Here is an excerpt of the interview transcript.
Brief on Phantom AI’s journey since inception:
Sandeep: Phantom AI was established by two talented, ambitious, ADAS experts, Mr. Hyunggi Cho, the CEO and co-founder and Mr. Chan Kyu Lee, the CTO and co-founder.
Mr. Cho was one of the early founding members of Tesla’s autopilot division and Mr. Lee led the Driver Assistance System (DAS) at Hyundai Motor Company. Mr. Cho’s Computer vision expertise and Mr. Lee’s specialization in control systems has offered Phantom AI an incredible advantage to develop full stack for vehicle autonomy.
Phantom AI was officially established in early 2017, though both the founders ideated the formation in 2016. In early stage, the company raised seed funding of $5 million and started accelerating towards growth since then. The founding team has developed the complete software in-house, implemented and proven in our demo cars, conducted demos, Proof of Concept (PoC) with OEMs and tier-1 customers and last year we have raised $22 million in Series A funding round and now we are in the process of entering Series B round.
Short terms goals associated with recent funding round:
Sandeep: When you are in such a competitive industry space, the biggest requirement and priority is the acquisition of talent. Phantom AI seeks brilliant software programmers and critical algorithm developers. Getting such brilliant talent onboard is the priority goal that we are trying to achieve with our recent funding round.
Phantom AI’s mission and product roadmap:
Sandeep: We are at a mission to democratize the use of ADAS and at the same time accelerate towards tomorrow’s technology i.e., self-driving vehicles or SAE Level 4 and 5.
If looked closely at the vehicle autonomy market, it is certain that by 2030 there will be maximum penetration of ADAS, level 2 and Level 3 autonomy. Post 2030, the market will witness the rise of level 4 and level 5 vehicles.
“Phantom AI believes in a philosophy called incremental autonomy”.
Today, the real revenue streams into Level 1 and Level 3 and involves massive monetary opportunities; however, Level 4 and 5 is still a distant future as there is very negligible or no production, and hence no monetary gains.
Phantom AI’s short-term goal is tracking the Level 1 and Level 2 autonomy market and medium-term goals is Level 2+ and Level 3, where the real focus of company lies. We are aiming to bring the first Level 3 vehicle to the market. Our Long-term goal is level 4 and above.
It is essential to understand where exactly Phantom AI stands in this AV ecosystem. We are a tier-2 company and a pure software provider. So, our business works in two ways- first, we directly serve OEMs/ automakers and then the OEMs direct us to their tier-1 suppliers; second, we collaborate with tier-1s which then introduce us to their OEM customers. This offers our customers a great business flexibility. For example, in case of Mobileye, there is a need to choose one of their SoC’s based on the ADAS feature sets that the customer wish to have. In other terms, Phantom AI is Mobileye minus chip. There are multiple manufacturers such as Renesas, TI, and Nvidia developing chipsets for the industry.
We work across the levels of autonomy. About our roadmap, we already have the solution for Level 1 and Level 2, are working on Level 2+ and Level 3 and these various products are in various stages of developments for various customers. We are wide open to all application markets including the commercial and off-highway industry. In fact, in the recent past, we have worked on a Level 4 project with a renowned commercial vehicle company.
Recent collaborations and their impact:
Sandeep: In the mid last year i.e., 2020 we have announced our strategic partnership with Renesas to provide the full stack Level 1 and Level 2 solution on Renesas’ V3H chipset.
This collaboration is a win-win game for both the players- Phantom AI and Renesas.
For example, with this partnership, Renesas can provide not only the SoC but the software solution for required feature sets to its OEM customers. For us, we are benefited with the pre-knowledge of their product roadmaps helping us to upgrade our solution beforehand.
We also have similar collaborations with Texas Instruments (TI) and Nvidia. We are talking with other chip manufacturers and will announce the partnerships soon.
Let’s look at the market in two different ways- the low-cost market i.e., Level 1 and 2 and the premium or high-cost market. Level 1 and 2 is mostly the compliance-based market where NCAP, Euro NCAP, and others play a role in granting the vehicle certificates based on the safety and feature compliances. While the premium market is where the vehicle luxury brands are positioned, and customers willingly pay for the high-level autonomy feature set.
Our sources tell us than in India, AEB is going to be mandatory in couple of years, so Level 1 and Level 2 autonomy market in the country is highly opportunistic. Similar case is in China, which offers huge monetary opportunities in Level 1 and Level 2 segment of the market. But all of this is the low cost and highly price sensitive automotive market. The low-cost chipset providers capture the major share of this market.
Now, the premium or high-cost market involves premium automotive brands. Here the customers are ready to pay for higher autonomy levels like level 2+ / level 3. The chipsets that are used in this market segment are like Nvidia Xavier or Orin or similar high-grade chips which are sold at much higher cost.
Hence, the chipset providers have their own distinct impact on the market. Some providers are there to serve the ADAS market while others are into the premium side of the market.
Biggest challenge and Competition:
Sandeep: One big challenge that we see is the battleground i.e., competition. We are competing directly with Mobileye as we want to be an alternative to Mobileye.
Phantom AI have about 35 employees now, but we are growing and will be much bigger by the end of this year. Having said that, we are being considered quite seriously by the OEMs. For instance, in our series A round, ‘Ford’ was one of our strategic investors and that is a huge endorsement.
The challenge that we are on the path of overcoming is to attain the series production level. Level 1 and 2 we are ready today, level 2+ / 3 we are getting ready. Level 4 and above is our R&D work for smart cities, smart buses, and other market segments.
Talking of the competition besides Mobileye, multiple start-ups are out there who directly compete with us; however, the technology that we have, they do not have access to. Most of the Silicon Valley companies talk only about the deep learning and Phantom AI is not only working on the deep learning technology, but also geometry-based tracking. And this is our strength and USP, that none of these start-ups have. Though we do consider them competitors, but they do not have the advantage of what Phantom AI have.
Another most important differentiating factors for us is that we are an automotive grade ADAS provider. We have more than 90% of the employees who have deep understanding of automotive industry and have worked on automotive series productions for years. So, bringing the product to the market without automotive industry experience is almost impossible. We have an upper hand in this over our competition.