Optima develops solutions to make sure that future self-driving cars don’t stop in the middle of the highway just because the hardware was not properly designed
Talk of self-driving cars has been one of the hottest advancements in the world of tech over the past few years. The idea of revolutionizing the way that people get from point A to B in comfort, and removing the human element from the driving experience is both exciting and a little bit scary for a lot of folks as they debate giving up control of the wheel.
One of the primary concerns is whether we can trust the hardware behind these vehicles, particularly as they zip around at high speeds, not to crash.
The issue of the hi-tech car brings to mind the old joke about General Motors’ supposed response to the tech industry when car manufacturers were being made fun of for not keeping up with technology, saying that companies like Microsoft could do it far better.
Among the issues that the car maker brought up with a vehicle built by the often buggy software company were problems like:
1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash twice a day.
2. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue.
3. You’d have to press the “Start” button to turn the engine off.
As for #3, this has already become a reality for the “key-less” car generation. Regarding the first two problems, they are far more realistic than many would otherwise suppose.
Cosmic rays and soft error solutions
One of the lesser known problems in the semiconductor industry is that of soft errors. This refers to interference caused by cosmic rays on chips that can result in malfunctions. The simple fix to these problems is simply to restart the machine, giving them a reboot.
While this can be all well and good for most kinds of devices, this is not an option for more mission critical types of devices like life support systems used in medical devices, spaceships, and in our case here, self-driving cars.
Up to this point, the solution has been to “harden” these more important chips to weather the cosmic elements. Unfortunately, this is a very expensive and time consuming process that can increase the size of a chip by 30 percent, making them less efficient for manufacturers.
In hopes of approaching this problem in the market from a smarter perspective, one startup in Israel’s northern city of Nazareth has developed a software solution capable of analyzing a chip’s schematics before it is even built, and testing the digital architecture of the semiconductors for specific weaknesses that need to be addressed with hardening with an itemized report.
Optima Digital Automation was founded in 2014 by CEO Jamil Mazzawi. Having worked in the field of semiconductors for almost 23 years, specializing in the verification sector, he was able to bring valuable insights to developing their solution for checking the stability of the chips.
Mazzawi tells Geektime that the idea to take on this problem came out of a call with a colleague from the industry who asked if he had an answer to the costly soft error issue.
“I started to learn more on this topic and was able to develop a solution,” he says. “This solution evolved into our existing software: CosmicASIC™, which solves the soft error chip reliability, specifically, the selective-flip-flop hardening part.”
The underlying technology behind CosmicASIC is what they have called FIE Technology™ (Fault Injection Engine). It performs a task called “fault-simulation” [the process that is done throughout the industry], but Mazzawi says that it performs the check between 20,000 to 100,000 times faster than competing solutions.
“The existing solutions, used now to check the reliability of a chip and get it certified is compute intensive,” he explains, adding that, “The computational task they do is measured in tens and hundreds of years. With our algorithms, we reduce a task of 136 years (on a specific example) into 2 days and 2 hours task. Hence, allowing them to finish their task faster, get to the market and of course, save on compute resources and raise the quality of their work.”
Fairly early on, Mazzawi realized that the automotive industry would be a prime market for their reliability solution. “With the advancement of the automotive industry towards the self-driving cars, the car is becoming more and more electronic,” he explains. “Chips and electronic systems are replacing the existing mechanical and hydraulics systems, to allow software to control the car.
“We are talking about all systems of the car, including steering wheel, brake systems, acceleration, and so forth,” he says, “These systems are safety critical, and hence they have safety requirement enforced by the ISO-26262 standard.”
Optima has recently started working with clients, closing new agreements as they enter the Beta stage. Having raised their Series A from the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) about a year and a half ago, they expect to head into their Series B come April or May.
Bringing hi-tech to Nazareth
Still a small operation, they are a team of seven, mostly from Nazareth and Haifa. When asked by Geektime about why he chose to open his business in Nazareth, away from the hi-tech hub of Tel Aviv in the center, Mazzawi answered that, “I was born and raised in Nazareth. After living in the Silicon Valley in the U.S. for almost a decade, learning how things are done there, feeling the entrepreneurship spirit, seeing how big corporates work. After I got my MBA from there, I decide to come back home and help develop the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Nazareth.”
“Nazareth is the capital of the Arab population in Israel, developing this ecosystem here will have huge impact on many people,” he says, explaining that, “I was lucky to find similar people thinking like me and working towards the same goal.”
Mazzawi points to the Ministry of Economy backed Nazareth Business Incubation Center (NBIC), its management and the entrepreneurs working in it and using its services as key players that are helping to change the scene in the northern Arab city, saying that, “Together, we are doing a small revolution and putting our mark on history.”
By some predictions, self-driving cars will start to enter the market en masse at by 2025. This gives developers and manufacturers less than a decade to solve a wide range of safety problems and reassure the public that the devices in their cars will be dependable.
The idea of giving up total control in a vehicle is one that is scary and exciting at the same time. With the potential to sleep or work during travels, go out drinking without a designated driver, not have to worry about parking near one’s home or office – being dropped off and sending the car to park elsewhere – and many more options make this appealing.
The current designs out there from Google and others are far from perfect, grabbing headlines whenever they get into a fender bender that wouldn’t warrant so much as slowing down while passing it on the highway if it were a human-driven car. The computer-driven vehicles will need to learn to share the road with irrational drivers, which is likely to be a rocky transition.
How I feel about these cars is less important. What is more important is that groups like the Optima crew are developing solutions to make sure that my future car doesn’t stop in the middle of the highway just because the hardware was not properly designed. I’ll leave it up to the hackers to mess with me for that one.
By making his company a part of the Nazareth ecosystem, Mazzawi is able to tap into the wealth of talent that is outside of the Tel Aviv bubble and bring valuable employment options to the community.
Featured Image Credit: Optima / PR