An anonymous tipster shared a photo of a Cadillac CT6, outfitted with autonomous driving sensors and scanners, which they spotted parked in Pittsburgh yesterday.
Pittsburgh has become a hub of the self-driving tech scene because of its proximity to Carnegie Mellon University and its renowned robotics program, as well as the state’s relatively lax rules on autonomous vehicle testing. Uber and other major companies test their vehicles on Pittsburgh’s streets—but this car looks like something new.
Here’s what we know: The Cadillac spotted by our tipster is kitted out with off-the-shelf lidar and cameras, and the car doesn’t sport any branding that might give away the identity of its owner. Cadillac’s parent company, General Motors, has been testing autonomous vehicles for a while now. But is this part of its fleet, or someone else’s autonomous ride?
Like every automaker on the planet, GM is developing its own self-driving car technology. The 2018 Cadillac CT6 will be its first to include a semi-autonomous self-driving feature called ‘Super Cruise’ (similar to Tesla’s Autopilot) that automatically keeps the vehicle in its lane when highway driving, and adjusts the speed to match the flow of traffic.
The company is currently testing fully-autonomous vehicles in San Francisco. Cruise Automation, which GM bought for over $1 billion last year, has shared videos of its self-driving excursions around the city on YouTube. But that vehicle is based on the electric Chevrolet Bolt, and uses sensors and scanning equipment that look considerably sleeker than what’s perched atop this Cadillac CT6.
With a Velodyne HDL-64E LiDAR scanner, a black pod presumably packed full of additional sensors and electronics, and four cameras strapped to the corners of what looks like a bike rack on the car’s roof, the Cadillac CT6 shared by our tipster looks more like a self-driving Cadillac SRX that was spotted driving on Michigan roads back in April of 2014. But after spending over a billion dollars on Cruise Automation, it seems unlikely GM would be testing with this old equipment.
So who does this car belong to? A partnership between Delphi, BMW, Mobileye, and Intel uses Audi SUVs for their autonomous testing, Uber’s gone with a VolvoXC90, and Ford has poured a billion dollars into Pittsburgh’s Argo AI, so that company probably wouldn’t be driving a Cadillac around the city. Waymo uses Lexus SUVs and Chrysler minivans.
Given the CT6 was photographed in the parking lot of a shared office facility called Cube Creative Space in Pittsburgh, the car could belong to a startup or smaller company that primarily focuses on developing autonomous driving software. But a Cadillac CT6 isn’t the most cost-effective platform for testing nascent technology, and it might not be affordable enough for a startup.
Gizmodo spoke to one autonomous vehicle expert (who asked not to be identified) who suspected that GM might have furnished a student research team with the Cadillac. The off-the-shelf parts, including the Velodyne lidar and the cameras, suggest a student project, the source explained, while the fancy car would likely have been handed out by GM. And GM has a history of partnering with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to develop autonomous vehicle projects.
Back in 2013, GM renewed a five-year partnership with CMU to continue to co-develop autonomous driving technologies. That agreement presumably included GM donating vehicles to the university for testing purposes, including a Cadillac SRX similar to the one photographed in Michigan a year later.
Frequently, these types of grad student research vehicles are clearly identified with livery for all of the partners and sponsors involved, and this CT6 has no visible brand markings of any kind.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation doesn’t keep a running list of the autonomous vehicle companies that run tests in the state, because there’s no law currently on the books that requires companies to obtain a permit prior to testing. “PennDOT is working with the legislature on legislation related to the testing and operation of automated vehicles in Pennsylvania, enactment of which is necessary to give effect to PennDOT’s testing policies,” PennDOT press secretary Erin Waters-Trasatt told Gizmodo in an email.
We’ve reached out to GM directly for comment, but if you have any clues about who this self-driving Cadillac belongs to, please feel free to share in the comments or send us an email.
Update 6/12/17 at 3:20 p.m. ET:
Two sources tell Gizmodo that this car belongs to a robotics company called NextDroid, which operates out of the Cube Creative Space where the Cadillac was spotted. Another source showed Gizmodo a picture of a Cadillac with similar features on the road in Minnesota, sporting manufacturer plates that are issued to automakers for vehicle testing.
NextDroid bills itself in a job listing as a robotics company founded by alumni of CMU and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company is still in stealth mode, meaning that it hasn’t publicly launched, and specializes in “driverless cars and undersea robotics.”
The listing also notes that NextDroid is funded primarily by “a top five automaker and an offshore market leader.”
Sam Tolkoff, who lists himself as the CEO of a “stealth mode robotics company” on LinkedIn and signed paperwork filed on behalf of NextDroid with the Pennsylvania Secretary of State, declined to comment, telling Gizmodo it was “not the best time” to discuss his work. In incorporation documents filed with the Pennsylvania Secretary of State last September, Tolkoff listed NextDroid’s address as that of the Cambridge Innovation Center, an office space for entrepreneurs that has previously housed teams from Google and other prominent companies.
Gizmodo asked GM if it is the automaker funding to NextDroid, but a spokesman said GM is not financially involved with the startup. Asked how NextDroid got fancy new Cadillacs to test with, the spokesman said, “No idea.”
One source in the autonomous vehicle industry suggested that NextDroid, which has also gone by the brand name AutoMap, may be developing maps that it licenses to companies in the self-driving industry rather than coming up with its own autonomous vehicle technology.