Q&A with Jeff Blackburn, Metamoto‘s Head of BD

As an expert in automotive simulation, Jeff fundamentally understands the high demand for scalable, cloud-based simulation solutions for autonomous vehicle (AV) training and testing.

As a holder of twenty-one patents, a B.S. in engineering and J.D. in law, Jeff brings a unique perspective as Metamoto’s Head of BD, as well as experience in controls and systems simulation for AVs, including: biomechanics, occupant protection, testing, automotive regulatory requirements, robotics, embedded code development, and SiL and HiL simulation. He previously held positions as the North American Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) and AV subject matter expert for TASS International, Inc. (now Siemens) and has held positions in controls and systems engineering with National Instruments, where he worked on the IVBSS project for US DOT, and at Takata, Fanuc Robotics and Rockwell Automation.

In addition, Jeff has organized and presented at numerous technical forums, and worked with University of Michigan’s MCity on developing the early virtual models of their test track, as well as building a driving simulator to demonstrate the proposed capabilities. Jeff created and currently teaches the SAE C1603 “Introduction to the Highly Automated Vehicle” class to many industry audiences including NHTSA.

Jeff shares his experiences and goals for his Metamoto role.

You’ve held a variety of positions across various aspects of AV systems. What did you learn from those positions that prepared you for your role at Metamoto?

Over the past six years, I’ve worked with OEMs, Tier 1s, startups and universities to help them get their ADAS and/or AV simulation capabilities up and running. A couple of years ago it became apparent to me that the legacy software tools I was working with were not going to be able to scale and provide the kind of simulation coverage (i.e. millions of simulations runs per night) required to ensure that the systems under development were reliable enough to be tested on public roadways. A new, agile approach would be needed — similar to how DevOps teams approach software development with continuous integration, regression testing, agile processes, requirements management and more.

This belief was confirmed by The Atlantic’s August 2017 article, “Inside Waymo’s Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars,” that described Carcraft, Waymo’s simulation building software that was able to take a real-world event and expand it into millions of simulation cases running in the cloud, providing much more comprehensive test coverage. Surprisingly, none of the legacy tools I was familiar with could operate in the cloud, limiting them to a traditional HiL type operation where simulations run sequentially in a loop, severely limiting the number of tests that can be run in a day.

Simulation environments are absolutely crucial in validating the performance and consistency of automated driving systems, but it doesn’t make sense for organizations working on AVs to pour a significant amount of resources into building out its own “Carcraft-like” tool when simulation isn’t a core competency.

The technological collaboration between these organizations and Metamoto creates a comprehensive, scalable simulation solution that benefits customers — and the autonomous driving market as a whole. At Metamoto, my focus is on building our collaboration network.

Throughout my career, I have fostered extensive relationships within the AV ecosystem. I leverage this network to introduce Metamoto’s Simulation as a Service offering and demonstrate how it can help increase simulation test and training coverage capabilities by many orders of magnitude.

Can you describe your business development strategy for the next year?

Metamoto just launched its highly-anticipated Simulation as a Service offering. This is an exciting time and it’s safe to say that we have a lot of goals we are seeking to accomplish in the next year!

As far as my day-to-day activities go, I’ll be improving our internal sales and marketing systems and speaking with customers to demonstrate our service and help with the onboarding process.

I’ll also be presenting at various conferences and events throughout the year, explaining how the benefits of a DevOps approach to software development combined with Metamoto’s scalable cloud-based approach can help companies increase their test and training coverage, ensuring that their AV systems operate in the real world exactly as expected.

What excites you most about the AV simulation market?

Although I’ve been working in this area for several years, I think we’ve only scratched the surface of the use of simulation in AV development. I think of simulation as an “enabling technology” for AVs that is as essential as new sensor technologies and advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Almost all of the organizations working on AV technologies recognize the need to adopt a much more structured approach to software development and much greater use of simulation.

What are the biggest challenges on the path to commercialize AVs?

Overall, there’s an under-appreciation of the amount of time, effort and testing required to gain sufficient confidence in the underlying software that makes an AV possible. There’s also a misconception about the actual complexity of the underlying software.

As far as companies in the AV industry are concerned, they’re facing difficulty finding the right talent. In Detroit, there’s a lack of mechanical engineering talent with the software skills necessary to understand what is happening in the AV’s perception and control stacks. In Silicon Valley, there’s a lack of electrical and software engineering talent with experience in the design and construction of vehicles.

As far as the general populace goes, there’s still a mistrust in AV technology and uncertainty in a computer’s ability to drive better than a human being. On the other hand, there are also early adopters who are over relying on AV technologies, treating level 2 vehicles as though they were capable of level 3–4 behavior, causing accidents and even further mistrust and uncertainty about the capabilities of AV technology.

Finally, there’s also the uncertainty of the regulatory environment surrounding AV technology. Regulatory agencies may enact rules and regulations prematurely that may slow down the test and training of AVs on public roads.

Where do you think Metamoto outshines its competition?

Our ability to provide large-scale AV simulation capabilities that are easily incorporated into existing software development processes and not currently available to most of the entities working in the AV space is unparalleled. Plus, we do so at an entry price point that’s far lower than any of the legacy products on the market.

I’m thrilled to be with Metamoto at such a pivotal time for the company and the industry. The opportunity to raise awareness of our critical differentiators, to build new partnerships and to help Metamoto succeed is truly exciting, and I enjoy leading these efforts.