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Business Courier:  Why this Silicon Valley startup moved here to test its driverless technology at CVG

Cincinnati Business Courier / Cincy Inno / Liz Engel / November 19, 2020

For the better part of nine months, a former Silicon Valley startup has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

A small van, white, with various red markings, and outfitted with a suite of sensors and cameras, both on top of the vehicle and inside, has been navigating in and around the terminal for weeks, learning all the ins and outs, while a team behind the scenes makes ongoing improvements and tweaks.

For the most part, that company has been quiet about its efforts.

Until now.

ThorDrive, which now calls Cincinnati home, is ready to make its debut. Eddie Shelton, ThorDrive’s vice president of business development, said the company expects to have proofs of concept in the next couple of weeks, and a pair of units ready for market by the end of 2021.

ThorDrive’s roots are in Seoul, South Korea, but the startup first entered the U.S. market via Silicon Valley in 2018. It had varied success. It launched a last-mile delivery project for a few small businesses around Palo Alto, Calif., which marked its first test with commercial delivery vehicles, and the company overall logged about 80,000 miles of real-world on-the-road experience. 

It’s “very unheard of,” he said, for a company like ThorDrive to relocate here. But CVG has made a big play in recent years to loop in different innovative partners. In the past, it’s partnered with startups like Cincinnati’s Losant, TaskWatch in Mason and Wyzerr, which was recently acquired by Columbus-based PopCom.

A proposal to partner with CVG also proved an interesting opportunity to pivot, Shelton said. The field for autonomous technology is flooded with well-funded companies looking to make driverless passenger cars and commercial trucks, Shelton said. There weren’t many playing in the aviation space.

For ThorDrive, and CVG, this represents the first airport partnership of its kind. ThorDrive’s technology is applicable in many areas, mainly ground support equipment, or GSE, like airport baggage tugs, or carts, and offers cost efficiencies and improved safety.  

Brian Cobb, chief innovation officer at CVG, said ThorDrive’s biggest selling feature is that its technology can retrofit different types of equipment. 

“This is the future,” Brian Cobb, chief innovation officer at CVG. “There’s no airline out there that wants to consider getting rid of or phasing out its existing [fleet],” he said. “But if you tell me I can convert my existing frame? Now we’re talking.”

Since February, ThorDrive has been testing its technology around the CVG campus. That access has been critical to development, Shelton said. A demo day on Thursday showcased what's been done so far.

“Our technology can now recognize critical things that it will encounter while doing its job. It recognizes the aircraft and other vehicles,” Shelton said. “It’s programmed to know its route, to know where an intersection is, to stop and scan for any vehicles that might be crossing its path. We’ve had access to locations that no other company has had access to, and that has been the biggest catalyst for us getting to where we are.”

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