Ethan gets noticed by the Commercial Appeal in March
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
This Rhodes College student and his business are working to improve self-driving cars
By Max Garland | MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL | 8:23 am CDT March 17, 2020
Rhodes College Student Ethan Ferguson demonstrates how to fly the Tello drone at his Crosstown High Classroom in Memphis TN on Wednesday, March 11, 2021 Ariel Cobbert/The Commerical Appeal
A Rhodes College student’s company aims to make self-driving cars see the world better.
As autonomous vehicle technology advances, people are raising concerns about the safety of cars driven without a human behind the wheel. Cinilope, the Memphis-based company led by Ethan Ferguson, is working to help self-driving cars better identify what the objects around them look like as they drive.
“Right now, self-driving cars are at an interesting spot legislatively and societally in terms of being able to be universally accepted,” said Ferguson, a 21-year-old junior at Rhodes College.
Companies worldwide are trying to advance autonomous vehicle technology, but computers can have a difficult time learning what a stop sign means, for example, because the computer is used to speaking through math instead of through visuals, Ferguson said.
One major firm brought on Cinilope as a vendor in January, helping its various visualization, marketing and engineering teams with their simulations for self-driving cars and how they perceive their surroundings.
Ferguson said he can’t publicly disclose the company Cinilope is partnering with, as the project is a confidential one. However, he described it as a “large, publicly traded company in Silicon Valley.”
Cinilope, which consists of four employees, was chosen because of its experience with augmented reality and lidar, Ferguson said.
Augmented reality isn’t quite virtual reality. The “reality” is the real, physical world, but with digital content and information added to it. Lidar, meanwhile, is the “all-seeing eye” for self-driving cars, Ferguson explains. It’s much like sonar and radar technology, except lidar relies on lasers.
“We were chosen because only so many can do augmented reality with lidar,” Ferguson said, adding that the partnership will help put Memphis “on the map for autonomous vehicle technology.” Lidar constructs the environment surrounding the car by spinning a laser around, recording measurements of the surrounding objects. Spin enough times, and the lidar collects enough points to create a “point cloud,” Ferguson said. “What it allows the computer to do is to turn the world around it into math,” he said. Cinilope’s lidar simulations aim to teach computers what the objects around it look like. Cinilope turns the data from the lidar into math so that computers and algorithms can understand the data better. Many accidents involving self-driving cars stem from issues with the lidar device or whatever similar system the car is using, Ferguson said, describing it as “the main bottleneck area” for the industry. The Silicon Valley company’s departments often use simulations to further their goal of making lidar safer, cheaper and more feasible.