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Varden Labs runs test on UWaterloo Ring Road

Varden Labs is an up-and-coming Velocity startup. From their beginnings in the Velocity Residence in May, they have already won $35,000 at the Velocity Fund Finals in July and just yesterday executed a test of their autonomous vehicle technology at the University of Waterloo. This test was the first of its kind on a Canadian road.

We caught up with Alex Rodrigues and Michael Skupien to chat about their big event.

How did the idea and plans to drive on Ring Road come together?
The plan to drive on Ring Road is actually baked right into Varden Labs’ DNA. This all started year ago when Mike and I were chatting one night at Velocity Residence, and we said “You know building a self-driving car at highway speeds sounds quite challenging, but I bet we could make an autonomous shuttle go around Ring Road.” At first it was a joke and then over the next 6 months we did more and more research and went from joke to idea to company. For the first few months, when we were out in Calgary building the shuttle the original idea of Ring Road had faded from our minds. Then when the prototype started to work even better than we had imagined we started to think again about that long ago stretch goal of running on Ring Road. We spent over a month working with the Mechatronics Department, Police Services and Velocity getting all the details in order and amazing it all came together at an awesome demo yesterday!

What was going through your mind with UWaterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur in the shuttle as the crowd and media watched?
Coming around the final turn with all the cameras and the crowd is something we’ve been imagining for months. It was a great experience to see it work on real roads. We were so proud of how smoothly the prototype had performed all day, and we’re really excited to have helped take a step towards bringing revolutionary self-driving technology to Canadians.

What is the big problem that Varden Labs is solving?
Varden Labs is Canada’s leading Autonomous Vehicles company. Self-driving technology has the opportunity to make transportation effortless in a way it has never been, removing the need to own a car, waste hours every week driving or the hassle of parking. Just call it on your smart phone and it will take you where you want to go. At Varden Labs we’re working on bringing that effortless transportation to Canadians as soon as possible. To achieve that we’re targeting slower speed shuttles on private roadways – a market which will bring seamless transportation to resorts, corporate campuses and retirement communities very soon.

What have you been up to since winning the Velocity Fund last month?
We’ve put in a lot of effort towards making this demo a big success. We drove the prototype from Calgary across Canada to Waterloo and have spent a lot of time refining the vehicle so that, for example, it stops smoothly at stop signs. We’ve also met with Peter Heuss (Associate Director, Velocity Foundry) who is really excited about bringing us into the bigger Velocity community.

How has the Velocity Residence influenced your company so far?
Varden was literally started on the steps of Velocity Residence. We have lived there together for the last two terms (and are returning this fall) and Residence gave us a great opportunity to work together on many projects, so it was fundamental to us getting together as Co-Founders. It has also helped us by immersing us in Velocity culture, meeting lots of interesting entrepreneurs and finding out about great programs like e-coop and Velocity Fund.

What’s next for Varden Labs?
The way we see it, autonomous vehicles are the future, and we at Varden Labs want to be a part of the revolution. Over the next few years, we hope to build on the legacy of developing Canada’s first self-driving vehicle. We see this as an amazing opportunity and we are excited to be getting here at just the right time to make our dreams of self-driving vehicles a reality.

Over the next year we’re going to be working hard turning our prototype into a product, exploring cheaper sensors to bring down the price, changing from a golf cart to a shuttle chassis and putting it through rigorous tests. At the same time we’ll be working with our customers to better understand their needs so we can deliver a product which works perfectly for them.

Our goal is to get to market with our shuttle even before consumer cars are ready for the big time. We want to establish ourselves early and become a market leader in this developing technology.

You can watch a video of the autonomous vehicle here and find out more about Varden Labs at their website.