Autonomous cars and trucks won’t be a big business for years, but the market for automating some driving functions is booming and most new vehicles now come equipped with cameras and radar. Spartan Radar, a Southern California startup created by ex-defense industry engineers, just raised $17 million to help commercialize sensor software that it says lets even cheap radar units track their surroundings in greater detail and will improve the performance of current hands-free driving systems.
The company, about two years old, said its latest investment round closed this month and was backed by 8VC, IronGate Capital, Prime Movers Lab. Mac VC and Microsoft. That pushes its total funding to about $42 million since 2021.
Microsoft’s participation is notable since using Spartan’s radar software is like “going from DOS to Windows 10,” CEO and cofounder Nathan Mintz told Forbes. “We deliver about five times the resolution with a quarter of the parts, and even up to 10 times the resolution in some cases.”
Deliveries of Spartan’s software begin this year with applications for commercial vehicles. The Los Alamitos, California-based company also expects to start supplying its technology for passenger vehicles by 2025, though it declined to identify future partners.
The company’s expertise in software for radar and signal processing comes from the many years three of its founders—Mintz, CTO Tyler Rather and Chief Technologist Theagenis Abatzoglou (a spry, Greek septuagenarian whose fitness regime includes discus and javelin throwing)—spent at Raytheon improving radar for fighter jets and stealth aircraft. Though they initially considered developing unique hardware, the team sees a bigger opportunity for software to help mass-market, affordable sensors see road conditions and track cars, trucks and pedestrians with accuracy and clarity approaching expensive 3D laser lidar.
It does that by keeping a car’s radar system focused on the biggest priorities: other vehicles rather than fixed objects like walls and trees on the side.
“When you’re driving on a freeway, you’re spending probably 90% of the time looking intently at what’s in front of you because you’re going at a high rate of speed and don’t want someone slamming on the brakes. You’re not staring in your rearview mirror,” said CTO Rather. “Right now, radar spends an equal amount of time looking all over the place. … That’s inefficient.”
Spartan says its technology will help hold down sensor costs for self-driving vehicles when they finally enter the market, but its focus, for now, is on advanced driver-assist systems, or ADAS, like General Motors’ Super Cruise, Tesla’s Autopilot, Mercedes-Benz’s Driver Assistance and Ford’s BlueCruise, which offer hands-free driving on the highway. It also wants to improve how well features such as automatic emergency braking perform, standard on new vehicles, work. A recent assessment by AAA found that automatic braking systems are fine at low speeds but perform poorly at 40 miles per hour or faster.
“Our software update may improve that to about 100% over 40 miles an hour,” said Rather.