Here’s something rather interesting, and unexpected from a bunch of local lads. Reka Studios is a small Malaysian outfit dabbling in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), and the company is currently in the early stages of developing smart solutions for factories – think driverless forklifts.

Established in 2014, Reka Studios is made up of 20 individuals from different backgrounds – there are some from computer science, electronic engineering, biomedics and even the aerospace industry. The company has two facilities; a headquarters in KL and an R&D lab in Melaka.

Interestingly for us, Reka has since September 2016 started developing its own self-driving or autonomous car tech. The fruits of their work has so far undergone a series of tests and real-life demonstrations at events and exhibitions. To learn more about this, we had a chat with Reka Studios CEO Muhammad Haziq Faris Hasnol, asking him about the company’s beginnings, vision and the challenges it faces.

Haziq, 27, explained that it all started from an electronic chip they produced, known as the Reka Innovation Gear (RIG). “As with most of the driverless cars in existence today, the system that we’re developing is in Category 3 of autonomous driving levels,” he told BM.

In this level, the car is able to drive itself, with a human to watch over proceedings and intervene if necessary. Level 4 is fully autonomous within the operational design domain of the car.

So far Reka has come up with three prototype cars with its autonomous system. The earliest car – a Proton Waja – started testing in November 2016. Around a month after that, they tested the self-driving car from KL to Melaka with two passengers in the rear seats and no driver.

So far, the system’s optimum operational range is between 60 to 80 km/h. For turning at junctions, it works at speeds between 20 to 30 km/h, and braking distances are from five to 10 metres. The operating range is as tested so far, based on Google Maps navigation.

Currently, Reka has moved on to two units of the Proton Perdana loaned to them by Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) dan Nano Malaysia. These two sedans, which feature a more stable system and neater integration, are frequently brought out for public demos.

“In terms of hardware, we use existing off-the-shelf technology such as cameras (they started off with a dashcam), radar sensors and laser, among other things. But what’s vital is our self-developed smart software,” Haziq said, adding that they have dreams of commercialising the product in the next few years.

To who though, that’s the question. “Based on feedback from manufacturers and government agencies that we have met, they’re not showing the interest as hoped in the potential of this homegrown tech,” Haziq concedes. Reka Studios has been seeking tie-ups to polish and improve its product’s capabilities, and also for help to patent it.

Haziq says that the firm has received offers from foreign firms interested in co-operation and to further the development of the technology, among them companies from Singapore and Australia. However, they are a little reluctant to go down that path, as the Singaporean firm, for instance, requires that they move down south and be based in the city state. There’s also the issue of patent ownership.

“We’re not rejecting the offers from foreign parties, but in the coming year or two we will try to survive and find a way to contribute our energy and skills to our own country. If that doesn’t work out, then we will consider the offers from foreign parties,” he explained.

Hearing about Reka’s considerable efforts with limited resources, and vision, makes us even more curious on the background of the young CEO. Haziq studied computer science at the University of Cambridge, but he did not complete his course. Not because he couldn’t cope, but because he accepted an offer by Google to work in the US.

“I then returned to Malaysia with the dream to contribute my energy and creativity to my own country. So, for a year or two before I set up Reka Studios, I went around Malaysia – based on tips – to find and meet with individuals with different skills, but the same dream,” Haziq shared.

The nationwide hunt yielded some interesting colleagues for Haziq. “Among us is a local aerospace engineer who had a learning stint at NASA in the US, and also a guy who helped develop face detection software on Samsung cameras,” he shared, adding that the varied backgrounds of his team members is an advantage for Reka.

The patriotic and inventive spirit shown by Haziq and Reka Studios is commendable, and we wish them all the best in their journey of developing autonomous car technology.