This week our lead Tech Recruiter Ollie has taken over Our Week in Digital. After Nicola’s funding edition last week, he moves on to the world of autonomous vehicles and the connected car space.
Here are his picks from the tech and digital news pages.
The world of self-driving cars
Self-driving cars are one of the biggest AI challenges of our time. Not only do we have to build computer systems that behave as well (or better) than a multitasking human but the consequences of error are huge….considerable, messy insurance claims at best and at worst, injury or even death.
With this in mind, it is likely to be years before we see fully-autonomous cars as standard on our roads. The complexity of getting from A to B is massive and comes with an equally large price tag. Experts estimate that it will require hundreds of billions of dollars of investment before this becomes a reality. At the current time, investment in the space is falling short. Figures released from Crunchbase recently have revealed that collectively, self-driving startups have raised ‘only’ $15 billion. Undeniably, this is a significant amount, but nowhere near the estimated amount needed to reach the hallowed “level 5”. The level that self-driving systems attain when they are truly autonomous.
This realisation has led to shifts within the autonomous vehicle space. Companies across the world are having to shift their focus while some are simply running out of money. For example, DriveAI were acquired by Apple after its funds ran dry. LIDAR startup Oryx Vision closed its doors last year, as did Quanergy Systems Inc back in 2018.
It hasn’t stopped some investors placing their bets though. This week, investment activity in the autonomous car ecosystem has been noisy and global. Companies from Europe, the US and China have been popping up in our feeds. Five, Waymo and a satellite venture to rival SpaceX all feature.
Read on for more!
Five raises $41m to commercialise its self-driving technology.
South West startup, Five (formerly FiveAI) has raised $41m in venture capital to turn its self-drive research into commercial products and services.
Five uses Artificial Intelligence and machine learning technologies that would allow cars to use simpler maps to navigate their surroundings. The company hope to speed up the deployment of autonomous vehicles by reducing the complexity of the technological surroundings.
Dubbed Silicon Gorge, Bristol and the South West is a hive of tech and digital entrepreneurial enterprise. Five was founded in 2016 and is part of the South West alumni of successful and progressive startups. Up until now, the work of Five has been heavily focused on the research end of self-driving vehicles.
Thus far, the team have excelled using academia as a springboard. They are both tech-savvy and smart. Five has revealed that 40% of its workforce has PhDs in subjects such as engineering, maths and computer science. Its co-founders have practical tech backgrounds too and can boast an impressive resume in developing algorithms and processors.
Through their research, Five are working to get a better understanding of how the entire self-driving system can integrate existing components as well as the new ones Five are developing. It is also solving the puzzles surrounding how we may define safety metrics and the tech needed to measure them.
As part of this work, Five has been leading a coalition called StreetWise. This consortium is made up of leaders within their field of industry as well as other parties of interest and research groups. Partners include the Transport Research Laboratory and car insurers, Direct Line Group, for example.
The StreetWise consortium has been conducting extensive self-driving testing in the U.K. The project was launched back in 2017, and since that time it has worked to achieve its goal. It was launched to lead research around the technology of autonomous vehicles, develop methods of validating their safety, and create models for insuring and service them.
Just last year, the project peaked with the extensive testing of self-driving vehicles in the UK. Test rides were conducted along a pre-defined 19km stretch of road in London.
The latest funding raise
This latest raise has provided the opportunity to transform the research into a commercial product. Indeed, this looks set to be next on the agenda.
Not only have Five developed the autonomous system for the car, but they have also built a cloud-based platform for managing some of the challenges that couldn’t be addressed within the car.
According to Five, the money will be used to turn these cloud and in-car systems into products. Five then intend to partner with car manufacturers who will build these platforms into vehicles. This is a shift in focus from Five. CEO Stan Boland has confirmed that it will no longer be working with the primary aim to build these cars for themselves. Instead, it will work on the tech that will be sold to other carmakers or those building services catering to the autonomous industry.
Five will “engage with partners,” says CEO Stan Boland. He goes on to say that the funding is a validation of their work and the role their tech is playing in both developing and assuring self-driving.
Leading this latest round are Trustbridge Partners, Sistema VC and StreetWise member, Direct Line Group. It also included investment from previous investors Lakestar, Amadeus Capital Partners, Kindred Capital and Notion Capital.
Five has now raised a total of $77 million, having previously raised $18m in a 2017 round.
Waymo raises $2.25 billion to scaleup the operation of its autonomous vehicles.
Alphabet’s autonomous vehicles division, Waymo has just secured a huge capital investment. They have raised $2.25 billion from a cohort of investors. Silver Lake, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Mubadala Investment Company are joined in the raise by auto parts supplier Magna International, Andreessen Horowitz, auto retail giant AutoNation and Alphabet itself.
This is an initial close on the company’s first round of funding.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik has confirmed that as part of the deal, representatives from some of these investors will join the board.
This news comes after a report has highlighted that Waymo has grown its headcount from 800 a year ago to around 1500 today.
In a statement, Krafcik has confirmed that they are “expanding that team, adding financial investors and important strategic partners”. They will all bring “decades of experience investing in and supporting successful technology companies building transformative products”. He goes on to say that this capital investment will marry well with the groups’ considerable business acumen. These two pillars will allow Waymo to “deepen our investment in our people, our technology, and our operations, all in support of the deployment of the Waymo Driver around the world.”
Beyond this, what can we expect Waymo to do next?
Later this year, Waymo plans to release its latest autonomous driving system — the fifth-generation Waymo Driver. This release will feature a new lidar sensor design that is considered to be a “breakthrough” in terms of cost-efficiency. This fifth-generation system will also boast revamped radars and vision systems. It will also include “all-weather” capabilities including defrost and wiper elements and a “significant upgrade” in onboard computing power.
Waymo is also on track to drastically expand the size of its operations in the coming months and is set to partner with some major automotive names. These plans include adding 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to its fleet. It has also signed a deal with Jaguar Land Rover to equip 20,000 of the automaker’s Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs with its system by the end of the year.
Additionally, Waymo recently announced it would begin testing self-driving trucks on commercial routes in two U.S. states. Retrofitted with Waymo tech, these Chrysler vans will map roads ahead of driverless Peterbilt trucks as part of a project known as Waymo Via. Waymo Via will be focussed on “all forms of goods delivery”. It will include both short- and long-haul delivery, from interstate freight transport right down to local delivery.
On another project, Waymo is mapping Los Angeles to study congestion and expanding its testing to highways across the country. In the Metro Pheonix area too, the company are piloting autonomous vehicle package transportation between UPS Store locations and a local UPS sorting facility.
Demand for driverless trucks is strong. These trucks are predicted to reach 6,700 units globally, totalling $54.23 billion this year alone. It is easy to see why. This market looks likely to save the shipping industry $70 billion annually while boosting productivity by 30%. Quite apart from these cost savings, the demand has been driven by a shortage of human drivers. Back in 2018, the American Trucking Associates estimated that 50,000 more truckers were needed to meet demand.
Realising these plans will not come cheap. The company’s annual cost is estimated at around $1 billion. While its robo-taxi business, Waymo One, reportedly yields just hundreds of thousand dollars a year in revenue. While Waymo hasn’t shared the actual numbers, it is reported that over 1500 riders are using Waymo’s ride-hailing service each month. It has also served over 100,000 rides since its programs launched in 2017.
Of the partnership, the investor voice echoes that of Krafcik. Silver Lake co-CEO Egon Durban has reiterated the Waymo statement. He says that Waymo is the “proven leader in self-driving technology” and is the “only autonomous vehicle company with a public ride-hailing service, and is successfully scaling its fully driverless experience”.
He goes on to conclude that;
“We’re deeply aligned with Waymo’s commitment to making our roads safer, and look forward to working together to help advance and scale the Waymo Driver in the U.S. and beyond.”
Beijing’s Innovation Center for Mobility Intelligent (BICMI) has published its 2019 figures in its annual survey of self-driving vehicles being tested on local roads.
Alongside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Beijing is one of the few cities globally to demand autonomous car companies disclose the miles they’ve driven as well as the size of their fleets. It also mandates that they detail the disengagements – or system failures – they have experienced.
The report revealed that 77 autonomous vehicles from 13 China-based companies covered 1.04 million kilometres on the roads of Beijing throughout 2019. This is quite a leap in a year. Comparatively, a total of around 153,600 kilometres were travelled in 2018 from a cohort of 8 firms.
Looking a little closer into the figures, we can see that Chinese tech giant Baidu are leading the pack. Baidu released 52 vehicles, covering a total of 754,000 kilometres. This is a 5 fold increase from the figures it logged in the 2018 report. Pony.ai came 2nd in the survey, also improving on its 2018 score. Its 5 strong fleet drove roughly 111,200 kilometres versus its 10,132 kilometre distance the year before.
Automotive giant, Toyota came third. It has a fleet of 4 and banked about 11,100 kilometres.
Concerning the disengagements, it is difficult to disclose detail. These figures are not broken down by manufacturer or vehicle. However, broadly speaking 86% of disengagements in 2019 resulted from human takeovers. Examples include where drivers may have interfered with data-recording equipment or have made changes to planned routes. The other 14% of disengagements were attributable to some sort of mechanical or software failure.
Driverless technology in China
The report is a part of China’s strategy to bolster driverless technology in the future. As soon as 2025, China plans to refine guidelines around infrastructure, regulatory supervision, and safety. A recent whitepaper released from a group led by the National Development and Reform Commission reports that this will enable companies to “scale production of vehicles capable of conditional autonomous driving” and “[commercialise] … highly autonomous vehicles in certain circumstances”.
In support, Beijing has allowed autonomous vehicle testing on 151 roads spanning 503.68 kilometres. This supplements a test area of about 40 square kilometres within the city. Additionally, The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport allocated a batch of T4 autonomous test permits to leaders Baidu last July. These T4 permits are China’s highest-level permit and align with the automation levels issued by the Society of Automotive Engineers. They are an open road test license and have enabled it to deploy driverless vehicles on urban roads and in tunnels, school zones, and elsewhere.
At the end of 2019, Baidu announced that it had secured 40 licenses to test driverless cars carrying passengers on designated roads in Beijing. This will help to overtake its well-funded rivals such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Pony.ai. Alibaba, for example, announced in April last year that it has been working toward level 4 autonomous capability by conducting self-driving car tests. Alibaba has also said that it’s looking to hire as many as 50 engineers for its AI research lab. Meanwhile, Tencent secured a license from the Chinese government to begin testing autonomous cars in Shenzhen, China. Meanwhile, Pony.ai disclosed last week that it raised $462 million in venture capital at a $3 billion valuation.
The Chinese are well known to be a nation that is fully embracing of new tech. As such, these disruptors are careering toward a goldmine of a market. Autonomous vehicles and mobility services in China are expected to be worth more than $500 billion by 2030 when as many as 8 million self-driving cars hit public roads.
Chinese billionaire launches satellite venture.
Chinese automotive giant, Geely has announced that it’s going to build its satellite network to enable what it calls a “smart three-dimensional mobility ecosystem.”
Earlier this week, Geely announced that it will build a satellite production facility and testing centre in the city of Taizhou in the Zhejiang province where it is headquartered.
This facility will be capable of building a “variety of different satellite models,” some of which may be for non-Geely entities.
It is reported that the project will cost Geely in the region of $326 million and will aim to make 500 satellites a year.
These will be low orbiting satellites and will support high-speed data transmission, precise navigation and cloud computing. They will enable fast over-the-air updates to its vehicles, as well as “content delivery” to the company’s owners.
Perhaps it is the navigation arm of the project which is most indicative of where Geely will go next. Li Shufu, the owner of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is hoping the satellites will steer the company on the right track in the development of autonomous vehicles. The satellites will offer “highly accurate” navigation solutions, he says.
“Today, the automotive industry faces huge challenges and equally huge opportunities. Geely must take the initiative to embrace change, develop through innovation, find new synergies online and offline”.
It is the fact that these satellites will be low orbiting that is particularly transformative. Current GPS satellites are only accurate to several metres thanks to their high orbits. By comparison, low orbit satellites can be accurate to within 1 cm. A company representative said, “This accuracy is not only important for cars, but it will also become essential for unmanned flight”.
Geely’s satellites will be deployed by Geespace who are experts in the development of low-orbit satellites. The company expects to start launching its satellites into space by the end of the year.
Although a long way off, when or if, the world becomes populated with autonomous vehicles the demand for in-car connectivity will become higher than ever before. As such, having your own satellite network to meet that demand will certainly be a crucial advantage over your competitors.
This move from the Chinese automotive giants has followed on the heels of similar activity from Silicon Valley.
Tesla and Space X boss, Elon Musk is pioneering a project called Starlink for example, which is working on the launch of thousands of satellites that could bring internet connectivity to the most remote corners of the world.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos announced plans to send 3,000 satellites into orbit last year.
Closer to home, London-based OneWeb is hoping to put 650 satellites into space at an altitude of around 750 miles.
According to marketing firm ABI, as many as 8 million driverless cars will be added to the road in 2025, and Research and Markets anticipate that there will be 20 million autonomous cars in operation in the U.S. by 2030.
With this stat in mind, we can expect some exciting tech coming our way.
Cars that see through the roads
Earlier this week, best selling author, self-confessed futurist and eminent keynote speaker, Bernard Marr shared on LinkedIn that MIT is working on self-driving technology that will allow cars to “see” through the ground. The idea is to allow self-driving vehicles to work out exactly where they are even in extreme conditions. Vehicles will be able to “see” up to 10 feet below the road’s surface; especially useful when heavy snow or fog obscures road markings.
MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have called this “Localizing Ground Penetrating Radar” (LGPR).
“LGPR can quantify the specific elements there and compare that to the map it’s already created, so that it knows exactly where it is, without needing cameras or lasers,” says CSAIL PhD student Teddy Ort.
The tech will even work when vehicles are parked inside a garage. Our pavements and homes conceal a network of concrete and metal reinforcements that create a unique imprint, it’s reported.
Here in the UK, we too are welcoming a wave of new products that can help us connect our vehicles with just a touch.
Smart Breakdown device
For example, The AA has launched a new Smart Breakdown device which can help us to prevent a breakdown by detecting faults and report them through an app on our smartphone. This revolutionary connected car service will not only reduce the chances of ever breaking down in the first place but should you – an AA engineer can get you on the road smarter and faster than ever before.
Modern vehicles require a modern approach and this smart breakdown device does just that. It facilitates a computerised conversation between your vehicle and the technician via the use of a small device you plug into your car once you download the App.
The data gathered by the app is shared with the AA so that an expert technician can analyse what’s wrong with your car. It includes a mapping system so that vehicle recovery units can locate and assist you wherever you may be…even while driving abroad in EU countries.
Smart Breakdown is an example of this pioneering move towards real-time, data-led information gathering and sharing, along with fast, safety-first advice and recovery.
This is where tech is taking us….satellites, under road detection systems and connectivity unlike we have ever known before.
A level 5 era of fully autonomous and connected vehicles may be a long way off, but what a journey we’ll have getting there!!
Did any autonomous vehicle stories catch your eye this week? Let us know in the comments!