This edition of Our Week in Digital has connected cars and autonomous technology on its radar…or should that be LIDAR?!  In this edition, we’ll be covering all the biggest stories to come out of the connected car space…from the startups who are leading the UK pack to those blazing a trail across the Atlantic.

Broadly speaking, Europe are playing catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to the autonomous vehicle and connected car technologies.  However, there are some UK based companies looking to change that.  

It is high on the agenda; the automotive industry, technology companies and the UK government has invested £500 million into the research, development and testing of connected and autonomous vehicles.  

Britain’s driverless car firms have raised tens of millions of pounds over the past two years as they race to keep up with better-funded US rivals with billions at their disposal.

Such large scale investment is not the only factor influencing the potential of the connected car development ecosystem here in the UK.  Great Britain has a road-map of comprehensive legislation already in place, along with a network of test-centres spanning the country. This triad of factors all combine to provide a healthy and vibrant arena for the companies who are looking to take advantage of the UK’s global, mass-market potential. 

It was the expectation of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond that we would have autonomous vehicles on British roads by 2021.  

Bristol and Cambridge based Five.ai, Oxbotica, Flourish and of course, Wayve are just a handful of names working tirelessly to realise this target, and are some of the most progressive in the business.

In fact, the latter leads us seamlessly into the first of this week’s news stories.

Wayve to become one of Britain’s best-funded driverless car ventures in a $20m deal.

Wayve Technologies are developing driverless car technology that it claims will allow autonomous vehicles to learn to navigate unknown roads with minimal training.

This week, speculation from inside the industry has suggested that Wayve is expected to raise about $20m in funding from investors including Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman and Silicon Valley fund Eclipse.  

If this is true and comes to fruition, it would secure Wayve a place in the history books.  The Wayve deal would be one of the largest early stage deals for a UK driverless car start-up.  

The start-up said its technology means the cars “learn” to drive through experience and could cut the cost of hardware used on driverless cars to a tenth from current approaches.

Wayve claims that expensive laser systems used by its US rivals such as Google’s Waymo are unnecessary.  Instead, the startup uses powerful learning algorithms alongside normal cameras and simple GPS to provide reliable data their vehicles can use to navigate roads.   Amar Shah is Wayve chief executive. He has previously voiced that Wayve intends to build self-driving cars with “better brains” than those being designed by Google or Uber using artificial intelligence.

This strategy has proved successful.  Wayve have been testing its technology on the public roads of Cambridge since last year.

Although notable, this isn’t the first round of funding Wayve have enjoyed.  The start-up has already attracted investment from US fund Compound, Germany’s Fly Ventures and Uber chief scientist Zoubin Ghahramani.  

This latest round comes from the pockets of a number of new and existing investors, with the aforementioned Eclipse leading the round.  It has also been speculated that existing investors, Firstminute Capital and Balderton Capital could put in more money; although both they and Wayve have declined to comment upon this possibility.

China’s Didi Chuxing to spin off self driving unit.

Estimated to be worth in the multi-millions, China’s driverless vehicle market is huge.  Much like Google did with Waymo in 2016, China’s leading car-hailing platform Didi Chuxing are looking to take advantage of this and spin out its autonomous driving unit into an independent company.  To fund the new driverless car company, Didi is in talks with SoftBank.  The Japanese tech and telecom giant has previously made multiple, large investments in the ride-hailing company.  

Pitchbook analyst, Asad Hussain is an expert in mobility, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles.  He believes this decision to spin out to be indicative of a broader trend consistent with the challenges that self-driving technology presents.  

He remarked:

“Spinning out autonomous divisions enables these companies to raise outside capital and offers investors a more targeted bet on self-driving relative to investing in the parent entity…this is a logical move for Didi and other ride-sharing companies facing pressure from investors to streamline costs and show a clear path to profitability.”

Directly confirming his assertions are Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle unit.  It was announced in March that they too would raise outside capital for the first time; positioning itself to cut costs and limit downside risks for investors.

Didi, which bought Uber’s China arm in 2016, is currently one of the highest valued tech unicorns in the world.  Placed at number 2 in 2019, DiDi are a notable Disruptor 50 company; latest figures show DiDi has a valuation exceeding $50 billion. 

Companies rarely get to enjoy such huge success with a simple portfolio, and DiDi is no exception.  Along with their car-hailing venture, the company can boast subsidiary projects including, bike-sharing, car rental and food delivery services.  According to the company’s website, it claims to serve 550 million users per year.   

The company already enjoy some big-name allegiances, including Grab, Lyft, Ola, and 99. With these partners, DiDi have built a huge ride-hailing network that spans the globe; one that provides 10 billion passenger trips each year.   

Just a couple of weeks ago, Toyota became another name linked to DiDi.  Toyota invested $600m with the two setting up a joint venture for driver services.  Didi and Toyota announced last year that it would work together on services that use technology developed by Toyota for its mobility and vehicle-sharing platform, which includes autonomous driving software

To further drive the development of its self-driving capabilities, DiDi will maximise upon their former success. Led by CTO, Zhang Bo the new company will integrate the resources and technological advantages of DiDi’s platform into the new standalone company.   

China is already the world’s largest automobile market, and has been forecast to also become a leader in the self-driving technology of the future.  China is expected to become a 100 billion yuan ($14.2 billion) market for intelligent connected cars by 2020.  

This latest move will propel DiDi’s autonomous driving capabilities unit, making them a force to be reckoned with in an industry growing at an extraordinary rate.

An alternative to LiDAR?

If you are new to the autonomous car conversation, LiDAR may just be another of those tech acronyms that leaves you heading to Google (again!).  Put simply though, LiDAR is the laser radar sensing system most automakers install on their autonomous vehicles. Despite it being a popular choice, it is not without its critics.  

Elon Musk has a particular aversion to it.  Believing it to be expensive and unnecessary, he has described it as a “fool’s errand”.  He even has gone so far as to say that those manufacturers who rely on it are “doomed”.  

This week,  Scott Burroughs CEO of North Carolina-based startup, Sense Photonics believes his company has come up with an alternative that may just please the tech giant!  

Termed “flash LiDAR”, Burroughs is confident that Sense Photonics has come up with an alternative LiDAR system which ‘sees’ better than existing systems and isn’t nearly as visually unappealing.

“It’s very simple, has no moving parts (and is a) fully solid state”; he says.

He describes the system thus:

“We have a unique laser emitter we turn on that sends a high power flash of light into the field of view… the photons recycle off different objects in the field of view and reflect it back toward our LiDAR system to a lens that collects those photons, and images them onto a multiple plane array that contains simple 3D sensor chip.   That’s what generates the 3D point cloud.”

In layman’s terms, flash LiDAR architecture includes a 3D camera sending out a video stream instead of a 2D camera as is the case in many other systems.  The Sense Photonics system adds the same small RGB cameras used as backup cameras in many vehicles – all of which add up to more and better information guiding the robocar. 

Burroughs points to more positive differentiators between his system and the more traditional LiDAR technologies.

Burroughs has an answer to Musk’s “expensive” claim.  By using a laser emitter that’s actually an array of 11,000 tiny laser emitters instead of just one big one, Sense Photonics can operate “very cost-effectively”.  They use their core technology to bring down the cost of their laser emitter. He has cited that their product “costs one-one hundredth” of what can be bought commercially.

Another differentiator is the flash LiDAR’s ability to “see” where current systems cannot.  Burroughs describes there to be a “big black region of about five meters” around the vehicle which makes navigating urban settings difficult for robocars.

Another difference that may please Musk is the aesthetic.  Embodying the market in which it operates, Tesla design is known for its clean lines and somewhat futuristic appearance.  

Sense’s product facilitates a much smoother integration of the external features of any LiDAR tech already fitted to autonomous vehicles.   Those large spinning “coffee cans” on top of a robocar are not needed.

“Because of Flash LiDAR architecture we can actually physically separate the laser emitter from the receiver portion of the LiDAR,” explained Burroughs. “Now you have two much smaller units that allow you to design into the automobile in a much more seamless fashion.” 

Whether this “next level” system is preferable to Musk remains to be seen.  He is noted for having strong opinions, however. We can’t see Sense Photonics reversing his LiDAR aversion anytime soon!

Self Driving Truck Startup Kodiak Robotics begins deliveries in Texas.

A self-driving truck startup, Kodiak Robotics has announced this week that they will begin making its first commercial deliveries in Texas.  Kodiak has eight autonomous trucks in its fleet, and according to the company, it’s “growing quickly”.

Kodiak have just come out of stealth mode with a cool $40m and will use the money to open a new facility in North Texas to support its freight operations along with increasing its testing in the state.

They are not the only freight enterprise who have used the wide, open highways of Texas as a test ground.  Other companies developing autonomous vehicle technology for trucks such as Embark and Starsky Robotics have also tested on Texas roads.

The state has become a magnet for autonomous vehicle startups, particularly those working on self-driving trucks; largely due to the combination of a friendly regulatory environment and the state’s position as a logistics and transportation hub.

There are some caveats to Kodiak Robotics milestone announcement though. Certainly, in the early period, Kodiak’s self-driving trucks will have a human safety driver behind the wheel.  Undeniably a landmark moment, the company didn’t provide details on who its customers are or what it will be hauling. There has also been no real clarification on who its customers are or what it will be hauling.

It does mark progress for such a young company though.  Indeed Kodiak have only been running since April 2018. In this time, they have come a long way and realised some heady ambitions.  

We are sure they will go on to realise the huge potential that autonomous freight haulage holds.

About the author: As a founder of Ignite Digital Talent, I lead our brilliant team to ensure we deliver time and time again for our clients. I also stay closely networked with industry influencers to ensure we are well placed to understand the issues and challenges our clients face.

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