With the accelerated penetration of artificial intelligence, autonomous driving technology has undoubtedly become the hottest field at present. In addition to traditional automobile enterprises and Internet giants, a large number of technology startups have also emerged. According to the incomplete statistics, there have been more than 240 startups globally involved in R&D activities in the field of autonomous driving technology. China is the largest automobile market in the world, no wonder that the number of local startups is high.
Funding activity is on the up
Being one of the most promising sections of the automobile industry, the autonomous driving market starts to heat up gradually. Data from ITjuzi shows that as early as 2008, there were startups related to autonomous driving technology in China. The pace of development entered the fast lane in 2013 and peaked in 2017.
After several years of inactivity, capital markets in 2015 showed unprecedented enthusiasm for autonomous driving. ITjuzi (IT桔子), a venture-capital database in China's pan-TMT sector, released data showing that 8 autonomous driving companies in China received some funding in 2014. In 2015, this figure soared to 31, with a growth rate of 287.5%. The amount of investment also increased from CNY 320 million to CNY 4.46 billion in this year.
Of course, the rapid development of the industry cannot happen without policy support and catalysis. Investors are keenly aware of opportunities in the industry behind policy support.
‘Made in China 2025 strategy’ was officially promulgated in 2015. China needs to master the overall technology and key technologies of intelligent driving by 2020. The company will master the overall autonomous driving technology and key technologies, establish a completely independent research and development system, production supporting system and the industrial cluster of the intelligent connected vehicle, and basically complete the transformation and upgrading of automobile industry by 2025.
China's ‘medium and long-term development plan for the automobile industry’ has proposed specific time nodes for the development of intelligent connected vehicles in 2017. The assembly qualified rate of new car DA (driving assistance), PA (partial automatic driving) and CA (conditional automatic driving) systems should exceed 50%, and the assembly rate of connected driving assistance system should reach 10%. By 2025, the assembly rate of DA, PA and CA new cars will reach 80%, among which the assembly rate of PA and CA new cars will reach 25% by 2020. In other words, autonomous cars will begin to enter the market just in several years.
Research from Strategy Analytics shows that the market size of autonomous smart cars and mobile Shared travel will reach USD 7 trillion by 2050, including USD 4 trillion for ride-hailing services based on driverless smart cars and USD 3 trillion for express delivery and commercial logistics services. Against this backdrop, China's massive market could spawn more autonomous driving startups.
As for the popularity of autonomous driving, some insiders believe that autonomous driving technology has a large market space and a long industrial chain, and will gradually become a new pillar industry in the future, which is bound to produce new super enterprises. In addition, the application of Internet of things, big data, AI and other technologies is accelerating the transformation of the logistics market to intelligent logistics, and the demand for autonomous driving, distribution technology and solutions in the logistics scene also triggers the further increase of capital and start-up companies.
Changing the face of transportation is a costly business, one that typically requires corporate backing or a lot of venture funding to realize such an ambitious goal. On Jan. 4, WeRide.ai secured the Series A funding round of tens of millions of dollars from Sensetime (商汤科技) and ABC International (农银国际). That was the first publicly announced round of financing in the autonomous driving industry this year.
Another Chinese autonomous driving startup TuSimple announced on February 13 that it has secured a USD 95 million Series D financing led by Sina capital, which will be used for the commercial landing, technology research and development of autonomous driving. Toussaint future has raised about USD 85 million in the first three rounds, while TuSimple says it is valued at more than USD 1 billion after the Series D round financing.
In addition, there are many other companies that have received significant financing since their inception. EqualOcean has compiled a list of the top 10 companies that have raised the most money so far.
Pony develops artificial intelligence solutions in the field of robotics. James Peng and Lou Tiancheng founded it in 2016, with its headquarters in Fremont in California with additional offices in Silicon Valley, Beijing, and Guangzhou.
Pony.ai is so far the best-performing Chinese autonomous vehicle company, ranking fifth with 1,022.3 MpD (Miles per Disengagement) in the annual autonomous vehicle testing report released by the California DMV.
As one of the world's leading AI startups, Horizon Robotics has a top executive team in the industry, with the ability to develop algorithms, software, hardware, processors, and cloud infrastructure. Of the world's top four Internet AI R&D institutions, two were established by the founding team members of Horizon Robotics - Baidu's Institution of Deep Learning (IDL) and Facebook AI Research (FAIR).
The company's core members have been rated world No.1 in more than 20 international AI competitions, and have provided products and services that have been affecting hundreds of millions of users in such areas as processor design, high-performance cloud computing, parallel computing, face recognition, and voice semantic recognition.
TuSimple, which launched in 2015 and has operations in San Diego and Tucson, Ariz., has been running daily routes for customers in Arizona. The company recently raised $95 million in a Series D funding round led by Sina Corp. The company is preparing to scale up its commercial autonomous fleet to more than 50 trucks by June.
TuSimple has raised $178 million to date in rounds that have included backers such as Nvidia and ZP Capital. Sina, the operator of China’s biggest microblogging site Weibo, is one of TuSimple’s earliest investors.
Momenta is an autonomous driving company from China and aims to build the ‘Brains’ for autonomous vehicles. The company was founded in September 2016 by Cao Xudong, a former scientist at Microsoft Research and formerly executive director of research and development at Chinese face recognition start-up SenseTime.
Momenta's deep-learning based software in perception, HD semantic mapping, and data-driven path planning enables the realization of full autonomy.
Founded in April 2018, AutoAI was established by Navinfo, the original intelligent network business, and many domestic first-class Internet companies and well-known investment institutions. Invested and jointly invested in the establishment of an intelligently networked system developer and operator for a new generation of self-driving cars.
The company has gathered many well-known leading figures and talents in various sectors of the industry, providing technology development and product development from intelligent navigation, car networking services and content, intelligent networked operating systems and solutions, car networking big data and operation.
RoboSense (Suteng Innovation Technology Co., Ltd.) is a world-leading LiDAR environment perception solution provider.
Founded in 2014, RoboSense is headquartered in Shenzhen and has set up branch offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Germany, and the United States. The company is committed to delivering comprehensive LiDAR environment perception solutions, focused on which, the team has been continuously working on and making innovations in many core technical fields such as FPGA, LiDAR hardware, and AI algorithms. With customers’ needs in mind, RoboSense provides a variety of bespoke intelligent environment perception LiDAR systems.
Hesai specializes in designing and manufacturing laser sensors for different industries, including LiDARs (3D scanners for self-driving cars and robots), and gas leak remote sensors for the natural gas industry.
Hesai was founded in 2013 in Silicon Valley and now is headquartered in Shanghai, with about 560 employees (>30 PhDs) from top universities such as MIT, Stanford and Tsinghua, and industry-leading engineers from top tech companies such as Apple, Samsung, BMW, Delphi, etc. Hesai currently owns 1 research centre and 2 manufacturing centres. Hesai's LiDARs have served pioneering autonomous driving technology companies worldwide. More than 40% of 62 companies who have autonomous-driving road-test permits in California are Hesai's customers.
Founded in June 2017, HoloMatic is a startup company dedicated to providing autonomous driving solutions based on cutting-edge artificial intelligence and automotive industry technologies.
HoloMatic is one of the few companies in possession of a complete layout of autonomous driving technologies, from the wire control, multi-sensor to core algorithm modules. Meanwhile, the company provides solutions targeted at mass production, as an effort to accelerate the industrialization of autonomous driving.
Yihang.ai, a Changchun, Jilin Province-based startup focused on providing autonomous driving solutions, announced on October 13 that it has signed a strategic cooperation agreement with smart EV startup CHJ Automotive in the autonomous driving field.
The first volume production SUV from CHJ Automotive will adopt an Autopilot solution jointly developed by the two companies, who will also work together to develop Level 4 autonomous driving technology based on deep learning and aim to launch China’s first L4 capable volume production vehicle.
After policy guidance and capital input, how to commercialize and land their autonomous driving technology becomes the focus of the industry. According to the current market situation, the start-up companies with advanced driving assistance system (ADAS) are similar to traditional parts companies in terms of commercial landing. One is to cooperate with agents to enter the c-terminal consumer market in the future.
At present, such enterprises have received some market orders. Some enterprises with core technology algorithms provide software technology and calculation methods to the car factory. Such enterprises usually need to run in and cooperate with the car factory for a long time。This is not difficult to explain the head of the investors is not only investment institutions, but also many car companies involved.
EqualOcean collated and analyzed the financing histories of these ten companies and found that, in the current financing history of these ten enterprises, there are 54 investment enterprises, among which the relatively active enterprises include IDG Capital, NVIDIA, NIO Capital, Sina, Tencent, and Sequoia Capital China. In TuSimple's five rounds of funding, Sina appeared three times. NIO Capital is an investor in two companies, Momenta and AutoAI.
Yet immature but promising industry
Some industry experts say that the trucking is expected to be one of the first major areas to commercialize autonomous driving vehicles or adopt autonomous driving technology, as highway conditions have relatively predictable advantages over busy urban streets. Many companies are also engaged in the field of commercializing autonomous driving vehicles. Maybe that's why Sina is so confident about TuSimple.
Daimler, for example, recently announced its plans to invest about EUR 500 million (USD 573 million) over the next few years to develop highly automated trucks. At the same time, Stuttgart, Germany-based automotive giant made its first-ever investment in a Chinese startup this week, taking part in a USD 46 million funding round for Momenta, a Beijing-based firm providing road sensors and high definition mapping software.
In the future, autonomous driving technology might bring a lot of convenience to people's mobility and significantly improve driving safety.
However, it should also be noted that it is not easy to achieve fully autonomous driving, and it still faces many challenges, including technical, legal, infrastructure, maps and high-end sensors. At present, the autonomous driving research and development of startups and even car companies are still dominated by prototype technology solutions, which are still a long way from actual landing and mass production applications.