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10 Most Funded Self-Driving Startups in 2017

While waiting on the rooftop of the Chrysler Building for our autonomous flying taxi to arrive, we realized a couple of things. First, there’s no rooftop on the Chrysler Building. Second, we’ll probably be waiting for a while. The arrival of autonomous vehicles—flying or otherwise—seems like it should be just around the corner. The reality is that self-driving cars still have a long road ahead. While there are certainly technological challenges, many of the speed bumps have more to do with social and legislative issues. Considering that about two-thirds of people are still freaked out about the idea of sharing the road with robotic cars, we wonder just how quickly the new technology will be adopted.

Baidu’s latest open-source, self-driving platform, Apollo. Credit: Baidu.

While the consumers of this new technology might remain skeptical, the automotive industry and others seem convinced that the future is in driverless technology. More than 40 corporations were working on autonomous vehicles last year, according to CB Insights. The list included traditional automakers like Ford, which took a $1 billion stake in AI startup Argo.ai last year. Many tech companies like Google and Apple are also joining the race to build self-driving cars. Chinese tech giant Baidu, for example, plans to mass produce driverless vehicles within five years. The company opened an AI research lab in Silicon Valley toward that goal, and recently announced a $1.5 billion fund focused on investing in autonomous driving tech startups. It’s not alone. Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi is launching a five-year $1 billion VC fund to invest in “next-generation mobility” with an eye toward autonomous driving technologies.

It’s not surprising, then, that private investments into autonomous vehicle startups fell somewhere in the $4 billion neighborhood in 2017 across more than 90 deals, according to data we compiled from Crunchbase. Below we highlight the top 10 funded startups from last year.

China Tops List – $1.6 billion

While officially listed as an electric vehicle company, Shanghai-based NIO has produced the world’s fastest self-driving EV and is the most well-funded autonomous vehicle startup in China. It picked up $1.6 billion in two separate rounds last year, with total funding topping $2.1 billion. The company’s ES8 is an electric SUV exclusively built for the Chinese market and features the NIO Pilot system, an autonomous driving assistant system, as well as the company’s AI system NOMI, which seems to be a digital companion like the Echo’s Alexa. It’s concept car, EVE, appears to be a living room on wheels:

Credit: NIO

The company says its self-driving cars will be on sale in the United States by 2020.

Instant Money – $1 billion

Founded in 2017, Pittsburgh-based Argo.ai almost instantly joined the big leagues when Ford announced it would invest $1 billion in the company over five years, taking a majority stake in the new artificial intelligence startup. Founded by former Googlers and Uberers, Argo will help build the “brains” of the automaker’s new fleet of self-driving vehicles. Ford believes that Argo’s expertise will get it to commercial production of Level 4 automation—pretty much full self-driving capability but kitted out for a human to drive as well—by 2021. The company has expanded rapidly, with about 250 employees, and already has test cars on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Distracted Driving – $200 million

Another Chinese self-driving startup with big plans, Future Mobility received $200 million in investments that included backers Foxconn and Tencent. The buzzword these days among autonomous vehicle manufacturers is future mobility, implying an ecosystem of electric, self-driving contraptions, so Future Mobility seems well positioned for Google searches. A look at its new SUV prototype shows there will be plenty of distractions for searching the web, with a dashboard-length screen:

The electric SUV should retail for about $45,000 with a range of more than 300 miles.

On THE List – $159 million

Founded in 2015, Nauto out of Silicon Valley raised a $159 million Series B last July to bring total funding to $174 million. We profiled the company in depth last year, so we won’t go into much more detail here except to note that the company recently made it on the CB Insights AI 100 list of artificial intelligence startups. Enough said.

Numbers Game – $150 million

Another Shanghai-based self-driving juggernaut, WM Motors is a bit of a moving target when it comes to pinpointing its full funding, but it’s obviously one of the better funded Chinese autonomous driving startups today. The company took in CN¥1 billion ($150 million) in November, but also closed two additional though undisclosed rounds in December. Total funding is at least $1.15 billion but perhaps as high as $1.8 billion, which suggests those other two rounds should place it higher on our roundup. For now, we’ll stick with the more conservative numbers. Backers include Chinese bigwigs like Tencent and Baidu, as well as Sequoia’s China-focused fund.

Brains Behind the Operation – $114 million

We first introduced you to Brain Corp in our feature about its self-driving floor cleaners. The company took in $114 million from SoftBank and Qualcomm, which has been its main investor since the company was founded in 2009. Total funding is $125 million. Its AI navigation system, isn’t just for servicing floors but for other kinds of commercial equipment such as forklifts.

The SoftBank connection already appears to be paying dividends: Brain Corp plans to enter the robot-loving Japanese market with a robotic floor scrubber built by SoftBank and controlled with Brain Corp’s AI-backed BrainOS.

Jumping Smoothly on the Bandwagon – $100 million

Founded in 2009, ClearMotion out of Massachusetts seems to be one of those companies jumping on the self-driving bus. The company took in $100 million last year, not including an undisclosed round in June, from the likes of JP Morgan and Qualcomm, so the startup must be driving toward something interesting. Total funding is about $130 million, according to the company. A spinoff out of MIT formerly called Levant Power that had developed a new type of shock absorber that converted absorbed energy into electricity, ClearMotion has pivoted to developing a “digital chassis” for the autonomous vehicle market. The technology replaces traditional automotive shock absorbers with software-controlled actuators, allowing cars to interpret and react to road conditions in real time.

Keep on Trucking – $75 million

Founded in 2015, Beijing-based TuSimple is one of the frontrunners in developing driverless trucks. The company picked up $75 million in two rounds last year, bringing total funding to $83 million, with one of the key investors being AI chipmaker Nvidia. TuSimple also uses a lot of Nvidia hardware including Nvidia GPUs.

Credit: Nvidia

The company showed off its Level 4 autonomous truck at the Consumer Electronics Show this month, with plans to hit the roads for testing in Arizona this year.

Mapping the Way Forward – $73 million

When we first discovered Israel-based Innoviz Technologies last year, the startup had raised $9 million for its LiDAR system for autonomous vehicle navigation. And then it added $73 million in an extended Series B that included SoftBank and Samsung, bringing total backing to $82 million. It’s first LiDAR system (basically, the eyes of the vehicle), InnovizPro, is scheduled to be released this year for use in autonomous vehicle testing and development. The InnovizOne, for high levels of vehicle automation, is on the books for 2019.

Going Retro – $65 million

Founded in 2015, Drive.ai is a startup from Silicon Valley that we highlighted in our list of five new self-driving companies in 2016. The company took in $65 million over two separate rounds last year, bringing total disclosed funding to $77 million. The company has since evolved to apply its AI technology to build self-driving retrofit kits for commercial vehicles. Using off-the-shelf hardware, such as LiDAR for navigation, Drive.ai is developing the software to make regular cars autonomous.

Last year, it partnered with Lyft in California to test its product. It also made the CB Insights AI 100 list.

Conclusions on Self-Driving Automation

There are few technologies that we cover with the sort of money and number of players entering the market than driverless vehicles. It’s really only a matter of time before fully robotic systems are ready for deployment in the United States. How long? Everyone likes round numbers, and many predictions we see are targeting 2020.

The experts at McKinsey are a little less optimistic, saying that high-level automation won’t hit the streets for about five years. They rightfully argue that there is still a lot of validation work to do to ensure that self-driving vehicles can navigate through every kind of unstructured environment safely. On the other end of the spectrum, an analyst from Forbes predicts that there will be 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020 and that one in four vehicles will be autonomous by 2030.

He also makes some strong arguments, noting that the technology adoption cycle is constantly compressing: It took electricity 50 years to be adopted by 60 percent of households, while smartphones reached the same penetration in only five years. Still, his projections seem wildly optimistic to us. Consider that there are only about two million electric vehicles on the road worldwide. Electric cars have actually been around since the 19th century, though it’s only been about 10 years since the first highway-capable vehicles hit the market. People need electricity but they don’t need electric vehicles or cars that drive themselves. Yet.

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