Investors Pony Up for Self-Driving Cars
Roopinder Tara posted on March 05, 2020 |
Despite tech and safety challenges, there is no stopping investment in autonomous vehicles.


Pony.ai, a Chinese autonomous vehicle (AV) company, has received $462 million in another round of funding, most of it from Toyota, which chipped in $400 million. That brings the total investment in the 3-year-old company to a bit more than $3 billion.
(Image courtesy of PitchBook.)
(Image courtesy of PitchBook.)
It’s all part of an investing fever around self-driving vehicle companies that received $10.4 billion in funding in 2019 in a total of 146 deals, according to PitchBook. Pony.ai joins other Chinese AV companies AutoX and Zoox as one of only three companies that are able to drive robotaxis in California, though they must operate with a person at the wheel. Another Chinese AV company, Momemta, was the first to go over $1 billion in investments.

Toyota has made 12 investments in AVs since 2010, including $500 million in Uber’s self-driving vehicle program only months after Elaine Herzberg was killed by an Uber self-driving vehicle while crossing the street almost two years ago.

The goal of all AV companies is Level 5 autonomy—what most of the public imagines when they think about self-driving cars: there is no driver, and the car knows where to go and how to get there, and avoids all sorts of obstacles along the way. That requires a lot of testing, monitored driving (“safety operators” covering the wheel), simulation, public acceptance—and tons of money.

Pony.ai places fifth in the number of disengagements, where a human has to take control of the vehicle for whatever reason. The clear leader is Google’s Waymo, whose AVs travel more than 10 times the distance of Pony.ai cars before disengagement occurs. California requires this reporting much to the dismay of the AC companies, who claim it is a poor measure of performance. (Image courtesy of Twitter.)
Pony.ai places fifth in the number of disengagements, where a human has to take control of the vehicle for whatever reason. The clear leader is Google’s Waymo, whose AVs travel more than 10 times the distance of Pony.ai cars before disengagement occurs. California requires this reporting much to the dismay of the AC companies, who claim it is a poor measure of performance. (Image courtesy of Twitter.)
Pony.ai has its main office in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China. It maintains a smaller office in Fremont, Calif., which is closer to venture capital funder Sequoia Capital, one of the company’s major investors. It has been testing its AV fleets in China. In California, “safety operators” are required to sit in the driver’s seat, hands covering the steering wheel like driving school instructors ready for any potential lapse by their vehicles/students.

On the company website, Pony.ai claims first to offer a “public-facing Robotaxi service in California and in China.” Uber, headquartered in San Francisco, was forced to take its AV fleet out of the city and into Arizona after a dispute with lawmakers.

Pony.ai has a fleet of self-driving cars operating in the Nansha district about an hour from Guangzhou’s city center. In the U.S., where the public is far less trusting of AVs, the company must operate its test fleets with a human at the wheel. (Image courtesy of Edelman.)
Pony.ai has a fleet of self-driving cars operating in the Nansha district about an hour from Guangzhou’s city center. In the U.S., where the public is far less trusting of AVs, the company must operate its test fleets with a human at the wheel. (Image courtesy of Edelman.)
Pony.ai uses LiDAR sensors, among other types. Last year the company was sued by Velodyne, whose very expensive LiDAR units sit atop most other AV test cars, for patent infringement.

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