China-based self-driving startup Pony.ai this evening announced that it’ll team up with Toyota, the automotive giant that responsible for 9.46% of global car sales in the fiscal year 2018, to explore a range of “safe” mobility services. Specifically, the two companies say they’ll collaborate on a pilot program to “accelerate the development and deployment” of driverless vehicles.
The announcement comes after Pony.ai revealed PonyPilot , a test project for “product-ready” autonomous cars within a geofenced area in Guangzhou. It’s currently available to Pony.ai employees and “select affiliates” by invitation only, it covers roughly 50 square kilometers of central Nansha, including commercial plazas, office buildings, landmark hotels, libraries, and residential complexes.
As for Toyota, it’s not the automaker’s first investment in driverless car technology. In March 2018, the Tokyo-based auto giant announced that the Toyota Research Institute, its R&D division, would build a closed-course test facility in Ottawa Lake, Michigan to replicate “edge case” driving scenarios too dangerous to conduct on public roads. More recently, Toyota invested $500 million in Uber to jointly develop self-driving cars, deepening its existing partnership with the ride-sharing company. And it worked with CALTY Design Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan to streamline the design of its in-house autonomous test vehicle.
Additionally, Toyota last year took the wraps off of a concept it’s calling e-Pallete, or fully-automated battery-powered electric cars designed to be scalable and customizable for a range of “mobility-as-a-service” businesses. The carmaker intends to work with companies including Softbank, Amazon, Didi Chuxing, Mazda, and Pizza Hut to deploy shuttle bus-sized, self-driving multi-purpose vehicles that can be used to deliver food, offer onboard medical examinations, double as hotel rooms and retail space, and more.
Peng, the former chief architect at Chinese search engine Baidu, cofounded Pony.ai in 2016 with Lou, who worked at Google X’s autonomous car project before it was spun off into Waymo. The pair aims to build level 4 autonomous cars — cars that can operate without human oversight under select conditions, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers — for “predictable” environments, such as industrial parks, college campuses, and small towns, with a tentative deployment window of 2-3 years from now.
Pony’s full-stack hardware platform, PonyAlpha, leverages lidars, radars, and cameras to keep tabs on obstacles within up to 200 meters of its self-driving cars. It serves as the foundation for the startup’s fully autonomous trucks and freight delivery solution, which Pony.ai began testing on public roads in April, and it’s deployed on prototypical cars on public roads in Fremont, California and Beijing (in addition to Guangzhou).
Pony.ai has tripled its headcount since January 2018, and it’s secured an autonomous vehicle testing license in Beijing — only the second granted by the government — by logging more than 3,107 miles, demonstrating 39 capabilities across six categories of tests, and completing 10 days of “holistic” safety and operations evaluations. And in June, it obtained a robotaxi operation permit in California
Earlier this year, Pony.ai attracted $50 million in pre-B financing from video game publisher Beijing Kunlun Wanwei . It previously raised $102 million from lead investors ClearVue Partners and Eight Roads (Fidelity International Limited’s investment arm), bringing its total raised to $214 million and bringing its valuation to over $1 billion.
Other new investors who contributed to Pony.ai’s growing war chest include Green Pine Capital Partners, China Merchants Capital, Redpoint Ventures China, and Delong Capital, alongside existing investors Sequoia Capital China, Morningside Ventures, DCM Ventures, and Hongtai Capital.
Pony.ai has competition in Daimler, which last summer obtained a permit from the Chinese government allowing it to test self-driving cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in Beijing. Separately, startup Optimus Ride built out a small autonomous shuttle fleet in New York City. Waymo, which has racked up more than 10 million real-world miles in over 25 cities across the U.S. and roughly 7 billion simulated miles, in November 2018 became the first company to obtain a driverless car testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Other competitors include GM’s Cruise Automation, Tesla, Zoox, Aptiv, May Mobility, Pronto.ai, Aurora, and Nuro, to name a few.
But there’s plenty of money to go around in China’s goldmine of a market. According to a McKinsey report, self-driving vehicles and mobility services in the region are expected to be worth more than $500 billion by 2030, when roughly 8 million autonomous cars hit public roads.