Guangzhou, China-based self-driving car startup Pony.ai today announced it’ll team up with Toyota, the Japanese auto giant with a roughly 9% share of the global car market, to explore “safe” mobility services involving driverless technology across a range of segments and industries. Specifically, the two companies say they’ll collaborate on a pilot program to “accelerate the development and deployment” of autonomous vehicles.
The announcement comes after the reveal of Pony.ai’s PonyPilot, a test project for “product-ready” self-driving cars within a geofenced area in Guangzhou. It’s currently available to employees and “select affiliates” by invitation only, and 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 one of several ongoing driverless car forays. In March 2018, the company 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 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 shuttles that can be used to deliver food, offer onboard medical examinations, double as hotel rooms, and more.
Former Baidu chief architect James Peng cofounded Pony.ai in 2016 with Tiancheng 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 company’s fully autonomous trucks and freight delivery solution, which commenced testing on public roads in April, and it’s deployed in test cars within the city limits of Fremont, California and Beijing (in addition to Guangzhou).
Pony.ai is one of the few firms to have secured an autonomous vehicle testing license in Beijing. Stateside, in California, it’s obtained a robo-taxi operations permit.
Earlier this year, Pony.ai — which has tripled its headcount since January 2018 — 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.