Pony.ai, Autonomous Car Startup, Raises in $112M Series A Funding

Autonomous vehicle technology is fertile ground for startups. Since almost all of the technology involved is still developing, small companies have ample opportunity to get involved, innovate and compete with larger companies on AV components such as Lidar sensors, artificial intelligence systems and HD mapping.

But building a self-driving car from the ground up? That’s an area that’s still for the most part reserved for the big boys.

It’s no coincidence that the companies taking on this challenge are traditional automakers. Even a self-driving heavyweight like Waymo still relies on a fleet of minivans produced by Chrysler. There are so many hardware and software costs associated with building a complete driverless car that it’s hard to see how an independent startup could realistically compete.

That is not deterring the team at self-driving startup Pony.ai. Pony.ai was only founded in late 2016, but it has set its sights on building a complete driverless car. If it falls short of its goals it probably won’t be for lack of money. It was recently announced that Pony.ai received a whopping $112 million in financing for its Series A round.

The fundraising was led by Morningside Venture Capital and Legend Capital, each of which has a primary focus on Chinese investments. (Pony.ai is “co-located” in Silicon Valley and Beijing.) Also participating in the round were Sequoia China, IDG Capital, Hongtai Capital, Legend Star, Puhua Capital, Polaris Capital, DCM Ventures, Comcast Ventures and Silicon Valley Future Capital. As the size of the investment suggests, these partners believe that Pony.ai has a chance to make an enormous splash in the autonomous vehicle space.

“Pony.ai is one of the very few companies we’ve seen that possesses the critical success factors: a team with a proven track record and extremely well-rounded technical expertise from both research and industry backgrounds,” Legend Capital managing director Wenji Jin noted in a statement. “From product definition and systems integration to artificial intelligence, Pony.ai is the leader in this nascent industry. I believe Pony.ai holds the most promise in delivering [Level 4 vehicular autonomy] technology to the mass market.”

The company’s co-founders do indeed have an impressive pedigree. Co-founder and CTO Tiancheng Lou worked on Google’s self-driving car project before it was spun off into what is now Waymo. Co-founder and CEO James Peng was a founding member of Baidu’s autonomous driving team.

Pony.ai will use the Series A funding to launch an autonomous fleet in Guangzhou, China, where the company has an office. Before that, though, he says the company has some testing to do to ensure its vehicles can coexist with human-driven cars in real-world scenarios, according to Peng.

“I think in the grand scheme of things the biggest challenge is still the uncertainty in the open driving environment,” Peng told TechCrunch. “Robots have been out there for 30-40 years, and most of them are working in somewhat confined environments. Vehicles themselves are like robots, but they have to operate in uncertain environments.”


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