The number of autonomous vehicles on California’s roads has more than doubled as automakers and big tech companies race against secretive start-ups to test their self-driving cars.
Two new permits granted for autonomous testing on Wednesday by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has taken the total number of companies licensed to drive their prototype vehicles in Silicon Valley’s home state to 27 — more than twice as many as a year ago and up from just seven in early 2015, according to the state’s automotive regulator.
The latest entrants to the increasingly crowded market are Uber, whose testing vehicles were forced off the roads in San Francisco (http://next.ft.com/content/f9d5d60e-c7eb-11e6-8f29-9445cac8966f) in December after it initially refused to apply for the DMV’s approval, and PlusAI, a 15-person start-up based in California and Beijing whose existence has until now been little known beyond a select group of automotive executives and tech investors.
Earlier this month Renovo Motors, a Silicon Valley start-up developing “automated mobility on demand”, and Navya, the French creator of an autonomous electric shuttle, were both added to the DMV’s approved list (http://bit.ly/1VX2VW7). The group looks set to increase further still as companies from all over the world flock to Silicon Valley to develop their technology and tap its sought-after talent pool. Didi, the Chinese ride-hailing service, opened a new R&D centre in Mountain View on Wednesday to work on intelligent driving, cyber security and artificial intelligence.
The surge in companies obtaining autonomous testing licences in California has been accompanied by an even faster growth in the number of vehicles that are being driven on public highways.
Today, according to the DMV, 77 of a total of 180 of those cars belong to Alphabet’s Waymo, which as the third company to register with the state’s testing programme has long maintained the largest fleet (http://next.ft.com/content/77680d24-e8d7-11e6-967b-c88452 263daf) of autonomous vehicles. Excluding those belonging to the former Google self- driving car project (http://next.ft.com/content/7c269112-c15b-11e6-81c2-f57d90f6741a), the number of autonomous vehicles permitted to test in California has increased more than eightfold since 2014.
The fastest acceleration in autonomous vehicles has come in the past year. Since March 2016, excluding Waymo, the number of self-driving cars (http://next.ft.com/content/44c31f 64-652c-11e6-a08a-c7ac04ef00aa) authorised has more than trebled from 33 to 103.
After Waymo, the companies with the largest autonomous fleets today are Cruise, the start- up acquired last year by General Motors (http://markets.ft.com/data/equities/tearsheet/su mmary?s=us:GM) for several hundred million dollars, with 27 cars, followed by Tesla with 24. The rest of the market has at most a handful of vehicles each, with even Uber currently licensed to test only two cars.
Alongside the likes of Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, which were the first two companies approved to test in California, and other traditional automakers, several small start-ups are vying for a piece of what many predict to be Silicon Valley’s next great market disruption.
PlusAI was founded early last year by David Liu, a former McKinsey consultant who has previously launched businesses in video advertising and mobile gaming, and Hao Zheng, who spent several years in senior roles at Yahoo’s Chinese R&D lab.
“We are really just focused on technology for now,” said Mr Liu. “We are not at the stage where it’s ready for large-scale commercial deployment just yet but we do see that will happen in the next two years. We want to be ready for that.”
PlusAI had raised several million dollars in funding from Silicon Valley venture groups, Mr Liu said, but he declined to name them as he has been trying to keep the company in low- profile “stealth mode” — until its existence was revealed by the California DMV’s permitting process this week.
“There are not as many companies in the field as you’d think, given it’s this hot,” he said. “There’s a lot of chatter about autonomous driving but there are really just a handful of companies who are capable of working on this. The bar is actually quite high.”
Another start-up in the sector, Drive.ai (http://next.ft.com/content/09ebddb4-6e40-11e6-a0c9-1365c e54b926), released the first demonstration of its technology last month. A short video showed cars using its system driving at night and in the rain — situations that have presented a challenge to some autonomous systems.
“These are conditions drivers encounter every single day,” the start-up wrote in a blog post. “Any successful self-driving technology will need to address countless unpredictable situations and a wide range of driving conditions, yet few are able to today.”
Zoox, another secretive autonomous driving start- up permitted to test in California, emerged briefly from its “stealth mode” last week in an unlikely location: the Game Developers Conference.
Its stall at the video game event in San Francisco was unmissable thanks to the presence of a large matte-black sports-utility vehicle covered in Lidar sensors and cameras. Alongside a smaller stand hosting its larger rival Uber, Zoox’s marketing push was aimed at recruiting games developers and software engineers who could create 3D environments and digital simulations that allow testing to continue beyond California’s roads.
As self-driving vehicles proliferate in the state, especially around San Francisco and the Silicon Valley peninsula to the south of the city, the drive has started to raise some questions about safety.
“The problem we face as a nascent industry is actually being able to deliver what we promise — can you actually get this car to drive safely?” said Mr Liu. “Don’t run red lights: that’s rule 101. Until you get that done, I don’t think you should put people’s lives in danger.”
This article is © The Financial Times Limited