Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai raises R7bn in Toyota-led funding

26 February 2020 - 08:20 By Reuters
A vehicle on display at a Pony.ai Inc booth at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China, in August 2019.
A vehicle on display at a Pony.ai Inc booth at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China, in August 2019.
Image: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Autonomous driving firm Pony.ai said on Wednesday it has raised $462m (about R7bn) in its latest funding round, led by an investment by Japan's largest automaker, Toyota Motor Corp.

Toyota invested about $400m (about R6bn) in the round, Pony.ai said in a statement, marking its biggest investment in an autonomous driving company with a Chinese background.

The latest fundraising values the three-year-old firm, already backed by Sequoia Capital China and Beijing Kunlun Tech Co, at slightly more than $3bn (about R45bn).

Reuters reported the funding on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter. The sources added that some of Pony.ai's existing investors had joined the financing, but did not specify names.

The investment by Toyota comes at a time when global carmakers, technology firms, start-ups and investors, including Tesla, Alphabet Inc's Waymo and Uber, are pouring capital into developing self-driving vehicles.

Over the past two years, 323 deals related to autonomous cars raised $14.6bn (about R222bn) worldwide, according to data provider PitchBook, amid concerns about the technology, given its high cost and complexity.

The Silicon Valley-based start-up Pony.ai, cofounded by CEO James Peng, a former executive at China's Baidu, and chief technology officer Lou Tiancheng, a former Google and Baidu engineer, is already testing autonomous vehicles in California, Beijing and Guangzhou.

The firm is focusing on achieving “Level 4", or fully autonomous standards, in which the car can handle all aspects of driving in most circumstances with no human intervention.

The latest funding will support Pony.ai's future robotaxi operations and technology development, one of the sources said.

Pony.ai, which has partnerships with automakers Hyundai and GAC, said it will explore “further possibilities on mobility services” with Toyota.

This is not the first time Toyota, which sold more than 10 million cars globally last year, has invested in firms focused on autonomous driving and mobility services.

Its autonomous vehicle partnerships include a venture with SoftBank Corp and an investment in robotaxi developer Uber ATG. Last year, it invested $600m (about R9bn) in Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and a new joint venture to develop mobility services.

However, the Japanese carmaker, which has researched autonomous driving technologies mostly through in-house engineers and this year will launch its first vehicle with autonomous highway driving capabilities, has been lagging rivals in bringing self-driving cars to market.

It has taken a long view towards the technology, saying it will take decades for cars to drive themselves on roads.


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