Fledgling U.K.-based driverless car startup FiveAI has raised £14 million ($18 million) in a series A round of funding led by Lakestar Capital, with participation from existing seed investors Notion Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners, and Kindred.

Founded out of Bristol in 2015, FiveAI is leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to build the brains and navigation systems to power the autonomous cars of the future. The company had previously revealed that it’s working toward an AI-powered system that enables self-driving cars to navigate all kinds of environments using simpler maps than has traditionally been possible. Indeed, rather than leaning on a mass repository of data involving detailed 3D maps of the world’s roads, it says that its system will be able to create a map of the world in real time as vehicles move along.

Global investments

The burgeoning autonomous driving industry has seen a marked increase in investment in recent times, as technology companies and automotive firms converge at a crossroads that could determine the future of mobility.

With Google’s parent company Alphabet committing to self-driving cars, Intel shelling out more than $15 billion to acquire computer vision firm Mobileye, and Volvo testing a range of self-driving trucks, there’s no denying a future where autonomy plays a central part in our day-to-day transport.

One problem that needs to be solved relates to safety. For vehicles to maneuver through traffic and hazardous conditions at great speeds, they must have a self-awareness and an understanding of the environment around them. There isn’t time to “think” and process data; they need to be able to react with split-second precision — that’s why quality maps, sensors, and onboard cameras capable of instantly processing detailed imagery are important. Where FiveAI claims to differ, however, is that it promises to use “strong AI to solve the challenge” of requiring highly detailed 3D imagery and localization for cars to navigate themselves. “[W]e don’t need to map 37.2 kilometers of roads across the planet to deliver a reliable solution,” the company proudly proclaims on its website.

FiveAI had raised a $2.7 million seed round in July 2016 and nabbed £12.8 million ($16.6 million) in government funding a few months back for a consortium it’s leading to push ahead with autonomous car testing on London roads via a project called StreetWise. The latest tranche, together with its government-provided funding, will go toward helping FiveAI test its technology in the same environment it hopes it will finally be used: busy, urban streets.

“London has one of the best public transport systems in the world,” said FiveAI cofounder and CEO Stan Boland. “Cycling, walking, buses and trains offer a great service for most commuters, but some journeys are still being served by personal or individual transport. Initially we’ll target these journeys with our shared mobility solution which will also pave the way for potential large-scale autonomous public transport in the future. In the short term, from day one of service launch, the StreetWise project will increase public transport usage, reduce congestion and emissions, and make our urban areas more liveable for all.”

Local focus

With countless companies from the U.S. and elsewhere already at fairly advanced stages in terms of testing self-driving vehicles, one of FiveAI’s core selling points is that it’s a local company. The likes of Alphabet’s Waymo and Uber are investing heavily in this field, and there is some anxiety that major U.S. tech giants could “lock up” European cities with U.S.-built proprietary systems. Furthermore, U.K. and European conurbations may pose quite distinct challenges to those elsewhere in the world, which is why a more localized solution is being touted.

“Dense European cities present totally different technical, behavioural, regulatory, and infrastructure challenges to their U.S. and Chinese counterparts for safe urban driverless technologies,” explained Lakestar Capital’s Dharmash Mistry, who will also join FiveAI’s board as a result of the investment. “By assembling its talented team in the U.K. and seeking to support London’s transport objectives in partnership with the city itself, FiveAI can play a vital role in reducing congestion, emissions, costs, accidents and journey times, boosting the city economy at the same time.”

FiveAI added that it plans to launch a “supervised trial” of a fleet of autonomous vehicles on London roads by 2019.

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