Guangzhou, China-based self-driving startup Pony.ai is joining an exclusive club of companies that have launched autonomous ride-hailing programs. At this year’s Shanghai Auto Show, it took the wraps off of PonyPilot, a test project for “product-ready” driverless cars within a geofenced area in Guangzhou. It’s currently available to Pony.ai employees and “select affiliates” by invitation only, and CEO James Peng says it’s the culmination of years of continuous testing in the city’s Nansha district.
“We could see the enormous AI wave on the horizon, and [we] had always wanted to leverage this to create something that would truly deliver value to people’s lives everywhere,” said Peng in a statement.
Pony.ai says that PonyPilot covers roughly 50 square kilometers of central Nansha, including commercial plazas, office buildings, landmark hotels, libraries, and residential complexes. Riders are able to hail cars at any predetermined point with a smartphone app available through WeChat, and travel using point-to-point dynamic routing to any other predetermined point within the area. During rides, passengers can follow their vehicle’s location and driving decisions through mounted in-cabin dashboards.
The cars benefit from Pony.ai’s improved full-stack platform, PonyAlpha, which boasts increased sensor coverage provided by additional lidars, radars, and cameras. The company claims that those and under-the-hood software improvements enable it to deliver a range of roughly 200 meters.
Pony.ai says it might consider opening PonyPilot to the public in the future, and potentially beyond the confines of Nansha. The company’s currently testing driverless cars in Fremont, California and Beijing, in addition to Guangzhou. If it were to do so, it’d join GM’s Cruise, which operates a driverless ride-hailing for employees — Cruise Anywhere — in San Francisco, and Waymo, which launched its Waymo One commercial driverless car service in Phoenix last year.
“We are encouraged and invigorated by what we have learned,” said Pony.ai cofounder and CTO Tiancheng Lou. “We are continually applying our learnings to solve some of the biggest tech challenges in our industry today.”
Pony.ai also announced this week that it has established an internal team to develop fully autonomous trucks and freight delivery vehicles. It’s already made progress: Within four months, its engineers completed a full system retrofit and have commenced regular autonomous truck testing on public roads.
Peng, the former chief architect at Chinese search engine Baidu, cofounded Pony.ai in 2016 with 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.
Earlier this month, Pony.ai 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.
Since January 2018, Pony.ai has tripled its headcount. It’s also secured an autonomous vehicle testing license in the city — only the second granted by the government — by logging more than 3,107 miles, demonstrating 39 capabilities across six categories of tests, and completing 10 days of “holistic” safety and operations evaluations.
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. And it’s just the tip of a very big iceberg.
Startup Optimus Ride announced it would build out a small autonomous shuttle fleet in New York City, following news of driverless car company Drive.ai’s expansion into Arlington, Texas. 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.
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.