Guangzhou, China-based startup Pony.ai today announced it’ll launch an autonomous ride-sharing program in Irvine, California on November 4, running through January. The service — dubbed BotRide — follows on the heels of an April test of the company’s “product-ready” driverless cars in Nansha, China, and it marks one of the first robo-taxi services to be made available in California.
Like PonyPilot, BotRide will allow individual riders and carpoolers to hail autonomous cars for free through Android and iOS apps developed in collaboration with Via. (Via handles booking and passenger assignment.) The vehicles in question are Hyundai KONA Electric SUVs outfitted with sensor hardware and Pony.ai’s proprietary autonomous navigation software, which the startup says can identify and predict the behavior of nearby vehicles and pedestrians while navigating challenging traffic conditions in urban areas.
BotRide will automatically verify onboard passengers and direct them to nearby stops for pickup and drop-off. Pony.ai said that a fleet of 10 cars with human safety drivers behind the wheel will be available Monday through Saturday, and that the service area will span public roads in residential, commercial, and institutional points of interest.
“The pilot introduces BotRide to several hundred Irvine residents, including college students. The goal is to study consumer behavior in an autonomous ride-sharing environment,” said Hyundai Motor Company head of business development Christopher Chang. “We are going to learn about ecosystems, where the vehicles travel and optimize the customer experience. BotRide is another example of Hyundai’s ongoing efforts to actively build expertise in mobility technology as well as the company’s commitment to providing more user-friendly mobility services to customers.”
The announcement comes after Pony.ai unveiled a partnership with Toyota, the Japanese auto giant with a roughly 9% share of the global car market, to explore “safe” mobility services involving driverless technology across a range of segments and industries. The two companies plan to kick off on a pilot program on public Beijing and Shanghai roads to “accelerate the development and deployment” of autonomous vehicles, using Lexus RX vehicles and Pony.ai’s driving system.
Former Baidu chief architect James Peng cofounded Pony.ai in 2016 with Tiancheng 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 — able to 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 to 3 years from now.
Pony’s full-stack hardware platform, PonyAlpha, leverages lidars, radars, and cameras to keep tabs on obstacles within up to 200 meters of its self-driving cars. It serves as the foundation for the company’s fully autonomous trucks and freight delivery solution, which commenced testing on public roads in April, and it is deployed in test cars within the city limits of Fremont, California and Beijing (in addition to Guangzhou).
Pony.ai is one of the few companies to have secured an autonomous vehicle testing license in Beijing. Stateside, in California, it has obtained a robo-taxi operations permit from the California Public Utilities Commission. Only three other companies have such a license in California, among them AutoX, Waymo, and Zoox.
Earlier this year, Pony.ai — which has tripled its headcount since January 2018 — attracted $50 million in pre-B financing from video game publisher Beijing Kunlun Wanwei, making it one of the most valuable autonomous driving startups in China. It previously raised $102 million from lead investors ClearVue Partners and Eight Roads (Fidelity International Limited’s investment arm), bringing its total raised to roughly $300 million and taking its valuation to over $1 billion.
Pony.ai has competition in Daimler, which last summer obtained a permit from the Chinese government that allows it to test self-driving cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in Beijing. Separately, startup Optimus Ride built out a small driverless shuttle fleet in Brooklyn. 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 rivals include GM’s Cruise Automation, Tesla, Zoox, Aptiv, May Mobility, Pronto.ai, Aurora, Nuro, and Yandex, the last of which has accumulated over 1 million autonomous miles to date.
Fortunately for Pony.ai, there’s plenty of cash to go around in China’s goldmine of a driverless car 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 the number of autonomous cars on public roads is expected to reach 8 million.