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China’s robotaxis charged ahead in 2021

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Autonomous driving startups in China are in an arms race to put passengers in their machine-driven vehicles. Every few weeks, news arrives that another major player has got the greenlight to launch a new pilot program or a small-scale service.

These press releases, often dotted with regulatory jargon and flowery language to aggrandize the companies’ progress, can be confusing. That’s why we put together this post summarizing the progress of China’s major robotaxi operators — AutoX, Baidu, Deeproute.ai, Didi, Momenta, Pony.ai and WeRide — in 2021 while trying to parse what their announcements actually mean.

Most of the major players have been testing drivered (autonomous vehicles with in-car safety operators) and driverless vehicles for some time in China, so this post will focus on their public-facing services that run on a regular basis. While navigating the costs, safety and regulations around robotaxis, these companies have also dabbled into areas that are quicker to scale, such as self-driving trucks, goods-hauling vans and city buses, though robotaxis remain their focus in the long run.

A few things to note about China’s autonomous driving space

Before we dive in, it’s worth highlighting a few circumstances unique to China’s autonomous vehicle sector.

  1. Road conditions in the country can vary greatly. An autonomous driving test that takes place in an industrial park in suburban Shenzhen, for instance, will encounter much simpler traffic than one that runs in a meandering urban village downtown.
  2. Regulations on autonomous vehicles can differ across provinces — and even different districts within the same city. A company that obtains approval to run a fully driverless test in one city isn’t necessarily more technologically advanced than its peers; it could simply mean it’s cozy with a local regulator with a progressive attitude toward self-driving.
  3. Some regional governments are targeting smart transportation as their growth strategy. Naturally, they are keen to support autonomous vehicle startups. Authorities may give an informal nod to unmanned driving tests in their jurisdictions well before national or city-level regulations are rubberstamped.
  4. Government support can also manifest in ways like tax breaks, access to favorable land use and cheap office space. That’s in part why China’s major autonomous vehicle startups are concentrated in well-resourced cities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Suzhou.
  5. Local governments in China often set up pilot zones to spur the development of emerging technologies, like self-driving. Such initiatives allow companies to experiment without the usual regulatory constraints that rein in the more mature industries.
  6. As of today, no city in China has issued a permit for driverless robotaxis, which would allow an autonomous car to transport the public without a safety operator as Waymo and Cruise can in San Francisco. A few cities have granted permits for fully driverless tests on public roads.

AutoX

Headquartered in Shenzhen with an R&D center in California, AutoX was founded in 2016 by former Princeton professor Jianxiong Xiao. Its investors include Alibaba, MediaTek and Chinese state-owned carmaker SAIC Auto.

AutoX’s robotaxi in Shenzhen / Photo: AutoX (2021)

Operations

In August 2020, AutoX began offering drivered robotaxi rides to the public in Shanghai’s Jiading. Users can book trips through Alibaba’s Amap navigation map, which AutoX said was the “first time” a robotaxi service had become available on a major Chinese ride-hailing platform.

Jiading, a suburban district of Shanghai, has attracted a clutch of major automakers and OEMs like SAIC Auto, Volkswagon, NIO, Toyota, Baidu, Didi and Delphi to set up offices. AutoX said in 2020 that it had struck a deal with the Shanghai government to put 100 “self-driving vehicles” on the city’s public roads.

In January 2021, AutoX rolled out a driverless robotaxis service in Shenzhen’s Pingshan, an industrial district that is refashioning itself as a “smart city.” In November, AutoX said the program had covered the entire 168 square kilometers of Pingshan, which is nearly three times Manhattan’s size.

Just a month before, AutoX put a fleet of 25 unmanned autonomous vehicles on the public roads of Shenzhen in a “test”. A Chinese auto news blog reported that the startup went ahead without a license from the local transportation regulator, though AutoX told TechCrunch that it had obtained “government support.” We were unable to reach the relevant department at the time.

Altogether, AutoX said it has “several hundred” robotaxis on the road.

U.S. tests 

As of November 2021, AutoX held the testing permits for both drivered and driverless testing in California.

OEM partners 

AutoX has been working with Honda and Fiat Chrysler to develop robotaxis in China.

Baidu Apollo Go

Apollo Go is the autonomous driving front of search engine titan Baidu, the Beijing-based internet firm founded in 2000. Baidu kickstarted its autonomous driving unit in late 2015, around the same time most of its startup competitors were born.

Baidu’s Apollo Go robotaxi service in China / Photo: Baidu (2021)

Operations

In November 2021, Apollo Go was authorized to provide paid robotaxi service in China’s “first-ever demo zone for commercial autonomous driving” in Beijing.

The fleet of 67 vehicles, monitored by in-car safety drivers, was Apollo Go’s “first commercial deployment” on open roads. The service was available for hailing via Apollo Go’s app and ran every day from 7 am to 10 pm.

Apollo Go got to partake in China’s “first commercial robotaxi demo zone,” though it wasn’t the first to offer rides for compensations (spoiler: see WeRide’s section below). But the event carried much symbolic weight. The pilot area, spanning 60 square kilometers, sits inside the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Zone, a state-level economic project in suburban Yizhuang. It introduced a regulatory framework to stipulate how robotaxi operators could utilize passenger data and price their services. Developments in the capital city could become a model for the rest of China.

Yizhuang isn’t only promoting robotaxis; other types of autonomous vehicles are also welcome in its broader “connected vehicles demo zone.” A number of tech giants, including JD.com and Meituan, started testing unmanned delivery minivans there last year.

The free version of Apollo Go is available to the public in certain areas of Guangzhou, Changsha and Cangzhou, and is currently recruiting early testers in Shanghai.

U.S. tests

As of November 2021, Apollo held the testing permits for both drivered and driverless testing in California.

OEM partners 

Apollo Go’s robotaxi fleets are supplied by state-owned FAW Group’s HongqiEV startup WM Motor, state-owned GAC’s EV line Aion, and state-owned BAIC’s young EV line Arcfox.

Deeproute.ai

Shenzhen-based Deeproute has made considerable progress for a company that’s merely two years old. In 2019, Zhou Guang founded Deeproute after he left his last autonomous driving venture Roadstar.ai amid company infighting. The young entrepreneur quickly garnered support for his new endeavor. Last September, Deeproute raised a whopping $300 million in a Series B round from investors including Alibaba and Chinese automaker Geely.

Deeproute’s robotaxi service in Shenzhen / Photo: Deeproute.ai (2021)

Operations

In July, Deeproute deployed 20 drivered robotaxis on the public roads in Shenzhen’s downtown Futian district, which is close to its headquarters in the tech collaboration zone established by the governments of Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

The robotaxi service, which launched after the company obtained a permit from Shenzhen’s transport regulator in April, is still free to the public with plans to charge passengers in the future, the company told TechCrunch.

Last March, Deeproute’s robotaxi fleets, co-developed with state-owned Dongfeng Motor, began offering free rides to the public in Wuhan. The city in central China is another contender racing to become a pioneer in China’s autonomous driving field.

U.S. tests

As of November 2021, Deeproute held the testing permit for drivered autonomous vehicle testing in California.

OEM partners

The startup and Dongfeng have plans to deploy no fewer than 200 robotaxis by 2022.

Didi

The ride-hailing giant has been quieter than expected about its robotaxi ambitions, given it carved out an autonomous driving subsidiary in 2019 and quickly raised a $500 million round for the new entity — the single largest funding round in the industry at the time.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Didi has been distracted by other concerns. Shortly following its U.S. public listing last year, the firm was hit with a data probe by Chinese regulators. In December, the Chinese ride hailing giant announced it would delist from the New York Stock Exchange.

Didi’s robotaxi service in Shanghai / Photo: Didi (2020)

Operations

Didi’s robotaxi service began picking up passengers in some areas of Shanghai in June 2020. The company said it would expand its robotaxi service to Beijing and Shenzhen by the end of 2020 before replicating the scheme outside China in 2021. It has yet to update its progress. The company also set an ambitious goal to operate more than one million “self-driving cars” through its ride hailing platform by 2030.

U.S. tests

As of November 2021, Didi held the testing permit for drivered autonomous vehicle testing in California.

OEM partners

In April 2021, Didi announced that Geely-owned Volvo would be supplying its global robotaxi fleets.

Momenta

Unlike most other robotaxi operators, which focus on Level 4 fully autonomous driving tech, five-year-old Momenta is also touting advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) to automakers. This approach helps rake in short-term income but is questioned by industry observers as to whether the startup is devoting enough resources to real driverless tech.

Robotaxis co-developed by Momenta and SAIC Motor / Photo: Momenta (2021)

Nonetheless, Suzhou-based Momenta has become one of the most funded autonomous vehicle startups in China. It has raised $2 billion from a group of high-profile investors, from General Motors, Daimler, Bosch, Toyota, Chinese state-owned automaker SAIC to Nio Capital, a fund overseen by Nio’s founder William Li.

Unlike most of its peers that have set up R&D forces or are testing in the U.S., Momenta picked Germany as its launch pad for international expansion. In 2021, it opened an office in Stuttgart, the backyard of its investor Daimler.

Operations

In December 2021, Momenta and SAIC launched a free robotaxi service in certain parts of Shanghai. Users could summon these drivered vehicles via SAIC’s app from 8 am to 10 pm every day. The program was “testing and validating potential commercial applications with 20 vehicles,” said Momenta. The program had plans to roll out in Suzhou and Shenzhen in the upcoming months.

The company has won substantial support from the government of Suzhou, an affluent city adjacent to Shanghai. It has a joint venture with the Suzhou branch of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) to “scale up” robotaxi deployment in the city. SASAC is a powerful government body in China that has oversight of 100 or so large state-owned enterprises.

OEM partners

Momenta has been working with SAIC on its robotaxi fleets. The partners aimed to deploy 200 vehicles across China by 2022.

Pony.ai

Pony was founded in 2016 by two veterans of Baidu’s autonomous vehicle arm, a team that had spawned some of China’s most reputable AV experts. The company, with offices in Guangzhou and California, has raised over $1 billion to date with backings from Toyota.

Pony’s Lexus robotaxi in Shanghai / Photo: Pony.ai (2021)

Operations

Aside from Baidu, Pony also obtained approval to operate paid robotaxi services in Beijing’s smart vehicle demo zone last November. The service, called PonyPilot+, had been ferrying passengers for free in the same area.

Last July, PonyPilot+ debuted in Jiading, Shanghai’s automotive hub. In June, Pony added fully driverless cars to its existing robotaxi fleet in Guangzhou.

U.S. tests

In November, the California Department of Motor Vehicles notified Pony that it was suspending its driverless testing permit following a reported collision in Fremont. The decision came six months after Pony obtained the regulatory greenlight. The company’s drivered testing permit in California wasn’t affected.

OEM partners

Multiple manufacturers have supplied Pony’s robotaxis, including Toyota’s Lexus, Hyundai, as well as China’s BYD and Aion.

WeRide.ai

WeRide and Pony share many roots. Both have bases in Guangzhou and California, with founders who hailed from Baidu’s autonomous driving team. Founded in 2017, WeRide raised more than $600 million just within 2021. Its investors include state-owned GAC and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.

WeRide’s robotaxi fleet supplied by Dongfeng / Photo: WeRide (2021)

Operations

In November 2019, WeRide’s drivered robotaxis began ferrying the public in a 144 square-kilometer area of Guangzhou. The service was a collaboration with the government-owned Baiyun Taxi Group, the largest taxi company in South China.

WeRide was able to charge passengers at Guangzhou’s taxi rate from the outset, which predated the paid services of Baidu and Pony in Beijing.

This is a familiar scenario where competitors clamor to label their programs the “first” in China. The claims are valid in their own right but deserve closer discernment. As an industry insider said, “Beijing is more influential as a policy bellwether;” but to businesses, the difference between running a paid robotaxi service in Beijing and Guangzhou “isn’t that big.”

“Whether it’s Beijing or Guangzhou, as long as the city has friendly policies, that’s good news. After all, robotaxi companies just want to test their operations,” the person said.

WeRide also operates a drivered robotaxi service in Wuhan.

U.S. tests

As of November 2021, WeRide held the testing permits for both drivered and driverless testing in California.

OEM partners

WeRide and its strategic investor GAC said in December that they planned to build a fleet of “tens of thousands of” robotaxis in the coming years.

Source: Tech

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Paack pulls in a $225M Series D led by SoftBank to scale its E-commerce delivery platform

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By now, many of us are familiar with the warehouse robots which populate those vast spaces occupied by the likes of Amazon and others. In particular, Amazon was very much a pioneer of the technology. But it’s 2021 now, and allying warehouse robots with a software logistics platform is no longer the monopoly of one company.

One late-stage startup which has been ‘making hay’ with the whole idea is Paack, an e-commerce delivery platform which a sophisticated software platform that integrates with the robotics which are essential to modern-day logistics operations.

It’s now raised €200m ($225m) in a Series D funding round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. The capital will be used for product development and European expansion.

New participants for this round also include Infravia Capital Partners, First Bridge Ventures, and Endeavor Catalyst. Returning investors include Unbound, Kibo Ventures, Big Sur Ventures, RPS Ventures, Fuse Partners, Rider Global, Castel Capital, and Iñaki Berenguer.

This funding round comes after the creation of a profitable position in its home market of Spain, but Paack claims it’s on track to achieve similar across its European operations, Such as in the UK, France, and Portugal.

Founded by Fernando Benito, Xavier Rosales and Suraj Shirvankar, Paack now says it’s delivering several million orders per month from 150 international clients, processing 10,000 parcels per hour, per site. Some 17 of them are amongst the largest e-commerce retailers in Spain.

The startup’s systems integrate with e-commerce sites. This means consumers are able to customize their delivery schedule at checkout, says the company.

Benito, CEO and Co-founder, said: “Demand for convenient, timely, and more sustainable methods of delivery is going to explode over the next few years and Paack is providing the solution. We use technology to provide consumers with control and choice over their deliveries, and reduce the carbon footprint of our distribution.” 

Max Ohrstrand, Investment Director at SoftBank Investment Advisers said: “As the e-commerce sector continues to flourish and same-day delivery is increasingly the norm for consumers, we believe Paack is well-positioned to become the category leader both in terms of its technology and commitment to sustainability.”

According to research from the World Economic Forum (WEF), the last-mile delivery business is expected to grow 78% by 2030, causing a rise in CO2 emissions of nearly one-third.

As a result, Paack claim it aims to deliver all parcels at carbon net-zero by measuring its environmental impact, using electric last-mile delivery vehicles. It is now seeking certification with The Carbon Trust and United Nations.

In an interview Benito told me: “We have a very clear short term vision which is to lead sustainable e-commerce delivers in Europe… through technology via what we think is perhaps the most advanced tech delivery platform for last-mile delivery. Our CTO was the CTO and co-founder of Google Cloud, for instance.”

“We are developing everything from warehouse automation, time windows, routing integrations etc. in order to achieve the best delivery experience.”

Paack says it is able to work with more than one robotics partner, but presently it is using robots from Chinese firm GEEK.

The company hopes it can compete with the likes of DHL, Instabox, and La Poste in Europe, which are large incumbents.

Source: Tech

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Infermedica raises $30M to expand its AI-based medical guidance platform

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Infermedica, a Poland-founded digital health company that offers AI-powered solutions for symptom analysis and patient triage, has raised $30 million in Series B funding. The round was led by One Peak and included participation from previous investors Karma Ventures, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Heal Capital and Inovo Venture Partners. The new capital means the startup has raised $45 million in total to date.

Founded in 2012, Infermedica aims to make it easier for doctors to pre-diagnose, triage and direct their patients to appropriate medical services. The company’s mission is to make primary care more accessible and affordable by introducing automation into healthcare. Infermedica has created a B2B platform for health systems, payers and providers that automates patient triage, the intake process and follow-up after a visit. Since its launch, Infermedica is being used in more than 30 countries in 19 languages and has completed more than 10 million health checks.

The company offers a preliminary diagnosis symptom checker, an AI-driven software that supports call operators making timely triage recommendations and an application programming interface that allows users to build customized diagnostic solutions from scratch. Like a plethora of competitors, such as Ada Health and Babylon, Infermedica combines the expertise of physicians with its own algorithms to offer symptom triage and patient advice.

In terms of the new funding, Infermedica CEO Piotr Orzechowski told TechCrunch in an email that the investment will be used to further develop the company’s Medical Guidance Platform and add new modules to cover the full primary care journey. Last year, Infermedica’s team grew by 80% to 180 specialists, including physicians, data scientists and engineers. Orzechowski says Infermedica has an ambitious plan to nearly double its team in the next 12 months.

Image Credits: Infermedica

“We will invest heavily into our people and our products, rolling out new modules of our platform as well as expanding our underlying AI capabilities in terms of disease coverage and accuracy,” Orzechowski said. “From the commercial perspective, our goal is to strengthen our position in the US and DACH and we will focus the majority of our sales and marketing efforts there.”

Regarding the future, Orzechowski said he’s a firm believer that there will be fully automated self-care bots in 5-10 years that will be available 24/7 to help providers find solutions to low acuity health concerns, such as a cold or UTI.

“According to WHO, by 2030 we might see a shortage of almost 10 million doctors, nurses and midwives globally,” Orzechowski said. “Having certain constraints on how fast we can train healthcare professionals, our long-term plan assumes that AI will become a core element of every modern healthcare system by navigating patients and automating mundane tasks, saving the precious time of clinical staff and supporting them with clinically accurate technology.”

Infermedica’s Series B round follows its $10 million Series A investment announced in August 2020. The round was led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and digital health fund Heal Capital. Existing investors Karma Ventures, Inovo Venture Partners and Dreamit Ventures also participated in the round.

Source: Tech

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KKR invests $45M into GrowSari, a B2B platform for Filipino MSMEs

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A sari-sari store owner who uses GrowSari

GrowSari, the Manila-based startup that helps small shops grow and digitize, announced today that KKR will lead its Series C round with a $45 million investment. The funds will be used to enter new regions in the Philippines and expand its financial products. The Series C round is still ongoing and the startup says it is already oversubscribed, with the final composition currently being finalized. 

Before its Series C, GrowSari’s total raised was $30 million. TechCrunch last wrote about GrowSari in June 2021, when it announced its Series B. Since then, it has expanded the number of municipalities it serves from 100 to 220, and now has a customer base of 100,000 micro, small and mid-sized enterprise (MSME) store owners. 

Founded in 2016, GrowSari is a B2B platform that offers almost every kind of service that small- to medium-sized retailers, including neighborhood stores that carry daily necessities (called sari-saris), roadside and market shops and pharmacies, need.

For example, it has a wholesale marketplace with products from major fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands like Unilever, P&G and Nestle. It partners with over 200 providers, like telecoms, fintechs and subscription plans, so sari-saris can offer services like top-ups and bill payments to their customers. 

Sari-sari operators can also use GrowSari to launch e-commerce stores and access short-term working capital loans to buy inventory. The startup’s other financial products include digital wallets and cash-in services, and it is looking at adding remittance, insurance and loans in partnership with other providers. 

The new funding will be used to expand into the Visayas and Mindanao, the two other main geographical regions in the Philippines, with the goal of covering all 1.1 million “mom and pop” stores in the Philippines. 

Source: Tech

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