The age of autonomous travel is closer to becoming a reality after more and more local governments rubber-stamp robotaxi projects.While the sector has attracted industry heavyweights such as Baidu and Didi, it is Pony.ai, an AV startup based in Guangzhou, leading the pack domestically. The firm even rivals Google-backed Waymo in its achievements.

The backstory: Tech unicorn Pony.ai became China’s first company to test out robotaxis on urban public roads about one year ago, and is now on track to expand its fleet to 100 vehicles by the year-end.

  • Similar to Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo, Pony.ai’s fully self-developed software algorithms allow for Level 4 autonomy, where a car is capable of perceiving its surroundings accurately, predicting what others will do, and maneuvering itself accordingly.
  • The company raised $70 million in a Pre-B Series led by Chinese gaming company Kunlun with support from existing investors.
  • Founded in late 2016 by former Baidu scientists James Peng and Lou Tiancheng, Pony.ai is headquartered in Fremont, California and the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, with an R&D center in Beijing.

Unique selling point: Pony.ai is the top-performing Chinese player in terms of self-driving tests on open roads in California, a key global test ground. The company has racked up an average self-drive distance (before a human driver took control) of 1,022.3 miles . This figure is nearly five times that of Baidu.

  • It ranked fifth among the 48 global players in the annual disengagement report from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles last year, following Waymo, GM’s self-driving unit Cruise, and California-based startups Zoox and Nuro.

“The focus of work at this stage is still to improve the stability and expandability of the autonomous driving system under the premise of ensuring safety, and to gradually expand the driverless fleet from 100 to thousands. This year, companies that only operate a few cars for demos find it very difficult to survive. The cautiousness and concentration of capital has a great positive impact on the development of an industry. 

—Pony.ai spokesperson, speaking to TechNode

The investors: As China’s most valuable AV startup, Pony.ai has secured the backing of top venture firms, including Sequoia Capital China and Legend Capital.

  • It has secured over $300 million in funding over four rounds, with a valuation of $1.7 billion, the highest among its Chinese counterparts.

Present condition: Although its self-driving fleet is only available to a limited pool of volunteers in Guangzhou, Pony.ai is trying to lay a more solid foundation for a public commercial launch. A specific timeline has yet to emerge. 

  • Pony.ai last month unveiled an L4 autonomous prototype vehicle based on Aion LX, an all-electric SUV model launched by GAC Group, part of a cooperation with the southern China’s biggest automaker.
  • It also teamed up with Toyota in August to explore diverse mobility services. The company declined to comment on if the collaboration is related to the Chinese market.
  • The company last December launched PonyPilot, a test project with a product-ready driverless fleet that enables users to hail a car at any point via an app within a 100-square-kilometer geofenced area of Guangzhou’s Nansha district.
  • Pony.ai has also received the backing of the Guangzhou Transportation Bureau, which issues AV testing licenses for robotaxis, as well as authorities in Nansha. The company enjoys “24-hour access to all roads within the area,” Xie Xiaohui, head of Nansha’s Commerce Bureau told CCTV.

“The technical level of Pony.ai as well as WeRide rank among the top smart connected car firms in the world. They are also some of the highest-ranked autonomous driving players in China. Guangzhou welcomes domestic and foreign AV companies to carry out testing work, and the relevant departments of the city will actively provide services.”

—Guangzhou Transportation Bureau spokesperson, speaking to TechNode

The landscape: Local governments are ramping up efforts to lure AV unicorns for the imminent introduction of driverless vehicles.

  • Ride-hailing giant Didi and Dongfeng-backed AutoX have announced plans to launch autonomous taxi services in Shanghai by the year-end.
  • WeRide, another Guangzhou-based self-driving startup, aims to kick off real-world operations in the city by next year with a partnership with Baiyun Taxi, the biggest taxi operator in southern China.

Prospects: Pony.ai is focused on providing consistently comfortable and reliable rides for all rather than monetizing these early technologies. The company told TechNode in August that it has amassed a wealth of testing scenarios in just one year, a feat that took Waymo 10 years to create, thanks to the variable road situations and complex tropical weather conditions.

  • Waymo has signed up over 1,000 customers for its ride-hailing service in a 100-square-meter area in Phoenix, Bloomberg reported in May. Pony.ai has provided its services to more than 40,000 orders in Beijing and Guangzhou so far.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Pony.ai has provided its services to more than 40,000 orders, not passengers, as was originally written in the last paragraph.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

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