Daimler-backed Momenta says its robotaxis will be fully driverless and profitable in 2024 – TipsClear

Daimler-backed Momenta says its robotaxis will be fully driverless and profitable in 2024 – TipsClear

In China and the US, there is much debate as to when and how humans will achieve fully autonomous robotaxis at scale – cars that astride passengers in complex road conditions without safety drivers behind the wheel.

Doing this requires many pieces: test data, advanced algorithms, strong operational teams, huge scrutiny from investors, local policy support, vast amounts to name a handful. By the time that day comes, the players’ bold claims in the field seem mostly out of reach.

Recently a pledge came from Momenta, One of Asia’s most valuable artificial intelligence startups and the country’s first autonomous driving company to reach a $ 1 billion unicorn valuation in 2018. The four-year-old startup, which specializes in software solutions for autonomous vehicles (AVS), recently told TipsClear that its entire robotic fleet will operate without a safety driver in 2024, while some of its vehicles are already driverless by 2022 Will go

Competition in AVS is intense. Alphabet’s Waymo told customers last October that its completely driverless cars “are on the way.” Tesla plans to launch a Robotaxi network in 2020. In China, the Toyota-backed Pony.ai now provides autonomous ride-hailing with safety drivers in two cities. Didi, a softbank-backed ride-hailing leader, began testing a robotaxy service in Shanghai.

An expensive discovery

The autonomous cabs we now see worldwide are mostly trial programs operating in designated areas. Most self-driving companies build their fleet from the ground up. Business is cash-bleeding and commercialization is still down the road, so the question is who can make it work before running out of cash.

“Expenditure [of building car fleets] It is also unbearable for a multi-billion dollar company like Baidu, let alone startups like ours. It may be possible for the size of Wyomo, ”said founder and chief executive Cao Xudong, who appeared with us in a plain white T-shirt at Zoom Call.

The 34-year-old founder first helped launch the research division of face recognition giant SenseTime following a hint at Microsoft’s prestigious Asia Research arm, which has trained many of China’s top AI minds and entrepreneurs.

Uber’s IPO prospectus revealed that its self-driving unit was burning up to $ 20 million a month. Last year, Wymo’s valuation was reduced by 40%, citing cash burn concerns by Morgan Stanley.

Cao claimed that his company could achieve full vehicle automation, keeping a startup such as spendable to manage. While Momenta cannot reveal that it is actively fundraising, it said it has a “steady cash flow” that will last at least three more years. The company had raised more than $ 200 million by 2018.

Cao Xudong (far left) presented with municipal officials at the opening ceremony of Momenta’s robotxi program in Suzhou. Source: Momenta

Before I dive into Momenta’s spending, it is important to note that none of its progress can occur without the support of the state. In its transition from traditional manufacturing to a tech-driven economy, China has made government-directed funding available to players in strategic industries such as 5G and artificial intelligence, which of course includes autonomous driving.

Recently, Beijing went on to accelerate the development of so-called “new infrastructure” such as data centers and 5G networks to offset the economic impact of COVID-19. These basic facilities are essential for the AAV, Cao said, and the policy push will certainly give a strong boost to China’s autonomous driving sector.

The government is also removing regulatory hurdles for AV operators. This month, Momenta obtained the first license to recruit passengers for its Robotaxis run on selected public roads on the border of a prosperous and historic city in Shanghai, which has a 4,000-square-meter headquarters.

A sustainable path to automation

Unlike many peers in its field, Momenta relies on partners to deploy technology and reap data rather than owning its own fleet. While forms of collaboration may vary in terms, its Robotaxi service will largely be a joint effort with vehicle manufacturers, which will likely provide vehicles and, crucially, driver data; Local governments, which can provide basic facilities such as 5G networks; And Self, which develops self-driving software.

“If you have one lakh cars, each costing a few hundred thousand RMB, that accumulates hundreds of billions of RMB. This is no small money, ”Cao said.

Right now Momenta is working to strengthen our alliance in Suzhou, where we rode one of its test AVs last year. Although the goal of the startup is to eventually achieve full automation, it does not relieve all security personnel.

“We will take advantage of 5G infrastructure and have remote security personnel who will monitor each, say, ten cars. In this way we will reduce the cost of security managers to one-tenth of its current level.

When all of its vehicles become driverless in 2024, the company will significantly reduce labor costs and reach a positive operating margin per vehicle, with the founder having a loss. If things go as planned, it will also roll out its light-asset model to other cities outside Suzhou, entering a period of “tremendous growth”.

“It is similar to McDonald’s franchising model. We will come up with a set of operational standards and replicate them in other cities, where we will collaborate with local government, taxi services, operating companies and ET Kotera, ”Cao said.

Momenta also uses less expensive sensors, with the founder opposed to expensive mass-produced LIDAR sensors such as “mass-produced” such as millimeter-wave radars and high-definition cameras. Elon Musk would agree with his choice, fearing that “anyone who trusts Lidar is doomed.”

The startup purchases core hardware parts from international and domestic vendors, with NXP, Nvidia and Texas Instruments counted as its semiconductor partners. Cao declined to comment on the impact of ongoing US-China trade tensions, but it is not difficult to see that D.C. From how restrictions can affect startups’ relationships with their suppliers.

Autonomous driving test of Momenta in a business district. Source: Momenta

Another cost cutting strategy is automation, which allows the company to reduce the number of engineers. However there are nuances in this simple principle.

“I repeatedly told our R&D team that they have been hired not as problem solvers but as architects. Why? Because level 4 [autonomous driving without human input] It includes long-tail landscapes, ”the founder enthusiastically explained. “You can be presented with millions of problems. Sure, we can solve 100 problems with 100 people, but we can’t hire one million engineers to answer a million questions … so if you build an automated problem-solving system If we can, automation will take care of a lot of work for us. . “

Data control

To advance in the AV race, competitors need to accumulate large amounts of data to train the algorithm. Knowing that deploying thousands of Robotax does not enjoy financial progress, Momenta is selling autonomous driving software to traditional OEM partners and Tier 1 customers, providing not only it with data but also a steady stream of revenue .

Once partners’ vehicles go out of the market, driving data starts pouring in and Momenta will put that data into algorithmic training and periodically upgrade autonomous cars for consumers.

This setup – getting data at low cost – seems ideal in theory, but has a big red flag: data, which is the life span of any AI company, belongs to auto companies, not Momenta’s. Cao was not concerned, arguing that partners are encouraged to hand over data because Momenta could offer advanced technology absent in traditional carmakers.

Field of view of Momenta during autonomous driving. Source: Momenta

“When we can extract data from customers’ long-tail problems to train their algorithms, their autonomous driving systems will improve. We are essentially creating value for customers, ”Cao said with an air of confidence.

Working with outsiders also forces Momenta to meet competing needs. Its business is no longer just about throwing money at R&D. Customers mean that there is a need to consider what matters to vehicle manufacturers, from the choice of sensors to the software solutions.

“The auto industry thinks very differently from the Internet industry. You cannot ask car manufacturers to adapt in their own way, ”Cao said. As such, he has hired a large number of auto industry veterans, including business development managers with years of experience at Mercedes Benz and Toyota.

Momenta has been reticent about its client list, although Cao indicated to us last year that many do not because participation in AVS requires close and resource-intensive collaboration.

By now, we know that Momenta is developing a high-definition map for Toyota’s AV. The startup has also counted Daimler as a major investor, which discontinued its AV strategy in 2017, although it would not disclose whether the German auto giant is a customer. Daimler’s website provides a clue to listing Momenta under its portfolio managed by the “M & A Tech Invest” team, responsible for technology and startup acquisitions for the world’s leading premium car brand.

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