Apple acquires Drive.ai as self-driving car drama continues

Apple acquires Drive.ai as self-driving car drama continues

Drive.ai had sputtered to a halt. The startup, which developed artificial intelligence for autonomous vehicles, recently laid off its staff in Mountain View, Calif., and Plano, Texas. This week, Apple Inc. rode to the rescue, acquiring Drive.ai and hiring many of its former engineers.

For all of the hype and funding around self-driving cars, it’s easy to forget the challenges of developing fully autonomous vehicles and how competitive the field is.

Pulling over after a strong start

Drive.ai was founded in 2015 and worked on kits to add autonomy to existing vehicles. It used deep learning and built middleware for simulation that is hoped would lead to a “brain” for self-driving vehicles.

Drive.ai was valued at $200 million after its Series B round two years ago, said Axios. Last year, Drive.ai piloted shuttles in Frisco, Texas. However, the company had been looking for a buyer since early this year, and it reportedly suffered from rotating CEOs.

As with consumer robotics, the business might have struggled, but its intellectual property and worker expertise were still valuable. Apple has “acqui-hired” data, systems, and software engineers, among other former Drive.ai employees, said the San Francisco Chronicle.

Apple’s autonomous shuttle project, dubbed “Palo Alto to Infinite Loop” or PAIL, was intended to link its offices in Silicon Valley.

Apple has hired former Drive.ai engineers. Source: Drive.ai

Driverless companies vie for pole position

The Drive.ai purchase demonstrates that Apple doesn’t want to be left in the dust behind other big technology companies such as Waymo LLC and Uber Technologies Inc., despite shutting down “Project Titan” in January. Rumors of Apple’s interest in Drive.ai circulated a few weeks ago, even as the latter company was shutting down.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles had found that Apple and Uber placed far behind the Google spinoff in terms of “miles per disengagement,” a rating of self-driving safety.

Waymo recently offered its lidar sensors to non-competitors, as the debate continues over whether lidar, radar, and/or vision systems are best for driverless navigation and safety.

Also, Waymo last week partnered with Groupe Renault and Nissan Motor Co. to “research commercial, legal, and regulatory issues related to driverless transportation-as-a-service offerings in France and Japan.”

Whether it’s through partnerships, acquisitions, or direct investment, don’t count out the traditional automakers for self-driving vehicles. Last month, General Motors’ Cruise unit raised $1.15 billion, and Toyota AI Ventures announced its second $100 million mobility startup fund.

More merging into driverless traffic

Meanwhile, Uber this week acquired Mighty AI Inc. for an undisclosed amount. Seattle-based Mighty AI said it “labels data at scale” for training autonomous vehicles, robots, and other systems.

In addition, Starsky Robotics began testing driverless trucks in Florida. The San Francisco-based company raised $16.5 million in a Series A round in March.

Unlike competitors such as Ike or TuSimple, whose driverless trials still include human safety drivers, Starsky Robotics is relying on remote operators.

The Robot Report will continue monitoring transactions, technology advances, and consolidation in autonomous vehicles.