The rush to back lidar companies continues as more automakers and robotaxi startups include the remote sensing method in their vehicles.
Latest to the investment boom is Hesai, a Shanghai-based lidar maker founded in 2014 with an office in Palo Alto. The company just completed a $300 million Series D funding round led by GL Ventures, the venture capital arm of storied private equity firm Hillhouse Capital, smartphone maker Xiaomi, on-demand services giant Meituan and CPE, the private equity platform of Citic.
Hesai said the new proceeds will be spent on mass-producing its hybrid solid-state lidar for its OEM customers, the construction of its smart manufacturing center, and research and development on automotive-grade lidar chips. The company said it has accumulated “several hundred million dollars” in funding to date.
Other participants in the round included Huatai Securities, Lightspeed China Partners and Lightspeed Venture Capital, as well as Qiming Venture Partners. Bosch, Baidu, and ON Semiconductor are also among its shareholders.
Another Chinese lidar startup Innovusion, a major supplier to electric vehicle startup Nio, raised a $64 million round led by Temasek in May. Livox is another emerging lidar maker that was an offshoot of DJI.
Lidar isn’t limited to powering robotaxis and passenger EVs, and that’s why Hesai got Xiaomi and Meituan onboard. Xiaomi makes hundreds of different connected devices through its manufacturing suppliers that could easily benefit from industrial automation, to which sensing technology is critical. But the phone maker also unveiled plans this year to make electric cars.
Meituan, delivering food to hundreds of millions of consumers in China, could similarly benefit from replacing human riders with lidar-enabled unmanned vans and drones.
Hesai, with a staff of over 500 employees, says its clients span 70 cities across 23 countries. The company touts Nuro, Bosch, Lyft, Navya, and Chinese robotaxi operators Baidu, WeRide and AutoX among its customers. Last year, it kickstarted a partnership with Scale AI, a data labeling company, to launch an open-source data set for training autonomous driving algorithms, with data collected using Hesai’s lidar in California.
Last July, Hesai and lidar technology pioneer Velodyne entered a long-term licensing agreement as the two dismissed legal proceedings in the U.S., Germany and China.
The handling of user data in China has become a delicate matter for foreign tech companies operating in the country. Apple’s move to store the data of its Chinese customers in servers managed by a Chinese state-owned cloud service has stoked controversy in the West over the years. A recent New York Times investigation found that the setup could give Beijing easy access to Apple’s user data in China, but Apple said it “never compromised the security” of its customers or their data.
Tesla, one of the few U.S. tech heavyweights that generate substantial revenues from China, is working out a similar data plan. The electric carmaker said it has established a data center in China to carry out the “localization of data storage,” with plans to add more data facilities in the future, the company announced through its account on microblogging platform Weibo. All data generated by Tesla vehicles sold in mainland China will be kept domestically.
Tesla is acting in response to new requirements drafted by the Chinese government to regulate how cameras- and sensors-enabled carmakers collect and utilize data. One of the requirements states that “personal or important data should be stored within the [Chinese] territory.”
It’s unclear what level of data access Chinese authorities have to Tesla’s Chinese customers. In the case of Apple, the phone maker said it controlled the keys that protect the data of its Chinese users.
Tesla recently fell out of favor with Chinese media and the public after a customer protested the carmaker’s faulted parts at an auto show in Shanghai, earning her widespread sympathy. Tesla also faces fierce competition from domestic rivals like Nio and Xpeng, which are investing heavily in world-class designs and autonomous driving technology.
The American firm clearly wants the government’s good graces in its second-largest market. It appeared a few days ago at an industry symposium along with Baidu, Alibaba, research institutions, and think tanks to discuss the new vehicle policy proposed by the country’s cybersecurity watchdog.
“Important data” generated by vehicles as defined by the Chinese internet regulator include traffic conditions in military and government compounds; surveying and mapping data beyond what the government discloses; status of electric charging grids; face, voice, and car plate information; and any data deemed as affecting national security or public interest.
The rules also urge car service providers not to track users by default, as well as inform users of the kinds of data being collected and the reasons as to why. If gathered, information should be anonymized and stored for only “a minimum period of time.”
As the autonomous vehicle industry in the United States marches toward consolidation, a funding spree continues to exhilarate China’s robotaxi industry. Momenta, Pony.ai, WeRide and Didi’s autonomous vehicle arm have all raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year. And 21-year-old search engine giant Baidu competes alongside the startups with a $1.5 billion fund launched in 2017 to help cars go driverless.
Their strategies are similar in some regards and diverge elsewhere. The biggest players have deployed small fleets of robotaxis, manned with safety drivers, onto certain urban roads and are diligently testing driverless vehicles inside pilot zones. Some companies embrace lidar to detect the cars’ surroundings, while others agree with Elon Musk on a vision-only future.
The industry is still years from being truly driverless and operational at scale, so some contestants are seeking easier cases to tackle and monetize first, putting self-driving software inside buses, trucks and tractors that roam inside industrial parks.
Will investors continue to back the lofty dreams and skyrocketing valuations of China’s robotaxi leaders? And how is China’s autonomous driving race playing out differently from that in the U.S.?
We hope to find out at the upcoming TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, where we speak to three female leaders from Chinese autonomous vehicle startups that have an overseas footprint: Jewel Li from AutoX, which is backed by Chinese state-owned automakers Dongfeng Motor and SAIC Motor; Huan Sun from Momenta, which attracted Bosch, Daimler and Toyota in its $500 million round closed in March; and Jennifer Li from WeRide, whose valuation jumped to $3 billion after a financing round in May.
We can’t wait to hear from this panel! Among the growing list of speakers at this year’s event are GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.
Stay tuned for more announcements in these final weeks. Book your general admission pass for $125 today and join this year’s deep dive into the world of all things transportation at TC Sessions: Mobility.
Chinese automaker Geely Automobile Holdings is launching a new brand of premium electric vehicles as it aims to capture a share of the luxury EV market that has been dominated by Tesla and other homegrown companies.
The new brand of vehicles, called Zeekr, will be manufactured by parent company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. The first Zeekr vehicles are expected to be delivered in the third quarter of 2021.
The launch of Zeekr, which was first reported by Reuters and confirmed today by Geely, has been couched as a bid to take on Tesla in China. Tesla has had success in the country, reporting in a recent regulatory filing that sales in China more than doubled last year, from $2.9 billion in 2019 to $6.6 billion in 2020. But Tesla is hardly the only competition in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles.
Zeekr will have to jostle with domestic start-ups Li Auto and NIO that also offer luxury car models. While Geely remained the highest-selling Chinese auto brand by units sold in 2020 – its fourth consecutive year in the top spot – net profits dropped 32% last year, according to financial results posted Tuesday.
The Zeekr marque will be manufactured by Geely Holding using its Sustainable Experience Architecture, an open-source EV technology that the company said offers driving ranges of up to 435 miles (700 km) as well as smart connectivity options. Geely has plans to deploy the architecture across its nine automotive brands (the company is a minority shareholder of Daimler AG and owner of Volvo Cars) – and sell to other manufacturers.
Eric Li, founder of Geely Holding, said in a statement that the company intends to make the architecture accessible to other car makers.
The SEA platform is just one piece of Geely’s plans to position itself as a leading source of electric vehicle manufacturing and technology. Last month, Geely and Volvo Cars announced they had axed plans to merge but will instead set up a standalone company that will develop next-gen hardware and software for electric vehicles across its brands and with other manufacturers. The two companies will also jointly source batteries and electric motors under the new collaboration.
Geely Holding is also setting the stage to take on a larger role in manufacturing for other car companies, with plans for a joint venture with Chinese company Foxconn Technology Group – Apple’s main supplier – aimed at contract manufacturing for automakers. Geely said it would partner with Chinese tech giant Baidu in a separate venture to build EVs, also with its SEA platform. Baidu has been developing intelligent driving technologies, including autonomous driving, which it said it would contribute to the new company.
Zeekr will be jointly owned by the subsidiary and its parent with a 51% and 49% share structure, with a joint investment of 2 billion yuan ($307 million).