Pony Up: Toyota Pours $400 Million Into Pony.ai
Last year, Toyota and Pony.ai announced a pilot project to test autonomous vehicles in Chinese cities, with an aim to continue working together on self-driving projects in Asia. The time for strengthening the relationship is now, with Pony confirming it had received a $400 million investment from the Japanese automaker as part of its latest funding roundup.
Toyota doesn’t have an exclusive arrangement with the startup and is free to work with other companies. Pony already has other investors on board, operating autonomous testing hubs in California, Beijing, and Guangzhou. However, the investment from Toyota could mean it’s about to become a whole lot more important to the business, as the pair are already discussing new ways to collaborate once they’ve finished fielding testbed Lexus RXs to sharpen the firm’s software.
“It will enable us to make the commercialization of autonomous-driving vehicles faster,” Pony.ai CEO James Peng said in an interview with Bloomberg. “We will put more money into building up the fleet.”
Automakers are striking pacts with driverless-system providers to gain expertise and fend off competition from technology companies seeking to enter the transport business. For Pony.ai, a relationship with Toyota is a vote of confidence as it seeks to take on U.S. rivals such as Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo.
Pony.ai has two testing sites in California and it runs a pilot service with Hyundai Motor Co. in Irvine, Orange County, that provides rides to members of the public. On Wednesday, the company announced a service to City of Fremont employees, offering last-mile rides in its autonomous vehicles between a local transport hub and some of Fremont’s public buildings.
If you’re wondering how Pony stacks up with its competition, that’s difficult to say. The business, valued at around $3 billion, is reportedly developing a vehicle capable of operating completely independently on major highways (SAE Level 4), but which would require some amount of human involvement once it’s off the beaten path. Most of that work is being done in collaboration with Toyota, Hyundai and China’s GAC.
It’s not just automakers that are interested in autonomous technology. Pony is also working with SoftBank Corp and Uber ATG, and spent millions of its own cash to support Didi Chuxing (basically the Chinese Uber) in developing new mobility services.
Overall, Pony seems to take a more conservative approach to vehicular automation by focusing on mobility services aimed at satisfying the needs of existing companies while also attempting to develop AVs with realistic limitations. Considering Toyota’s perpetually cautious nature, that may be what originally attracted it to the firm. While Mr. Peng said the coronavirus has negatively impacted the business, the company reopened some of its Chinese testing sites this month.
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