Pony.ai drives China's autonomous car push

Barely a year old, the Chinese start-up has raised cash from Sequoia Capital and IDG Capital to support its talented team. But the road to build a self-driving car is looking congested.

Despite research proving few people want to be left alone in a car with a computer as a chauffeur, almost every major car manufacturer in the world has now set a timeline for launching a self-driving fleet.

Investors seem settled it’s the future, but the scarcity of AI scientists capable of developing and managing a robust autonomous driving system means they have to bet on the best tech teams they can find in order to win the autonomy race.

One such company is Pony.ai, an autonomous driving technology company set up by a group of Silicon Valley-trained Chinese AI engineers. Co-located in California and Beijing, it was founded by Lou Tiancheng, a Chinese coding star who’s known as “ACRush” or “Bishop Lou” among programmers.

Lou joined Google shortly after obtaining a PhD in computer science from the Institute for Theoretical Computer Science at Tsinghua University in 2012 and worked on the Alphabet self-driving car team before leaving in January 2016. 

After three months at Quora, he was lured to Baidu’s autonomous driving team in the US in April last year. Lou’s university professor Andrew Yao, the only Chinese recipient of the Turing Award – computer science’s answer to the Nobel Prize – now serves as chief advisor to the start-up. And its CEO, James Peng, was Baidu’s chief architect for autonomous driving before leaving to found the business with Lou.

Started in December 2016, the company is developing what is known as level-four autonomy technology. This means the vehicles can perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip – excluding under extreme weather such as rainstorms and snowstorms.

According to COO Harry Hu, the firm plans joint-venture partnership with tier-one auto suppliers, as well as becoming a transportation network operator in a push to become an “Uber for driverless cars” in the future.

It raised an undisclosed amount at a near-$100 million valuation in Series A round in March from Sequoia Capital China and IDG Capital – after the two funds tested almost every autonomous driving start-up’s driverless vehicle in Silicon Valley. 

Zhou Kui, partner at Sequoia Capital China, said: “The team has an established reputation on tech expertise and demonstrated highly-efficient execution capability, and we are excited to become a partner of Pony.ai in exploring such a promising industry.” 

“Pony.ai has the best autonomous driving engineering team in China, which helps it to obtain the leading position in new business model exploration,” said Young Guo, a partner at IDG Capital.

Pony.AI is one of 10 hot startups FinanceAsia will profile as part of a new series running the rule over exciting companies that are changing the game across Asia. We'll publish more such profiles in the days to come.

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