Pull Over, Detroit: Israel Is New Motown For Self-Driving Car Tech

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NoCamels header - Pull Over, Detroit: Israel Is New Motown For Self-Driving Car Tech

Mobileye on the road

Detroit has been known as “the motor city” ever since it became the center of the automobile industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. But now, one hundred years later, with the car tech industry heavily focused on producing self-driving vehicles, it’s not Detroit leading the way, but Israel.

Last month’s acquisition of Israeli autonomous vehicle technology company Mobileye by Intel, for a record setting $15.3 billion, shined a spotlight on Israel as a world leader in the rapidly growing field of driverless car technology, rivaling only Silicon Valley.

From startups developing driving safety apps to car analytics to motion sensors, Israel is home to hundreds of startups in the field of car technology. These companies are helping propel Israel to the forefront of an industry that is expected to soar over the next decade.

Self-driving car startups

“In the last 12 months, the global interest is rising more and more,” Lior Zeno-Zamansky, executive director of EcoMotion, a nonprofit group that promotes the smart transportation sector in Israel, told the AP in a recent interview. “Everyone is looking for the next Mobileye.”

Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based equity crowdfunding platform with ventures in the sector, couldn’t agree more. “The (Mobileye) deal confirms Israel’s global leadership position in autonomous driving technologies,” Medved said. “The deal will also increase attention and funding for the already burgeoning Israeli cohort of next generation autonomous driving technology startups.”

According to Zeno-Zamansky, the Israeli smart transportation sector has attracted some $4 billion in investment over the past four years, roughly half of it driven by two industry leaders, Mobileye and Waze, the latter of which was bought by Google in 2013 for $1.3 billion. During that time, the number of Israeli startups in the sector has grown from 87 in 2013 to over 500.

From “startup nation” to self-driving realization

Israel has earned the name the “Startup Nation” thanks to its thriving high-tech sector and entrepreneurial spirit, powered historically by veterans of  technology units in the military. In fact, many major tech companies including Microsoft, Apple and Google all have research and development facilities in Israel. Now, executives with expertise in fields such as cybersecurity, sensors, drone technology, communications and big data are taking their knowledge to the auto field.

According to Michael Granoff, founder and president of Maniv Mobility, an Israeli venture firm dedicated exclusively to automotive technology, the auto industry is “ripe for change.” He maintains that the high cost and inefficiencies of owning a car and sitting in traffic, as well as the large numbers of road fatalities around the world, prove this.

Granoff believes Israel is well positioned to lead that change, not as a builder of cars or engines, but as a technology superpower. “What we are witnessing is the digitization of transportation, and digitization is something that Israel has been a leader in,” he said.

“Israel has well-established skills in software, sensors, machine learning, machine vision, artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber-security and more,” Granoff tells NoCamels. “Those are now the disciplines important to the future of mobility.”

Billion dollar deals

The purchase of Mobileye, which makes software that helps cars avoid collisions, is the biggest tech deal in Israel’s history. Intel paid $15.3 billion for the company, more than double its market value when it had its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange less than three years ago. Of course, the Mobileye deal was preceded by Google’s more than $1 billion purchase of Waze, a popular Israeli GPS app, in 2013.

Mobileye & Intel: A match made in automated driving heaven?

Mobileye’s computer vision expertise, combined with Intel’s high-performance computing and connectivity expertise, could produce supreme automated driving solutions. The new Intel Automated Driving Group, will be headquartered in Israel and led by Prof. Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s Co-Founder, Chairman and CTO.

Car makers plant seeds in Israel

It’s not just Israeli firms that are taking advantage of Israeli technology. A number of major international auto makers have already established a foothold in Israel, and many auto executives visit the country on a regular basis. Detroit-based General Motors has already opened a research center in Israel, while Renault and Daimler are opening facilities as well. Other companies, including Ford, Honda, Toyota, Subaru, BMW, Mazda, Hyundai, Volvo and Audi are all active in the Israeli market.

“The brains, the eyes, and the nerves of the smart vehicle are all created here in Israel,” Dr. Anat Bonshtein, acting chairman and director of the Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Initative in Israel’s Prime Minister Office, said last week at the Smart Mobility Solutions Symposium. “In order to keep up, car makers really need to have a presence in Israel – it’s becoming even a must.”

Israeli startups for safer driving

Whether you are driving or if your car is driving itself, safety always comes first. Israeli app Nexar uses artificial intelligence to analyze road conditions and warn of hazardous events. Nexar turns the user’s smartphone into a dashboard camera. And in addition to the reports, Nexar also uses a complex computer vision algorithm to analyze the video clip, map the hazardous road behavior, and record the license plates of the offending cars.

Other Israeli startups changing the car tech industry include Otonomo, which allows car makers, apps and service providers to exchange data such as speed, temperature and battery levels; as well VayaVision, makers of sensor technology; and Argus Cyber Security, which protects cars from hackers.

A driverless beer run

Of course, not all driverless technology comes from Israel, but Israelis are behind some of the most innovative self-driving vehicles being produced in the US as well. One prime example is Otto, an Israeli-founded self-driving truck company, recently acquired by Uber for $680 million, that made news last fall by taking  the term run “beer run” to a whole new level.

Teaming up with American beer giant Anheuser-Busch, the two companies completed the world’s first-ever commercial shipment – 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer – by a self-driving truck.

With support from the state of Colorado, Otto’s self-driving truck hauled a fully loaded trailer of Budweiser beer more than 120 miles (193km) on I-25 from Fort Collins, Colorado through Denver, to Colorado Springs. A professional truck driver was in the vehicle for the entire route, monitoring the delivery from the sleeper berth as the truck completed the route – exit-to-exit – entirely on its own, without any intervention from the driver. The load originated at Anheuser-Busch’s facility in Loveland, Colorado and departed for its journey from the Fort Collins, Colorado weigh station. This milestone marks the first time in history that a self-driving vehicle has shipped commercial cargo, making it a landmark achievement for self-driving technology, the state of Colorado, and the transportation industry.

“The incredible success of this pilot shipment is an example of what is possible when you deploy self-driving technology. We are excited to have reached this milestone together, and look forward to further rolling out our technology on the nation’s highways,” Otto’s Israeli Co-Founder Lior Ron said in a statement.

Many obstacles

Some of the issues that have yet to be resolved with self-driving vehicles are that companies aren’t sure how the cars will drive in snow or other bad weather. In addition, it will be difficult for cars to be programmed to handle numerous local traffic customs.  Last, but certainly not least, no one really knows yet when the cars will be safe enough to remove human backup drivers, or whether humans are prepared to turn over the driving to machines.

Benefits of Autonomous Driving

“93 percent of car accidents are caused by the human factor,” Elad Serfaty, VP and general manager Mobileye’s Aftermarket Division, told the Smart Mobility Soulution Symposium last week.

Maniv Mobility’s Michael Granoff agrees. “Computers do not get tired, frustrated, distracted, or drunk,” he tells NoCamels. “They are already much better drivers than people and will soon be near-perfect. Countries which adopt them first will gain all sorts of advantages – from safety to productivity to air quality and more. Of course, Israel should be an early adopter.”

The future: A world of autonomous vehicles

“We are moving toward a world of shared, connected, electric, autonomous vehicles,” Granoff tells NoCamels. “They will mostly be operated by on-demand mobility services – and thus we will see a significant decline in car ownership. It is my belief that by the end of the next decade, the majority of miles driven will be autonomous.

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