Venture capitalists are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into startups working in the autonomous vehicle sector. Several investors, engineers and journalists are both sceptical and excited for the potential future of self-driving motor vehicles. We don’t know how close we are, but a number of startups are in the race to develop futuristic autonomous vehicles.
The point to note here is that five of the most well-funded autonomous vehicle startups are founded by ex-Google employees as well as former employees of Baidu, Tesla and Uber. The employees went on starting their own venture and give competition to their employers.
So what actually happened?
Bloomberg reported in 2017 that Google promised its employees working on self-driving cars a hefty payout after four years of services. Google did so as a part of their human resource retention plans. At the end of four years, employees were provided with a substantial amount of cash and eventually, they left.
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With the received funds, they started their own ventures. Since they had the prior experience of working in the AV industry, it was not so difficult for them to launch their ideas. Gradually, they grew big and attracted huge investments from venture capital firms and automobile manufacturers.
Here are 5 Self-Driving Startups founded by Former Google Employees
One notable example is of Chris Urmson, the former Chief Technology Officer of Google X. He left the firm in 2016 and wrote: “If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky.”
Soon after he quit Google, he founded Aurora with his co-founders Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, both of them being big-tech veterans. The firm later received funding from Tesla and Uber. The firm attracted $90 million in funding from Greylock Partners and Index Ventures.
Chris witnessed the immense impact that autonomous tech can bring about and decided to start his company. With his modern approach to building this very challenging and difficult technology, he expanded the organization. The collective experiences and expertise of the co-founders worked like a charm.
Founded by Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson in 2016, the Mountain View-based startup is somehow different than a typical autonomous vehicle company. Nuro focuses on building vehicles meant to transfer goods rather than transporting people.
Mr Zhu was one of the former leaders on Google’s self-driving vehicles project and Dave was associated as a principal engineer there. Both of them left Google after receiving the funds but are not competing directly with their employer.
On one hand, Google is focused on transporting people, the entrepreneur-duo are focused on a different niche altogether. They plan to combine the excitement over autonomous robotics with investor interest in the delivery and logistics industry. Greylock Partners and Gaorong Capital seems to be interested and invested $92 million in Series A round this year in January.
Founded by Bryan Salesky, who earlier worked as the Director of Hardware Development on Google’s self-driving project for three years, Argo AI received $1 billion in funds from Ford. Bryan left Google in 2016 and founded Argo AI in 2017.
Along with his co-founder Peter Rander, a former lead engineer at Uber’s self-driving project he pledged to introduce fully autonomous vehicles lately by 2021. There are speculations in the tech media about Volkswagen and Ford planning to join hand and invest another $1 billion in the Pittsburgh-based startup.
Tiancheng Lou and James Peng founded Pony.ai in 2016. Prior to founding the company, both of them worked at Baidu’s self-driving car project. Before joining Baidu, Mr Lou worked on autonomous vehicle technology at Google.
The firm has attracted $214 million in funding, according to CrunchBase. The company is currently testing its autonomous vehicles in Beijing and has already partnered with some of the biggest Chinese automotive companies. Pony.ai has offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, and San Francisco.
Deepmap was founded by James Wu and Mark Wheeler. According to the LinkedIn profiles of the co-founders both of them worked as software engineers on Google Earth and Google Maps. After quitting Google in 2013, James worked at Apple working on Apple Maps. Mr Wu also worked with Baidu’s self-driving car project earlier.
Deepmap deals in data management and HD mapping for autonomous vehicles testing and manufacturing. It has raised $92 million in venture funds, out of which $60 million comes from its series B round in early November this year. Deepmap is backed by Rober Bosch Venture Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners.
There can be serious issues when you try to compete with your employer. Tesla filed a lawsuit against Aurora in 2017 which was later settled in the same year.
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Uber bought Otto, another AV startup founded by former Google X employee Anthony Levandowski. This $680 million deal was proceeded by a trade secret lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving hand. Anthony was accused of stealing confidential information from Google during his tenure. Later Uber fired Levandowski in May 2017 and ended the development of autonomous trucks under Otto.
This bump in the road for Levandowski speaks to the riskiness of leaving a top secret project to start your own. Tech companies like Google and Apple have the will and the means to oppose new projects with litigation. On the IP front, Xoogler founders walk a fine line.