Wayve, an AI startup for autonomous driving, raises $1 billion

Wayve, a London-based maker of artificial intelligence systems for autonomous vehicles, said Tuesday it had raised $1 billion, an eye-popping sum for a European start-up and an example of investor optimism about AI's ability to reshape industries.

SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate that backed Uber and other tech companies, was the lead investor, along with Microsoft and Nvidia. Previous investors in Wayve include Yann LeCun, Meta's chief artificial intelligence scientist.

Wayve, which previously raised about $300 million, did not disclose its valuation after the investment.

Wayve was co-founded in 2017 by Alex Kendall, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge specializing in computer vision and robotics. Unlike generative AI models, which create human-like text and images and are developed by OpenAI, Google and Anthropic, the so-called embodied AI systems made by Wayve act as brains for physical objects, be they cars, robots or production systems. Artificial intelligence allows a machine to make real-time decisions on its own.

“The full potential of AI comes when we have machines in the physical world that we can trust,” Kendall said.

Companies focused on autonomous driving are facing a difficult time. The technology is expensive and difficult to make and is subject to intense regulatory scrutiny. Cruise, the General Motors subsidiary, removed its driverless cars from the road last year due to legal and safety concerns. Apple recently abandoned its self-driving car efforts after years of development.

Wayve, which has around 300 employees, has been testing its technology on British roads since 2018 and will soon expand elsewhere. The software uses cameras, sensors and other modern automotive technologies to see and react to different driving environments. Data collected as the car drives around a city is fed into the artificial intelligence system to help the cars learn.

The approach is different from that of other autonomous vehicle developers such as Waymo, which is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet. Wayve said its technology doesn't rely so much on high-definition maps or Lidar sensors, a laser instrument used to measure distance and detect objects. Tesla has used a similar approach to Wayve in recent years.

Wayve created software to explain in plain English why a car made a certain driving decision — such as why it suddenly stopped or slowed down — a layer of transparency to help win over regulators.

The amount raised by Wayve is among the largest recent investments in startups in Europe, which has historically lagged behind the United States in venture capital and technology funding. In December, Mistral, a French artificial intelligence developer, raised 385 million euros, or about $415 million.

“I am incredibly proud that the UK is home to pioneers like Wayve who are leading the way in developing the next generation of AI models for self-driving cars,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement.

Mr Kendall, originally from New Zealand, said investment from SoftBank and others would allow the company to turn its research into a full commercial product. He said Wayve was negotiating with several large automakers to make its software available for purchase in cars, but he declined to name them.

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