LONDON — U.K. autonomous driving start-up Wayve has been backed by a host of big name investors including Microsoft, Virgin and Baillie Gifford in a $200 million funding round that brings total investment in the company up to $258 million.
Wayve did not disclose its new valuation but it’s likely to be in excess of $1 billion, which would make it a so-called “unicorn” company.
Founded in London in 2017, Wayve’s team of machine-learning scientists and roboticists are trying to build an autonomous driving system that’s underpinned by AI.
Alex Kendall, the New Zealander who co-founded Wayve, told CNBC that his firm’s approach is “quite contrarian” compared to what already exists.
Traditionally, technology companies have tried to tell cars how to drive with hand-coded rules, Kendall said, adding that they tend to use a “very complex hardware stack” that can sometimes include eight LiDAR (laser imaging detection and ranging) sensors, six radar and 30 cameras.
This approach can work in places like Phoenix, Arizona, where it’s almost always sunny and there are wide open boulevards on grid-like structures, but it isn’t scalable in other parts of the world, according to Kendall, who is also Wayve’s CEO.
Wayve’s approach, which it has dubbed AV 2.0, involves trying to teach a car how to drive itself with machine-learning software and a few cameras.
“It’s able to learn to do things that are more complex than humans can hand-program,” Kendall said, adding that the car can “see the world for itself” with the company’s computer vision platform. “It can make its own decisions based on what it sees and drive in very complex environments like we have in central London.”
Wayve believes that deep learning has an important role to play in autonomous driving. Deep learning is an area of AI that attempts to mimic the activity in layers of neurons in the brain to learn how to recognize complex patterns in data.
Rival firm FiveAI thinks autonomous vehicles need more than just a few cameras to learn how to drive.
“We think many sensing modalities are needed,” FiveAI CEO Stan Boland told CNBC, acknowledging that this creates a “fusion challenge.”
“That’s a different issue to whether hand-made rules or more deep learning is the best approach to perception,” he added. “Of course we think both have a role to play, making it a very complicated challenge.”
Wayve has chosen to license its autonomous driving technology to commercial fleets instead of trying to manufacture its own full self-driving vehicles, which are yet to go on sale to the public.
“I really struggle to see a world where consumer autonomy can work,” Kendall said, adding that he thinks fully autonomous vehicles would be difficult for consumers to maintain due to their complexity.
Wayve is trying to hire leading AI scientists who can help the company to build out its platform. But these are some of the most expensive people to hire in the world right now, with some leaders in the field reportedly earning over $1 million a year. “It’s all about quality, not quantity,” Kendall said. “Our biggest investment is our people.”
To date, Wayve has hired roughly 120 people across offices in London and Mountain View, California. It has recruited some prominent names including ex-DeepMind research scientist Chris Burgess, ex-Waymo Principal Engineer Dan McCloskey and former Tesla Software Engineer Joe Polin.
The series B funding round — led by Palo Alto venture capital firm Eclipse alongside the likes of Balderton Capital and Meta’s Chief AI Scientist Yann LeCun — will be used to pay for more talent, data and computing power, which it needs to train its algorithms. Wayve plans to use Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform to train its system how to drive.
“This fundraise signals a shift in recognition from the market that we have now validated a number of the core beliefs that we’ve had,” Kendall said.
Last year it announced commercial partnerships with Ocado, Asda and DPD, which operate fleets of vans in the U.K. Wayve has had data collection devices installed on their human-driven fleets for “some time,” Kendall said, but the companies are now planning to equip some of their fleets with Wayve’s autonomous driving system this year.
“If you live in London, you’ll be able to get your groceries delivered by one of Ocado’s or Asda’s vans driven by our AV 2.0 autonomous driving technology,” he said, adding that there will be a Wayve safety operator in the vehicle.