October 21, 2018

Israeli tech firms steer the future of driverless cars

Navigation, visual scanning and artificial intelligence know-how originally developed for Israel’s military are now set to be the brains of almost everyone’s next vehicle.

“As technology becomes a key element in the automotive industry and more global players aim toward developing these [driverless] vehicles, our multidisciplinary approach to high-tech is making us a bigger and bigger player in the industry,” said Ziva Eger, chief executive of Israel’s International Investments and Industrial Cooperation Authority.

“With more than 300 companies in the auto-tech sector, the ‘Startup Nation’ is quickly becoming the ‘Transportation Nation,’ ” Eger, a retired Israel Defense Force Colonel, told the Journal.

Over the summer, automakers BMW, Volkswagen and Ford Motor Co. announced partnerships with or acquisitions of Israeli firms developing the technology behind the coming generation of driverless vehicles.

Amnon Shashua, a computer science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is credited in large part for Israel’s emergence as a global leader in smart-car development. His company, Mobileye, is the top supplier of camera-based sensors used in driver-assistance systems already on the road. 

In 1993, Shashua completed his doctoral dissertation, “Geometry and Photometry in 3D Visual Recognition.” In 1999, he co-founded Mobileye, and in 2014 the company launched its initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange, raising approximately $1 billion. The market value of all of Mobileye’s shares is estimated at $5.3 billion, setting the record as the biggest Israeli IPO ever in the United States. 

Last month, Mobileye, BMW and Intel — the world’s largest chip maker — negotiated a pact to jointly develop autonomous-car technology.

“It’s one thing to come and say: ‘I developed a technology,’ ” Shashua said. “It’s another thing to say, ‘I have already partnered with one-third of the global industry.’ ”

In late July, in order to improve its driverless car technology, Ford Motor Co. bought Israeli computer vision and machine learning company SAIPS. Ford plans to put driverless vehicles on the road in a ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft by 2021.

Although no financial details of the acquisition were disclosed, the Tel Aviv business daily Globes reports that Ford will pay in the tens of millions of dollars for the Israeli startup founded in 2013.

SAIPS has developed algorithmic solutions in image and video processing, deep learning and signal processing needed to achieve what industry insiders call Level 4 technology.

A Level 3 vehicle can operate safely with the driver’s “eyes off” the road, while Level 4 indicates a “mind off” vehicle able to perform all safety-critical functions throughout a trip without a driver having to be prepared to take control.

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Ford CEO Mark Fields, in a statement released shortly after its Israeli tech acquisition.

This year, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to be the largest of any automaker, bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans, with plans to triple it again in 2017.

In June, Volkswagen — Europe’s largest carmaker — invested $300 million in Uber’s Israel-based competitor Gett Inc., a move that helps the company acquire the ride-sharing information needed to repurpose geographic and driver behavior data into the deep intelligence needed to deploy autonomous cars.

“The partnership with Gett marks the first milestone for the Volkswagen Group on the road to providing integrated mobility solutions that spotlight our customers and their mobility needs,” said Volkswagen’s Chairman Matthias Müller.

Driverless vehicles will require the development of new rules of the road. Regulators in Washington, D.C., invited Israel’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to a meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to sign an agreement giving the American government an advisory role in the development of autonomous vehicles at the ministry’s technology center in Herzliya.

Automotive firms know that connected cars are at risk of cyberattacks, and Israeli data security companies are already doing business with much of the industry worldwide.

Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity firm Argus, founded by veterans of Unit 8200 — the Israeli Army’s signal intelligence and code decryption branch — has opened offices in Michigan, Tokyo and Stuttgart, Germany, to serve global automakers. 

“The more connectivity is embedded into these vehicles, the greater the need for cyber solutions to protect these cars from getting hacked,” Argus’ marketing director Monique Lance told the Journal.