Israel briefly made cars in the 1950s and ‘60s: the Sussita, the Carmel and the Sabra, which, unusually, had a cactus for its logo.
The cars sold poorly, but entered popular myth: Israelis today will tell you they were irresistible to camels, who liked to munch on their fibreglass bodies. Israel lacked — and today still lacks — both the requisite industrial depth and the domestic car market needed to rival the incumbent auto industries of the US, Europe or Japan.
But six decades later, the high-tech functions in which Israeli companies excel — cyber security, artificial intelligence, machine learning — are increasingly being deployed in cars, and the Jewish state’s automotive moment has come.
Israel’s central and coastal high-tech belt is emerging as a growing hub of automotive supplier and service companies. World carmakers that go to Silicon Valley in search of new products and plugged-in developers are also turning to Tel Aviv, as witnessed in a recent spate of deals involving Israeli tech companies.
“There’s a bit of a boom in the car industry in Israel,” says Eran Shir, founder and chief executive of Nexar, an Israeli start-up that is developing what it calls an air-traffic control system for the road. “It’s mainly because the industry itself is shifting from being hardware focused to software focused.”
|Autonomous driving||MobilEye||Jerusalem-based company supplies advanced driver assistance systems to more than 10m vehicles worldwide|
|Shared mobility||Gett||Formerly called GetTaxi, this Tel Aviv-based company connects drivers to riders, like Uber, but uses established taxi fleets|
|Shared mobility||Via||This company, positioning itself as an alternative to public transport, connects passengers who are headed the same way with shared minivans|
|Machine learning||Cortica||Founded by two veterans of Israeli military intelligence, the company has “biologically inspired” technology that will help cars “learn” to make sense of images they see|
|On-board data||Engie||Chaired by Uri Levine, the founder of the Google-owned navigation app Waze, it produces an app that finds nearby mechanics and gives price quotes|
|On-board data||Otonomo||This start-up is aiming to give carmakers and drivers a way of making use of the massive amount of data generated by cars to offer new services and products|
|Cyber security||Argus||Offers its services to carmakers who want to avoid the risks of cyber-attacks and massive recalls|
|Alternative fuels||Phinergy||Has pioneered “high energy density systems” that use metal plates and ambient air to power electric cars|
Nexar is building a network that crowdsources in real time what happens on the road — from acceleration and velocity to bumps and potholes in the road — to prevent and predict accidents. Like Waze, the Israeli navigation app bought by Google for $1.3bn, it gathers information via an app downloaded to drivers’ smartphones. In the case of collisions, Nexar can provide reports that reconstruct the event.
Via, another start-up, has leveraged the quintessentially Israeli institution of collective taxis called “sherooteem”, which collect and deposit drivers in different places, with an app that allows customers (for now in Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington DC) to order rides in shared minivans for a flat fee of $5. “We compute a new bus line every second,” says Oren Shoval, its co-founder and chief technology officer. The company was founded at the end of 2012, and earlier this year raised $70m in a financing round.
Israeli technology and its potential in cars first loomed large on investors’ screens with Better Place, a start-up founded by Israeli Shai Agassi. The company combined expertise in navigation and electric car charging technology with a system of swapping batteries at petrol stations, rather than waiting for them to recharge. It went bankrupt in 2013 after raising nearly $1bn, but failing to gain a critical mass of drivers.
Israel’s current crop of start-ups, far from reinventing the wheel, are striking partnerships with car companies and recruiting car industry veterans on to their teams
Argus Cyber Security, the biggest company in the emerging field of cyber security in cars, has a veteran of
Daimler heading its Europe operation.
Otonomo, another start-up, is aiming to give carmakers a way of making money from the rafts of data their vehicles collect by creating a “marketplace” or exchange that insurers, petrol retailers, and others can tap into. Steve Girsky, former vice-chairman of GM, is one of its investors and advisers.
“Automotive is no longer metal on wheels — it’s computers on wheels,” says Ziva Eger, head of foreign and industrial co-operation with Israel’s economy ministry, which promotes tech companies. “When you need more and more technology in this field to be competitive and you need to provide your customers all the best technology, Israel has a lot to offer.”