Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Israeli tech start-ups find open lane in new automotive world


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.
Ford Motor said in August that it was buying SAIPS, a machine learning and computer vision company based in Tel Aviv, as part of its plan to put a self-driving car on the road by 2021. The Israeli company uses deep-learning technology and image and video algorithms to help make split-second decisions about the environment. The sale price was not disclosed.


  Its US rival General Motors already has an advanced technical centre in the coastal city of Herzliya that covers “non-traditional automotive technologies”, including autonomous driving, data analytics, AI, machine learning, and sophisticated sensors — “everything that enables the future mobility era,” says Gil Golan, its director. GM says the site employs “a few hundred people”, and continues to expand, but will not offer a concrete number or more specifics on its activities for competitive reasons.  Volkswagen in May invested $300m in Gett, an Israeli rival to Uber, as part of its own planned move into ride-sharing and autonomous cars. And BMW in July teamed up with chipmaker Intel and MobilEye, the Nasdaq-listed Israeli pioneer of autonomous driving technology, to help the Munich-based carmaker begin producing fully automated vehicles by 2021. “When you look at the future challenges to the car, the biggest one is around autonomous driving,” MobilEye’s chairman and chief technical officer Amnon Shashua told the Financial Times. “Computer science is one of the strongest [subjects] academically and in terms of high tech in Israel, so it’s natural that Israel is contributing AI, cameras, software, and decision-making — it’s coming from computer science.”
The shift of cars from works of primarily mechanical engineering to “smart” computers on wheels has brought a flow of venture capital and investment money into a new round of start-ups.
“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.” 

 

ISRAELI AUTOMOTIVE TECH GROUPS
FieldCompanyDescription
Autonomous drivingMobilEyeJerusalem-based company supplies advanced driver assistance systems to more than 10m vehicles worldwide
Shared mobilityGettFormerly called GetTaxi, this Tel Aviv-based company connects drivers to riders, like Uber, but uses established taxi fleets
Shared mobilityViaThis company, positioning itself as an alternative to public transport, connects passengers who are headed the same way with shared minivans
Machine learningCorticaFounded 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 dataEngieChaired 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 dataOtonomoThis 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 securityArgusOffers its services to carmakers who want to avoid the risks of cyber-attacks and massive recalls
Alternative fuelsPhinergyHas 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.”

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