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Wayve raises $1B to take its Tesla-like technology for self-driving to many carmakers

Wayve, a U.K.-born startup developing a self-learning rather than rule-based system for autonomous driving, has closed $1.05 billion in Series C funding led by SoftBank Group. This is the U.K.’s largest AI fundraise ever and sits among the top 20 AI fundraises globally to date.

Also participating in the raise was Nvidia and existing investor Microsoft. Waye’s early-stage investors included Meta’s head of AI, Yann LeCun.

Wayve, which was founded in Cambridge in 2017, raised $200 million in a Series B round in January 2022 led by Eclipse Ventures.

The company plans to use the fresh capital injection to develop its product for “eyes on” assisted driving and “yes off” fully automated driving and other AI-assisted automotive applications. It plans to expand operations globally.

San Francisco has become known as the epicenter for autonomous driving roll-outs, with Alphabet-owned Waymo and GM-owned Cruise both operating services in the city. By contrast, Wayve’s “end-to-end” self-driving system began its life around the tiny streets of Cambridge on an electric Renault Twizy.

Since then, it has been training its model on delivery vehicles for the likes of companies like U.K. grocery delivery company Ocado, which invested $13.6 million in the startup.

Wayve’s approach to autonomous driving is similar to Tesla’s, but Wayve plans to sell its autonomous driving model to a variety of auto OEMs. The implication, of course, is that Wayve will garner a great deal more training data on which to improve its model, as Tesla must rely on someone buying their car brand. The company has not announced any such automotive partners yet, however.

Wayve calls its hardware-agnostic mapless product an “Embodied AI,” and it plans to distribute its platform not just to car makers but also to robotics companies serving manufacturers of all descriptions, allowing the platform to learn from human behavior in a wide variety of real-world environments. The company’s research on multimodal and generative models, known as LINGO and GAIA, will offer “language-responsive interfaces, personalized driving styles, and co-piloting,” the firm promises.

Wayve co-founder and CEO Alex Kendall told TechCrunch: “Seven years ago, we started the company to go build an embodied AI. We have been heads down building technology … What happened last year was everything really started to work.”

He said the key moment has been the automotive industry’s “step change” into having cameras surrounding new cars, from which Wayve can draw data for its autonomous platform: “Now their production vehicles are coming out with GPUs, surrounding cameras, radar, and of course the appetite to now bring AI onto, and enable, an accelerated journey from assisted to automated driving. So this fundraise is a validation of our technological approach, and gives us the capital to go and turn this technology into product and bring this product to market.”

He added that Wayve has big plans for robotics as well.

“Very soon you’ll be able to buy a new car, and it’ll have Wayve’s AI on it … Then this goes into enabling all kinds of embodied AI, not just cars, but other forms of robotics. I think the ultimate thing that we want to achieve here is to go way beyond where AI is today with language models and chatbots. But to really enable a future where we can trust intelligent machines that we can delegate tasks to, and of course they can enhance our lives and self-driving will be the first example of that.”

In a move that signified the importance of this fundraise more broadly to the U.K., Prime Minister Rishi Sunak issued a supporting statement, saying: “From the first electric light bulb or the World Wide Web, to AI and self-driving cars — the U.K. has a proud record of being at the forefront of some of the biggest technological advancements in history.”

“I’m incredibly proud that the U.K. is the home for pioneers like Wayve who are breaking ground as they develop the next generation of AI models for self-driving cars. The fact that a homegrown, British business has secured the biggest investment yet in a U.K. AI company is a testament to our leadership in this industry, and that our plan for the economy is working,” he said.

“We are leaving no stone unturned to create the economic conditions for businesses to grow and thrive in the U.K. We already have the third highest number of AI companies and private investment in AI in the world, and this announcement anchors the U.K.’s position as an AI superpower,” he added.

Also in a statement, Kentaro Matsui, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers and a Wayve board member, said: “AI is revolutionizing mobility … The potential of this type of technology is transformative; it could eliminate 99% of traffic accidents. SoftBank Group is delighted to be at the forefront of this effort with Wayve, as advanced intelligence redefines mobility and connectivity, contributing to a more convenient and safer society.”

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