It was the talk of the town that Drive.ai, the autonomous vehicle tech startup, once valued at $200 million, is shutting down after four years of operations. That was until another big news broke the internet – Apple is buying Drive.ai, saving it in the nick of time.
It definitely comes as a major development for Apple, that has always been tight-lipped about its self-driving cars initiatives and has preferred to stay off the front page on developments around it, unlike its contemporaries like Google.
What Went Wrong With Drive.ai?
The company was all set to close down by the end of June, according to the WARN documents filed with the Employment Development Department of California, which must be submitted ahead of a mass layoff or plant closure.
Drive.ai started on a high note in 2015 by former graduate students working in Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab run by Andrew Ng. It received a lot of attention and investments in its earlier years where it tweaked its business model with a plan to combine deep learning software with hardware to make kits that turned regular cars into autonomous cars.
Reports suggest that the startup raised about $77 million and was last valued at $200 million in 2017. It boasted of investors such as New Enterprise Associates and Nvidia GPU Ventures.
With these investments, the startup ramped up its operations extensively in 2017 and 2018 where users could hail a ride from different fixed pick-up and drop-off locations around Frisco and Arlington. It sparked headlines when it conducted fixed-route tests with its autonomous vehicles without human safety drivers on public roads.
While there was a fleet of modified Nissan NV200s that showed messages such as “waiting,” “going,” “entering,” or “exiting”, it wasn’t enough to survive in an environment of consolidation and lowered expectations.
Though there were billions that were flowed into the startup, it failed to scale up as expected. Also as it expanded, the executive team appeared to be constantly in flux with several people holding the CEO spot.
It was then that Drive.ai was rumoured to be snapped up by Apple in an acqui-hire deal. However, after the talks with Apple failed to materialize, the self-driving car startup was to shut down its operation, laying off 90 employees, until Apple confirmed recently that the deal is on.
Apple Revives Its Ambitious Autonomous Vehicles Dream
While Apple has never disclosed its plan to set a foot in self-driving space, it had been working behind the scenes quite aggressively. Buying Drive.ai comes as a push to its autonomous vehicles dream.
Apple has had quite an on and off relationship with its autonomous vehicles efforts. Its tryst with self-driving cars dates back to 2014 when it began working on Project Titan with more than 1000 employees working on developing electric vehicle at a secret location near its Cupertino headquarters.
It had worked on expanding its fleet of test cars and reportedly also teamed up with Volkswagen for vehicle testing. It had several Lexus SUVs outfitted with a range of different sensors and were equipped with new LIDAR equipment as in 2017.
Apple CEO, Tim Cook had said that they are focusing deeply on autonomous systems. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important. We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on.”
However, earlier this year there was news of Apple laying off 200 employees from its ambitious Project Titan. The lay off was said to be a part of restructuring done under the leadership of Doug Field, an ex-Tesla engineer who was hired in 2018, but the move did not suggest how it will impact Apple’s autonomous vehicle plans.
With the influx of Drive.ai employees and assets, however, Apple hints towards its plan to strengthen its autonomous vehicles department, and that it is here to stay in the competition. There are reports suggesting that Apple has also hired employees from its rivals Wymo and Tesla to step up its game.
Our Point Of View
In the wake of the latest development, Apple would get access to a handful of hardware and software engineers from Drive.ai apart from the assets that they were working on in the self-driving space. While in the past, Apple had solely focused on developing the software while continuing to partner with car manufacturers to get the hardware, this deal might put Apple in a stronger foot in terms of both software and hardware.
While Apple has had a shaky journey till now, it may be now re-living its dream of developing a purpose-built self-driving car.