If you worked for a startup in the 1990s, chances were you were figuring out how to make money on the brand spankin' new World Wide Web. Leap forward 10 years, and the typical startup was all about apps on your smartphone, to do everything from touching up selfies, to booking flights, to getting your laundry picked up.
Now, we're in the decade of the startup launched to remake transportation—the electric cars, ride sharing networks, and personal flying machines that will transform the way people get around.
Lyft, formed in 2012, joined Uber and others in persuading people that’s it’s fine to get into strangers’ cars. Zipline started national drone delivery networks, dropping medical supplies in Rwanda and Tanzania. Tesla made electric propulsion, once the province of eco-warriors, fast and cool.
As always, startups form and dissolve like clouds in the sky. Some fail, others are consumed by hungry investors, a few hang on to become household names. And as ever, it's hard to predict which will do what, which merit attention, which are the wannabes destined for bankruptcy. That's why Automobility LA, the trade show dedicated to the converging worlds of tech and transport at the Los Angeles Auto Show, just named 10 transportation startups finalists, it believes are poised for greatness.
Picked from a field of 300, these 10 companies are addressing some of the most vexing and important problems standing between us and the future of transportation. They’re inventing new sensors to give driverless cars a picture of the world, new ways to train the artificial intelligence that will control the moving machines of tomorrow, and new methods of accessing them all.
"I don’t think automotive has seen a disruption like this since the automobile was invented and we replaced horses," says Manuela Papadopol, who directs business development at car software supplier Elecktrobit, and is running the competition for the LA Auto Show. She believes startups are going to be crucial as the world moves to electric propulsion and self-driving vehicles.
Future vehicles will need to sense the world, if they're going to drive themselves, and developments in this area are happening fast. “It’s an exciting area to be in,” says Dean Zody, CEO of GhostWave. The Columbus, Ohio-based startup is making radar sensors that are less prone to interference, which it says will be crucial when the roads are flooded with self-driving cars relying on them for collision avoidance.
Ghostwave is up against Neteera Technologies, which is working on Terahertz sensors, which could give driverless cars superhuman senses, allowing them to scan the environment with a novel sensor that blends lidar and radar. Again, the hope is to avoid the perils of interference. Also in the final 10 is Innoviz Technologies, an Isreali company developing solid-state lidar. Those laser sensors are widely viewed as essential to the development of self-driving cars, but the current “KFC bucket” designs with spinning mirrors are expensive and fragile. Solid state sensors, with no moving parts, would fix that. “There are different companies trying to solve the problem in different ways, which is a very interesting stage for this industry,” says Oren Rozenzweig, chief business officer. “It really depends who gets to the finish line with a good product.” And gets it in front of the right eyeballs.
The cars of the future will require brains, too. Mighty AI gamifies the training of the artificial intelligence brains, and then crowdsources it. “The automotive space is one of the hottest and most advanced fields applying machine learning,” Matt Bencke, CEO of the company, told WIRED this summer.
Ultimately, profit is king, so Cerebri AI, a company that uses AI to figure out how to make money from drivers and their interactions with the world, makes the top 10 list, too. WayRay could play a part in that interaction—it's making holographic augmented reality tech for connected cars. Think Blade Runner-style billboards thrown up on windscreens.
In the future, you're less likely to own your own car, and more likely to rely on grabbing one when you need it. At least, that's the business model of three more top tenners. "We believe that new mobility is becoming the new reality – in a few short years, we are going to see a major decrease in private vehicle ownership in favor of carsharing and ridesharing," says Ridecell boss Aarjav Trivedi. His startup is building a software backbone for other companies to get their rideshare plans up and running quickly. GoKid bills itself as a complete carpool solution for schools, teams, and active families. SPLT is trying carpooling with a trusted community of commuters who want to share a ride to work.
And when they're done with all that running around, these shared, electric cars will need to top-up their batteries. The final entrant, EV Safe Charge, is developing electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
It’s a varied list, which later this year, judges will whittle down to three finalists, who’ll receive prizes like entrance to industry tradeshows, and sample hardware from Microsoft, NVIDIA, Porsche Consulting, and Elektrobit. One grand prize winner will get an advisory session with the judges—a good time for a sales pitch perhaps—and “significant prizes to help further grow their business."
But the real prize for a competition like this isn't money. It's exposure. “We’ll have a booth in the startup area, people see our banner, and say hey, yeah, that’s a problem, how are you fixing it?” says Ghostwave’s Zody. It’s a question all of the ten finalists will have to get used to.
And for the auto industry, it's a chance to spot the next big investment. Papadopol says only 6 percent of the money flowing into automotive startups comes from traditional car builders, the rest comes from venture capital firms and tech companies. If the old school car makers want to stay competitive, they'll have to merge with or buy companies solving the problems of the future. These 10 are a good place to start.