Nauto raises $12 million for driverless car technology that’s street-legal today

Even before the blockbuster acquisition of Cruise Automation by General Motors for more than $1 billion, venture firms were looking for big ideas in autonomous vehicles.

The latest company to attract a round of funding for driverless car technology is Palo Alto-based NAUTO, co-founded in 2015 by CEO Stefan Heck and CTO Frederick Soo.

Andy Rubin’s hardware focused venture fund, Playground Global, led the $12 million investment in Nauto, joined by Draper Nexus.

Heck explained, “Our systems today help humans drive better, safer, smarter and faster in terms of avoiding congestion and traffic. They retrofit into existing cars, and eventually will enable true autonomy in new or older vehicles.”

While early smart car tech firms, including Google, used expensive, LiDar sensors to visually learn what’s going on around a vehicle, Nauto uses the type of image sensors found in “pro-sumer” cameras, in conjunction with motion sensors, GPS systems and other affordable components to gain situational awareness.

Nauto's Android app alerts drivers or fleet managers when an accident has happened.

Nauto’s Android app.

Merging artificial intelligence with dashcams, Nauto’s systems detect what’s happening on the road ahead of a driver, and within their vehicle. The system alerts drivers when there’s a problem ahead, or a dangerous distraction within, to help them avoid collisions.

Nauto also automatically understands when a collision is about to happen, and records the scene inside and outside of the car then.

Images and data about the incident are stored in the cloud, and can be shared with a fleet manager or driver via Nauto’s mobile app, which proves handy for resolving questions of liability.

Nauto is selling to commercial fleets today.

“We believe if you want to accelerate the transition to make the benefits of autonomous vehicles available to people, you have to upgrade existing cars and not wait for a fleet to turn over to something completely new,” Heck said.

Nauto’s pilot customers include City Wide Taxi in San Francisco and fleets in 23 cities, internationally. But Nauto is keeping other client projects under wraps, for now.

Tapping into commercial fleets, Nauto’s system “drives” many miles, gathering data all along the way about driver behavior, good and bad.

The company hopes to gain the deepest possible understanding of what causes near-misses, scrapes and accidents at every level, and to deliver insights back to cities that can help them tweak traffic and even street design to eliminate fatal accidents.

Playground’s Bruce Leak said the Series A investment should help Nauto ramp up manufacturing, and commercial deployments with fleets and cities, while also developing next-generation products.

Leak said, “For fleet operators it is about improving safety, decreasing accidents and saving money. Insurance of the vehicles in their fleets is quite high compared to consumers.”

But long-term, he said, investors expect Nauto to evolve its systems into “the brains” that will fully control driverless cars of every kind.