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Drive.ai raises $50M for retrofit kits to bring self-driving to existing fleets

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Self-driving technology startup Drive.ai has raised a $50 million Series B funding round, led by NEA and with participation from GGV and previous investors, including Series A lead Northern Light. The new funding will help the company pursue its evolved business strategy, which now focuses on creating retrofit kits that can be used to add self-driving capabilities to existing commercial and business vehicle fleets.

The Drive.ai approach to self-driving tech is based on development and use of deep learning for all aspects of the platform, which the company says will help it achieve better development pace, scalability and efficiency gains. Many others in the field use a hybrid approach, applying deep learning in certain areas but not others, but Drive.ai believes the true gains are best achieved by using it throughout the autonomous system stack.

The last time I spoke to Drive.ai, which was founded by a team from Stanford’s AI lab, they weren’t yet talking about retrofit kits, and were instead focused on developing a self-driving car that also had a strong focus on intelligent and intuitive communication with the surrounding world. In an interview about this funding, Drive.ai co-founder and CEO Sameep Tandon explains the shift, while noting that communication is still a core aspect of their focus.

“What we build at Drive.ai, you can think of it as an AI brain, and all those parts that are required to remove the human driver from the vehicle,” he said. “So we focus on Level 4 autonomous driving. A huge part of that is once you remove the human driver from the vehicle, how these vehicles will interact with people in the real world, and build their trust and depict their intentions. That’s something that we is absolutely critical to the safe deployment of autonomous technology.”

Drive.ai’s retrofit kits employ off-the-shelf hardware, including radar and LiDAR, and the startup focuses on building the autonomous software platform that brings all those aspects together to make the self-driving magic happen. With this funding, the company will focus on launching its first pilots, which it’s aiming to start later this year, and on international expansion.

Retrofit options are definitely going to be attractive to any fleet operators who have a large pool of existing vehicles and aren’t eager to throw out that investment and buy all new cars when autonomy becomes the norm. But retrofits are typically costly and difficult, so I asked Tandon just how plug-and-play Drive.ai’s kits will actually be.

“The retrofit kits are intended to be for business fleets, so it’s not intended to be something a consumer can install, it’ll take a little bit of integration,” he said. “But it’s intended to make it relatively quick to retrofit a large fleet.”

Alongside this funding, Drive.ai is also adding two new Directors to its Board, including NEA chairman and head of Asia Carmen Chang, and Coursera co-founder and Google and Baidu AI alum Andrew Ng. Both should help Drive.ai with market expansion plans, particularly thanks to their experience with China, and Ng’s AI bona fides are very highly regarded across the industry.