AI

Exclusive: Wayve co-founder Alex Kendall on the autonomous future for cars and robots

Comment

Wayve demo of remote car operation
Image Credits: Wayve

U.K.-based autonomous vehicle startup Wayve started life as a software platform loaded into a tiny electric “car” called Renault Twizy. Festooned with cameras, the company’s co-founders and PhD graduates, Alex Kendall and Amar Shah, tuned the deep-learning algorithms powering the car’s autonomous systems until they’d got it to drive around a medieval city unaided.

No fancy lidar cameras or radars were needed. They suddenly realized they were on to something.

Fast-forward to today and Wayve, now an AI model company, has raised a $1.05 billion Series C funding round led by SoftBank, Nvidia and Microsoft. That makes this the U.K.’s largest AI fundraise to date, and among the top 20 AI fundraises globally. Even Meta’s head of AI, Yann LeCun, invested in the company when it was young.

Wayve now plans to sell its autonomous driving model to a variety of auto OEMs as well as to makers of new autonomous robots.

Image Credits: Alex Kendall CEO, Wayve

In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Alex Kendall, co-founder and CEO of Wayve, about how the company has been training the model, the new fundraise, licensing plans and the wider self-driving market.

(Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity)


TechCrunch: What tipped the balance to attain this level of funding?

Kendall: Seven years ago, we started the company to build an embodied AI. We have been heads-down building technology […] What happened last year was everything really started to work […] All the elements that are required to make this product dream a reality [came together], and, in particular, the first opportunity to get embodied AI deployed at scale.

Now 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 a product and bring it to market.

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 what we want to achieve here is to go way beyond where AI is today with language models and chatbots. 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. Self-driving will be the first example of that.

How have you been training your self-driving model these last couple of years?

We partnered with Adsa and Ocado to collect data to trial autonomy. That’s been a great way for us to get this technology off the ground, and it continues to be a really important part of our growth story.

What is the plan around licensing the AI to OEMs, to automotive manufacturers? What will be the benefits?

We want to enable all the auto manufacturers around the world to work with our AI, of course, across a wide variety of sources. More importantly, we’ll get diverse data from different cars and markets, and that’s going to produce the most intelligent and capable embodied AI.

Which car makers have you sold it to? Who have you landed?

We’re working with a number of the top 10 automakers in the world. We’re not ready to announce who they are today.

What moved the needle for SoftBank and the other investors in terms of your technology? Was it because you’re effectively platform-independent and every car will now sport cameras around it?

That’s largely correct. SoftBank has publicly commented on their focus on AI and robotics, and self-driving [tech] is just the intersection of that. What we’ve seen so far with the AV 1.0 approaches is where they throw all of the infrastructure, HD maps, etc., in a very constrained setting to prove out this technology. But it’s a very far journey from there to something that’s possible to deploy at scale.

We’ve found that — and this is where SoftBank and Wayve are completely aligned in the vision for creating autonomy at scale — by deploying this software and a diverse set of vehicles around the world, millions of vehicles, we can not only build a sustainable business, we can also get diverse data from around the world to train and validate the safety case to be able to deploy AV at scale through “hands off, eyes off” driving around the world.

This architecture operates with the intelligence onboard to make its own decisions. It’s trained on video as well as language, and we bring in general-purpose reasoning and knowledge into the system, too. So it can deal with the long-tail, unexpected events that you see on the road. This is the path we’re on.

Where do you see yourself in the landscape at the moment in terms of what’s deployed out there already?

There have been a bunch of really exciting proof points, but self-driving has largely plateaued for three years, and there’s been a lot of consolidation in the AV space. What this technology represents, what AI represents, is that it’s completely game-changing. It allows us to drive without the cost and expense of lidar and HD. That allows us to have the onboard intelligence to operate. It can handle the complexities of unclear lane markings, cyclists and pedestrians, and it’s intelligent enough to predict how others are going to move so it can negotiate and operate in very tight spaces. This makes it possible to deploy technology in a city without causing angst or road rage around you, and to drive in a way that conforms with the driving culture.

You did your first experiments back in the day, peppering the Renault Twizy with cameras. What’s going to happen when car manufacturers put lots of cameras around their cars?

Car manufacturers are already building vehicles that make this possible. I wouldn’t name brands, but pick your favorite brand, and particularly with the higher-end vehicles, they have surround cameras, surround radar and an onboard GPU. All of that is what makes this possible. Also, they’ve now put in place Software Defined Vehicles, so we can do over-the-air updates and get data off the vehicles.

What’s been your “playbook”?

We built a company that has all the pillars required to build. Our playbook has been AI, talent, data and compute. On the talent front, we’ve built a brand that’s at the cross-section of AI and robotics, and we’ve been fortunate enough to bring some of the best minds around the world to come work on this problem. Microsoft’s been a long-standing partner of ours, and the amount of GPU compute they’re giving us in Azure is going to allow us to train a model at the scale of something that we haven’t seen before. A truly enormous, embodied AI model that can actually build the safe and intelligent behavior we need for this problem. And then Nvidia, of course. Their chips are best-in-class in the market today and make it possible to deploy this technology.

Will all of the training data you get from the brands you work with be mixed together into your model?

That’s right. That’s exactly the model we’ve been able to prove. No single car manufacturer is going to produce a model that is safe enough on their own. Being able to train an AI on data from many different car manufacturers is going to be safer and more performant than just one. It’s going to come from more markets.

So you’re effectively going to be the holder of probably the largest amount of training data around driving in the world?

That’s certainly our ambition. But we want to make sure that this AI goes beyond driving — like a true embodied AI. It’s the first vision-language-action model that’s capable of driving a car. It’s not just trained on driving data, but also internet-scale text and other sources. We even train our model on the PDF documents from the U.K. government that tell you the highway code. We’re going to different sources of data.

So it’s not just cars, but robots as well?

Exactly. We’re building the embodied AI foundation model as a general-purpose system trained on very diverse data. Think about domestic robotics. The data [from that] is diverse. It’s not some constrained environment like manufacturing.

How do you plan to scale the company?

We continue to grow our AI, engineering and product teams both here [in the U.K.] and in Silicon Valley, and we just started a small team in Vancouver as well. We’re not going to ‘blitzscale’ the company, but use disciplined, purposeful growth. The HQ will remain in the U.K.

Where do you think the centers of talent and innovation are in Europe for AI?

It’s pretty hard to look anywhere outside London. I think London is by far the dominant place in Europe. We’re based in London, Silicon Valley and Vancouver — probably in the top five or six hubs in the world. London has been a great spot for us so far. We grew out of academic innovation in Cambridge to begin with. Where we are now to the next chapter is somewhat a road less well-trodden. But in terms of where we are now, it’s been a brilliant ecosystem [in the U.K.].

There are a lot of good things to be said around corporation, law and tax. On the regulation front, we’ve worked with the government for the last five years now on new legislation for self-driving in the U.K. It passed the House of Lords, it’s almost through the House of Commons, and should soon come into law and make all of this legal in the U.K. The ability for the government to lean into this to work with us […] we’ve really worked in the weeds for that and had over 15 ministers visit. It’s been a really great partnership so far, and we’ve certainly felt the support of the government.

Do you have any comments on the EU’s approach to self-driving?

Self-driving is not part of the AI act. It’s a specific vertical and should be regulated with subject matter experts and as a specific vertical. It’s not some uncoordinated catch-all, and I’m glad about that. It’s not the fastest way to innovate in specific verticals. I think we can do this responsibly by working with specific automotive regulatory bodies that understand the problem space. So sector-specific regulation is really important. I’m pleased the EU has taken that approach to self-driving.

More TechCrunch

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

22 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

23 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck