Category: Business

Chinese Autonomous Driving Unicorn Pony.ai partners with Toyota in Race to Brings Driverless Cars to the Masses

Since China released its national guidelines to allow automated vehicles testing on designated streets with a driver present in the vehicle back in 2018, it seems like every other day there’s news regarding the latest advancements in self-driving technologies.

Here’s the latest: Pony.ai is entering into a partnership with Toyota to explore safe mobility services involving driverless technologies.

More specifically, the two companies will work together on a pilot program to accelerate the development and deployment of these autonomous vehicles.

Looking at this alliance that involves the Chinese autonomous unicorn with the Japanese auto giant that makes over 10 million in annual vehicle sales worldwide, unquestionably it will boost their position in the race to bring driverless cars to the masses.

“Autonomous driving technology is the key to creating a better transportation system that will deliver value to the lives of many,” the companies stated in a press release. “Through such collaborations, Toyota and Pony.ai are accelerating the arrival of a safer, more efficient and more enjoyable mobility future for all.”

This announcement came after the self-driving startup revealed its latest test project PonyPilot, that will be testing its “product-ready” self-driving cars within a geofenced area in Guangzhou, which covers roughly 50 square kilometers of central Nansha.

This testing area will be a defined space, covering various destinations including commercial plazas, office buildings, landmark hotels, libraries, and residential complexes. But for now, the PonyPilot will only be accessible to employees and selected affiliates by invitation only.

Founded in 2016 by two former Baidu executives James Peng and Tiancheng Lou, Pony.ai is the first company in the country to launch a robotaxi operation and offer autonomous rides to the general public. But it doesn’t stop there.

The two founders are ambitious and aim to build level 4 autonomous cars which can operate without human oversight for predictable environments, such as industrial parks, college campuses, and small towns, with a tentative development window of 2 to 3 years from now.

Pony.ai’s current full-stack hardware platform, PonyAlpha leverages lidars, radars, and cameras to keep tabs on obstacles within up to 200 meters of its self-driving cars.

On the other hand, it might be unlikely to some but Toyota also has an ongoing player in the driverless car foray.

In March 2018, the firm said that its R&D division at the Toyota Research Institution would be building a closed-course test facility in Ottawa Lake, Michigan that will replicate edge-case driving scenarios too dangerous to conduct on public roads.

Also last year, Toyota has revealed e-Pallete, a fully-automated battery-powered electric car that is designed for a range of mobility-as-a-service businesses. While more recently, Toyota has also invested US$500 million in Uber to jointly develop self-driving cars.

Then again, these two are facing competition from many other startups.

The autonomous driving sector has drawn billions of dollars of investment over the past few years and is becoming one of the key sectors in AI. The sector even sees participation by China’s BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent), as well as Huawei and many more.

And that is amid the heated competition with the United States for global leadership.

Last summer, German automotive multinational corporation Daimler obtained a permit from the Chinese government allowing it to test self-driving cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in Beijing.

Separately, Waymo has racked up more than 10 million real-world miles in over 25 cities across the U.S. and roughly 7 billion simulated miles, in November 2018 became the first company to obtain a driverless car testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Not to mention, other rivals also include Tesla, Zoox, Aptiv, May Mobility, Pronto.ai, Aurora, Nuro, among some.

Now you must be wondering – who’s ahead in the race?

According to the California self-driving statistics, Chinese companies are still lagging behind US companies in the field, with Waymo drivers disengaging the auto-drive function roughly every 11,000 miles and Cruise drivers once every 5,200 miles on average over a 12-month period through November last year.

By contrast, Pony.ai, the front runner among Chinese autonomous driving companies has reported human intervention once ever 1,022 miles. However, there’s still some catching up Pony.ai has to do and this deal with Toyota comes in time.

“I think in the huge scheme of things, the biggest challenge is still the uncertainty in the open driving environment,” explained Peng on the obstacles the startup had to encounter to create a sustainable autonomous driving system.

Indonesian unicorn Go-Jek may enter Malaysia soon

Malaysia’s youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is planning to bring Go-Jek into Malaysia.

On August 19, Syed Saddiq said he had managed to bring Go-Jek’s founder, Nadiem Makarim, whom he had previously met in July, to meet with Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Transport Minister Anthony Loke.

“The presentation was accepted kindly, and we will finalize the discussion in the upcoming Cabinet meeting this Wednesday,” Syed Saddiq recounted.

The youth and sports minister mentioned that these efforts are aimed at providing more job opportunities to motorcyclists.

“Motorcyclists want jobs, not just one-off programs or race tracks,” Saddiq said his Twitter post which features a one-minute video.

In an interview, Syed Saddiq also mentions that Go-Jek has been successful in Indonesia, with an employment of over two million motorcyclists in Indonesia, and hundreds of thousands more in Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Through this proposal, Syed Saddiq believes that Go-Jek entry into Malaysia will create hundreds of thousands of job opportunities for motorcyclists, in addition to boosting the businesses of small entrepreneurs.

In a separate Twitter post on August 18, Syed Saddiq has also started a poll asking netizens to vote if they support or oppose Go-Jek e-hailing services.

Overall, the poll saw 56,000 responses with 88% agreeing to the statement.

A Brief Introduction to Go-Jek

If you are unfamiliar with the startup, Go-Jek is an Indonesian e-hailing company backed by Tencent, JD.com, Google, and Temasek Holdings.

Founded in 2011, the startup has since then moved beyond ride-hailing services, developing into a one-stop app where users can order on-demand services such as grocery delivery and beauty treatments.

In Indonesia, Gojek has expanded to offer more than 20 services, including e-payment, house cleaning, and laundry services. It is known for its very affordable pricing, which analysts say is possible because the company pays for part of the costs out of its coffers.

Go-Jek also claims to be the largest food delivery service in Southeast Asia, beating even regional competitors in India, which has a population which is more than four times that of Indonesia’s 260 million.

The startup said it currently has more than two million partner drivers and 400,000 partner merchants in Southeast Asia.

Nadiem Makarim, Go-Jek’s Founder and Group Chief Executive said: “When we first launched Go-Food in Indonesia, we became the biggest player in the food delivery service in the country within six hours.”

Go-Jek vs Grab in Malaysia

Anyhow, if cabinet discussions held this week are to go well and Go-Jek entry to Malaysia is successful, the ride-hailing consumers are most likely the first to benefit.

Because after Uber ended its services in Southeast Asia, Singapore-based Grab has basically become the sole player in the Malaysian ride-hailing market.

At least with Go-Jek, the two will extend the competition, giving way to a free market and bringing choice back to the ride-hailing market in Malaysia.

Then again, this matter also reminded many of the homegrown Go-Jek known as Dego Ride which similarly offers motorcycle ride-hailing services in Johor.

Dego Ride and its thousands of riders were dissolved and brought to a halt by the Barisan Nasional government last year, after saying that its service is not needed as Malaysia already provides a comprehensive public transportation system.

The service was also previously criticized by transport minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook saying that, “we will never legalize Dego Ride in Malaysia because we disagree with any types of ride-sharing services that involve motorcycles.”

“In Malaysia, there are too many accidents involving bikes that we just can’t take the risk,” he told reporters.

Then again, with narratives changing now, we just might see a revival of Doge Rides? But first and foremost, this will all rely on the cabinet discussions for Go-Jek.

TikTok’s owner ByteDance is entering China’s search market

ByteDance, TikTok’s parent has recently revealed its plans to launch a search product that will challenge Baidu which currently holds more than 80 percent market share on mobile.

The startup revealed the news through a WeChat post last week stating that it was hiring people to build a new search engine with better user experience. And so far, it had been successful with hires from Google, Baidu, and Bing.

Charlie Chai from 86Research said, “the erosion of Baidu’s market share is expected to be slow but steady. However, search ad revenue is already stagnating in China, so a new entrant is definitely going to be trouble for Baidu investors.”

For a very long time, Baidu has been the dominant search engine in China.

This is especially true since 2010 when the US search engine giant Google retreated from the Chinese market after it has refused to comply with the government request to filter its search results.

Since then, Baidu had been dubbed the Google of China.

According to StatCounter, the Chinese search engine accounted for 66 percent of desktop searches and 71 percent of mobile searches in China last year.

Then again, recently Baidu has also been facing extensive criticism for various moves such as the slow transition to mobile, extensive ad placements, and hosting false hospital information.

Well, it is to the extent that Baidu’s CEO Robin Li has become the victim of water attack during his speech on stage in July.

But when asked about Bytendance’s search engine, Ping Xiaoli, the general manager of Baidu App doesn’t describe it as a threat.

“There has always been competition in China’s search market. We have estimated that there are about two new players emerging in the search engine market each year, which goes to show the prospects and potential of the search market,” said Ping.

“However the truth is: we have been dominating the market over the past two decades. Search and feed are two different products. The technological barrier into search is very high and Baidu has accumulated massive technologies and experience in the past 20 years,” she added.

So far, Baidu had kept its users hooked through launching its standalone app with a feed of videos, news, search, and other features to keep users hooked within its products.

The Baidu app sees 174 million daily active users as of March and said its total mobile reach expanded to 1.1 billion monthly active devices, which is likely larger than ByteDance’s total audience.

Analysts have Positive Outlook for ByteDance

Then again, most analysts are not so confident with Baidu’s stance, saying that ByteDance could do significant damage out of the Chinese search engine’s market share.

Especially given the popularity of Douyin and Toutiao that has placed ByteDance as the most highly valued startup in the world.

ByteDance was valued at US$75 billion during pre-IPO financing in 2018, making it even more valuable than Uber which is currently at US$72 billion.

Toutiao is being installed on more than 250 million monthly unique devices, according to data from the Chinese market research firm iResearch.

TikTok

Meanwhile, Douyin, otherwise better known as TikTok outside China has 500 million monthly active users as of January 2019.

That’s a big install base and one of the reasons analysts think ByteDance can disrupt Baidu’s more than 80 percent market share.

Not to mention, the track records whereby ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017, turning it into TikTok, and making it the most downloaded social media app worldwide within a year, beating even Instagram.

Considering all this, it will be interesting to see where this company will end up in the search engine space moving forward.

But for now, it is said that the search engine will not likely launch a standalone search engine, but will instead integrate that function within ByteDance’s existing products, for example in its news aggregation app Toutiao.

Toutiao Search: The First Look at ByteDance Search Engine

ByteDance first step into the search was through launching a new search portal as part of an additional feature for its TouTiao website, a news aggregator owned by ByteDance.

The domain for the new search engine, Toutiao Search, sits within the company’s flagship product – Chinese news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.

Though it is part of Toutiao’s website, the portal is separate from Toutiao’s own search function which lets users look for news articles and topics within the app.

The new Toutiao Search offers content from ByteDance-owed apps including Jinri Toutiao and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok in addition to results from the wider web.

“In building from the ground up for mobile, Bytedance can also keep the user within the walled garden of its own apps, and deliver information from both the world wide web and its own database and apps,” said Neil Campling, the head of technology, media and telecoms research at Mirabaud Securities.

“This helps increase relevancy for a user search, and in turn, it will also help improve organic reach for advertisers and sponsored information. Baidu doesn’t have this walled garden advantage.”

However, like other search engines in Chinese, its results are censored. Searches for “Hong Kong”, where large pro-democracy demonstrations are currently taking place shows only results from state-approved media outlets or ByteDance’s own services like Xigua Video, Douyin, or Toutiao.

Toutiao Search

Source: Tech Crunch

Still, ByteDance may face some challenges as it seeks to gain popularity in search, including changing user behavior to shift away from Baidu. The company will also need to make a product that is superior in its user experience and search results.

However, if this search were to be successful, ByteDance will be able to drive traffic to all of its platforms. Question is, can ByteDance become the favorite search engine of China?

Hong Kong’s first unicorn Tink Labs has Closed Down

Tink Labs, Hong Kong’s first billion-dollar startup founded by 25-year-old entrepreneur Terence Kwok is set to close down after quietly laying off nearly all its employees.

The startup has already informed hotels in several markets, including Morocco and Thailand, that it will no longer be providing its Handy smartphone services and that mobile services to the handsets will be terminated.

“We recently wrote to notify you that, due to operational changes, Tink Labs will no longer be supplying or servicing Handy smartphone devices in your geography,” read the email sent out to Thailand and Moroccan hotel clients on July 31.

Tink Labs has also announced to employees internally on July 11 that several markets, including China, Denmark, Indonesia, South Africa, and the Philippines, among others, will cease to have Handy services.

This layoff, however, was first reported by Financial Times, which notes that the development follows reports saying that the startup has continuously faced growing pains, layoffs, and major restructuring plans.

Founded in 2012 and led by Chief Executive Officer Terence Kwok, Tink Labs is backed by a strong portfolio of investors to become the city’s first unicorn based on its business model of providing free-to-use smartphones in hotel rooms across the world.

This smartphone service operated by Tink Labs is called Handy and allows the phones to be used by hotel operators to promote their services, either in the room or when taken out by lodgers as a free-to-use city guide and mobile device.

At its peak, Handy has equipped its devices in over 82 countries and 600,000 hotel rooms, which made it became one of Hong Kong’s few startups to have commanded a valuation exceeding US$1 billion.

The startup has even attracted notable investors including Sinovation Ventures’ Lee Kai-fu, Meitu founder and chairman Cai Wensheng, Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile, as well as Softbank’s mobile unit which invested via a joint venture with TInk Labs in Japan.

On its launch, the startup has targeted to reach 1 million rooms by 2018. That target, however, seemed too hard to achieve based on the latest developments at Tink Labs.

Several current and former employees told Financial Times, Tink Lab announced internally that it will close on August 1 after a massive retrenchment in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, hotels in Hong Kong and Singapore were informed that their contracts with Tink Labs were being reassigned to a separate entity, Blockone Limited which will continue providing Handy devices for a fee.

An email to a boutique hotel in Hong Kong states, “There are options available if you would like to continue to offer your guests Handy, including paid subscriptions and tailored revenue-neutral agreements.”

The relationship between Blockione Limited and Tink Labs is currently unclear.

Upon looking at the startup’s website, it is now forwarded to another company, Hi Inc, which operates the brands Hi Hotels and Hi Destinations.

So far, Tink Labs has not issued a statement about its impending closure.

Investment Boom in Southeast Asia is Going Stronger than Ever

In Singapore, venture capital and private equity investment in Southeast Asia has soared to record levels of more than US$4.2 billion.

According to a Nikkei Asian Review, this figure was derived from 35 venture capital funds that have a complete or partial focus on Southeast Asia. Comparatively, this is a twofold increase from the US$2.12 billion Southeast Asia VC investments that was raised last year.

But this is just in the small city-state of Singapore. If you look beyond venture capital and family funds, several startups have also launched their own venture capital funding vehicles.

One example is, AirAsia which had launched its own RedBeat Capital – a fund that focuses on post-seed stage startups engaged in sectors of travel and lifestyle, financial technology, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity.

Elsewhere, investments targeting Southeast Asia are also seeing a major surge with China VC investments in the region increasing fourfold, according to a report by Financial Times.

Last month, Warburg Pincus has also announced a new US$4.25 billion fund which interestingly targets not just China but has expanded to include Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Sequoia’s India fund has also extended its reach into Southeast Asia, in addition to launching an accelerator program to help grow startups in the region.

While some of these funds are yet to hold a final close this year which makes it hard to estimate the total funding in Southeast Asia, the funding spree is undoubtedly on an increasing trend that goes to indicate high investor confidence in Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem.

This is a major endorsement for the region as a startup destination, which before this though have been seen as having immense growth potential, is often overshone by its more mature neighbors like China and India.

Why is Southeast Asia the Best Investment Destination?

Several important shifts have contributed to the steady influx of investment activity in Southeast Asia, one being that there are still key gaps in the funding scene that presents opportunities for existing participants and new entrants.

Nikhil Kapur

Nikhil Kapur, a partner at venture firm STRIVE (formerly known as GREE Ventures) told Business Times, “I think there definitely is a lot of capital now… and there are many more new fund managers who are coming up. But the demand has actually outstripped the supply, and I think there are a lot of people who are still finding it difficult to raise their seed round.”

That is to say, the region’s startups are currently maturing. More than 1,300 companies in Southeast Asia received its first round of seed, or Series A financing since 2011, with 261 startups in 2017 (i.e. five times the number of startups in 2011).

A recent poll at the Asian Financial Forum has also shown a result of 39 percent believing that Southeast Asia presents the best investment prospects in 2019.

Then again, the increasing number of VCs that has taken interest in the region, in no small part is due to forecasts of growth in the tech space as internet adoption rapidly expands among 600 million consumers.

There are of course other factors, including economic growth and emerging middle classes, but most importantly thanks to smartphones – a report by Google and Temasek has forecasted Southeast Asia’s digital economy to more than triple to reach US$240 billion by 2025.

Southeast Asia Benefits from US-China Trade Wars

Besides, Southeast Asia is finding there is some upside to the trade war, as it becomes an alternative base for firms relocating production away from China to avoid levies.

US-China Trade War

Source: MalayMail

Vietnam saw manufacturing inflows jump 18 percent in the first nine months of 2018, driven by investments including a US$1.2 billion polypropylene production project by South Korea’s Hyosung Corporation.

In January through July, Thailand’s net foreign direct investment (FDI) rose 53 percent from a year earlier to US$7.6 billion, with manufacturing inflows surging almost five times, according to central bank data.

Unicorns Success Stories Boost Confidence

But fundamentally, one last reason lies in the success stories of the Southeast Asia unicorns, companies that have achieved a valuation of US$1 billion or more. And depending on how you count it, there are currently more than 10 unicorns in Southeast Asia.

It is these unicorns that have contributed to putting Southeast Asia firmly on the booming ecosystem map. From Grab and Go-Jek to Traveloka and VNG, these unicorns serve as important symbols of success in their respective markets and for the region.

Imagine them like Southeast Asia’s Steve Jobs or Jack Ma that has further motivated startup and venture capital activity.

Among them, ride-hailing giants Singapore’s Grab and Indonesia’s Go-Jek have attracted the most media attention as well as heavy fundings beyond Series F from global technology giants like Alibaba, Tencent Holdings, Alphabet Inc’s Google, and Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

Despite that, both unicorns remain yet to be profitable. So while investing in Southeast Asia is taking off, investors need to navigate adeptly if they are to find solid returns and find the next startup that will make waves by solving big problems.

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