Hyundai is launching Botride, a robotaxi service in California with Pony.ai and Via

A fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers — equipped with a self-driving system from Chinese autonomous startup Pony .ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform, will start shuttling customers on public roads next week.

The robotaxi service called BotRide will operate on public roads in Irvine, California, beginning November 4. This isn’t a driverless service; there will be a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. But it is one of the few ride-hailing pilots on California roads. Only four companies, AutoX, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox have permission to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles in the state of the California.

Customers will be able to order rides through a smartphone app, which will direct passengers to nearby stops for pick up and drop off. Via’s expertise is on shared rides, and this platform aims for the same multiple rider goal. Via’s platform handles the on-demand ride-hailing features such as booking, passenger and vehicle assignment and vehicle identification (QR code). Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. It also partners with cities and transportation authorities — and now automakers launching robotaxi services — giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles.

Hyundai said BotRide is “validating its user experience in preparation for a fully driverless future.” Hyundai didn’t explain when this driverless future might arrive. Whatever this driverless future ends up looking like, Hyundai sees this pilot as a critical marker along the way.

Coverage area of Hyundai robotaxi pilot

Hyundai said it is using BotRide to study consumer behavior in an autonomous ride-sharing environment, according to Christopher Chang, head of business development, strategy and technology division, Hyundai Motor Company .

“The BotRide pilot represents an important step in the deployment and eventual commercialization of a growing new mobility business,” said Daniel Han, manager, Advanced Product Strategy, Hyundai Motor America.

Hyundai might be the household name behind BotRide, but Pony.ai and Via are doing much of the heavy lifting. Pony.ai is a relative newcomer to the AV world, but it has already raised $300 million on a $1.7 billion valuation and locked in partnerships with Toyota and Hyundai.

The company, which has operations in China and California and about 500 employees globally, was founded in late 2016 with backing from Sequoia Capital China, IDG Capital and Legend Capital.

It’s also one of the few autonomous vehicle companies to have both a permit with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test AVs on public roads and permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to use these vehicles in a ride-hailing service. Under rules established by the CPUC, Pony.ai cannot charge for rides.

China’s Source Code Capital raises $570M as it builds a powerful investor network

Source Code Capital, the venture capital firm that’s backed some of China’s most prominent tech unicorns and boasts a network of high-profile investors and founders, announced Monday it has closed a new $570 million fund as it continues to hunt down early to mid-stage companies.

The latest close catapults Source Code’s capital under management to $1.5 billion and 3.5 billion yuan divided between six funds. Investors in the new fund, according to the company, span major pensions, sovereign wealth funds, college endowments, charities, private equity firms, among other institutions.

Source Code was founded in 2014 by Cao Yi, who studied computer science at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and later became vice president at Sequoia Capital China, stints that might have helped him spot high-potential startups early on. To date, Source Code has backed close to 150 startups, including up-and-comers Bytedance, the TikTok parent that’s now the world’s most valuable startup; food delivery leader Meituan Dianping, which listed in Hong Kong last year; micro-credit provider Qudian, whose New York IPO marked one of the biggest for a Chinese fintech company that year; Mogu, a Tencent-backed fashion ecommerce site that floated on the Nasdaq last year; just to name a few.

With the new money, Source Code will continue to back businesses focused on the global market, “internet plus” or “AI plus” sectors, the last two of which are buzzwords in China pertaining to upgrading traditional sectors using the internet and artificial intelligence.

The fresh capital will also enable Source Code to bring more overseas investors into its peer and mentor alliance Ma Hui, which directly translates to “Code Club.” The thinking behind the community is akin to the investor network a16z has nurtured to channel support and resources between investors and portfolio companies. Ma Hui’s class of 30 big-name limited partners count Bytedance founder Zhang Yiming and Meituan founder Wang Xing.

“The goal of Source Code is to look for, invest in, and serve the best businesses in emerging economies. These companies and entrepreneurs are diligently working to let mass consumers eat better, wear better, live better, play better, access more inclusive finance and better transportation… among other ways to live a better life,” said Cao in a statement.

“[Our goal is] also to help enterprises across the board to grow sales, cut procurement and logistics costs, improve working capital turnover, unleash the potential of talents, and increase their global competitiveness… among other know-how to run a sustainable business,” the managing partner added.

Search giant Baidu has driven the most autonomous miles in Beijing

While the public is asking, “When are we going to ride in autonomous cars?” Technology companies have been moving apace to test them on designated roads. In China’s capital city Beijing, eight firms drove a total of 153,600 kilometers (95442.6 miles) through their autonomous fleets in 2018, and Baidu, the country’s largest search engine service seen as a local answer to Google, has built a big lead.

That’s according to new data released by Beijing’s transportation regulators in their first report on the city’s licensed self-driving cars. While the authority did not specify conditions of the road tests, say, the number of instances when a human driver had to intervene to prevent an accident, namely the level of “disengagement” that California’s counterpart report asked for, Beijing’s data offers the public an early glimpse into a fledgling field.

Baidu registered nearly 140,000 kilometers in Beijing last year, representing about 91 percent of total self-driving distances traveled by the eight licensed transportation companies in the city. The firm’s leading position is closely linked to its pledge to go all out for artificial intelligence. When it comes to AI’s application in mobility, Baidu stays clear of making hardware and runs an open platform called Apollo that lets third-party developers tap its autonomous tech.

Apollo has joined hands with 135 car manufacturers, parts suppliers and other car allies at last count. Its partners range from international automakers Volvo and Ford, to local electric vehicle startups Byton and Nasdaq-listed NIO.

Baidu was also the first to nab a batch of L3 licenses to trial self-driving cars in Beijing, where Baidu is headquartered and is the country’s first city to allow such road tests. Robocars are now testing in more than ten Chinese cities, including first-tier Beijing and Shanghai as well as smaller urban centers like Changsha, where Baidu is working with the municipal government to bring 100 automated cabs to the city by end of this year.

The runner-up on Beijing’s road-test list, Pony.ai, lagged behind Baidu by a large margin at 10132.9 kilometers. But the three-year-old company has attracted large sums of investor money, in part thanks to the resume of co-founder James Peng, who was the former chief architect of Baidu’s autonomous driving unit. The southern China-based startup counts Sequoia Capital China as one of its seed investors and nearly reached $1 billion in valuation after raising $102 million in funding last July.

Other self-driving companies testing in Beijing included social and gaming giant Tencent, ride-hailing platform Didi Chuxing, and carmakers NIO, Audi AG, Daimler AG and Beijing’s state-owned BAIC Group. Didi, which made safety a priority across company divisions following two passenger murders last year, ran the least self-driving miles in Beijing last year but the company holds great potential to unlock mountains of car-hailing data that could help autonomous vehicles predict road conditions.

Notably missing from the list is Roadstar.ai, a self-driving startup that once rivaled Pony.ai and secured a record $128 million Series A round less than a year ago. Chinese tech news blog Liangziwei reported this week that shareholders are asking to dissolve and liquidate the Shenzhen and Silicon Valley-based firm following months of infighting among its senior executives.

Also unmentioned is Huawei, a potentially formidable player in autonomous driving. The telecom equipment maker’s foray into self-driving predates many other familiar names. Back in 2016, Huawei was among a group of tech firms and carmakers to form the Global Cross-industry 5G Automotive Association aimed at developing communications technology and commercial solutions for automated driving. Members of the alliance included Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm. More recently, Huawei’s partnership with Audi brought more light to its ambition in autonomous tech, as it provided chipsets to power Audi’s L4 (which is more autonomous than L3) self-driving sedans.

Tencent-backed homework app jumps to $3B valuation after raising $300M

Academic exams are a big deal in China as they determine the kind of universities, high schools and elementary schools that students get into and to a degree, the future that awaits them.

Parents are thus willing to invest generously to help their children get ahead in school. One startup capitalizing on this need is Yuanfudao, a six-year-old startup that has attracted a line of big-name investors. The company announced this week that it has raised $300 million in a funding round led by existing investor Tencent, China’s largest social networking and gaming company.

Other participants from the round include Warburg Pincus, Matrix Partners China and IDG Capital . The fresh injection raised Yuanfudao’s valuation from around $1 billion at the time it pocketed $120 million in 2017 to exceed $3 billion.

China’s exam-oriented culture has given rise to a billion-dollar tutoring market. As affordable mobile internet becomes common, a lot of that teaching effort is happening online. A report by research firm iResearch shows that China’s online K-12 market will reach 44 billion yuan, or $6 billion, by the end of this year and will more than triple to 150 billion yuan by 2022.

Yuanfudao, which means “ape tutor” in Chinese, administers a suite of services including live courses, a database of exam problems and a popular homework help app. The latter scans homework problems and solves them instantly with the snap of a camera. The startup also operates a research institute for artificial intelligence, which could train its homework app to be smarter.

Yuanfudao claims to serve more than 200 million users, which include students and their parents who use the startup’s apps to check the learning progress of their kids.

Yuanfudao told TechCrunch that it derives the majority of its revenues from selling live courses. It plans to use the proceeds from the latest round to fund investments in research and development of AI as well as improve its apps’ user experience.

The startup is in a heated race to fight for Chinese students and parents. Other companies with similar homework help services include Zuoyebang, which is backed by Chinese search giant Baidu, Coatue Management, Sequoia Capital China and Goldman Sachs. Another one is Yiqizuoye, which counts Singapore sovereign fund Temasek as an investor. A wave of Chinese companies that started with a focus on adult education have also come into the K-12 fray, including New Oriental and 51Talk, which are both listed on the New York Stock Exchange.