Israel’s status as a leading tech nation is not in doubt. The Middle Eastern state of just eight million people, known as “Silicon Wadi”, is home to 5,000 startups and 750 venture-backed firms. It receives the largest VC investment per capita than anywhere else on earth.
Mobility has become a key battleground. Over 420 Israeli startups now work in the shared mobility industry, according to analyst Roland Berger, and $1.6bn has been invested in the sector over the past four years.
They have been aided by easy access to funding, including equity crowdfunding from the likes of OurCrowd, which has many mobility brands in its stable. Also active is the Israeli government: In January last year the Israeli Innovation Authority, the government’s leading tech arm, was given a $65m budget to aid the automotive industry. Its Alternative Fuels Administration was constructed specifically to grow Israel’s high-tech mobility sector, as supranational emissions targets loom.
The prize is a market set to be worth trillions in just a few years’ time. Most insiders believe fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road in just three or four years, with peak usage arriving some time around 2035. That brings a host of sensory and security issues Israeli firms – many of whom graduated the country’s famed 8200 Unit intelligence group – are well poised to tackle.
Among them is Maniv Mobility, a venture outfit focused solely on automotive. It is the first of its kind in Israel and a vital cog in the automotive industry machine. Among Maniv’s portfolio is 3D virtualization brand Cognata, Drive.ai and Intuition Robotics, whose ELLI.Q elderly care bot has won admirers everywhere.
“At the top level, the race is on between global automakers and technology upstarts as to who deploys robotic taxi fleets providing mobility to consumers,” says Maniv founder Michael Granoff. “But none of them are capable of solving the multitude of challenges associated with a disruption of this magnitude. There is plenty of space for talented young companies to provide pieces of the puzzle, and that is why the mobility startup scene is as dynamic as it is.”
Another company, and member of OurCrowd’s portfolio, making headway is Arbe Robotics, a radar solution for “level four” vehicles (highly autonomous: driverless vehicles range from one to five on a scale of autonomy). Its 4D imaging technology is crucial to operate in challenging weather and lighting conditions.
“4D imaging is advancing due to the understanding that radar is a mandatory component in the autonomous car sensor suite,” a spokesperson tells Red Herring. “Due to Camera and LiDAR limitations, 4D imaging is crucial for operating in challenging weather and lighting conditions.
“The main advantages of our high-end radar are its high resolution, lower false alarm rates, and wide field of view,” the company adds. “We use our own chip, which is far more advanced than the current systems, in terms of output power, sensitivity, and number of channels.”
The riches for successful startups are already there: MobilEye was bought by Intel for $15bn last year, while Google swooped for map service Waze in 2013 for the sum of $1.1bn. Gett, a taxi-hailing app, received a $300m investment from Volkswagen in May 2016. Honda Innovations has paired up with several leading platforms from the country, including incubator DRIVE.
In November last year German parts maker Continental forked out $450m to buy Argus Cyber Security, which protects the new generation of vehicles from digital attacks. German-Israeli cooperation in the field has been one of its hallmarks: 50 German companies invested around $1.5bn in Israeli startups in 2016, according to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Argus CMO Yoni Heilbronn warns that, “There is no silver bullet when it comes to cyber security and there will never be 100% protection so long as a vehicle or device is connected to the internet.”
But, he adds, providing quick, over-the-air security patches and recoveries is vital to ensure vehicle safety – and the trust of the public. He says, “85% of consumers believe that connected cars could be targets of cyber-attacks. This fear, and the very real threat of cyber-attacks to connected vehicles, means that automotive cyber security protections are vital.”
Trust is something the automotive industry has been fighting to gain for over a century. In 2015 two “white hat” (company-employed) hackers proved they could wrangle access to the entertainment system of a Jeep Cherokee. It gave them control of the brakes, steering and transmission – and shocked onlookers.
In the immediate aftermath, maker Fiat Chrysler distributed a security patch to 1.4m of its connected vehicles. But the damage was done. Companies have since brought more white hat hackers in-house, to give their devices the toughest test possible.
In 2017, the US House and Senate passed bills on automotive cyber security measures and are currently reconciling legislation for passage. The UK government also released principles outlining cyber security standards for connected and autonomous vehicles.
But there is still much work to be done. “Edge case scenarios”, when a vehicle cannot operate on its own, are considered the biggest hurdle to ensure the public their lives will not be at risk in an autonomous vehicle. Phantom Auto is a Mountain View and Tel Aviv-based company that offers a teleoperation-as-a-service platform for them. It includes an API for real-time assistance and guidance.
“There has been incredible progress made with driverless car technology, but it is still only about 95% of the way there, with the last 5% – which includes addressing edge case scenarios – proving to be a very difficult piece of the puzzle to solve,” Elliot Katz, co-founder of Phantom Auto, says.
Fighting edge case scenarios isn’t just a business imperative but a moral one, he adds: The world suffers over 1.2m traffic accidents each year. In the US 92% are caused by driver error. The daily number of traffic fatalities is equal to almost eight fully-loaded Boeing 747 jumbos crashing every single day, killing everybody on board.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a US government agency, 19 of every traffic incidents could be eliminated by autonomous vehicles, saving over 1.1m lives annually.
“Public confidence and trust is essential to the successful adoption and rapid rollout of driverless car technology,” says Katz. “In a recent study conducted by MIT, nearly half of respondents stated that they would never purchase driverless car. An American Automobile Association study found that three out of four U.S. drivers felt “afraid” to ride in driverless cars, and only one in five said they would actually trust a driverless car to drive itself with them inside it.
“There is an old Latin adage, “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, which means, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war,’” adds Katz. “In the driverless car ecosystem, that means having companies test the security measures they have in place before releasing their products, often with white hat hackers, so as to stave off black hat hackers’ attempts to penetrate their systems in the long run.”
Right now, in the fight for greater peace on the streets, Israel’s startups are well and truly fighting the good fight to bring autonomy to the world’s streets more quickly. They have already built an enviable industry: one worth billions and attracting all of the world’s biggest automakers.
Maniv’s Michael Granoff is, unsurprisingly, bullish about his country’s mobility future. “Automated mobility services will provide a safer, cleaner, more convenient and less expensive alternative to the car owner-operator model that has dominated the last hundred years,” he says.
“It is inevitable that this will lead to disruption. The big question is how quickly.”