Startups

The Top Startups Paving The Way For Self-Driving Vehicles

How far away are we, really, from a fully autonomous vehicle future? According to recent reports about how self-driving vehicles handle intersections, you should buckle up for a long, and very much manual, ride.

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Even so, some entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts, often having worked on projects spearheaded by big tech, are trying to bring scrappy startup culture to the self-driving industry. And investors are betting that their startups may cross the finish line first.

We took a look at full-stack autonomous vehicle startups that have raised over $50 million. The cohort ranges from a stealth startup working on its own tech and vehicles to a startup focused on breaking into the last-mile delivery market. 1

Zoox: $790M

Founded in 2014, Zoox is a self-driving startup in stealth mode. Though the company has remained relatively secretive about its technology and model, it has attracted enough funding to render it a leader among autonomous vehicle startups.

The Foster City, CA-based company, founded by Tim Kentley-Klay and Jesse Levinson, has raised $790 million in total known funding since its inception. In July 2018, Zoox picked up $500 million in a Series B round led by Grok Ventures. Previous investors in the company include Blackbird Ventures, DFJ, Lux Capital, and others. The firm was last valued at $3.2 billion, post-money.

According to Bloomberg, the company prides itself on attempting to build an autonomous vehicle “from the ground up,” as compared to its Uber, Cruise, Lyft, and Waymo competitors which are all working on applying autonomous technology to traditionally designed vehicles. The company is aiming to deploy its vehicles by 2020 with a ride-hailing app.

There may be trouble in self-driving paradise, however. Founder and face of the company Kentley-Klay posted on Twitter that the board had fired him from his position as CEO of the company on August 22.

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Pony.ai: $214M

Pony.ai is an autonomous vehicle startup based out of both California and China. It was founded in 2016 by Tiancheng Lou and James Peng, a former Baidu employee and a former Google programmer.

The company completed its first autonomous testing vehicle in April 2017. Pony.ai partnered with China-based carmaker Guangzhou Auto Group in February 2018 and launched China’s first fleet of publicly operating autonomous vehicles in Guangzhou in May 2018. In June 2018, the company obtained its testing license in Beijing, and the company has begun testing cars on the capital’s (less congested) public streets.

Pony.ai has raised a known total of $214 million, according to Crunchbase. Most recently, the company scored a $102 million Series A investment from Eight Roads Ventures and ClearVue Partners along with previous investors Sequoia Capital China, Redpoint Ventures China, Morningside Venture Capital, DCM Ventures, and others. That supergiant round brought the company’s valuation up to nearly $1 billion, according to TechCrunch.

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Roadstar.ai: $138M

Roadstar is a relative newcomer in the autonomous vehicle space, but the company has raised enough money to place it third.

Founded in 2017, Roadstar.ai has already raised a total of $138 million in venture capital funding, according to Crunchbase. The majority of that funding came in the form of a $128 million Series A round in May 2018 led by Shenzhen Capital Group and Wu Capital. Its Series A was the biggest investment made in an autonomous driving company in China, according to South China Morning Post. The company has started testing its cars in Shenzhen. Bloomberg reported aims to deploy 1,500 vehicles in major cities in China by 2020.

Nuro: $92M

Nuro isn’t your typical autonomous vehicle startup. Founded in 20162, the company is developing a self-driving van for local commerce, meaning the vehicle is meant to deliver goods, ranging from groceries to packages, in local neighborhoods. With its rather interesting design, which can be tailored to meet specific delivery needs (like a refrigerated console for food), Nuro is looking to tap into the mail, ecommerce, and general last-mile delivery market.

Like Roadstar and Pony.ai, the company was founded by two individuals who were previously involved with another autonomous vehicle project, namely Google’s Waymo initiative. Their efforts have managed to score the company a partnership with U.S.-based grocery chain Kroger to implement same-day delivery.

The company has picked up a total of $92 million in funding, the entirety of which was delivered to the Mountain View-based company in its Series A in January 2018. Nuro’s investors include Gaorong Capital and Greylock Partners.

Aurora: $90M

Founded in 2016, the Palo Alto and Pittsburgh-based Aurora launched out of stealth mode in January 2018. It is working on technology to develop Level 4 and Level 5 (fully autonomous in all circumstances) vehicles. Aurora has struck partnerships with Volkswagen and Hyundai. In January 2018, the company picked up a $90 million Series A from Index Ventures and Greylock Partners.

All three of Aurora’s founders—Sterling Anderson, Drew Bagnell, and Chris Urmson—are self-driving veterans hailing from Tesla, Uber, and Google, respectively. Interestingly, in a tech world where brains and ego often go hand-in-hand, Aurora emphasizes character and lack of ego in its hiring process.

TuSimple: $83.1M

TuSimple is a Chinese self-driving startup with offices in Beijing and San Diego, California. Rather than focus its efforts on small, self driving commuter vehicles, the company is developing Level 4 autonomous technology (autonomous in many, but not all circumstances) for large trucks.

The company has managed to raise $83.1 million since it was founded in 2015. Well over half of that total funding is from TuSimple’s $55 million Series C in November 2017 led by Composite Capital Management with participation by Weibo’s parent company Sina. Previous investors in TuSimple include chipmaker Nvidia, which is also partnering with the company on the tech powering the TuSimple platform.  With that funding, the company plans to build out its presence in the U.S.

In July 2017, the company completed a 170-mile public road test from San Diego to Yuma, Arizona, but, like autonomous cars, it still has a ways to go before autonomous trucks are safe (and regulated) enough to be deployed in the mainstream.

Drive.ai: $77 Million

Founded in 2015 by a group from Stanford’s AI lab, Drive.ai has made a name for itself in the autonomous vehicle space. It’s most recent round, a $15 million capital injection from Singapore-based ridesharing giant Grab in September 2017, boosted the company’s international efforts. Prior to that round the company picked up a $50 million Series B led by New Enterprise Associates. Previous investors in the company also include GGV Capital, Northern Light Venture Capital, and HOF Capital, among others. The Mountain View-based company has raised a known total of $77 million to date.

In July, Drive.ai launched its first fleet of autonomous vehicles in Frisco, Texas, near Dallas. The seven-vehicle fleet of Nissan vans is open to public use for a free, pilot ridesharing program in the community. According to TechCrunch, the cars are initially being operated with a safety driver in the front seat, but eventually, the company intends to remove that chaperone from the car entirely.

Momenta: $51M

Founded in 2016, China-based Momenta has raised a known total of $51 million in its lifetime. The company recently completed a Series B-2 round of an undisclosed amount led by Cathay Capital Private Equity with participation from GGV Capital, according to its website. The company also raised a $46 million Series B in July 2017. NIO Capital led that round, an investment engine affiliated with China’s electric car startup NIO. Other participants in the round included Shunwei Capital, Sinovation Ventures, Unity Ventures, and Daimler, a German automotive company that recently partnered with Bosch and Nvidia on its own self-driving initiative.

The young company is a good example of the various stakeholders in the autonomous vehicle space. The startup also serves as a reflection of the extent to which Chinese startups are taking advantage of the less regulated, capital-heavy autonomous technology market.

Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias

Last updated August 29, 2018 to include Drive.ai.


  1. We limited our search to startups solely working on autonomous vehicles (this does not include Uber, for example). We did not include startups working only on sensor or other component technology.

  2. A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Nuro was founded in 2018.