This is an interesting day as we see two of China’s main foes of robot taxis come together, offering a clue as to how the industry is evolving in the country.
WeRide.ai and Pony.ai, which operate from the southern Chinese metropolises Guangzhou and California, have participated in OnTime’s 1 billion yuan ($153 million) Series A funding round, according to an announcement by the transportation company OnTime on Tuesday.
As self-driving technology and regulations rapidly advance in China, ride-sharing platforms are beginning to look for solutions to reduce labor costs. On the other hand, robotaxi startups also want the help of car transport services to reach the masses.
Funding for the round came from a mix of public and private funds in China and abroad. State-backed Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC), the parent company of OnTime and one of China’s largest automakers, led the round. The investors, in addition to WeRide and Pony, include Japan’s SPARX, Singapore’s Pilgrim Partners Asia, as well as government-affiliated funds Guangzhou Industrial Investment and Capital Operation, Lingnan Commerce and Trade Tourism, and Guangzhou Industrial Control.
OnTime is the ride-sharing service unveiled by GAC in 2019 as one of a number of newcomers competing with incumbent Didi, many of which are operated by or close to auto OEMs.
WeRide is known to be an ally of GAC, which infused an undisclosed amount of strategic investment into it last December. The duo have been working to build a fleet of tens of thousands of robotaxis, with GAC supplying vehicles compatible with WeRide’s driving solutions. WeRide and OnTime have already integrated their systems and together they offered a test ride to the public at the Guangzhou Auto Show last year.
The seemingly close ties between WeRide and GAC make Pony’s involvement in OnTime’s new funding round all the more intriguing. For GAC, it’s probably a good idea to have more than one autonomous solution provider to encourage competition. Indeed, GAC has other major corporate allies, including Tencent, which helped launch OnTime, as well as Huawei and Didi, which said last year that they would help GAC develop self-driving technology among other smart car capabilities.
For Pony, taking advantage of a major automaker can potentially generate a steady stream of business and drive adoption of its technology. Toyota, an investor in Pony, is considered a close partner of Pony, but the Japanese auto giant probably doesn’t enjoy the same breadth of resources as GAC in China, where public transportation is largely government-owned.
Jiang Hua, CEO of OnTime, has this to say about China’s robotaxi space in a statement: “In the late stage, the industry focused on improving computing algorithms and hardware capabilities. As technology has developed, attention has focused on how autonomous driving works. Robotaxis have to operate through ride-sharing platforms if they want to become a real service, which is why two of the world’s leading autonomous driving companies chose to back OnTime.”
With the proceeds, OnTime says it will monetize robot taxis at a faster rate and create a vehicle-as-a-service platform for the industry in a bid to become a “world leader in autonomous driving operations.”