Wayve CEO and co-founder Alex Kendall.
LONDON - The UK start-up for autonomous driving Wayve has been backed by a host of big-name investors, including Microsoft, Virgin and Baillie Gifford, in a $ 200 million round of funding, bringing the total investment in the company to $ 258 million.
Wayve did not disclose its new valuation, but it will likely be over $ 1 billion, which would make it a so-called "unicorn" company.
Founded in London in 2017, Wayve's team of machine-learning scientists and robotics is trying to build an autonomous driving system backed by artificial intelligence.
Alex Kendall, the New Zealander who co-founded Wayve, told CNBC that his company's approach is "rather contradictory" compared to what already exists.
Traditionally, technology companies have tried to tell cars how to drive with hand-coded rules, Kendall said, adding that they tend to use a "very complex hardware stack" that can sometimes include eight LiDARs (laser imaging detection and rangeing). sensors, six radars and 30 cameras.
This approach may work in places like Phoenix, Arizona, where it is almost always sunny and there are wide open boulevards on lattice-like structures, but it is not scalable in other parts of the world, according to Kendall, who is also Wayve's CEO.
Wayve's approach, as it has dubbed AV 2.0, is about trying to teach a car to drive itself with machine learning software and a few cameras.
"It's capable of learning to do things that are more complex than humans can hand-program," Kendall said, adding that the car can "see the world for itself" with the company's computer vision platform. "It can make its own decisions based on what it sees and run in the very complex environments that we have in central London."
Wayve believes that deep learning has an important role to play in autonomous driving. Deep learning is an area of AI that attempts to mimic the activity in layers of neurons in the brain to learn to recognize complex patterns in data.
Rival company FiveAI believes autonomous vehicles need more than just a few cameras to learn to drive.
"We believe that many sensory modalities are needed," FiveAI CEO Stan Boland told CNBC, acknowledging that this poses a "merger challenge."
"It's a different question than whether handmade rules or deeper learning is the best approach to perception," he added. "Of course, we think both have a role to play, which makes it a very complicated challenge."
Wayve has chosen to license its autonomous driving technology to commercial fleets instead of trying to manufacture its own full self-propelled vehicles, which are not yet for sale to the public.
"I'm really struggling to see a world where consumer autonomy can work," Kendall said, adding that he believes fully autonomous vehicles would be difficult for consumers to maintain because of their complexity.
Wayve is trying to hire leading AI researchers who can help the company expand its platform. But these are some of the most expensive people to hire in the world right now, with some executives in the field reportedly earning over $ 1 million a year. "It's about quality, not quantity," Kendall said. "Our biggest investment is our people."
To date, Wayve has employed about 120 people across offices in London and Mountain View, California. It has recruited some prominent names, including former DeepMind researcher Chris Burgess, former Waymo Principal Engineer Dan McCloskey and former Tesla software engineer Joe Polin.
The Series B funding round - led by Palo Alto venture capital firm Eclipse along with the likes of Balderton Capital and Metas Chief AI Scientist Yann LeCun - will be used to pay for more talent, data and computing power it needs to train its algorithms. Wayve plans to use Microsoft's Azure cloud computing platform to train its system how to run.
"This fundraise signals a shift in recognition from the market that we have now validated a number of the core beliefs we have had," Kendall said.
Last year, it announced commercial partnerships with Ocado, Asda and DPD, which operate fleet of vans in the UK. Wayve has had data collection devices installed on their man-made fleets for "some time," Kendall said, but the companies now plan to equip some of their fleets with Wayve's autonomous driving system this year.
"If you live in London, you will be able to have your groceries delivered by one of Ocado's or Asda's vans powered by our AV 2.0 autonomous driving technology," he said, adding that there will be a Wayve security operator in the vehicle .