Mobileye CEO: A huge challenge ahead, but not with a short seller

Mobileye CEO: Our business never been better

Ziv Aviram, co-founder, president and CEO of autonomous vehicles technology firm Mobileye, suggested to CNBC on Thursday that his firm isn't the one bringing a weak weapon to a big fight.

Last week, noted short seller Citron Research revealed a bet against Mobileye and said the tech company was bringing "a knife to a gunfight."

Aviram, appearing from the YPO Edge conference in Vancouver, dismissed the short seller.

"Our business has never been better than today," Aviram said. "I don't really understand ... we don't follow the shares too much ... not too much," he said. Aviram added, "This is the privilege of co-founders running the company, we look at it long term."

Mobileye shares are up 8 percent in the past month, but have dipped 4 percent since Feb. 24 when Citron announced its short. Year-to-date the shares are up 21 percent.

Citron's Andrew Left told CNBC on Feb. 24, "They're really a one-trick pony. ... With autonomous driving, you could even buy Google and get this whole area for free. … Right now, Mobileye is bringing a knife to a gunfight."

Part of the Mobileye driving assist system is seen on the dashboard of a vehicle during a demonstration for the media in Jerusalem.
Baz Ratner | Reuters

A profitable short bet against chipmaker Nvidia a few months ago was used to fund the Mobileye short. "If you want exposure in the area as a short, it's not Nvidia anymore, but rather more of a focus on Mobileye," Left told CNBC.

Citron argued that compared to Nvidia, Mobileye has seen more insider selling, spends less on research and development, and has a more pricey valuation, Citron tweeted.

Aviram dismissed the charge about insider selling at Mobileye, saying, "It's the same since the IPO. Nothing has changed."

It is wave so big that no one can stop it anymore. It's created because of a strategic engagement of regulators to reduce accidents, and strong acceptance from automakers.
Ziv Aviram
Mobileye co-founder, president and CEO

Mobileye has a $10 billion market cap and is up 24 percent since its 2014 IPO. But the company and Citron Research have "been here and done this before." A previous Citron short call on the company in Sept. 2015 predicted shares would fall to $25 from a level above $50, where it was trading at that time. Mobileye shares hit a low of $25 in the February 2016 market bottom. Mobileye shares are currently trading at $46.

In his new negative bet, Citron's Left gave Mobileye credit for being early in the game, but told CNBC the company was being left behind: "You have to give them credit for saying, 'Autonomous driving is the way of the future.' ... But since then, everyone has leapfrogged them," Left said, citing Alphabet's Google and Uber, among others.

Mobileye went through an ugly breakup with Tesla last fall.

Aviram told CNBC the company and sector does face huge challenges — just not from a tough-talking short seller.

The first challenge was figuring out the right configuration of cameras and sensors for cars and the company has been working on that for 18 years. Now a big challenge is making autonomous vehicles work flawlessly in changing conditions, including lane closures and other real-time road changes. "We work with the majority of automakers and are the leading supplier of vision. If you talk about the autonomous challenge, it is much much bigger."

Mobileye's approach to "understanding the road" includes the crowdsourcing of information to create a real-time map of the world. Last month, Volkswagen signed up to use this service.

Mobileye also recently signed a deal with BMW and Intel. Aviram believes in the prediction that by 2021, 4.5 out of 5 cars will be autonomous.

"It is wave so big that no one can stop it anymore. It's created because of a strategic engagement of regulators to reduce accidents, and strong acceptance from automakers," Aviram said.

(Updated to include information on Citron's previous 2015 short bet against Mobileye.)