Israel earlier this year found itself in the strange situation of apparently overnight having become a major player in the car manufacturing industry. The $15 billion acquisition in March of autonomous driving, computer vision, company Mobileye by Intel raised awareness of the country's strides in the field of automotive high-tech, and according to industry experts ignited even more interest from investors.
"Mobileye was far from an outlier, it was just the first major example of Israeli innovation becoming very much desired by the global transportation industry," says Mike Granoff, CEO of Maniv, an Israel-based venture capital fund that exclusively invests in mobility.
The car industry is looking for innovation, with self- or assisted driving vehicles the holy grail. And, says Granoff: "At the center are technologies such as sensors, software, cyber and the like and these are areas in which Israel has already excelled. Israel has a head start in many of these areas."
Computer vision, machine learning, cybersecurity and semiconductors are some of the areas in which Israel is now competing in the autonomous driving race, for which Frost & Sullivan earlier this year estimated the global market by 2025 to be $83 billion. Here is a, very small, sample of some of the startups that are driving progress:
Arbe Robotics is actually building radar systems for autonomous drones that help them to avoid objects up to one kilometer away. But what works in the air, should also work on the ground, appears to be the thinking. Now the company is developing a new system that can be installed in cars for which it raised $2.5 million from investors in April.
Argus Cybersecurity calls itself 'the world's largest independent automotive security' company, which does include the caveat 'independent'. Still, the company says it works with all major car manufacturers and their Tier 1 suppliers. Founded only in 2013, of course by former members of the Israel Defense Forces cybersecurity elite unit 8200, it has so far raised $30 million in investments. Its products are being used to secure connected and self-driving cars.
Autotalks is a semiconductor company focusing on communication between the car and everything else, called V2X in industry jargon. Even today's modern, non-self-driving car communicates lustily; it can send data to the carmaker and to the cloud, navigate, make phone calls etc. and this will only increase in the future. Autonomous cars may need to communicate with each other or with road safety systems, for example. Autotalks at the end of June raised $40 million and has just opened offices in Japan and South Korea.
Cognata is incredibly meta. It's not enough for this company to engage with technologies like machine learning and AI, it is actually building a simulation for such things. Because it's estimated that autonomous driving systems will need to clock billions of miles of driving to reach human-level error rates, Cognata is creating a virtual environment, including whole cities, to simulate these journeys. The company raised $5 million from investors this June, including from Maniv.
Cortica uses so-called 'unsupervised machine learning' to let systems see. One of its key areas of focus is autonomous driving but it also markets its products to the medical field and envisages many other applications. For a self-driving car, it's invaluable to see where it's going and what's going on around it. Cortica was founded by a professor from Haifa's Technion institute, another source of startups besides the army. The company, up to April this year, was reported by CB Insights to hold more AI patents than any other startup.
Innoviz Technologies has the kind of sensors that Cortica can probably unleash its AI systems on. The company makes LiDAR, laser, sensors to enable cars to detect objects. Innoviz announced earlier this year that it would start producing a system in early 2018 that can be used on autonomous driving test vehicles while it expects its automotive grade sensors that are to be integrated in self-driving cars to be available in 2019.
Karamba Security is just two years old, also founded, as is to be expected, by former members of the army's cybersecurity unit 8200. The company's solutions are built into the car's electronics, components and 'hardens' these against hackers. In June it announced a cooperation with the European self-driving car consortium Vedecom that is aimed at producing "cyberattack-secured, commercially-available automobiles". Karamba earlier this year raised $12 million in a series B round of funding, on top of $5 million in an earlier round. Investors include a fund co-founded by Bill Ford Junior, chairman of the Ford Motor Company.
Nexar is best known for its collision prevention app for Android and iOS, also called Nexar. It turns the phone, on a mount in the car, into both an incident warning device and a node in a vehicle to vehicle, V2V, network. It deploys machine learning to improve its systems via the data and video that the phone collects. The smartphone approach means it can be used now, even in cars that have no camera or connectivity of their own, while it positions the company for smarter and self-driving cars.
Oryx Vision has developed an alternative to the LiDAR sensors, radar and/or cameras that many self-driving cars rely on to see their surroundings. It's a new technology that involves tiny nano antennas and long-wave, infrared light. It says its sensors are better, cheaper and use less energy than other systems. They're expected to become commercially available by 2020 but carmakers are already looking at them.
Valens, a semiconductor company, has developed its own standard for in-car communication over existing, simple wire that the automotive industry already uses. The new standard is being adopted by several car makers and is also in use outside the automotive industry, for example in audiovisual and industrial applications. Daimler and GM are onboard, as well as some of the largest device makers, such as Sony, Samsung and LG. Valens raised $60 million earlier this year, bringing total investments to $100 million.
Follow CNBC International on and Facebook.