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Apple is shining knight, snaps up Drive.ai days before death

Once valued at $200mn, Drive.ai had apparently filed all the paperwork to start mass layoffs, before Apple acquired it this week. The self-driving shuttle-riding startup, founded in 2015 from Stanford University researchers, had been seeking buyers, and Apple was rumored to be among one of the interested parties. But those rumors died down, three weeks passed, and it looked like this was the end for Drive.ai.

Instead, Apple seems to have swooped in, and will likely have paid pennies on the dollar for the firm. Apple being Apple, there’s not been an update on whether Drive.ai is actually shutting up shop entirely. The paperwork for such closure has been submitted, which leads one to the conclusion that this is a textbook acquihire.

The San Francisco Chronicle has been following LinkedIn profile updates, and it looks like at least five employees have made the switch to Apple – a fraction of the 90 that were listed in the state submission. CEO Bijit Halder has not made the switch, at least according to Microsoft’s social media platform, and two other co-founders seems to have parted ways. Axios says that dozens of hardware and software engineers have been hired.

The new hires are undoubtedly going to be put to work in Apple’s Project Titan, the over-budget and ever-shifting project to develop something car-related. Based on the rumor mill, Apple has flip-flopped a number of times, changing its mind from creating just internal software, to developing a fully-fledged EV, to focusing on the self-driving systems, and now back to something more complete-package. There are thought to be around 5,000 staff working in Project Titan, but Apple has never publicly declared its intent.

Given Drive.ai’s expertise, it seems that a fully autonomous vehicle is the driver. The startup had successfully created a conversion kit that would turn Nissan NV200 minivans into self-driving shuttle buses, and was running the vehicles in Arlington, Texas, between the AT&T Stadium and the Convention Center, which concluded in May. A later pilot in the Dallas suburb of Frisco finished in March, but was wound-up earlier than its October cut-off.

A deal with Lyft in 2017 would have seen Drive.ai provide its services to Lyft, but as The Chronicle notes, it is not clear if that partnership ever went anywhere. It was meant to kick-off shortly after the announcement, in the Bay Area, in the same month that the company finished the $77mn Series B round that valued it at $200mn. Also announced were plans to expand into Singapore, likely due to the participation of Grab, one of the biggest Asian ridesharing firms, as a lead investor.

Drive.ai, not to be confused with Rethink’s office-neighbors Five.ai, had spent perhaps the most time thinking about how its vehicles would interact with the world around them. The vans were adorned with screens that would convey the vehicle’s intent to pedestrians, telling them that it was waiting for them to cross, for instance. The vans were also pretty hard to miss. Gleaming orange, with dashing blue stripes, these machines did all they could to distract you from the array of lidar and radar equipment racked to the roof.

So then, Drive.ai appears to be no more. There are certainly a lot more candidates for extinction in the self-driving startup scene, but some of them might just make it. The list includes Almotive, Argo AI, Embark, Lucid Motors, lvl5, nuTonomy, Ouster, Pony.ai, Starsky Robotics, Torc Robotics, Voyage, and Zoox.

GM is having a mixed time of it. Cruise Automation seems to be progressing well, while it has had to slash its Maven ridesharing service’s footprint. GM is a major shareholder in Lyft, and Lyft rival Uber has had a rocky couple of years, although its share price has held steady at the IPO level – although it took a beating on its initial valuation.

Elsewhere, ridesharing as a concept has come under fire, after researchers created a model that seemed to show that the drivers milling around waiting for fares (‘deadheading’), were responsible for significantly increasing congestion in cities. This will be less of a concern once EVs become more prevalent, from the air pollution perspective, but there will still be complaints that these fleets of cars are causing significant delays and wasted time in cities.

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