NuTonomy, Optimus Lead Pack of Self-Driving Vehicle Startups

Xconomy Boston — 

Here comes the blind fury of autonomous vehicle startups. We knew it was coming, since everyone from Google and Uber to GM and Tesla is working on the technology.

Boston-area startup NuTonomy, founded by a pair of MIT scientists in 2013, is the latest to make a splash. The company announced on Tuesday a Series A funding round of $16 million, led by Highland Capital Partners, with participation from other investors including Singapore’s economic development group and Fontinalis Partners (which was co-founded by Ford Motor’s executive chairman Bill Ford). The company raised $3.6 million in seed funding earlier this year.

NuTonomy is planning to test a driverless taxi system in Singapore later this year. The company is using retrofitted Mitsubishi electric cars for its pilot tests. Not surprisingly, Mitsubishi is also working on its own self-driving vehicle technologies.

Last week, San Francisco startup Otto came out of stealth, announcing its plans to retrofit commercial trucks with autonomous driving technology for highways. (Self-driving trucks are already being tested by Daimler and others.) Otto is led by former employees of Google, Apple, Tesla, and other Bay Area companies.

These startups are following a trail blazed in part by Cruise Automation, a Bay Area vehicle-retrofitting startup that was acquired by GM in March, reportedly for big bucks. GM is also working with Lyft to develop a network of self-driving cars; Ford and Uber may be cooking up something similar.

In Boston, there are a couple of other efforts to keep an eye on. One is Optimus Ride, an MIT spinout developing autonomous electric-vehicle technology for taxis or ride-sharing applications. Optimus got started in 2015 and plans to test a small fleet of cars next year. The startup’s leaders have experience from the MIT Media Lab, Rethink Robotics, and the DARPA Urban Challenge. (Like any crowded sector, these companies are all starting to sound the same—but they will sort themselves out in good time.)

You could call Toyota Research Institute a startup, too—though one that has a billion dollars to play with. The organization, which was officially launched at the beginning of 2016 to pursue autonomous vehicles, robotics, and artificial intelligence, now has research centers in Cambridge, MA; Palo Alto, CA; and Ann Arbor, MI (announced this month). Those metro areas are shaping up to be the epicenters of self-driving vehicle efforts in the United States.

Photo of a Ford Fusion Hybrid’s 3D mapping system at CES by João-Pierre S. Ruth