HK-based self-driving startup AutoX actively considers SE Asia foray

Xiao Jianxiong, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based self-driving startup AutoX

Hong Kong-based autonomous driving startup AutoX is in active discussions with local authorities in Southeast Asia to foray into the emerging market even as the self-driving industry back home in China still remains largely untapped and at an early development stage.

The three-year-old company, which is finalizing its Southeast Asia plan, expects to deploy 10 autonomous vehicles for early-stage experiments in one market to trial robotaxi and robo-trucking services, said AutoX founder and CEO Xiao Jianxiong, commonly known as Professor X, in a recent interview with DealStreetAsia.

The company aims to first build a successful model in one market with the initial batch of vehicles before it increases the car fleet to up to 100 and expands into more jurisdictions in Southeast Asia, said Xiao.

Fully autonomous vehicles in China

AutoX’s ambition in Southeast Asia comes as improved safety, growth of connected infrastructure, and transition from car ownership to mobility-as-a-service (Maas) are fueling the growth of the global autonomous vehicle market. The market is estimated to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39.47 per cent, reaching $556.67 billion by 2026 from the estimated $54.23 billion in 2019, according to Allied Market Research.

The global autonomous vehicle development is now led by the United States, which is home to 163 autonomous driving companies, shows a ResearchAndMarkets.com report. While America already saw Alphabet’s self-driving division Waymo rolling out “completely driverless cars” – which literally means no safety driver behind the wheel – in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona this October, Chinese players are still conducting road tests and collecting data to improve their technologies.

“By the end of 2022, at least one city in China should be able to achieve what Waymo is doing in Arizona, i.e. charging passengers for completely self-driving services without trained safety drivers upfront,” said the 37-year-old founder, who was previously an assistant professor at Princeton University leading the Princeton Computer Vision and Robotics Lab.

“All top cities in China, including Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, have the potential to take the lead,” he said.

Hong Kong-based self-driving startup AutoX launches a grocery delivery and mobile store pilot in San Jose, California in August 2018.

AutoX is not alone developing in the two crucial years ahead of the start of China’s adoption of fully autonomous vehicles. Other prominent self-driving players in the country include Pony.ai, which reached the unicorn valuation of around $1.7 billion after a $50 million funding round this April, and TuSimple, a self-driving truck unicorn with operations in both China and the United States, as well as Baidu, whose fleet travelled over 90 per cent of the total mileage in Beijing’s self-driving road tests in 2018 (as per a local government report).

Combined with China’s strong government support and booming sharing economy, these companies contribute to a domestic self-driving market that is projected to exceed 100 billion yuan ($14.22 billion) in 2019, according to the Chinese industry research platform Qianzhan.com.

“I’m quite sure that China will surpass the United States and lead the self-driving industry in the future. It is just a matter of time,” said Xiao. AutoX, which now has 100 vehicles in China, plans to expand the fleet, conduct more test rides, and venture into more cities in 2020.

First-hand advantages

Despite being optimistic about the autonomous vehicle development in the home country, Xiao considers now as the right time to take “first-hand advantages” in the emerging market, such as Southeast Asia, where the number of self-driving players is relatively small.

Amongst all jurisdictions in Southeast Asia, Singapore comes first in terms of embracing autonomous vehicles. The island-city state was ranked second worldwide as the best-prepared country for autonomous vehicles development – only after the Netherlands – based on factors including a measure of readiness for self-driving adoption, policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure and consumer acceptance, according to KPMG’s 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index. The country targets to introduce autonomous buses in selected areas as early as 2022.

AutoX could potentially start its Southeast Asian journey in Singapore, or Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia where the startup received an investment from a local venture capital firm, although not everyone is convinced the road conditions of Jakarta are quite ready for self-driving vehicles yet.

As part of its global business layout, the Chinese self-driving startup already formed a partnership with NEVS, a Swedish electric vehicle manufacturer, in July 2019 and is aiming to introduce a pilot robotaxi service in Europe by the end of 2020.

Besides its presences in China, Sweden and the United States as well as the upcoming foray into Southeast Asia, AutoX also looks at opportunities in the Middle East, Japan and South Korea.

AutoX closed a $100 million Series A round led by Chinese state-owned automaker Dongfeng Motor this September, with participation from investors like Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund and Silicon Valley-based incubator Plug and Play’s China fund. Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Capital Today, Taiwanese chip giant MediaTek and another Chinese state-owned automaker SAIC Motor were also investors in its previous rounds.

Prior to AutoX, Xiao Jianxiong served as an associate assistant professor at Princeton University and founded the Princeton Computer Vision and Robotics Lab in 2013. He has over fifteen years of research and engineering experience in autonomous driving, computer vision and robotics.

Xiao spoke to DealStreetAsia about AutoX’s upcoming foray into Southeast Asia, self-driving technologies, China’s strong government support, and industry outlook in China. Below are the edited excerpts:

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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.