Israeli startups lead the way in car tech revolution

Whether detecting a baby’s heartbeat or fake sensor signals in autonomous cars, local firms are on the map

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Israeli startup Guardian has developed a car sensor that it says is capable of saving lives of infants accidentally left in cars by detecting the smallest heartbeat (Shoshanna Solomon/The Times of Israel)
Israeli startup Guardian has developed a car sensor that it says is capable of saving lives of infants accidentally left in cars by detecting the smallest heartbeat (Shoshanna Solomon/The Times of Israel)

Throngs of investors and entrepreneurs hobnobbed at the EcoMotion conference in Tel Aviv this week at the nation’s largest smart-transportation event on Wednesday.

Technologies were debated and cards exchanged as talk of opportunities and joint ventures filled the packed hall on Wednesday.

In just a few years, Israel, which has no car manufacturing activities to speak of, has become an unlikely leader in technologies that look set to transform the vehicles we know.

The Startup Nation’s foray into the field started with the electric car company Better Place, which in spite of its high-profile bankruptcy in May 2013, is credited with putting Israel’s automotive tech scene on the map. Google bought the Raanana-based mapping company Waze for a reported some $1 billion in 2013. And in March last year, Intel agreed to acquire the self-driving car technology powerhouse Mobileye, located in Jerusalem, for a whopping $15.3 billion. BMW, Ford, General, Honda, Motors, Uber, Volkswagen and Volvo are all paying attention, and have been investing in Israeli technology since 2016.

The EcoMotion exhibition in Tel Aviv, thronged with startups, investors and entrepreneurs seeking the next big thing in car technologies; May 23, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

On Tuesday, Germany’s Volkswagen Group officially opened its “innovation campus” in Tel Aviv, which will be the focus of its research and development activities in Israel. And BP Ventures, the venture arm of the British multinational oil and gas firm BP plc, said, also on Tuesday, it has invested $20 million in Israeli startup StoreDot, which is developing ultra-fast battery charging technology that can be used for electric vehicles.

“We recognize Israel as a top innovation hub in the world where we will find some of the technology that will build the car of the future,” Matthieu De Chanville, the deputy head of Alliance Ventures, the venture arm of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, which is scouting for Israeli technologies, said in an interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

There are 423 active companies in Israel in the field of automotive, autonomous-cars, connected cars, transportation and mobility, according to data provided by Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit organization. There were just 207 in 2011.

Israel’s auto-tech industry raised $814 million in 2017, triple the amount it raised in 2015, and $182 million in the first quarter of 2018, in line with last year’s pace, according to Start-Up Nation Central.

Gett, Via, Innoviz Technologies, Valens and Moovit are the startups with the largest funding rounds, while the most active investors in the sector in Israel include OurCrowd, Maniv Mobility, Magma Venture Partners and Aleph, according to Start-Up Nation Central data.

Among the foreign visitors to the EcoMotion event is an Italian delegation of mobility industry representatives looking for Israeli automotive technologies, especially in the fields of autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoT) in cars, new materials and alternative fuels.

The Italian delegation is led by Italy’s second largest bank, Banca Intesa San Paolo.

On Wednesday, the innovation center of the bank signed an accord with Jerusalem-based crowdfunding venture capital fund OurCrowd to increase cooperation between Israeli and Italian startups and boost commercial opportunities in Europe in the areas of automotive, fashion technologies, food technologies and manufacturing, OurCrowd said.

Here are some of the revolutionary things that the Israeli startups are doing:

Alerts for forgotten babies in cars: Tel Aviv-based startup Guardian Optical Technologies has developed a car sensor that it says is capable of saving lives of infants accidentally left in cars, by detecting the smallest heartbeat. The company’s sensor uses optical motion analysis to detect the tiniest movement within the car, including an infant heartbeat. When it detects motion, it can notify a driver who has already left the car and automatically turn on the air-conditioning.

In addition, said Gil Dotan, the CEO of Guardian, the startup is working to make the sensor, which is placed on the inside of the car roof, a collector of such data as number of people in the car, their size, position and posture, so as to enable the monitoring of what is going on in the car.

Gil Dotan, the CEO of Guardian Optical Technologies at EcoMotion; May 23, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

This information can be used to trigger alerts about violence within the car or bus, or about forgotten items to help fleet managers of autonomous cars monitor their fleet. It will also allow insurance companies to better tailor their policies based on data of how and when and who uses the car, he explained.

The sensor is at the pilot stage and the startup is working with automakers in Europe, Japan and the US and with Tier 1 companies that supply systems to car makers, to try out the product, which Dotan hopes will be commercialized in 2021.

The company has raised $8.5 million to date from investors including Maniv Mobility and Mirai Creation Fund, marking the first time that Toyota Motor Corporation and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. have invested in an Israeli company.

Simulating miles and miles of autonomous driving in life-like conditions: Ness Ziona, Israel-based startup Cognata, founded in 2016, has created software that allows developers of autonomous cars to simulate driving in a virtual environment that is very close to that of the real world.

To test the safety of autonomous cars, manufacturers need to rack up billions and billions of driving miles, which is not cost effective. Thus many manufacturers of autonomous cars use simulated driving environments to clock up the miles. These environments however, need to reflect the real world as much as possible.

Cognata aims to speed up the time it takes to fully train autonomous vehicles, by creating a virtual environment in which to test the cars. The startup uses a combination of AI, deep learning and computer vision to glean information from maps and visuals to faithfully recreate 3D virtual scenes — with streets and buildings — that mirror the real thing.

Danny Atsmon, the founder and CEO of Cognata, at the EcoMotion conference in Tel Aviv,May 23, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/The Times of Israel)

Using artificial intelligence, the software is also able to learn the driving habits of residents of the various cities it recreates — like San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Munich — to recreate an environment of aggressive or less aggressive drivers. Cognata’s product is also able to recreate how the various car sensors — some 40 of which are generally placed on autonomous vehicles — actually perceive the world, and what they see, to be able to recreate an environment in which the testers can see what the car is seeing.

The company’s product is being already sold to automotive manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers, said Danny Atsmon, the founder and CEO of the company. Cognata won an award from semiconductor giant Nvidia in 2017 for best Israeli startup in the field of artificial intelligence.

The company has raised $5 million to date from investors, including Airbus Ventures and Maniv Mobility, and has entered a partnership with Microsoft and Nvidia to use their cloud to process the data.

Safeguarding sensors from hacks: Regulus Cyber, a Haifa-based startup, seeks to increase security for connected cars and autonomous vehicles by securing its sensors.

Sensors in cars, drones and robots are the heart of the autonomous revolution, said Yontan Zur, the co-founder and CEO of the startup. But, unlike connected car security, which focuses on the connection of the car with the internet, little attention has been given to securing the sensors — from GPS to LiDAR to Radar and cameras.

“I can control a GPS sensor from afar,” he said. “I can mess up the drivers’ navigation, by taking control of the GPS, for example.” The same applies to other sensors, including LIDAR and Radar sensors used by these vehicles, he said.

Autonomous car developers are not dealing with this, he said, because sensors need to be cost effective and last for some 15 years, while cyber-threats change all the time.

Regulus Cyber CEO, Yonatan Zur at the EcoMotion conference in Tel Aviv; May 23, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

So, Regulus has come up with a sensor that gets placed in the middle of the car, on its inside roof, which can identify a fake signal. The sensor “identifies the attacks,” and warns the car that what it is perceiving is not reality. Once the alarm is triggered, the car can neutralize the sensor that is being interfered with, and rely on its other sensors. “Our sensor is passive – it only needs to receive interfering signals,” and thus cheap and easy to use, Zur said.

The company was set up in 2016 and has raised to date $6.3 million to date. The sensor — which at the moment monitors GPS and communication sensors, is at pilot stage and is being tested by NASA, large corporations and leading OEMs, Zur said. The technology can be used not only for autonomous cars but all kinds of autonomous vehicles, from drones to ships, he said.

Regulus has already partnered with leading companies and organizations – OEMs, Tier 1, high-tech companies and government agencies in the automotive drone and telecom industries, and has raised series A funding from leading investors including Sierra Ventures, Canaan Partners Israel, the Technion and F2 capital.

Regulus was founded by veterans of the Israeli Airforce, the army’s 8200 elite intelligence unit, and former workers at Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries.

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