Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker, has turned to a comparatively tiny Silicon Valley startup to help it test, develop, and one day even deploy commercial fleets of self-driving taxis.
The collaboration is a boon for Renovo Auto, a startup that has developed an operating system of sorts that integrates and manages all the software needed for a commercial fleet of shared autonomous vehicles.
Renovo Auto’s operating system works similar to Google’s Android or, even Amazon Web Services’ on-demand cloud computing platform. The company isn’t developing the AI algorithms that help the self-driving car understand the world around it and make the right decisions as it navigates city streets. Instead, Renovo Auto has created an API, or software intermediary, that other companies can use to bring all the pieces together, similar to how Android allows app developers to launch services in the smartphone market.
The operating system called AWare is flexible enough to allow different pieces of software to come together and work in sync without compromising security. The capability enables a commercial fleet of autonomous vehicles to handle massive amounts of data, maintain cybersecurity, and manage communications for a multitude of services that will be delivered to the rider.
“Our goal is to be a thin layer that works across lots of different vehicles, lots of different pieces of hardware, and works with pretty much any piece of software that someone would want to deploy on a vehicle,” CEO Chris Heiser told Fortune. “So in a way it’s like AWS, in that you can deploy software on it and you don’t have to manage where it goes, you don’t have to manage its lifecycle or data orchestration—that’s all done for you.”
The collaboration with Renovo signals Samsung’s place in the larger self-driving car race, as well as the company’s open-platform approach to the challenge.
Samsung already has shown it has an appetite for automotive and connected car technologies. Samsung agreed in November 2016 to buy Harman International Industries for about $8 billion, a deal that gave the South Korean electronics giant an immediate foothold in connected technologies— particularly automotive electronics.
But the company’s ambitions weren’t entirely clear until September, when Samsung President Young Sohn announced a new strategic business unit and a $300 million fund to invest automotive startups and autonomous driving technology.
Renovo says it’s been working with Samsung since the beginning of 2017, and its AWare operating system is in the electronic giant’s test vehicles today. Both Samsung and Renovo have permits to test autonomous vehicles in California. It isn’t clear if Samsung currently has vehicles testing on public roads.
Renovo isn’t exactly a new entrant to the startup world, although it has remained largely in the shadows since its founding in 2010. And it hasn’t always been focused on developing a common platform to enable autonomous vehicles—at least not publicly.
In its first iteration, it was Renovo Motors, a company that in 2014 unveiled an electric two-seater supercar called the Renovo Coupe. A month after the supercar’s debut at the Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance, Renovo announced funding from True Ventures.
The company’s interest in autonomous vehicle technology wasn’t evident until October 2015 when Stanford University researchers demonstrated a vintage self-driving electric DeLorean that could drift and do doughnuts. The project called MARTY (or Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control) was developed with Renovo Motors and hinted at the startup’s trajectory. The Stanford researchers developed the self-driving algorithms, while Renovo focused on the vehicle’s drivetrain, safety critical systems, and platform. The systems Renovo developed were all managed by its central API, which allowed the Stanford researchers to integrate their software into the car and get it working a few months after its gasoline engine was pulled out.
The company got quiet after the DeLorean demonstration in 2015. Talk of the coupe faded away. Then in May 2017, the startup emerged, this time as Renovo Auto and with $10 million in fresh funding led by True Ventures. Verizon’s venture arm and Samsung became strategic investors. Other investors include Menlo Ventures, Social Capital and Synapse Partners.
It’s been a whirlwind of partnership and collaboration announcements in the months since the funding round, including tie-ups with Argus Cyber Security, Inrix (which aggregates and analyzes traffic data collected from vehicles and highway infrastructure), and Parsons (which developed an advanced traffic management program for cities). Velodyne LiDar, a company that makes 3D vision systems for automated vehicles, has become a preferred sensor provider of Renovo.
“I think it’s now clear that one company can’t do it all,” Heiser said. “And we’re starting to see more people advocating for a modular approach [in developing self-driving vehicles]. Companies want to scale up a certain aspect of robo taxis; they don’t want to own the whole thing. And this movement [towards an ecosystem] points to a very interesting world that looks a lot more like the Internet, is more open, and more heterogeneous.”