Tony Han is a man with a vision. He sees a world in which driving licenses are obsolete, where people can whizz around town in driverless vehicles, and where taxi drivers have as much relevance as typists. But this is no idle fantasy. Since 2017, he and a core team of tech wizards, computer geniuses, and AI specialists have been working to turn his dream into a reality. Known collectively as WeRide, this little team of visionaries has already made huge headway. They've become the first startup in the world to hold driverless test permits in both China and the US, the first to run a publically accessible Robotaxi service in China, and the first to receive major financial backing from top-tier automakers like Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance and Yutong Group. Now entering their fourth year in business, WeRide may well be the company to revolutionize our roads and transform the driving experience forever. If you're on particularly good terms with your local Uber driver, you might not consider that a good thing. Even so, no one can deny these are exciting times for the auto industry. To find out more about the company driving the revolution, read on for 20 things you didn't know about WeRide.
1. Its founder and CEO is Tony Han
WeRide's founder and CEO is Tony Han. Prior to launching WeRide, Han gained experience in the fields of machine learning, speech recognition, and computer vision as the Chief Scientist of Baidu's Autonomous Driving Unit. Prior to that, he was teaching the next generation a thing or two about machines as a tenured professor of electrical & computer engineering at the University of Missouri. He completed his Ph.D. at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to topionetworks.com, he's won multiple worldwide challenges in computer vision and machine learning.
2. Yan Li is its cofounder
When Han launched WeRide, he didn't do it alone. His co-founder and partner in crime is Yan Li, an early member of Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) and a former employee of Facebook. Li earned his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. An engineer with years of experience in computer vision and autonomous driving technology, he now serves as WeRide's Chief Technology Officer, with responsibility over the design of the core framework of its self-driving system.
3. It has a small management team
WeRide is run by a small group of key managers. Their numbers may be small, but their collective expertise is vast. Asides from Han and Li, the team comprises of SVP of Engineering, Hua Zhong, who, as lead of the R&D engineer team, has responsibility for full-stack software and solutions development; Chief Operating Officer, Li Zhang, the former SVP and Chief Staff to CEO of Cisco Greater China; and Vice President of Finance, Jennifer Li, a former employee of both SenseTime and Baidu with extensive experience in investment and fundraising.
4. It's getting advice from the best in the business
Considering who WeRide's Business Advisor is, it's little wonder it's made such great strides in such a short amount of time. Advising the business on all key areas is Kai-Fu Lee. A Taiwanese-born American computer scientist, businessman, and writer, Lee is widely considered to be one of the world's leading authorities of AI and machine learning. His resume reads like a who's who guide to the biggest global businesses. Just a small sample of his previous roles include Vice President of Google; Founder & Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia; Manager of Speech & Language Technologies Group, Apple Computer; Vice President, Interactive Media Group of Apple Computer; and President of Cosmo Software. A Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a world-renowned entrepreneurial mentor, Lee has been honored with numerous titles and awards over the years, including a mention on the Times 100 in 2013.
5. Its technical advisor is Takeo Kanade
As if having Kai-Fu Lee on the payroll wasn't enough, WeRide is also privileged to have Takeo Kanade as a technical advisor. As Wikipedia notes, Kanade is widely considered to be one of the world's foremost researchers in computer vision. He currently serves as U.A. and Helen Whitaker Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, having previously served as a director of the university from 1992 to 2001. In addition to having around 300 peer-reviewed academic publications to his name, he also has 20 patents and a rollcall of titles, trophies, and honors that run a mile long.
6. It was established in 2017
Despite the many successes it's already achieved, WeRide is still in its infancy. The company was established as recently as 2017 in Guangzhou, China. Since its inception, it's worked closely alongside AI technology companies, carmakers and mobility service platforms to move closer towards its mission statement of achieving commercialized autonomous driving.
7. It's going global
When Han and Li established WeRide, they did it in Guangzhou, China. Since then, the company has expanded rapidly across China, and it now boasts centers in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, and Anqing. But its ambitions don't begin and end at the Chinese border. It also has offices in Silicon Valley in the US, and harbors plans of rolling out to more locations in the future.
8. Safety is a priority
Autonomous driving may be all very well and good, but just how safe is it? Providing WeRide are the ones supplying the technology, very. According to their company website, safety is their top priority. In order to make each trip and ride as safe as possible, it's utilized only the most advanced autonomous driving technology. Its perception algorithms are designed to be attuned to oncoming and reversing vehicles, in addition to vehicles driving in the wrong lane. Planning algorithms allow the vehicle to react quickly to unexpected, sudden events, while its remote system ensures both efficiency and safety.
9. It's launched the first-ever publicly accessible Robotaxi service
In November 2019, WeRide became the first company to roll out a publicly accessible Robotaxi service. The scheme was piloted in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, covering over 144 square kilometers between Huangpu District and Guangzhou Development District. In June the following year, the scheme was made available to the public via the ride-hailing mobile app, Amap. Since then, over 60,000 passengers have used the service, equating to over 147,128 trips.
10. It was the first company to start driverless vehicle testing in China
WeRide has a habit of breaking new ground. As Nasdaq reports, in June 2020, it became the first company to obtain a driverless road test permit in China. Immediately after the permit was granted, WeRide began tests in a designated area of Guangzhou. While other companies in China are also testing autonomous cars (Pony.ai, Baidu Inc BIDU.O, and Didi Chuxing to name a few), WeRide is the first to conduct road tests without at least one safety staff onboard. Instead of relying on people, they employ a remote control to guarantee safety.
11. It's the first startup to hold driverless test permits in both China and the US
Not content with being the first start-up in China to receive a permit to road test driverless vehicles, WeRide went one step further in 2021 when it received authorization from the California DMV to conduct driverless testing on public roads in San Jose without a safety driver on board. It now ranks as the first start-up in the world to hold driverless test permits in both the US and China.
12. It's got some stiff competition
WeRide may be one of the largest autonomous driving start-ups around, but it's by no means the only one. Giving it a run for its money in China are Pony.ai, a smallish start-up that managed to raise a substantial $267 in investment last November; AutoX, another relatively new player on the scene; and the more established likes of Baido and Dido. In the US, both Nuro and Google's Waymo have received permits to test vehicles without a safety driver. Tesla Inc and Uber Technologies are both investing billions of dollars into their own self-driving projects. Which one will win the race remains to be seen.
13. It's expanding rapidly
If there's one thing you can't accuse WeRide of being, it's unambitious. On the 1st of February 2021, it expanded its Mini Robobus test and service in China by opening a new Nanjing branch. The new office was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by Li Zhang, COO of WeRide; Sizhou Yang, Deputy Director of the Administrative Committee of the Economic Development Zone on Sino-Singapore Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island; the Head of Jianye District Chen Jiang, and various other officials.
14. It raised $310 million in funding in January 2021
In January 2021, WeRide kicked off the year with a bang after raising $310 million in its latest funding round. Leading the round was Yutong Group, a company that focuses on the manufacture of commercial vehicles. CMC Capital Partners, Qiming Venture Partners and Alpview Capital also participated. At the time, WeRide declined to comment on its valuation.... although as we'll shortly see, it wouldn't hold its tongue for long.
15. It's valued at $3.3 billion
WeRide may have been reluctant to disclose its value in January, but it was happy enough to tell the world exactly how much it was worth following its latest round of funding in May 2021. Despite refusing to confirm just how much it had closed the round on, it was happy enough to disclose that it had raised "hundreds of millions," pushing its current valuation to $3.3 billion. Lead investors this time around included IDG Capital and Sky9 Capital, with participation from several existing investors. In a statement, CEO Tony Han confirmed the new funding would be used for research and development “with the aim of delivering large-scale autonomous mobility in the coming future.”
16. It hopes to start making money in the next 5 years
With a valuation of $3.3 billion, WeRide is well on the way to turning a profit. Speaking to CNBC, CEO Han confirmed that he anticipates that Robotaxis will begin to roll out on a large scale between 2023 and 2024 and that the company will begin to see a financial return on its endeavors by 2025.
17. It might signal the end for taxi drivers
Prepare to say goodbye to your taxi driver... if WeRide gets their way, they'll soon be a dying breed. As the cost of making autonomous cars continues to fall, the company believes driverless cars could soon present a more cost-effective business model than traditional transportation methods. During an interview with CNBC, Han explained “Robotaxi is using machine to replace human labor. The price of hardware is dropping by 20% to 30% every year. Human labor on the other hand with the development of China economy and with the aging of society ... is hijacking." "(In the) range of 20 years or 30 years we can make the taxi driver as some job that existed only in history … like a typist," he added.
18. It's pushing for better road quality
If there's one thing in particular that could end up derailing WeRide's plan for world domination, it's low-quality roads. At the moment, they tend to restrict Robotaxi projects to newly developed areas with high standard roads. In the long run, they hope that once they manage to convince the authorities of just how safe and reliable autonomous cars are, it will inspire them to improve infrastructure in other parts of the city to enable further rollout.
19. It's attracted some big-name investors
Over the past 4 years, WeRide has attracted interest from a number of big-name investors, all of whom want to get in on the growing commercialization of autonomous vehicles while they still can. Just a few of the investors to put their money where their mouth is and open their checkbook to WeRide are IDG Capital, Homeric Capital, CoStone Capital, Cypress Star, Sky9 Capital, K3 Ventures, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, Yutong Group, CMC Capital Partners, Qiming Venture Partners, and Alpview Capital.
20. It's made an autonomous Mini Robobus
WeRide's Robotaxi's may have attracted the most buzz but they're not the only autonomous vehicle WeRide have up their sleeve. In January 2021, it unveiled the Mini Robobus to complement its line of Robotaxis and further enhance its portfolio. Despite not having a steering wheel, a pedal, or, most crucially, a driver, WeRide says its patented software and hardware makes the bus capable of handling city roads and even the most complex driving condition safely and efficiently.
Written by Allen Lee
Read more posts by Allen Lee