Israeli auto-tech cos make their global presence felt

Mobileye simulator Photo: Gil Yochanan

Some of the smart-car technologies were identified in Israel even before the auto industry itself realized how essential they were.

A broad spectrum of categories and technologies are included under the "smart car" heading, and almost all of these currently have an active presence of Israeli companies. Some of these categories were even identified in Israel before the auto industry itself realized how essential they were. The most active of these categories in Israeli is unquestionably sensors, which provide the smart car with the sense of sight and touch it needs in order to avoid pitfalls and facilitate autonomous control.

Mobileye is getting most of the headlines, of course, but there are many other companies operating in Israel with breakthrough sensor technology. There are several reasons for Israel's major role in this specific segment. From a historical view, Israel has been a global center of expertise in electro-optics, lasers, radar, and remote sensing for many years because of the knowledge-intensive defense industries and military research units. Their effect on the auto sensors segment in Israel is not merely through adaptation of military technologies to civilian purposes; it also results from advanced training and fostering of creative personnel, which sometimes begins already during military service, fed by multi-billion investments from the defense budget, and is continued at academic institutions.

Another reason is that this is a huge business sector, with immediate and growing demand for millions of sensors a year. Up-to-date studies predict that the market for smart car sensors will exceed $40 billion by 2023, with annual growth of over 10% in the coming years.

Global demand for environmental auto sensors will obviously reach its peak in the era of the fully autonomous car (Category 5), but there is already practically no modern vehicle going on road without at least one vision sensor.

For example, common optional features such as an autonomous parking system already rely on a system of advanced sensors.

A system with various types of sensors

The big advantage of entering the sensors sector with original technologies is that no single technology enjoys exclusivity. On the contrary, the auto industry's current approach holds that in order to entrust human lives to an autonomous or almost autonomous driving system and achieve the longed for goal of zero accidents, the auto manufacturers will have to endorse the principle of redundancy in the realm of sensors by using an entire system of sensors of various types that complement each other in range, resolution, and uses: ultra-sonic short-range sensors, radar sensors for various ranges, laser sensors for long ranges and mapping, camera-based sensors, etc.

According to the latest assessments, Category 4 and Category 5 autonomous vehicles will require a "perimeter suit" of over 20 perimeter sensors employing various technologies. This fact provides a space in which companies with inventions from very different areas can exist and grow. It is no surprise that a considerable proportion of smart car industry unicorns (companies with market caps of $1 billion and up) in recent years came from the sensors segment.

All of these factors, together with the huge Mobileye exit that fired the imaginations of investors and the fact that Intel is expected to make Israel its center of smart car expertise, are now bring venture capital activity involving Israeli sensors companies to a boil.

Here are several examples in recent weeks. Oryx Vision, which is developing laser-based (Lidar) solid state sensors with a system of antennas for light sensing, raised $50 million in its second financing round early this month. The company emerged from its covert stage of activity only in October.

Innoviz, which is also developing a solid state laser sensor, announced last week that it had agreed on strategic cooperation with Delphi, a major auto components supplier, in which Innoviz's sensor will be installed in the autonomous car products and solution supplied by Delphi to the auto manufacturers.

Innoviz already has such cooperation with Magna, another major components company. Delphi also invested in Innoviz as part of a new financing round. Innoviz did not disclose details of the round, but sources in the sector estimated that the deal had been at a company value in the hundreds of millions of dollars, several times as much as the value for the preceding round.

Foresight Autonomous Holdings Ltd. (TASE: FRST), the only Nasdaq-listed Israeli auto sensors company beside Mobileye, raised tens of millions of shekels in recent months, and announced international cooperation agreements, pilots in China, and the completion of trials for a stereo cameras solution it developed for the auto industry.

Israeli chip company Tower Semiconductor Ltd. (Nasdaq: TSEM; TASE: TSEM) (marketed as Tower-Jazz) announced that it would supply its chips to Denso for the production of rear and side radar sensors that will be installed in millions of vehicles. Denso is the components supplier for Toyota, the world's leading auto manufacturer.

Auto importers invest

One interesting point is that most of these companies have been on the receiving end of venture capital investments by Israeli auto importers. Delek Automotive Systems Ltd. (TASE: DLEA), has invested in Innoviz as a company, and Gil Agmon, its chairman, has also made a private investment in Innoviz. Investors in the new round by Oryx Vision included the investment company of Toyota importer George Horesh, while several owners and partners in Israeli auto import companies have invested in Foresight.

This is definitely a volatile arena, but it appears that matters are only beginning to heat up. More players from the smart sensors segment, which is likely to grab a share of the growing global market in the future, and certainly of venture capital investments, are still emerging in the global auto industry.

One example is BrightWay Vision, which is now preparing for a new financing round. The company first appeared on the radar screens of investors at the beginning of the decade, after being split off from Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT), on whose technology and personnel it was based. One of the few companies in the sector operating in Haifa, BrightWay Vision is managed by founder and CEO Dr. Ofer David, a former electro-optics director at Elbit Systems.

BrightWay Vision's unique auto sensory technology, for which the company has registered many patents, is based on system on chip (SOC), and operates like optical radar, with an infrared source of illumination and a CMOS sensor that records returned signals in a controlled manner, and identifies obstacles, pedestrians, road signs, etc.

The sensor generates a precise "ranges map" and high-resolution images that are essential for advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). Its important advantages include high-quality night vision up to a 250-meter range and identification of hazards under difficult vision conditions such as rain, fog, and dazzling light, with which most current sensors have trouble coping.

Driving under difficult weather conditions

These areas are solving a major problem in the autonomous vehicle vision of auto manufacturers, especially in Europe, where they frequently encounter difficult weather conditions and long hours of darkness. The product also provides a unique solution for field vehicles that must deal with driving under especially harsh field conditions, such as thick dust, snow, minimal background lighting, etc.

BrightWay Vision's technology has been tested over the years in cooperation with a number of auto manufacturers, and was recently included in an internal comparison trial by a leading German company against other existing solutions in the market. It received the highest rating in the trial.

Following an initial financing round with participation from the Lubinski company, the importer of Peugeot Citroen (10%), BrightWay Vision disappeared from the headlines. It took advantage of this time, however, to miniaturize the system's components and make them less expensive, among other things with the help of an advanced CMOS sensor developed by Tower Semiconductor, as well as developing prototypes ready for production and marketing.

The time was also used to develop technological and commercial ties with auto manufacturers and tier-1 components suppliers. The extent of the financing round the value at which it will be held are unclear.

The company's product is now ready for sale to auto manufacturers. Sources in the sector believe that it already has an opportunity of being installed in future vehicles, although BrightWay Vision will not comment on the matter.

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on August 24, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Mobileye simulator Photo: Gil Yochanan
Mobileye simulator Photo: Gil Yochanan
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