Global car sales have plummeted in the past year and there appears little hope for improvement any time soon. General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and other industry giants such as Toyota (TM) and Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) face worsening prospects. The state of the global automotive industry is hardly appealing. But Israeli startup Mobileye Vision Technology, a developer of crash-detection technology, isn't the least bit fazed.
"Fortunately for us, even in hard times innovation is crucial for the highly competitive auto industry and safety is an area where the major players are not skimping," says Amnon Shashua, chairman and co-founder of Mobileye and a world renowned expert on 3D and computer vision.
In spite of the gloom in the global automotive industry, Mobileye—based in Jerusalem and Amstelveen, Netherlands—has signed several major contracts in recent weeks for its Accident Warning and Control System (AWACS). The technology serves as an early alert system to notify drivers if they have unintentionally swerved from a lane or gotten too close to another vehicle. The system sounds an audible signal as the car comes within a 2.5-second distance from the car or truck ahead, enough time to react and prevent an accident.
Using a single high-speed camera sensor, the technology employs a powerful microprocessor that runs Mobileye's proprietary vision-processing algorithms. Developed at the company's Jerusalem research and development center, AWACS uses pattern recognition to analyze a constant stream of static and dynamic data collected from the driving environment. A team of 80 Mobileye experts is constantly developing new applications, such as a new pedestrian detection scheme that will be incorporated in future versions of the product.
Technology Taking Off
The company already sells its EyeQ chip and the software needed to run the various applications to seven of the top 10 auto industry suppliers, including Continental (CONG.DE), Delphi, and Magna International (MGA). The cost to the automakers of a built-in system runs around $200.
The technology has been offered as an option since 2007 in a number of GM, BMW (BMWG.DE), and Volvo models. "It has definitely met our expectations with new car buyers," says Artur Russ, manager of the camera-based driver assistance program at BMW. The German carmaker began offering a lane detection feature last year on its 5 and 6 Series models and this year is adding traffic sign and automatic high-beam-assist applications in its top-of-the-line 7 Series.
Mobileye says it's also working with three other major carmakers on incorporating the technology, one of which is believed to be Japanese. In general, Shashua notes, U.S. and European carmakers are faster than the Japanese at incorporating new technologies not developed in-house.
Two years ago, Mobileye also began selling its technology in the aftermarket to existing vehicle owners. The company set up a subsidiary in Los Angeles to pitch systems to distributors for use in truck fleets, as well as to individual car owners, for about $1,000 a unit. It has also cut deals with distributors in Europe and Japan. On Nov. 24, Mobileye announced an agreement with Italy's Cobra Automotive Technologies (COBRA.MI) that covers Cobra's 42 European outlets.
In Israel, Mobileye's local distributor is offering AWACS for a $40 monthly fee, while insurance companies have agreed to a substantial reduction in premiums for cars equipped with the system. Mobileye hopes to sell as many as 200,000 of its AWACS in Israel alone.
By the end of 2008, Mobileye expects its technology will be integrated into several hundred thousand vehicles worldwide and predicts the number will run into the millions within two years. As for revenues, the privately owned company is less forthcoming, saying only that this year it notched sales of tens of millions of dollars and will turn a profit. Revenues are expected to be substantially higher in 2009. "The big jump in revenues will come in 2012, when all car manufacturers will be offering crash detection technology as a standard feature in all models in order to keep up with the competition," predicts Shashua.
The growing demand has led to a doubling of the company's workforce, to 200, in the past two years. A wave of layoffs in the local high-tech industry, which is being hit by the global economic recession so far hasn't hit Mobileye. Indeed, the company is being inundated with résumés because it's one of the few Israeli startups that is still hiring to meet growing customer demand. To accommodate the larger staff, Mobileye is moving quarters and taking over seven floors of a new office building in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim high-tech industrial park, located just across the street from its current cramped digs.
The global market for sophisticated driver safety systems is only beginning to take off. It's currently estimated at only several hundred million dollars annually. But the U.S. National Transportation & Safety Board (NTSB) predicts the market will be worth billions of dollars within just a few years. The major push is coming from government safety agencies in both the U.S. and Europe that are looking for ways to reduce highway accidents. "By 2016 this type of technology could be mandatory in Europe and possibly earlier in the U.S.," predicts Walter Hagleitner, an expert on driver safety systems with ADAS Management Consulting in Bregenz, Austria.
So far, Mobileye's main competition is coming from auto parts and electronics giant Robert Bosch. The German company is supplying Mercedes Benz (DAI) with similar technology. Several automakers, including Audi and Opel, are also working on their own solutions. But Mobileye appears to be ahead of the pack. "They have superior image processing technology that allows for the integration of a large number of applications into one camera," says industry consultant Hagleitner.
Founded in 1999, the Israeli company has raised $120 million from a long list of investors including General Atlantic Partners, First International Bank of Israel (FTIN1.TA), Motorola Ventures (MOT), and local car importer Calmobile-Calmotor Group. But the biggest chunk came in October 2007 from Goldman Sachs (GS). The New York-based investment bank ponied up $60 million at a $600 million valuation. That has left Mobileye flush with cash at a time when global markets are in turmoil and chances for going public are next to nil.
Luckily, Shashua, the chairman and co-founder, is in no hurry for an initial public offering. He believes the right time will be in 2010. In the meantime, Mobileye remains convinced the global recession that has already taken a heavy toll on the automotive industry won't slow the growing trend to improve driver and road safety.