British Microsoft-backed self-driving startup Wayve raises $1 billion, clocking new high in Europe-based AI funding deal

British self-driving startup Wayve has raised $1 billion in its latest funding round, setting a record for venture capital investment into a Europe-based AI company. 

Announced Tuesday, the series C round, led by Japanese conglomerate Softbank, also included AI giants Nvidia and Microsoft.

London-based Wayve, founded in 2017, makes software for autonomous driving which allows vehicles to learn as they drive and make on-the-road decisions on their own. 

Wayve counts Microsoft and Meta’s chief scientist Yann Le Cunn among its high-profile backers. The company, founded by University of Cambridge PhD students Alex Kendall and Amar Shah, had raised $300 million in previous funding rounds. The company’s valuation following the latest venture capital investment has not been disclosed.

Wayve will use the funds to expand and launch its AI software products—which it refers to as “Embodied AI” because similar systems could be used for any autonomous device that has to navigate and act in the physical world—eventually deploying those systems in vehicles built by major automotive manufacturers.

The startup’s software is different from previous generations of self-driving AI because its models are trained “end-to-end”—taking in camera and sensor data about what is happening around the vehicle and outputing the best driving action to take. The company has also trained an AI system that pairs a large language model with a driving model, so that a vehicle can explain what it is seeing and why it is taking certain actions, and also take instruction in natural language.

Earlier self-driving cars relied on multiple small AI models, each of which did one particular thing, such as identify objects in camera data, and then fused these small models together with complicated rules-based software to arrive at driving decisions.

“This significant funding milestone highlights our team’s unwavering conviction that Embodied AI will address the long-standing challenges the industry has faced in scaling this technology to everyone, everywhere,” Wayve’s co-founder and CEO Kendall said in a statement Tuesday.

The investment is a big win for Britain, which already has twice as many AI-focused companies as any other European country, employing over 50,000 people and contributing £3.7 billion ($4.6 billion) to the economy. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tried to position the country as a global AI hub, at the forefront of both development and regulation. 

Votes of confidence from leading companies have helped affirm the U.K.’s position. For instance, in April Microsoft announced it would open an office dedicated to AI research in London. 

Wayve’s recent capital injection surpasses prominent generative AI startups like German Aleph Alpha, which raised $500 million in November, and France’s Mistral, which raised $415 million the following month. 

“The fact that a homegrown British business has secured the biggest investment yet in a UK AI company is a testament to our leadership in this industry,” Sunak said of Wayve’s investment. “This announcement anchors the UK’s position as an AI superpower.”

Wayve pointed Fortune to its press release when approached for comment.

Persistent roadblocks 

Auto companies like Tesla and General Motors have taken a swing at autonomous vehicles, yet the industry isn’t free of challenges. Despite the ambitions of the world’s biggest companies to make driverless cars a reality, considerable safety, affordability and legal qualms remain. 

Last year, GM’s self-driving car unit Cruise recalled its vehicles for a software update and laid off a quarter of its workforce. Glitches in Tesla’s “full self-driving” technology have led to the investigation of the Elon Musk-owned company by the U.S. Justice Department. The latest generation of Tesla’s full self-driving system uses an end-to-end approach somewhat similar to Wayve’s.

Apple also recently canceled plans to pursue its long-running self-driving car project.

But things could play out differently for Wayve. 

Its tech can explain to drivers how it’s “thinking.” It uses real-life videos and data from partners like Asda and Ocado, that teach it how to navigate different on-the-road scenarios. The goal is to make autonomous vehicle tech more trustworthy and safe for drivers on the road, Kendall told Fortune in September. The opportunity, overall, continues to grow, he added.

“The U.K., I think, is in a really great spot to capitalize on this technology,” Kendall told Fortune at the time. “What we’re hearing is the government sees this as a really big growth opportunity and wants to make time for this,” he said.

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