WeRide CEO Tony Han “committed to long-term strategy in autonomous driving”
Merely one month into 2021, WeRide has already announced a series of milestones that has stunned the autonomous driving industry.
January 14 | WeRide announced the industry’s first financing deal in 2021, raising USD 310 million in its series-B round with global leading commercial vehicle manufacturer YuTong Group as the lead investor.
January 26 | WeRide’s self-driving cars cruised into Guangzhou’s CBD urban center.
January 27–30 | WeRide’s Level 4 self-driving Mini Robobus made its debut in both Guangzhou and Nanjing, conducting regular tests in both cities.
WeRide has been able to apply its cutting-edge Level 4 autonomous driving (AD) technology to a range of purpose-built vehicles. Our fleet of Robotaxis now is operating in more than 156 sq.km. geographical area in Guangzhou. In addition, the newly added Mini Robobus (that has no steering wheel or pedal) have been rapidly deployed to Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, Nanjing and soon many more cities in China.
WeRide’s AD fleet has accumulated over 400 days of public operation and over 400 million kilometers of autonomous driving mileage. The company has consistently demonstrated its ability to accelerate the development progress from both the technology and operation perspectives, since the founding of the company only 3 years ago. On February 3, 2021, WeRide held a virtual press conference during which Founder and CEO Tony Han shared many deep insights with journalists about the knowns and unknowns of autonomous driving.
(The following is a summary of the conversation.)
Part 1: A new form of AD vehicles: 4-seater passenger vehicles and 6 to 8-seater minibuses will gain popularity in the near future
“Autonomous driving is not only a means of transportation, but also a vital component of smart mobility and smart cities. I believe that the line between driverless minibuses and driverless taxis will become increasingly blurred.”
— Tony Han, CEO of WeRide
What will profitable self-driving vehicles look like in the future? This is a trillion-dollar question for the entire industry. The emergence of autonomous driving has already broken down the barriers between commercial and passenger vehicles. Just imagine now there is no need for a driver seat, a steering wheel, gas pedals and brakes; suddenly we can have much more freedom to create better space and user experience. Tony believes that at the end only the market will decide what forms the most ideal self-driving vehicles will take, after many rounds of iterations.
During the press conference, Tony told the journalists: “Autonomous driving is not only a means of transport, but also a vital component of smart mobility and smart cities. I believe that the line between driverless minibuses and driverless taxis will become increasingly blurred.” Tony used an interesting example of historical weapons to illustrate his point. “Back then, cannons and howitzers each had its unique pros and cons: cannons had a longer range but without a curve trajectory; howitzers could not hit far targets, but its curve trajectory were ideal for avoiding obstacles in straight sight. Later the two were combined into a new weapon so it retained all the advantages.”
Tony predicts that 4-seater passenger vehicles and 6-to 8-seater minibuses will rise in popularity tremendously in the future.
In Tony’s view, Mini Robobuses are more similar to currently available urban public transportation facilities. On one hand, state-subsidized bus services cannot make up for their cost simply by collecting ticket fares. On the other hand, just like water, electricity and gas, Mini Robobuses operating within a specified radius of a few kilometers will become part of the surrounding urban infrastructure, and their operation will require collaboration between local governments and businesses.
Tony also disputed the argument that the market size and profitability of the Robobus is small in comparison to the Robotaxi and the Robotruck. Robobuses (from small to medium sized), as an entirely new form of mobility product, are very different from the traditional buses. They are designed specifically for “the final 3 to 5-kilometers”. Going forward, the trend will be that autonomous driving taxis will slowly become the form of the new autonomous minibus jointly developed by WeRide and Yutong Group. WeRie is already well ahead of its competition on coming to the future business model by its deployment of these brand-new products.
Part 2: Operation in multiple cities is not blind expansion, the triangle business model will be key
“We will not simply open offices in random cities. Each decision has to support the company’s strategic goals. By taking advantage of local resources, we are able to accelerate the commercialization of autonomous driving.”
— Tony Han, CEO of WeRide
WeRide’s Mini Robobus has already begun regular testing on the International Bio Island in Guangzhou and the Sino-Singapore Eco Hi-tech Island in Nanjing. The two new testing grounds are a significant breakthrough for WeRide’s deployment of autonomous driving.
After establishing its main R&D center and China’s first public Robotaxi operation in Guangzhou over the past three years, WeRide is now ready to expand to more cities in 2021. WeRide’s global headquarters is in Guangzhou, while it has R&D centers in Beijing and Shanghai as well as Silicon Valley in the USA, with Anhui Provinces’s Anqing acting as a data labelling center. The company has recently established additional R&D and operation branches in three cities, namely Nanjing, Wuhan and Zhengzhou.
During the event, Tony went into details about WeRide’s strategic goals in these three cities. In the ancient city of Nanjing, a private equity fund jointly managed by Nanjing High-tech Venture Capital in the city’s Jianye District took part in WeRide’s Series B funding. Cooperation is being conducted across the board, including the exploration of application scenarios, project opportunities and equity financing. As for Wuhan, it is home to a large number of prestigious universities and colleges and is an important stronghold of Dongfeng Motor. Zhengzhou, meanwhile, is home to Yutong Group, a lead strategic investor in WeRide.
WeRide is famous for its “triangle business model” which involves exploring the commercial use of AD technology through strategic collaboration with automakers/tier one suppliers and mobility platforms. This business model is highly replicable and adapts extremely well to new local environments. This unique collaboration among the parties ensures the most values, tax income and innovations can be retained with the local municipalities, which in turn drive more trust and favorable policies from the local governments.
Part 3: Securing leadership by mastering AD platform technologies
“Those who master AD platform technologies shall command a leading position in the industry, and AD companies with a powerful technical edge can deal a fatal blow to their competitors.”
— Tony Han, CEO of WeRide
WeRide is now working on the development of core AD technologies based on five selected vehicle platforms, including Lincoln MKZ, a pioneer model in China’s AD industry, Nissan LEAF2, the safest all-electric vehicle in the world, the cost-effective Dongfeng Nissan Sylphy and Yutong minibus, China’s first front-loaded, mass-produced and fully driverless bus. Based on those vehicle platforms, WeRide now boosts a robust product line that serves the bulk of urban transport needs.
During the event, Tony introduced the journalists to WeRide’s Dongfeng Fengshen E70 self-driving model. It is the latest vehicle platform that WeRide has developed towards its participation in Dongfeng’s Navigator Project. According to Tony, WeRide’s self-driving technology platform is highly scalable, a fact that has been demonstrated in this project. Despite starting the vehicle retrofit and engineering work much later than other industry players, its Dongfeng Fengshen E70, equipped with WeRide’s self-developed AD system, greatly outperformed its peers in road testing with only two months into development.
In December 2020, as Yutong Group became the strategic lead investor in WeRide’s Series B funding. The Mini Robobus made its debut in the same month, surprising the industry with something completely different from iour flagship Robotaxi. Why WeRide was able to launch a completely new product line within such a short time? Tony explained that the Robobus and Robotaxi have far more similarities than differences. It is also a strong proof of our technology scalability. That is WeRide’s true competitive advantage along the way.
Tony sees Level 4 autonomous driving as the Third Mobility Revolution. The first revolution was the use of animals, mainly horses, to transport humans. Then cars, ships and planes were invented to leverage the power of steam and gasoline. Now, with the unprecedented capabilities of AI, we can finally make the big leap into a world of more flexible mobility.
“Those who master AD platform technologies shall command a leading position in the AD industry, and AD companies with a powerful technical edge can deal a fatal blow to their competitors,” Tony said. Companies specialized in low-speed and in-park logistics autonomous driving may be dominated by a powerful L4 AD company within three to five years.
Part 4: What are the industry standards when it comes to AD technology?
“When it comes to the way to develop autonomous driving, people have their own opinions. In my view, there should be a big arena where AD companies can compete with each other. There will be winners and losers in each battle round. The open competition will bring up every one’s game in the long run because developing such a technology is supposed to be a very long game. Anyone that has lost in such an arena will be pushed to work harder; but the most disappointing fact is that nobody is creating such a platform for competition.
— Tony Han, CEO of WeRide
The lack of uniform and authentic technical standards has long been a great concern of the AD industry. While China boasts an advanced automobile industry, with a favorable environment for the development of autonomous driving technologies including various AD test fields and OEMs, there is not as of yet a public contest that can bring together all front-line AD enterprises.
Tony thinks that it would not be difficult to organize such contests. First, OEMs, professional assessment organizations, colleges and universities may serve as judges. Then, one vehicle platform may be selected and the same amount of time for development can be granted to all participants. Next, within the same test area, random locations may be chosen for road testing with the average takeover rate within a limited period of time being carefully recorded. Finally, the objective results can be produced after filtering out incidental factors and averaging the data.
At present, only MPI (Miles Per Intervention) may be referred to when it comes to measuring different companies’ technical capabilities. However, this data is reported voluntarily, which means all of it is based on individual enterprises’ own selected test scenarios. MPI should therefore not be considered an authoritative metric to measure different companies’ technical strength. Aside from being methodologically incorrect for the industry itself, it is also understandably confusing to outsiders.
In addition to fair and professional contests, the most reasonable evaluation of AD technologies is the operation of driverless mobility services open to the public.
“The best autonomous driving technologies should be developed to stand public operations. In the example of professional boxers, I don’t believe that anyone can even try to claim to be the best without being put on the stage of UFC and MMA. That is why WeRide has been committed to putting our technology in the hands of normal citizens (i.e the pubic) from the very beginning.” Tony said.
As of January 2021, the publicly available Robotaxi service that WeRide launched in Guangzhou’s Huangpu District has been in operation for more than 400 days. As far as WeRide is concerned, public operation not only contributes to data collection of real road scenarios, it also enables WeRide to understand of what the market needs. Our customers’ feedback and complaints have proven extremely valuable to our operation and engineering staff in constantly raising the bar of the service and technology.
WeRide’s ultimate goal is not to win a contest, but to help ensure the safe operation of fully driverless vehicles. It is widely understood that a single accident will not only affect one company, but rather the whole industry. Safety has therefore always been WeRide’s top priority.
“When can we expect the commercial use of fully driverless vehicles?”
Tony responded: “WeRide is vigorously and steadily promoting the commercial use of fully driverless vehicles in Guangzhou under the guidance of relevant government departments. When our technologies meet the industry standards, we will apply for commercialization. I’m sure that the appropriate policy support will be in place when the right time comes. However, I cannot offer an exact timeline at this moment. Technological progress and policy legislations are rather unpredictable. What we are focusing on right now is to aggressively advance our technology while promoting commercialization.”
As the speed of policy rollout is expected to accelerate in the future, Tony warns that it is time to set a high technical barrier to entry. He said: “To be approved for testing on the open public road, you simply cannot allow a random company to take driverless test on the road. Autonomous driving at its core is about safety. I appreciate the view that AD safety is not only about that of the commercial use of the technology, but also that of product development and testing. Any accident, even if it only involves a test vehicle, should be taken extremely seriously.”
Recently, WeRide’s AD fleet testing has been expanded to Haizhu and Tianhe Districts, which are Guangzhou’s core business centers. This is the first-time autonomous driving approved by the government to reach the city center in a first-tier Chinese city.
WeRide’s expansion into Haizhu and Tianhe Districts is a natural extension of the customer needs. During its Robotaxi operation in Huangpu District, WeRide received frequent requests from users wanting to commute between districts, which could not be met due to the geofencing restriction. Now with the expansion of the geographical coverage into the downtown CBD area, many of these unmet demands could be captured.
From Huangpu District to “Village-in-City (ViC)” to Haizhu and Tianhe District, WeRide is on a mission to offer its truly driverless Robotaxi service to millions of residents in Guangzhou in the near future.
Part 5: Reflections on four years of entrepreneurship in the AD industry
Speak out and stand firm
During the event, Tony Han also shared his own thoughts on this four-year journey. As a start-up that values independent thinking and innovation, WeRide is extremely committed to its own vision on the way autonomous will be in the future. Along the way, Tony believed that it is important to speak up and provide criticism to common opinions in the market.
He made a point of noting two major arguments which separated WeRide from its competitors.
First, WeRide firmly held on to the belief that sensor fusion powered by LiDAR is the core to achieve Level 4 autonomous, and that all-camera solution was a long shot.
Second, WeRide argued that Level 5 autonomous driving would not be achieved in the next 10 or even 20 years. In this regard, HD maps are essential for self-driving cars to achieve any level of desirable performance.
These two arguments have since been endorsed by the market. Tony said “We need to be more committed to what we believe in. In the past, we mostly remained silent when our views differed from those of successful entrepreneurs or key opinion leaders. But it is my belief now that speaking up against what is wrong is just as important as sticking to what we do.” Only time will provide answers to what is right or wrong. The term “first-principle thinking” can sometimes be misused to challenge the fundamental facts that cannot be disputed scientifically.
Remain committed to a long-term strategy in a constantly changing market
Tony said that his original aspirations when founding the company is what has kept him going. Through the many ups and downs in the industry over the past few years and in such a market that is constantly interrupted by noise, he believed that the key is sticking to a long-term strategy and one’s original goals.
Tony said: “People are wondering why AD technologies have yet to be rolled out on a large scale. Is it because of policies? The market? Or a lack of investment? I would say it is none of the above. One of the most important factors in play is the stability of the technology. In my view, we are no more than 5 years away from seeing fully Level 4 autonomous driving at scale.”
Therefore, WeRide remains a technology-driven company focused on a long-term strategy to develop the safest, most robust and reliable autonomous technologies. At the same time, our operation deployment will allow us to understand what the customers want in such a new service. The company’s ultimate goal is to create the new mobility solutions by autonomous driving technology to serve people in China as well as around the globe.
Tony compared developing AD technologies to developing anti-cancer drugs. In order to succeed, both would take a very long-term approach. The real values of each will not be released until the technology is embraced by the market. All the steps along the way are iterations necessary to get to that goal. Without the long-term vision and the GRIT (our company values) to endure the difficulties, one company will never get to the finish line.
According to Tony: “We at WeRide believe that technology is a force for good. Technology to cure cancers is always better than technology to create destruction weapons. That is the philosophy we hold on to when trying to change the world we live in.”