Toyota’s self-driving unit buys US mapping start-up in software push

Toyota’s self-driving unit has acquired US mapping start-up Carmera as the Japanese group embarks on a software buying spree in an attempt to quadruple its global engineering headcount over the next few years. 

New York-based Carmera is the second acquisition by Woven Planet following its $550m takeover of Lyft’s autonomous driving unit in April. Backed by the war chest of the world’s biggest carmaker, the Toyota subsidiary said it would “go big” to establish its global footprint in software. 

While the acquisition price for Carmera was not disclosed, the deal alongside that for Lyft will expand Woven Planet’s 860 workforce to more than 1,200. 

“I’m looking to double or quadruple Woven Planet in the next couple of years,” James Kuffner, the head of the unit who also sits on Toyota’s board as chief digital officer, said in an interview.

“That means we are going to be aggressively hiring, acquiring, doing partnerships and, where it makes sense, bringing in companies to the Woven Planet group that are complementary and strategic,” he added.

Created in 2015, Carmera raised $20m in a Series B funding led by Google’s venture arm GV in 2018. 

Carmakers and technology groups are competing to develop accurate and real-time digital mapping technologies, which are considered critical for the expansion of self-driving cars.

Building on an existing partnership, Toyota hopes to combine Carmera’s machine learning and geospatial technologies with its own mapping capabilities using satellite and aerial imagery. 

Mapping is a significant area of investment for Woven Planet as Toyota looks to shift from simply selling cars to providing mobility services in the era of autonomous driving.

Instead of using specialised vehicles equipped with sophisticated cameras and radars, Woven Planet and Carmera have been experimenting with using affordable components on regular cars so they can recognise changes in lane markings and other road features to collect mapping data.

“The unfortunate truth is that right now a lot of mapping technology on vehicles requires a lot of expensive equipment and, unfortunately, as soon as you collect the data, it’s out of date because the world doesn’t stay static,” Kuffner said. 

He added that Toyota was well-positioned to create a system that could provide quality and up-to-date mapping data since it already had 100m cars on the road. 

But analysts say Woven Planet, which was created in January, faces a big challenge in building Toyota’s software capability following decades focused on the mass production of hardware. 

“We have this opportunity when some other companies are downsizing their efforts to actually double down and really grow,” Kuffner said. “I would like to grow aggressively fast but not too fast that we lose our culture or focus.”

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