Car tech fast lane? Why automobile makers are rushing to Israel

Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and others are seeking out technology and expertise from the Israeli automotive startup scene.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor
Ayalon winter traffic Israel

Israeli startups are proving capable at a wide range of car tech including batteries, materials, and connected vehicles.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Israel probably isn't the first place you'd think of for car technology. But it's a big player in the Internet of Things, and as cars become more automated and connected to the cloud, Israel is also emerging as a hub for automobile technology.

Nearly all the large Japanese manufacturers, and many American and European car makers, are opening R&D centers in and around Tel Aviv.

And as part of that process, manufacturers are discovering that Israel is good at other things, too. Honda Silicon Valley Lab ‎senior program director Nick Sugimoto says on a recent visit he's been looking at "a lot of interesting tech in a wide variety of areas: battery technology, materials technology, IT, connected vehicles, and more. Israel is very good at all of these, and more".

Honda is just the latest car company to take an interest in what Israeli startups can do to give them an edge in the evolving connected car technology ecosystem.

With more cars sporting internet connections, either onboard or via Bluetooth or USB connections to a connected device, there's been a growing demand for apps to keep drivers connected, but in a safe manner.

At a hackathon in Tel Aviv, for example, top Ford executive Scott Lyons said while the company wanted good apps, safety is a priority, both in terms of driving and from a cybersecurity point of view.

Ford's AppLink is probably the richest mobile app platform currently available. The company decided to run a hackathon in Israel because of developers' expertise both in connected IoT tech, and cybersecurity, another area where Israel excels, according to Lyons.

Other companies that have held hackathons or development events in Israel over the past year include Toyota and Hyundai, and like Sugimoto, they were first attracted to Israel by two locally-developed technologies that have now become more or less standard for drivers and vehicles: Waze and Mobileye.

Waze is the wildly popular traffic-navigation and mapping app, while Mobileye is a smart safety system that tells drivers when they are getting too close to the vehicle in front of them.

Waze was snapped up by Google in 2013 for over $1bn, while Mobileye's 2014 IPO raised some $900m, the biggest ever IPO for an Israeli startup.

And as Israel is a leader in mobile app development, it's natural for carmakers to concentrate their activities here on finding innovative car apps, à la Waze. At this year's Mobile World Congress, about 10 percent of the 2,000 companies showing off their wares were from Israel, with a large contingent of app makers attending.

One Israeli-developed app, Anagog, which provides a crowdsourced solution for parking and describes itself as "the Waze of parking", was presented with MWC's Best Mobile Innovation in Automotive Global Mobile Award.


The team at that Argus, which focuses on developing on software for car security.

Image: Argus Cyber Security

But while Waze and Mobileye are high-profile examples of Israeli tech, other companies are emerging, such as Argus Cyber Security, which is one of the first companies in the world to provide software for car security.

The fact that connected cars could be hacked, rather easily as it turned out, was demonstrated last year when white-hat hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek took control of a Chrysler Jeep vehicle being driven at top speed by Wired journalist Andy Greenberg.

Miller and Valasek turned the radio on full-blast, ran the air-conditioning, and even took control of the accelerator. The hack, said the two, relied entirely on the Jeep's Wi-Fi connection, exploiting a weakness in Chrysler's Uconnect software

According to a spokesperson for Argus: "In the Jeep case, as well as in other hacking attempts that have been demonstrated over the past year, our solutions could have played a pivotal role in successfully preventing such attacks from affecting a vehicle's systems."

Israel is also seen as an innovative development center for fuel technology, both fossil-based and electric. The country recently signed a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Iveco, and Magneti Marelli for co-operation in the development of natural gas-based technologies, developing fuels for cars, trucks, and buses based on natural gas. Israel has plenty of offshore natural gas, it's been recently discovered.

Meanwhile, Israeli electric car battery company Phinergy, working together with aluminum and metals firm Alcoa, has developed an aluminum-air electric car battery with a 1,000-mile plus range.

The company raised an additional $50m in January, led by Alcoa, to continue with development of the project. On his visit to Israel in 2013, US President Obama was shown a range of innovative Israeli technologies, including the Phinergy battery. His recommendation? That the company get in touch "with Ford or GM about this".

Now, an Israeli startup is bringing another local specialty to the mobile vehicle mix: artificial intelligence. Ergo, an AI personalization engine by Israeli startup Cellepathy recently won the Auto App Challenge at the 2016 ConnecteDriver conference in Brussels for its smart navigation solution.

According to Cellepathy CEO Dan Abramson, market research shows that 45 percent of people who turn off their navigation app before the end of a trip or refrain from using it entirely on some trips do so because they don't want to be interrupted with turn by turn instructions on routes they commonly travel at non rush-hour times.

The system analyzes a driver's history to identify which instructions the person already knows, and which are unfamiliar and important, making it possible to tailor driving instructions without bothering the driver with unnecessary commands.

That's the kind of innovation car companies like Honda need, Sugimoto says. "I first started visiting Israel in 2011. Since then I have brought more Honda people over, and they all feel the same way I do. The Israeli tech we have seen is a natural for the human-machine interface we are developing. We want more."

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