California-grown automotive software company Sonatus raised $35 million in a Series A round that attracted high-profile technology and automotive industry companies including Hyundai Motor Group's Kia Corporation, SAIC Capital and LG Electronics.
Silicon Valley VC Translink Capital led the round, with other investors including Marvell Technology, UMC Capital and Wanxiang Group Company.
Sonatus, which was founded in 2018, intends to use the new funds to establish itself as a brand through marketing efforts, new partnerships with OEMs and expanding local teams, according to Jeff Chou, Sonatus's CEO and co-founder. The startup says its product helps to make vehicles into "data centers on wheels" by providing the underlying infrastructure that allows for big data collection, running new applications or adding new features to the car.
"Basically we have two pieces of our product – an in-vehicle portion and a cloud portion, and they kind of work together," Chou told TechCrunch. "The in-vehicle part of our product allows the OEM to collect any data that the car generates. So whether that be on a traditional [Controller Area Network] bus, whether that be in the infotainment head unit, whether that be on traffic that's flowing across an in-vehicle network like Ethernet. Anything that gets generated or transmitted across an in-vehicle network is data that we have access to. And depending on what the OEM wants to collect and when they want to collect it, they can inform our software in the vehicle to do the right thing."
The cloud portion of the software connects to all the vehicles where Sonatus's underlying architecture resides and ingests all the data so it can store, analyze or expose it to either the OEM's own data scientists or to their partners.
Sonatus says its first generation product is already in production with a top global automaker, which will be announced in the coming weeks.
"We actually built the company without any investment money at all, and we grew from a couple of us to now beyond 50 people," said Chou. "And now we're already launching and in mass production. Our software has already been incorporated into the vehicles of an OEM and in their dealer showrooms."
Chou said the first incarnation of Sonatus' product will be in a combustion engine vehicle, but that the product is drivetrain-agnostic. In fact, Chou thinks the electrification of vehicles has been a tailwind for the company because it's causing OEMs to rethink in-vehicle architecture and be more open to adopting new technologies.
One of Sonatus' investors in this round, Hyundai has been pouring money into auto-related technologies. The automaker has invested $20.5 billion (KRW 23.5 trillion) in future technologies for its vehicles, including electrification, connectivity, autonomous driving, fuel cell, UAM, AI and robotics through 2025, according Henry Chung, SVP and head of Hyundai CRADLE Silicon Valley.
"A lot of the technology in our cars is probably 50 years old in some areas, especially on the comms side of things," Chung told TechCrunch. "There's four or five decades worth of data center evolution that's occurred on the IT front, and those technologies and approaches basically need to be brought into vehicles now because of the amount of data that's being generated, the sensors, the software algorithms that are running, the compute power that's now involved. They literally are super computers on wheels. We're asking vehicles to do more and consumers at are asking for services at a greater clip as well, so in order to deliver those services and value added functions, all of that needs supporting infrastructure and that's what Sonatus delivers essentially. This is long overdue."
One of the capabilities that may soon be realized in the automotive industry is Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology, in which the vehicle communicates to other vehicles and surrounding infrastructure to provide better driver assistance systems, which could lead to autonomous driving one day. Sonatus says it provides the architecture upon which V2X can be utilized.
"That's part of this edge cloud architecture that we're delivering for vehicles, but in this case the edge instead of being data center, it's really an edge on wheels," said Chou.
Sonatus's data center, which the company says is incredibly secure, and its architecture allow automakers to remotely add in features, manage vehicle usage data and remedy problems quicker and more efficiently because it doesn't use over-the-air software updates that require time and a full upload. Rather, automakers can send the software specific messages to enact changes in real time.
"Imagine a scenario where on the fly somebody detects that there could be something wrong with brakes for vehicles that they shipped in North America, and they need to send out an update right away to get real time data on braking and engine of certain models when an accident occurs," said Chou. "They might say, 'Send me information 60 seconds before the accident and 60 seconds after and I only want this information.' That can be done in real time, without an OTA update. It's what we call codeless updates."
There are many use cases where OEMs will benefit from having access to so much data, especially as they continue to innovate. For Sonatus's part, the company wants to move in the direction wherein it can also collect and analyze the data from automakers to perhaps use records of driver behavior in the development of autonomous technology, but Chou said they're not doing anything about it just yet.