Ford Buys Israel’s SAIPS in Bid to Put Self-driving Cars on the Road by 2021

U.S. automaker reportedly paying tens of millions of dollars for 3-year-old startup.

SAIPS founder, from left: U.S. Branch Manager Noga Zieber, CEO Udy Danino and Chief Technology Officer Rotem Littman.
SAIPS founder, from left: U.S. Branch Manager Noga Zieber, CEO Udy Danino and Chief Technology Officer Rotem Littman. Courtesy

Detroit got its first toehold in Startup Nation on Tuesday, after Ford Motor Co. said it was buying SAIPS, an Israeli company that develops technologies that are key to self-driving vehicles.

The acquisition was one of four deals the U.S. carmaker announced with the aim of having a high-volume, fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation in 2021 in a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service.

Ford said the investment/collaboration with the four startups is part of its strategy of enhancing its autonomous vehicle development, which includes more than doubling its staff at its Palo Alto, California, research and development center.

Ford said SAIPS, a computer vision and machine-learning startup, would strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhanced computer vision. The company provided no financial details about its acquisition, but industry sources estimated it at tens of millions of dollars.

“SAIPS has developed algorithmic solutions in image and video processing, deep learning, signal processing and classification. This expertise will help Ford autonomous vehicles learn and adapt to the surroundings of their environment,” Ford said in a statement.

The startup was founded in 2013 by CEO Udy Danino, Chief Technology Officer Rotem Littman and U.S. Branch Manager Noga Zieber. The Tel Aviv-based company has just 15 employees. Most of them graduated from the army’s Talpiot technology training program or served in its 8200 intelligence corps, focusing on algorithms. The company is entirely self-financed.

SAIPS does not specialize in vehicle technology. Customers include HP, semiconductor manufacturer KLA-Tencor as well as Israel’s Wix and Israel Aerospace Industries, where it has solved problems in fields from medical imaging to semiconductor production.

“Usually companies approach us when they hit a wall mathematically they can’t solve,” said Danino. “We see ourselves as a kind of algorithmic commando unit for the toughest missions, specializing in the connection between deep learning and computer vision.”

Israel has emerged as a self-driving-vehicle powerhouse, with companies like Mobileye and Gett in tie-ups with some of Europe’s leading automakers. But to date the only U.S. company with an Israeli research and development center is General Motors, which opened one nine years ago that today employs about 100 people.

Ford also said on Tuesday that it had invested in Velodyne, a Silicon Valley-based maker of light detection and ranging LiDAR sensors, and in the Berkeley-based Civil Maps, to further develop high-resolution 3-D mapping capabilities.

Ford said it also reached an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine vision company founded by neuroscientist Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, who discovered the neural code the human eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain.