Mercedes-Benz shows off a prototype of an autonomous car that uses Israeli-developed technology. Mercedes-Benz shows off a prototype of an autonomous car that uses Israeli-developed technology. Mercedes-Benz shows off a prototype of an autonomous car that uses Israeli-developed technology. (Photo: Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)

Why Tel Aviv is the new Motor City

Israel's tech sector is leading this century's automobile revolution.

In the century since Henry Ford unveiled his Model T in Detroit, the automobile has undergone a number of mechanical, safety and cosmetic improvements. But the basic idea of a car – powered by an engine and operated by a human being – has held true. That is until now. We're now living on the cusp of an automobile revolution. And the site of that revolution isn't Detroit; it's Tel Aviv.

A number of tech startups in Israel are already major players in the automobile industry – especially in automation, artificial intelligence, collision avoidance and navigation.

Jim Motavalli is a blogger for NPR's Car Talk and the author of a forthcoming book on self-driving cars. “Israel's lively startup tech sector is likely to make it a significant player as autonomous vehicles come online,” he told From the Grapevine.

Waze, the mobile traffic app, was the first Israeli company to score big in the global market. The popular app crowdsources data about traffic jams, construction and other issues and is a must-have tool for people looking to find faster alternate routes. The company was acquired by Google in 2013 and continues to grow – including adding celebrity voices and tools for finding parking spots.

GPS app Waze was developed in Israel and snatched up by Google. GPS app Waze was developed in Israel and snatched up by Google. (Photo: dennizn/Shutterstock)

A major shift in the car industry is happening in the realm of computer science, a major field of research at several Israeli universities. “When you look at the future challenges to the car, the biggest one is around autonomous driving,” said Amnon Shashua of Mobileye, an Israeli company that works on driverless vehicles. “Computer science is one of the strongest [subjects] academically and in terms of high tech in Israel, so it’s natural that Israel is contributing artificial intelligence, cameras, software and decision-making – it’s coming from computer science.”

Mobileye's collision-prevention technology is the basis for many self-driving vehicles. The company previously worked with Tesla and is now working to develop a platform that would be available to other car manufacturers as well.

Several of Detroit's major car companies have recently turned to Tel Aviv for new products and technologies. Ford Motor announced in August it would acquire Israeli machine learning and computer vision company SAIPS as part of a plan to build a totally self-driving car by 2021. Meanwhile, General Motors has established an advanced technical center in Herzliya, a coastal Mediterranean city just outside of Tel Aviv, to explore non-traditional automotive technologies including “everything that enables the future mobility era,” said GM's Gil Golan.

An aerial view of downtown Herzliya in Israel.An aerial view of downtown Herzliya in Israel where General Motors has established an R&D center. (Photo: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock)

European manufacturers have made their mark in Israel as well. Earlier this year, to further its own move into ride-sharing and autonomous driving, Volkswagen invested $300 million in Gett, an Israeli rival to Uber that uses established taxi fleets. And BMW has partnered with Mobileye to produce fully automated vehicles.

Mercedes-Benz recently announced it has chosen Gauzy, a Tel Aviv-based nanotechnology company, to participate in the Autobahn Plug and Play startup accelerator. Gauzy has developed smart glass that could be used to enhance cars – including adding important info to the windshield when needed or automatically tinting the windows.

On the hardware and fuel-supply side, Israeli electric car battery company Phinergy is working to develop a battery with a range of more than 1,000 miles, and Storedot is working on a new battery that could recharge far faster than those currently available. We're talking mere minutes.

Meanwhile, Softwheel has reinvented the wheel. The company started out by designing a better wheel for use with wheelchairs and has adapted its design, which replaces traditional spokes with three shock absorbers, for bicycles and cars.

There are also on-board systems developers that focus on user experience like Engie, an app created by three Israeli students that finds nearby mechanics and generates price quotes for repairs, and Otonomo, which uses the data generated by cars to find products and services that would be useful to drivers.

(From left) Oren Handelman, Yarden Gross and Gal Aharon created Engie as a school project.(From left) Oren Handelman, Yarden Gross and Gal Aharon created Engie as a school project. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Nexar is an Israeli startup working to develop smartphone sensors that can collect and analyze data about a car's surroundings. Using crowdsourced information about traffic acceleration, speed and even road damage, Nexar's goal is to help predict and prevent accidents.

In the ride-sharing sector, another Israeli startup called Via uses a system of shared minivans that essentially creates a new bus line every second. "We're in between taxis and buses, so we see ourselves as a complementary service mostly to the existing transit system," co-founder Daniel Ramot told From The Grapevine. Via is already operational in New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and is expected to expand to more cities.

Passengers in a Via car await a new passenger.Passengers in a Via car await a new passenger. (Photo: Courtesy Via)

“The interdisciplinary nature of the Israeli high-tech industry places Israel in an ideal position to be a major player in the new automotive industry,” said investment analysts Emanuel Timor and Liran Hason. “Our research has identified close to 150 automotive startups and research groups that are active in Israel, a 2x increase compared to the number of active startups in 2013."

The dream of driving now isn't about cruising down Route 66, putting the pedal to the metal with the top down, REO Speedwagon blasting out of the tape deck over the roar of the engine. Well, maybe it is. But it all goes back to how we're thinking about transportation: it should be clean, efficient, inexpensive and flexible. And Israel seems to be playing a major role in that.


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