• Reuters

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Autonomous driving firm Pony.ai said it raised $462 million in its latest funding round, led by an investment by Toyota Motor Corp.

Toyota invested around $400 million (¥44.2 billion) in the round, Pony.ai said in a statement Wednesday, marking its biggest investment in an autonomous driving company with a Chinese background.

The latest fund raising values the three-year-old firm, already backed by Sequoia Capital China and Beijing Kunlun Tech Co., at slightly more than $3 billion.

The investment by Japan’s largest automaker comes at a time when global carmakers, technology firms, start-ups and investors — including Tesla, Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and Uber — are pouring capital into developing self-driving vehicles.

Over the past two years, 323 deals related to autonomous cars raised a total of $14.6 billion worldwide, according to data provider PitchBook, even amid concerns about the technology given its high cost and complexity.

The Silicon Valley-based startup Pony.ai — co-founded by CEO James Peng, a former executive at China’s Baidu, and chief technology officer Lou Tiancheng, a former Google and Baidu engineer — is already testing autonomous vehicles in California, Beijing and Guangzhou.

The firm is focusing on achieving Level 4 on the nascent industry’s scale for autonomous-driving standards, meaning the car would be able handle all aspects of driving in most circumstances with no human intervention.

The latest funding will support Pony.ai’s future “robotaxi” operations and technology development, one of the sources said.

Pony.ai, which has partnerships with automakers Hyundai and Guangzhou Automobile Group, said it will explore “further possibilities on mobility services” with Toyota.

This is not the first time that Toyota, which sold more than 10 million cars globally last year, has invested in firms focused on autonomous driving and mobility services. Its autonomous vehicle partnerships include a venture with SoftBank Corp. and an investment in automated-taxi developer Uber ATG. Last year, it invested $600 million in Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and a new joint venture to develop mobility services.

But Toyota, which has performed research into autonomous driving technologies mostly through in-house engineers and will launch its first vehicle with autonomous highway driving capabilities this year, has been lagging rivals in bringing self-driving cars to market.

It has taken a long view toward the technology, saying it will take decades for cars to drive themselves on roads.

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