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BMW and Toyota just bet on the same self-driving tech startup

As part of the investment and partnerships, the automakers are now sharing safety information with each other.

Las Vegas Traffic Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Automakers, like some tech companies, are not very good at sharing information with one another. It’s not hard to understand why — car manufacturers want to maintain a competitive edge in an increasingly high-stakes race to getting self-driving cars on the road.

That’s why many expected the auto industry to resist a mandate in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s federal guidelines for self-driving cars that all automakers and self-driving tech companies share safety data with one another. But, as it turns out, car makers have come around to the idea of playing nice with the very companies they want to beat.

Case in point: BMW and Toyota are investing in and partnering with a self-driving tech company called Nauto to leverage its real-world driving and safety data to develop self-driving cars. This means the companies will be sharing safety data with each other via Nauto’s platform.

The automakers are joined by insurance provider Allianz Ventures, closing out a Series A round that was led by Playground Global with participation from Draper Nexus. Playground and Draper announced their $12 million investment in Nauto in April; BMW, Toyota, and Allianz wouldn’t disclose how much they’re adding to that round.

“It was a year-long journey [to convince the car makers to share their data],” Nauto co-founder Stefan Heck told Recode. “This is a real philosophy change. [It’s going] from a proprietary ‘we do it in secret’ approach to much more of what you’d see in other spaces and other industries that have more open standards.”

Nauto is an autonomous tech startup that in the near term is attempting to gather real world driving and accident data from manually driven cars by partnering with commercial fleets and now automakers. The fleet managers and automakers outfit their vehicles with Nauto’s devices — which are mounted to the car’s rearview mirror and have cameras that face both inward, at the driver, and outward, as well as a number of other sensors like an accelerometer — to gather information about driving behavior and accident information.

Eventually, the plan is for the automakers to integrate Nauto’s software directly into vehicles when they are produced and manufactured. In other words, Nauto will be built into the cars.

Until now, Nauto’s data was solely used by fleet managers the company partners with to ensure their drivers are being safe or to get contextual data about accidents — like whether the driver was distracted or whether a number of accidents occur at a particular intersection. But in its partnership with Toyota and BMW, Nauto is providing that aggregated and anonymized data to the automakers so they can use it to program and develop their autonomous driving software.

Nauto will also be providing that information to Allianz Group to help provide better information for the insurance company to determine liability during accidents — something the company is working on for self-driving cars as well.

For automakers, the overwhelming appeal is that Nauto has much more real-world driving data than they do because of its existing relationships with dozens of commercial fleets. The more actual mileage information a carmaker has, the more real situations their self-driving software will know how to navigate.

“Self-driving cars have to be able to respond to situations,” Toyota’s head of data and business development Jim Adler told Recode. “We can certainly simulate a lot of them, but the more experience we can get, the better. If we can aggregate the experience of all the fleet drivers that Nauto is seeing, it’ll give us situations we may not have anticipated, and it’ll also validate what our simulation is seeing.”

According to Heck, Nauto is on its way to having billions of miles of actual driving experience within the next year.

“One of the [carmakers we’re talking to] did their own math and realized for us to get this level of safety data from our vehicles only it would take 12 years,” Heck said. “With Nauto’s data ramp rate, we’ll get there in two years.”

For Toyota, sharing their safety data doesn’t mean ceding any competitive advantage it may have over BMW and other automakers that end up partnering with Nauto — Heck said Nauto is in talks with a number of them.

“I don’t think that safety features are often that much of a competitive advantage,” Toyota’s Adler said. “When anti-lock brakes came out, the automakers thought ‘this is a great competitive advantage,’ but eventually everyone had it. We think safe autonomy will be commoditized relatively quickly, and it’ll be the experience that will be what differentiates the vehicle.”

That said, miles-driven is frequently used as a progress marker by self-driving companies. Google and Tesla often tout the miles their fully- and semi-self-driving vehicles have driven as signs of how much the technology has progressed or experienced. Google, for instance, recently hit two million miles — the most fully self-driving miles of any company. (It’s less about the number, as Google’s head of self-driving tech Dimitri Dolgov told Recode in a recent interview, and more about how the tech has progressed to handle new situations.)

So though it may not make one carmaker better off than another, it certainly may level the playing field. Adler says it’s too early to tell which metrics will matter with regards to determining who is ahead in developing self-driving cars.

“Things are too fluid to say where anyone is on this race or what values matter as we move through the market,” he said. “We know data is important, we know safety is important and we know humility is important with respect to this problem.”

Read this next: Startups like Nauto look to cash in on automakers’ need for autonomous tech.

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