EVERY year, about 1.3 million people die in road traffic crashes, according to the World Health Organization - but autonomous vehicle (AV) solution provider MooVita wants to change this.
At least 90 per cent of road accidents happen because of human error, said MooVita co-founder and chief operating officer Dilip Limbu. "If we know that technology can solve the problem, why not try to do something?"
MooVita's team was the first "to put autonomous vehicles on the public road" in Singapore in 2015, back when it was part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). Sensing a market opportunity, the team spun off from the agency in 2016.
The company took about 18 months to build everything from scratch, said Limbu: "All the technology we were using was very expensive, which can't be commercialised." Furthermore, prior to setting out on their own, the team had largely been using third-party software to develop a solution quickly without intending to commercialise it.
Beginning with just its three founders and "one key staff" member, MooVita has grown to having over 70 full-time staff, about 70 per cent of whom are scientists and engineers.
Finding its focus
Today, its main solution is an autonomous software solution kit. "It turns any vehicle autonomous, provided we are given time and information on the vehicle," explained Limbu.
Its technology has been tested across six types of vehicles for human transport, logistics and agriculture, across five countries: Singapore, Malaysia, India, China and the United Kingdom.
In this "initial deployment" stage, MooVita is running small-scale projects with autonomous buses, to ensure the software is commercially viable before full-scale deployment with its public transportation partners. It sees buses as a key driver of the industry that will be deployed before other AVs such as robo-taxis.
In the next two to three years, the company will focus on providing solutions for fixed routes on public roads. "Buses always travel on a fixed route, fixed timing, and people are aware of how to use buses - for example, the payment system is already there," Limbu said, contrasting them with robo-taxis that can be operated in "different ways".
From production to testing, MooVita relies on a network of vendors and partners. Chinese bus manufacturer King Long, for instance, provides the hardware on which to install and test its software. MooVita also works with smart cities, campuses and operators to carry out trials. In June, it signed a memorandum to bring its transport technologies into the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City in China.
Beyond its Singapore headquarters, a Malaysian associate was set up in 2016 so that the company could have a presence in an automotive industry - with Malaysia having some big automotive plants and companies - close to home.
In addition to its main software product, MooVita offers a driver behaviour monitoring and data acquisition system, which has been commercialised. Other revenue streams include pilot trials; projects and consultancy; sales of previous versions of its people-mover products; sales of its software licence; and ongoing maintenance contracts.
However, it is still heavily focused on research and development and expects to achieve profitability only in two or three years' time.
To fund its operations, the startup has raised about S$20 million in investments. Most recently, as part of its Series A round in 2021, MooVita received a multimillion-dollar investment from SMRT Ventures and Malaysia-listed energy infrastructure and tech company Yinson Holdings.
It is also in talks with potential investors to raise funds, possibly in Q2 or Q3 next year, for market expansion and further development.
MooVita seeks funding up to a level that is sufficient for its plans, Limbu said. While it could try to raise more funds, it is still limited by current technology, which constrains what can be achieved in AVs.
"If you ask me today… (It's) not only us, any big company is not ready to deploy fully autonomous vehicles on the street," he added.
Sensors, for example, have a limited lifespan that are unable to match that of a vehicle, but are impractical and costly to replace. Navigation and mapping systems are not standardised, which limits the ability to deploy AVs across longer distances.
Policy, legislation, regulation, and public acceptance also need to catch up with the industry, Limbu said, though he noted recent efforts at collaborations among companies and governments. "You will see pockets of AV deployment in a fixed area or fixed town or even highway… but not for the masses. You cannot go and buy AVs like how you can buy, today, a Toyota or BMW."
Despite the challenges, MooVita is preparing its buses to be commercially ready for operation. Its 2023 plans include one deployment of its buses to run between a campus and an MRT station; one within the National University of Singapore; and three in Malaysia.
The company's ambitions are summed up in its name: MooVita stands for "move it autonomously", and the double "o" in the name creates an infinity symbol, said Limbu. "So (we can take) anything that comes with wheels, and we will make it autonomous."