Startup Amber's self-driving cars to hit Dutch streets in 2018?

Amber One

Amber One

While Uber, Tesla, and Google are fighting over who will be first to deploy self-driving cars on a large scale, the Dutch underdogs at mobility startup Amber are planning a surprise move to overtake them all.

If all goes according to plan, Amber’s self-driving cars will hit the streets of Dutch cities by mid-2018. Amber CEO Steven Nelemans made the announcement at the Hannover Messe, one of the world’s biggest industrial fairs, in April.

It’s a bold plan indeed, but the influential automotive consultancy firm Roland Berger recently ranked The Netherlands number one in its Automotive Disruption Radar. So why not?

Amber started as a student team at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). [Disclosure: I work at the university as commercial director and invested €1000 in the team’s crowdfunding campaign back in January.] The university is known for its advanced automotive courses and ambitious student teams.

Apart from Amber, other spinoffs include a company working on a new way of energy storage for heavy transport using formic acid and one building a commercial car charged with solar power. Cooperations between the TU/e and automotive companies in the Brainport region of Eindhoven provide a fertile ecosystem for ambitious tech startups.

While I didn’t mentor the Amber team directly—either at the university or later at the HighTechXL accelerator in Eindhoven I’m involved in—Eindhoven is a tight community, so I’ve had the chance to watch them closely. And they make for an interesting story.

Amber One

Amber One

Anticipates where cars are headed

For all their relative obscurity, the young team at Amber has the ambitious goal of becoming the Spotify or Netflix of mobility. They don’t sell cars; they sell access to cars. It sounds like just another car-sharing service, but there’s a twist.

Amber says it can guarantee there is always a car available within walking distance, no matter where you are. And they only do electric.

I spoke with Nelemans last week when he was in San Francisco talking to investors. “In a nomal car-sharing service, you see a map with the nearest available car,” he told me.

“But it may be a mile away, it may be dirty, it may not work. You never know for sure. We can guarantee the car is always close by, clean, and in working order.”

Using predictive analysis algorithms, Amber’s software platform calculates where its cars will be needed in the next 15 minutes. Then, under the service’s current, initial rollout, it delivers cars to those locations using students as drivers.

If a car is not there when you need it, Amber calls you a cab. “As our software gets better the cabs will not be needed anymore,” said Nelemans.

Cars learn in several modes

The student drivers will also disappear eventually. This is where Amber’s self-driving ambition kicks in. In between rides the cars have to be able to drive themselves to their next users. All that without a human on board and by mid-2018.

It sounds ridiculously overconfident, but Nelemans has thought it through.

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