Self-driving cars, a car battery that charges in five minutes, a sensor that can analyze a car’s surroundings and cars that talk to each other about road conditions.
These are just a handful of the projects that Israeli technology companies are working on to improve the experience of driving — or do away with it altogether in the case of autonomous cars. In Israel’s case especially, such technology could be a boon, since Israeli drivers are notoriously reckless.
Israel’s reputation as the high-tech hub of the Middle East was cemented years ago, but its innovations in automobile technology are a relatively new phenomenon — and one that is quickly getting Israel noticed once again.
In March, United States chip manufacturer Intel Corp. announced its plan to purchase Jerusalem-based Mobileye, which makes technologies that will be used to pilot driverless cars. The $15.3 billion deal was the largest-ever purchase of Israeli high tech.
Other Israeli car technology companies are raking in investments. otonomo (yes, the name starts with a lowercase “o”) recently raised $20 million for its technology to allow for the passing of data between cars. Foresight Autonomous Holdings, which makes video cameras for car safety, raised $12 million, according to Globes, Israel’s business publication.
According to Lior Zeno-Zamasky, the executive director of EcoMotion, which promotes smart transportation businesses in Israel, investors have put $4 billion into Israeli automotive technologies over the last four years.
“In the last 12 months, the global interest is rising more and more,” Zeno-Zamansky told the Associated Press. “Everyone is looking for the next Mobileye.”
There are two ironies to the fact that Israel is positioning itself as a leader in automotive technology that will make cars safer and more efficient. After a 10-year decline, traffic accidents are again on the rise in Israel. According to 2014 data, Israel ranks ninth out of 21 states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of traffic-related deaths.
Road safety advocates in Israel are quick to note that more Israelis die in road accidents than in violent conflict. According to Globes, since Israel declared statehood in 1948, 35,000 people have died on Israel’s roads compared with 25,000 in wars and terror attacks.
The other irony is that Israel failed to make cars of its own. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel tried to create cars with fiberglass bodies, but those endeavors never put Israel on the global car market. Today, Israel imports its automobiles.
“If you were to ask BMW to name the 10 biggest nations in the automotive industry, Israel wouldn’t likely be included,” Uri Pachter of the government’s Israel Export Institute told the tech site NoCamels. “However, when you talk about adopting and implementing innovative technologies into motor vehicles, it would be almost impossible to take Israel out of the mix.”
Israel’s failure to make cars may actually make it more nimble in creating the technologies to augment and shape cars today.
“Israelis don’t have a tradition of an old and heavy auto industry, so there was no traditional industry lobby here. This is one reason for the rise of a whole slew of new companies that are looking at the automotive field from a different angle,” Boaz Mamo, the CEO of Drive told Haaretz.
Drive is a center and an incubator for automobile innovation in Israel founded in February with the help of carmakers Honda and Volvo.
“At the same time, while automakers used to be slow to adopt new technologies, they now understand that they have to do everything quickly and see Israel as a center of innovation in the field,” Mamo said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.