WeRide.ai, one of the most heavily-funded Chinese robotaxi operators, has filed a confidential application to go public in the US, Bloomberg reported Monday. The company declined to comment when contacted by TechCrunch.
China’s autonomous driving startups have been racking up heavy investments in recent years to boost their technology development and fleet deployment, which can absorb a large chunk of their costs. Its valuations have also soared, as autonomous driving remains one of the few sectors exciting emerging investors, even though the technology is far from full-scale, mature commercialization.
WeRide’s valuation jumped to $3.3 billion when it raised its Series C round nearly two years ago. It reportedly made a new round in March 2022, raising its valuation to $4.4bn. Its nemesis, Pony.ai, achieved an even higher valuation ($8.5bn) a year ago.
However, at some point, these capital-intensive robotaxi operators will need to access the public capital market, as not many investors are able or willing to write the large checks supporting their late-stage expansion. WeRide is aiming to raise up to $500 million, according to Bloomberg.
But for the past few years, the odds were stacked against them and other Chinese tech companies seeking American IPOs. As geopolitical tensions increased, US-listed Chinese companies came under increasing scrutiny from Washington, especially over their accounting practices. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was one of the few companies on the US government’s watch list.
Meanwhile, China was stepping up regulatory oversight of foreign-listed companies that could pose national security risks in their cross-border data transfers. Private travel giant Didi, for example, delisted from New York amid pressure from Beijing.
WeRide watched rival Pony’s IPO efforts fall apart. In 2021, Pony was thinking of going public in the US at a valuation of $12 billion via a merger with SPAC, but later put the plan on hold as it struggled to get assurances from Beijing that it would not become a the next target of a crackdown. Lawrence Steyn, a former JPMorgan executive, joined Pony as CFO in 2021 but left in March, according to his LinkedIn page.
There are signs that the US-bound wave of IPOs from China is slowly picking up again. February marked the listing of Chinese lidar maker Hesai on Nasdaq, which became the largest Chinese IPO in the US since Didi’s debut in 2021.
Apparently, the detection hardware is not as sensitive as a ride-sharing service or a robotaxi that has seas of user mobility data. But WeRide seems to have solved the data security problem. Bloomberg reported that the company will “outsource data collection to an entity that will not be part of the planned US list.”
WeRide has raised more than $1.4 billion to date from investors, including Bosch and Chinese state-owned automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group.