Navya’s small plant houses big plans

In addition to its shuttle buses, Navya plans to build industrial tractors and robotaxis.

Send us a LetterHave an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.

SALINE, Mich. — Navya, the French maker of autonomous shuttle buses, has opened a small assembly plant in this town about 40 miles west of Detroit with plans to add an industrial tractor and a robotaxi to its lineup.

In fact, CEO Christophe Sapet says, Navya is even exporting vehicles — or more accurately, one vehicle — from the United States.

A shuttle bus being used in a pilot program that started this month in Candiac, Quebec, was built here.

That single exported vehicle is in keeping with the scale of production here, where one hand-built vehicle is made per month. The plant employs 25 people, with a target of 30 by year end, and plans to add a second shift.

Sapet says the kind of volume that major automakers achieve is irrelevant to a company whose sole current product costs $320,000 and is sold mainly to operators of dedicated transit systems. The robotaxi, shown at CES in January, will cost more because it needs more sophisticated sensors, he says.

“The problem is, with such prices as we have, not many people can afford such cars,” Sapet said. “It’s not really our concern. We are positioning Navya as inventing a new system of mobility. This mobility must be shared.”

Nevertheless, Sapet says, the robotaxi will give the industry “a different view of Navya” because it will travel varied routes on public streets, rather than the set routes followed by the shuttles. Navya vehicles operating on streets are required to have a person on board monitoring the vehicle.

Navya expects the U.S. to become its largest market, says CEO Christophe Sapet.

Navya plans to start three taxi pilot projects next year: in Lyon, France, its headquarters; Perth, Australia; and a location not yet chosen.

The third site could be in the U.S., but regulations covering autonomous taxis still need to be worked out, Sapet said: “Such a vehicle needs to have an evolution of the regulations.”

Navya is partnering with the French company Charlatte Manutention, which makes electric baggage tractors used in airports, to build an autonomous airport tractor. That vehicle is due in the second quarter of 2019, he said.

Sapet says that though small, Navya is booking sales. That shows that it has an edge of 18 to 24 months over rivals who are still testing vehicles, he says.

Navya has made 100 shuttles, with sales of 89, and has transported 300,000 customers in 17 countries, the company says. It posted revenues of $11.5 million in 2017 and projects 2018 revenue of $34.5 million but is not currently profitable.

The company reported sales of 36 vehicles with revenue of $10.3 million in the first half of this year.

Navya raised $43.3 million in July with an initial public offering; its stock trades on the Euronext Paris exchange. It gained a $34.5 million financing commitment from the European Investment Bank in August. Navya has attracted two major investors — French supplier Valeo SA and public transportation company Keolis. Each owns 14 percent of Navya. It is partnering with the AXA insurance group to develop coverage for autonomous vehicles.

Saline was chosen for the plant because of the automotive talent pool in the Detroit area, Sapet says. Because Navya’s software is written in France, he adds, the company saw no advantage in locating in Silicon Valley. Saline is also near the University of Michigan, which runs a Navya shuttle on its campus.

Sapet says the U.S. should become Navya’s largest market. The U.S. is ripe for business use of autonomous vehicles, he says, because it is a high-wage nation. That fits with Navya’s business proposition of replacing human drivers, saving money for organizations that buy its vehicles.

“Our business case works best in a place where wages of drivers are high,” Sapet said. “It doesn’t work in China, where you are replacing someone whose wages are very low.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *