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Today — May 30th 2020Your RSS feeds

Toyota’s first plug-in hybrid RAV4 Prime priced a skosh under $40,000

By Kirsten Korosec

When Toyota unveiled the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime in November, the vehicle garnered a lot of attention because it achieved two seemingly conflicting goals. It was Toyota’s most fuel efficient and one of its most powerful vehicles.

Now, it’s getting praise for managing a base price under $40,000. Toyota said Friday that the standard trim of the plug-in vehicle, the RAV4 Prime SE, will start at $39,220,  a price that includes the mandatory $1,120 destination charge.

This plug-in RAV4 will have an all-wheel drive, sport-tuned suspension. When in pure EV mode it has a manufacturer-estimated 42 miles of range — putting it ahead of other plug-in SUVs. Toyota said it has a also has up to a manufacturer-estimated 94 combined miles per gallon equivalent. We’re still waiting on official EPA estimates.

The vehicle has a tuned 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and when combined with the electric motors will deliver 302 horsepower and be able to travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a projected 5.8 seconds.

The plug-in RAV4 will be offered in two variants. Toyota equips all of its RAV4 models with its standard active safety systems that includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, full-speed range dynamic radar cruise  control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, lane tracing assist and road sign assist.

The cheaper SE comes standard with some notable features like 18-inch painted and machined alloy wheels, heated front seats, a power liftgate, a 3-kilowatt onboard charger and a 8-inch touchscreen along with Amazon Alexa integration and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. Some advanced driver assistance features such as blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert also comes standard.

There is a weather and moonroof package for an additional $1,665 upgrade, that adds extras like a heated steering wheel, heated rear outboard seats and rain-sensing windshield wipers with de-icer function.

The pricier XSE trim starts at $42,545 (with the destination price included) and offers more luxury touches such as a two-tone exterior paint scheme pairing a black roof with select colors, 19-inch two-tone alloy wheels, paddle shifters, wireless phone charger and a 9-inch touchscreen. There are several other upgrades, of course, including one for the multimedia system that adds dynamic navigation and a JBL speaker system. The daddy of upgrades on the XSE costs $5,760 and covers weather, audio and premium features including a heads-up display, panoramic moonroof, digital rearview mirror, surround-view cameras and four-door keyless entry.

The vehicle is expected to show up at dealerships this summer.

Yesterday — May 29th 2020Your RSS feeds

Audi launches high-tech car unit Artemis to fast-track a ‘pioneering’ EV to market

By Kirsten Korosec

Audi has created a new business unit called Artemis to bring electric vehicles equipped with highly automated driving systems and other tech to market faster — the latest bid by the German automaker to become more agile and competitive.

The traditional automotive industry, where the design to start of production cycle might take five to seven years, has been grappling with how to bring new and innovative products to market more quickly to meet consumers’ fickle demands. The model is more akin to how Tesla or a consumer electronics company operates.

The first project under Artemis will be to “develop a pioneering model for Audi quickly and unbureaucratically,” Audi AG CEO Markus Duesmann said in a statement Friday. The unit is aiming to design and produce what Audi describes as a “highly efficient electric car” as early as 2024.

Artemis will be led by Alex Hitzinger, who was in charge of Audi’s Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched just in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group. AID was absorbed into the European headquarters of Argo AI, a move that was made after VW invested $2.6 billion in capital and assets into the self-driving startup.

Hitzinger, who takes the new position beginning June 1, will report directly to Duesmann. Artemis will be based at the company’s tech hub of its INCampus in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Artemis is under the Audi banner. However, the aim is for this group’s work to benefit brands under its parent company VW Group.  Hitzinger and the rest of his team will have access to resources and technologies within the entire Volkswagen Group . For instance, Car.Software, an independent business unit under the VW Group, will provide digital services to Artemis.  The upshot: to create a blueprint that will make VW Group a more agile automaker able to bring new and technologically advanced vehicles to market more quickly.

VW Group plans to produce and sell 75 electric vehicle models across its brands by 2029, a group that includes VW passenger cars and Audi. The creation of Artemis hasn’t changed Audi’s plans to produce 20 new all-electric vehicles and 10 new plug-in hybrids by 2025.

“The obvious question was how we could implement additional high-tech benchmarks without jeopardizing the manageability of existing projects, and at the same time utilize new opportunities in the markets,” Duesmann said.

Uber’s latest feature lets riders book by the hour and make multiple stops

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber is bringing a new feature to the U.S. that lets users book rides for $50 an hour and make multiple stops as the ride-hailing company tries to respond to changing consumer needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hourly booking feature, which is already available in a handful of international cities in Australia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, will launch in a dozen U.S. cities beginning Monday. The product will be available in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Tacoma, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Uber said it expects to expand into other U.S. cities in the coming weeks.

Uber made the move in an effort to offer riders a more convenient way to get things done, and to provide an additional earnings opportunity for drivers as we move forward in this ‘new normal,’ Niraj Patel, director of rider operations at Uber said in a statement.

Riders who want to use the new feature start by selecting “hourly” in the app and then entering their initial stop. Riders can see the $50 hourly rate at a glance and compare to other options before committing to the trip. The rider selects the expected hours and can enter in multiple stops — as many as three including the destination.Uber Hourly for Rider feature

Image Credits: Uber

There are limitations to the feature, including mileage. In some cities, the hourly booking feature only allows drivers to travel up to 40 miles. Trips that travel farther than the mileage limit will be charged to the rider at a per mile rate. The same rule applies to trips the run over the booked hour; riders will be charged per minute over the hour.

Hourly booking cannot be used to travel to or from airports and trips must be within a city service area. The $50 hourly rate excludes tolls and surcharges.

SoftBank led $500M investment in Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

By Rita Liao

The race to automate vehicles on China’s roads is heating up. Didi, the Uber of China, announced this week an outsized investment of over $500 million in its freshly minted autonomous driving subsidiary. Leading the round — the single largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector — is its existing investor Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant and startup benefactor that has also backed Uber.

The proceeds came through Softbank’s second Vision Fund, which was reportedly lagging in fundraising as its Fund I recorded massive losses in part due to the collapsing valuation of WeWork.

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortage in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field. In 2018, Didi ranked eighth in kilometers of autonomous driving tests carried out in Beijing, far behind search giant Baidu which accounted for over 90% of the total mileage that year.

It’s since played aggressive catchup. Last August, it spun off its then three-year-old autonomous driving unit into an independent company to focus on R&D, building partnerships along the value chain, and promoting the futuristic technology to the government. The team now has a staff of 200 across its China and U.S. offices.

As an industry observer told me, “robotaxis will become a reality only when you have the necessary operational skills, technology and government support all in place.”

Didi is most famous for its operational efficiency, as facilitating safe and pleasant rides between drivers and passengers is no small feat. The company’s leadership hails from Alibaba’s legendary business-to-business sales team, also known as the “Alibaba Iron Army” for its ability in on-the-ground operation.

On the tech front, the subsidiary is headed by chief executive Zhang Bo, a Baidu veteran, and chief technology officer Wei Junqing, who joined last year from self-driving software company Aptiv.

The autonomous segment can also benefit from Didi’s all-encompassing reach in the mobility industry. For instance, it’s working to leverage the parent company’s smart charging networks, fleet maintenance service and insurance programs for autonomous fleets.

The fresh capital will enable Didi’s autonomous business to improve safety — an area that became a focal point of the company after two deadly accidents — and efficiency through conducting R&D and road tests. The financing will also allow it to deepen industry cooperation and accelerate the deployment of robotaxi services in China and abroad.

Over the years, Didi has turned to traditional carmakers for synergies in what it dubs the “D-Alliance,” which counts more than 31 partners. It has applied autonomous driving technology to vehicles from Lincoln, Nissan, Volvo, BYD, to name a few.

Didi has secured open-road testing licenses in three major cities in China as well as California. It said last August that it aimed to begin picking up ride-hailing passengers with autonomous cars in Shanghai in a few months’ time. It’s accumulated 300,000 kilometers of road tests in China and the U.S. as of last August.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Tesla board certifies Elon Musk’s payday worth more than $700 million

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla’s board certified a financial milestone that unlocks the first tranche — worth more than $700 million — of an unprecedented multibillion-dollar pay package for CEO Elon Musk, according a document filed Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The milestone allows Musk to purchase the first grouping or tranche of nearly 1.69 million shares at a steep discount. Tesla shares closed Thursday at $805.81, putting the value at $775 million. Musk is able to buy those stock options at a price of $350.02 per share.

“As of the date of this proxy statement, one of the 12 tranches under this award has vested and become exercisable, subject to Mr. Musk’s payment of the exercise price of $350.02 per share and the minimum five-year holding period generally applicable to any shares he acquires upon exercise,” the SEC document reads.

The compensation plan approved by shareholders in 2018 consists of 20.3 million stock option awards broken up into 12 tranches of 1.69 million shares. These options will vest in 12 increments if Tesla hits specific milestones on market cap, revenue and adjusted earnings (excluding certain one-time charges such as stock compensation).

When the board and shareholders approved the package, Musk was theoretically able to earn nearly $56 billion if no new shares were issued. However, last year Tesla sold $2.7 billion in shares and convertible bonds.

To access those first tranche of stock options, Tesla’s market value had to reach a six-month average of $100.2 billion and either $20 billion in annual revenue or $1.5 billion in adjusted EBITDA. To meet the next milestone, Tesla’s market cap must increase another $50 billion in value and $35 billion in revenue or $3 billion in adjusted EBITDA.

The board certified the market cap and revenue milestone. The other operational milestone relating to $1.5 billion Adjusted EBITDA has been achieved but is subject to formal certification by the board, , according to the SEC filing.

Tesla SEC May 2020

Image Credits: Screenshot/SEC filing

The board must certify that each milestone has been achieved before Musk can exercise those stock options. To unlock every tranche, Tesla’s market cap will have to reach $650 billion.

Musk has never accepted a salary. Instead, he opted for, the shareholders approved, equity-based compensation plans. In a previous equity compensation plan, Musk was awarded stock options worth about $78 million in 2012 that vested only after Tesla hit production and market value milestones.

The 2018 CEO compensation plan not only ensured Musk would a be part of Tesla for the next decade, it also put an emphasis on market cap and revenue, not necessarily profitability.

Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting is scheduled for July 7, according to the document.

Rivian’s Amazon electric delivery van still on track as factory reopens

By Kirsten Korosec

Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, Cox Automotive and Ford, has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction on the factory, which will eventually produce its R1T and R1S electric vehicles for consumers as well as 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon, has restarted with employees returning in phases. Despite the shutdown and gradual restart, the timeline for the Amazon delivery vans is still on track, according to a statement from Amazon released Thursday.

In September, Amazon announced it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian as part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge to become net zero carbon by 2040. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 of electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, Amazon said in a statement Thursday.

Rivian has pushed the start of production on the R1T and R1S to 2021. The company had initially planned to start production and begin deliveries of the electric pickup truck and SUV in late 2020. That timeline has been adjusted. Rivian had always planned to deliver the R1T truck first, followed by the R1S.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to adjust its timeline due to supply constraints. However, Rivian is now working on bringing the production and delivery timeline of the R1T and R1S closer together.

For now, the company is focused on work inside and outside the factory. About 335 Rivian employees were on site before COVID hit. Today, about 116 are on site with plans to gradually bring back the remaining employees. Rivian did not furlough any employees and continues to pay all workers their wages.

About 109 contractors are also back at the factory working on the interior. Another 120 to 140 contractors are working outside to expand the factory from 2.6 million to 3 million square feet.

The company has implemented new safety practices under a 4-phase plan, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. Temperature checks are carried out and workers are supplied with protective clothing and equipment.

The vehicle engineering and design teams have also developed digital methods to make sure that program timing remains on track, according to Scaringe.

6 leading mobility VCs discuss the road ahead

By Megan Rose Dickey

Millions of consumers sheltering in place to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus sent shockwaves through the global economy. Transportation-related companies were not spared in the upheaval. Mobility startups consolidated, pulled back from some markets and reduced headcount. And yet, the industry — and the VCs who invest in it — is still rolling forward.

Founders are huddled with their teams, picking over spreadsheets and go-to-market strategies in search of ways to accelerate as their runways grow ever shorter. And while the pace of investments might have slowed, venture capitalists are still seeking out innovative tech and overlooked ideas.

TechCrunch spoke with six investors about the state of mobility, which trends they’re most excited about and what they’re looking for in their next investments:

Ernestine Fu, Alsop Louie Partners

What trends are you most excited about in mobility hardware from an investing perspective?

In-car cybersecurity. Today’s vehicles are highly sophisticated smart devices, and cybersecurity is becoming an integral part of automakers’ development efforts. We’re already seeing infotainment connectivity systems and over-the-air software updates in cars being vulnerable to cyberattacks. Vehicles will serve as the nodes of vast information networks, especially as personal mobility, autonomous driving and car connectivity drive our future. In-car cybersecurity threats will remain an ongoing concern — and a rich investment opportunity.

Stonly Baptiste & Shaun Abrahamson, Urban Us

What trends are you most excited about in mobility hardware from an investing perspective?

The most interesting thing is the continued reduction in costs of electric drivetrains and autonomous stacks. These are going to have a profound impact on total costs of fleets – lower labor, fuel and maintenance costs.

Nuro’s self-driving vehicles to deliver prescriptions for CVS Pharmacy

By Kirsten Korosec

Nuro, the autonomous robotics startup that has raised more than $1 billion from Softbank Vision Fund, Greylock and other investors, said Thursday it will test prescription delivery in Houston through a partnership with CVS Pharmacy. The pilot, which will use a fleet of the startup’s autonomous Toyota Prius vehicles and transition to using its custom-built R2 delivery bots, is slated to begin in June.

The partnership marks Nuro’s expansion beyond groceries and into healthcare. Last month, the startup dipped its autonomous toe in the healthcare field through a program to delivery food and medical supplies at temporary field hospitals in California set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pilot program centers on one CVS Pharmacy in Bellaire, Texas and will serve customers across three zip codes. Customers who place prescription orders via CVS’ website or pharmacy app will be given the option to choose an autonomous delivery option. These pharmacy customers will also be able add other non-prescription items to their order.

Once the autonomous vehicle arrives, customers will need to confirm their identification to unlock their delivery. Deliveries will be free of charge for CVS Pharmacy customers.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice
president of store operations at CVS Health, said in a prepared statement. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

Nuro is already operating in the Houston area. Walmart announced in December a pilot program to test autonomous grocery delivery in the Houston market using Nuro’s autonomous vehicles. Under the pilot, Nuro’s vehicles deliver Walmart online grocery orders to a select group of customers who opt into the service in Houston. The autonomous delivery service involves R2, Nuro’s custom-built delivery vehicle that carries products only, with no on-board drivers or passengers, as well as autonomous Toyota Priuses that deliver groceries.

Nuro also partnered with Kroger (Fry’s) in 2018 to test autonomous Prius vehicles and its first-generation custom-built robot known as R1. The R1 autonomous vehicle was operating as a driverless service without a safety driver on board in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. In March 2019, Nuro moved the service with Kroger to Houston, beginning with autonomous Priuses.

nuro sleep train autonomous

Image Credits: Nuro

The company’s contactless delivery program shuttling medical supplies and food is also continuing. Under that program, which began in late April, Nuro’s R2 bots are used at two events centers — in San Mateo and the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento — that have been turned into temporary healthcare facilities for COVID-19 patients. Nuro is delivering meals and equipment to more than 50 medical staff at both sites every week.

It’s unclear how long the field hospital program will continue. Last week, there were 25 patients across the two sites. The Sleep Train Arena is accepting patients through June 30 via California Office of Emergency Services. The hospital may be converted to a shelter for those affected by fires through the end of this year.

Where these 4 top VCs are investing in manufacturing

By Matt Burns

Even though it’s a vast sector in the midst of transformation, manufacturing is often overlooked by early-stage investors. We surveyed top VCs in the industry to gather their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing manufacturing.

Traditionally, manufacturing companies are capital-intensive and can be slow to implement new technology and processes. The investors in the survey below acknowledge the long-standing barriers facing founders in this space, yet they see large opportunities where startups can challenge incumbents.

These investors noted that the pandemic is bringing overnight change in the manufacturing world; old rules are being rewritten in the face of worker safety, remote work and the need for increased automation. According to Eclipse Ventures founder Lior Susan, “COVID-19 has exposed the systemic vulnerabilities inherent to manufacturing and supply chain and, as such, significant opportunities for innovation. The market was lukewarm for a long time — it’s time to turn up the heat.”



Lior Susan, Eclipse Ventures

What trends are you most excited about in manufacturing from an investing perspective?

Digital solutions that offer manufacturers greater agility and resilience will become major areas of focus for investors. For example, manufacturers still reliant on manual assembly were unable to build products when factories closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. While nothing would have kept production at 100%, the ability to quickly pivot and engage software-defined processes would have allowed manufacturing lines to continue building with a skeleton crew (especially important for any facility required to implement social distancing). Such systems have remote monitoring capabilities and computer vision systems to flag defeats in real-time and halt production if necessary.

The Station: Hertz files for bankruptcy, hailing “self-driving” scooters, Memorial Day travel

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hi and welcome back to The Station. Memorial Day is this coming Monday, a holiday meant to honor military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Over the years, it has evolved for many Americans who use the three-day weekend to fire up the grill, go camping, head to the beach, local amusement park or take a road trip. It’s become the unofficial kickoff to the summer season — even though we still have more than three weeks of spring.

Every year around this time, AAA provides an estimate for travel over the weekend. For the first time in 20 years, AAA said it would not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19.

The travel forecast often reflects the state of the economy or at least certain aspects of it. For instance, Memorial Day 2009 holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers. Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend, the second-highest travel volume on record since 2000, when the organization began tracking this data.

I will put my prognosticator hat on for a moment knowing I might very well be wrong (I’m sure ya’ll will remind me later). I expect this weekend to be a low travel holiday, but I fully anticipate this summer will mark the return of the road trip. And that’s not just my forecast for the U.S. I expect Europeans will stick closer to home and opt for road and possibly train travel over long haul flights for their summer holidays. That has all kinds of implications, positive and negative. And it’s why I’m going to spend some time in the coming weeks driving a variety of new SUV models in search of road trip worthy vehicles.

This past week I drove the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL (premium trim), a more smaller and approachable version of the massive three-row Atlas. I will share a few thoughts about it next week. After that, I will be driving the 2020 Land Cruiser standard trim. Have a vehicle suggestion? Reach out and I’ll try to put it in my queue.

Reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Shall we get down to it? Vamos.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Micromobility had some good action this week so let’s dive on in. Here in San Francisco, Bird’s Scoot redeployed 300 electric kick scooters. By Memorial Day weekend, Scoot will have 500 electric scooters available. Additionally, Scoot expanded its scooter service area to serve more parts of San Francisco.

Over in Atlanta, GoX and Tortoise teamed up to deploy teleoperated electric scooters. In Peachtree Corners, GoX riders can hail a scooter equipped with tech from Tortoise. As Keaks, aka Kirsten Korosec, explained earlier this week, riders can request a scooter to come to them and once they’re done, the scooter will drive itself back to a parking spot.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Tier brought integrated helmets to its electric scooters. The foldable helmets fit inside a box attached to the scooter below the handlebars. This month, Tier plans to deploy 200 scooters equipped with helmets in Paris and Berlin. Over the summer, Tier will deploy an additional 5,000 helmet-equipped scooters. Additionally, given concerns about COVID-19, Tier is experimenting with an antibacterial, self-disinfecting handlebar technology from Protexus. Tier is testing these handlebars in Paris and Bordeaux.

Also, don’t miss my analysis of why micromobility may come back stronger after the pandemic.

Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Vroom, the online used car marketplace that has raised some $700 million since 2013, filed for an IPO this week. (Yes, IPOs qualify as deals in my book). It plans to trade on the Nasdaq under VRM with Goldman Sachs as lead underwriter.

Vroom is an interesting company that I’ve been writing about for years now. And there have been times that I wondered if it would fold altogether. The company managed to keep raising funds though, most recently $254 million in December 2019 in a Series H round that valued the company at around $1.5 billion.

A look at the S-1 shows modest growth, rising losses and slim gross margins. Eck!

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Vroom’s revenue grew 39.3% in 2019 compared to 2018. During that same period, its gross margin fell from 7.1% to 4.9%. The company’s net losses as a percent of revenue rose from 10% in 2018 to 12% in 2019. (That doesn’t include costs relating to “accretion of redeemable convertible preferred stock.” By counting the non-cash cost, add $13 million to Vroom’s 2018 net loss and $132.8 million to its 2019 figure.)
  • In the first quarter of 2020, Vroom generated revenue of $375.8 million, leading to gross profit of $18.4 million, or about 4.9% of revenue. It also reported a net loss of $41.1 million in the first quarter, putting it on a run-rate to lose even more money in 2020 than it did in 2019.

TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm takes a look under Vroom’s hood and digs into why the company is heading to the public markets during this volatile time. Check it out.

Other deals:

Missfresh, a Chinese grocery delivery company backed by Tencent, is closing in on $500 million in new funding.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals. The Series A funding round was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures.

Fly Now Pay Later, a London-based fintech startup focused on travel, raised £5 million in Series A equity funding and another £30 million in debt funding.

French startup Angell has signed a wide-ranging partnership with SEB, the French industrial company behind All-Clad, Krups, Moulinex, Rowenta, Tefal and others. As part of the deal, SEB will manufacture Angell’s electric bikes in a factory near Dijon, France. SEB’s investment arm, SEB Alliance, is also investing in Angell. The terms of the deal are undisclosed, but Angell says it plans to raise between $7.6 and $21.7 million with a group of investors that include SEB.

Layoffs, business disruptions and people

Signage is displayed at the Hertz Global Holdings Inc. rental counter at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Hertz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, a move we’ve been anticipating for awhile now. The bankruptcy protection stems from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s why.

Once business trips and other travel was halted, Hertz was suddenly sitting on an unused asset — lots and lots of cars. It wasn’t just that the revenue spigot was turned off. Used car prices have dropped, further devaluing its fleet.

The company said that it has more than $1 billion in cash on hand, which it will use to keep the business operating through the bankruptcy process. Hertz also said its principal international operating regions, including Europe, Australia and New Zealand are not included in the U.S. Chapter 11 proceedings, nor are franchised locations.

Other layoffs:

Indian ride-hailing firm Ola has seen revenue drop by 95% in the last two months as India enforced a stay-at-home order for its 1.3 billion citizens in late March. You can guess what has happened as a result. Ola co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal said in an internal email the company is cutting 1,400 jobs in India, or 35% of its workforce in the home market.

India’s top food delivery startup Swiggy is cutting 1,100 jobs and scaling down some adjacent businesses as it looks to reduce costs to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s something on the “new” job front

There’s been a lot of attention on autonomous delivery robots. These companies will most certainly struggle to become profitable. On-demand delivery is a tricky business. But COVID-19 might have inadvertently expanded the labor pool for these companies.

On-demand delivery startup Postmates has seen an increase in demand for its autonomous delivery robots known as Serve, which operate in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company uses teleoperators, humans who remotely monitor and guide the autonomous robots. COVID-19 prompted Postmates to set up teleoperations centers within each employee’s home. Postmates sees potential to reach a new group of workers.

Tortoise, which we mentioned earlier in Micromobbin’, sees the same potential, according to its founder and CEO Dmitry Shevelenko.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear (and see) things. But we’re not selfish. We share!

For those not familiar with “a little bird,” this is a periodic section that shares insider tips that have been vetted. This week comes out of the super-hyped world of on-demand delivery. It’s a business that might be seeing a lot of demand. But demand doesn’t always square with profitability.

Take Postmates for example. The company has raised about $900 million to date, including a $225 million round announced in October that valued the company at about $2.5 billion. But now it seems that common shares are trading at a 45% discount on the secondary market, according to our sources.

Early investors do take money off the table from time to time. But it can also indicate other troubles worth watching out for. Postmates filed confidential IPO paperwork in February 2019, but those plans have been delayed. The company is also fighting for market share against giants like Doordash. A Uber-Grubhub merger would put it even with DoorDash.

That leaves Postmates in a distant fourth. Dan Primack over at Axios noted “multiple sources” have told him the company is seeking raise around $100 million in new private-market funding.

Other notable bits

Here are a few other items that caught my eye …

Amazon is joining India’s online food delivery market just as top local players Swiggy and Zomato reduce their workforce to steer through the coronavirus pandemic and months after Uber Eats’ exit from the nation.

GM has a “big team” working on an advanced version of its hands-free driving assistance system, Super Cruise, that will expand its capability beyond highways and apply it to city streets, the automaker’s vice president of global product development Doug Parks said during a webcasted interview at Citi’s 2020 Car of the Future Symposium.

Cake, the Stockholm-based mobility startup, debuted the Kalk OR, a 150-pound, battery-powered two-wheeler engineered for agile off-road riding and available in a street-legal version.

Nauto has launched a new feature in its driver behavior learning platform that is designed to detect imminent collisions to help reduce rear-end accidents. It works by taking in driver behavior data, vehicle movement, traffic elements, and contextual data to help predict and prevent collisions.

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event in August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday. The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company is raising the price of its “Full Self-Driving” package of its Autopilot driver assistance package by around $1,000 on July 1. This has happened before and it will, I promise happen again. The Verge has a good breakdown of why. I, of course, care about the financial reasons. Right now, Tesla can only count about half of the revenue it generates from FSD. The other half is deferred revenue — money that Tesla can recognize on its balance sheet at a later date.

Wunder Mobility, the Hamburg-based startup that provides a range of mobility services, from carpooling to electric scooter rentals, announced the launch of Wunder Vehicles and a business-to-business partnership with Chinese EV manufacturer Yadea. Wunder Vehicles is a service that gives customers a toolkit of sorts to launch a fleet-sharing company. The company provides software, a marketing plan, data, financing options and the electric vehicles, which will come from Yadea.

Rad Power Bikes unveiled the newest iteration of its electric cargo bike. The RadWagon 4 has been fully redesigned from the ground up. Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan recently described this on Twitter as the possible F-150 of micromobility. We hope to test it soon.

Image Credits: Rad Power Bikes

Elon Musk: the Tesla Cybertruck isn’t getting any smaller

By Kirsten Korosec

In the days and weeks after Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed the cybertruck — a post-apocalyptic inspired vehicle made of cold-rolled steel — there was a lot of speculation about whether it would be smaller once it actually made it to market.

Production of the Cybertruck is still a long ways off. There isn’t even a factory to build the all-electric truck yet. However, Musk did provide some clarification Saturday on its size. In a tweet, Musk wrote “Reviewed design with Franz last night. Even 3% smaller is too small. Will be pretty much the same size. We’ll probably do a smaller, tight world truck at some point.” (Musk was referring to Tesla’s head of design Franz von Holzhausen. And we assume Musk meant to write “light” not “tight” truck.)

Musk had previously said the company could probably reduce the width of the cybertruck by an inch and “maybe reduce length by 6-plus inches without losing on utility or esthetics.”

Reviewed design with Franz last night. Even 3% smaller is too small. Will be pretty much this size. We’ll probably do a smaller, tight world truck at some point.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2020

Tesla hasn’t shared the dimensions of the vehicle. And TechCrunch failed to bring a measuring tape at the launch. (Lesson learned).

In the past two months, Musk has provided a few other updates around the cybertruck via Twitter, noting that the company is increasing dynamic air suspension travel for better off-roading and that it “will float for awhile,” a claim he didn’t explain further.

Tesla said it will offer three variants of the cybertruck. The cheapest version, a single motor and rear-wheel drive model, will cost $39,900, have a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds and more than 250 miles of range, according to specs on its website. The middle version will be a dual-motor all-wheel drive, have a towing capacity of more than 10,000 pounds and be able to travel more than 300 miles on a single charge. The dual motor AWD model is priced at $49,900.

The third version will have three electric motors and all-wheel drive, a towing capacity of 14,000 pounds and battery range of more than 500 miles. This version, known as “tri motor,” is priced at $69,900.

‘Fallout Shelter’ joins Tesla arcade in latest software update

By Kirsten Korosec

Nearly a year ago, Todd Howard, the director of Bethesda Games, said that the company’s “Fallout Shelter” game would be coming to Tesla displays. It arrived, via the 2020.20 software update, this week, which was first noted at driver’s platform Teslascope.

Fallout Shelter is the latest — and one of the more modern games — to join Tesla’s Arcade, an in-car feature that lets drivers play video games while the vehicle is parked. It joins 2048, Atari’s Super Breakout, Cuphead, Stardew Valley, Missile Command, Asteroids, Lunar Lander and Centipede. The arcade also includes a newly improved (meaning more difficult) backgammon game as well as chess.

The 2020.20 software update that adds the game, along with a few other improvements, hasn’t reached all Tesla vehicles yet, including the Model 3 in this reporter’s driveway (that vehicle has the prior 2020.16.2.1 update, which includes improvements to backgammon and a redesigned Tesla Toybox).

However, YouTube channel host JuliansRandomProject was one of the lucky few who did receive it and released a video that provides a look at Fallout and how it works in the vehicle. Roadshow also discovered and shared the JuliansRandomProject video, which is embedded below.

Fallout Shelter is just one of the newer features in the software update. Some functionality was added to the steering wheel so owners can use the toggle controls to play, pause and skip video playback in Theater Mode, the feature that lets owners stream Netflix and other video (while in park).

Tesla also improved Trax, which lets you record songs. Trax now includes a piano roll view that allows you to edit and fine tune notes in a track.

New York Auto Show canceled for 2020, pushed to spring 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event to August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday.

The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

The New York Auto Show, which is organized by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, was scheduled to begin April 10 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. The event was rescheduled for late August after COVID-19 swept into Europe and North America.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the traditional location for the show, was set up as a field hospital for COVID-19 cases. The center doesn’t have any patients. However, it is still set up as an active hospital and is in standby mode for the foreseeable future, according to organizers.

Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, noted that “immense planning” is needed for automakers and their exhibit partners to construct a show.

“Because of the uncertainty caused by the virus, we feel it would not be prudent to continue with the 2020 Show and instead are preparing for an even greater 2021,” Schienberg said.

“As representatives of automobile retailers, we know when this crisis passes there will be enormous pent-up demand for new vehicles in this region and across the country,” he added. “We also know how important the Show is for consumers navigating the process.”

Scale AI releases free lidar data set to power self-driving car development

By Kirsten Korosec

High-quality data is the fuel that powers AI algorithms. Without a continual flow of labeled data, bottlenecks can occur and the algorithm will slowly get worse and add risk to the system.

It’s why labeled data is so critical for companies like Zoox, Cruise and Waymo, which use it to train machine learning models to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles. That need is what led to the creation of Scale AI, a startup that uses software and people to process and label image, lidar and map data for companies building machine learning algorithms. Companies working on autonomous vehicle technology make up a large swath of Scale’s customer base, although its platform is also used by Airbnb, Pinterest and OpenAI, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed, or even halted, that flow of data as AV companies suspended testing on public roads — the means of collecting billions of images. Scale is hoping to turn the tap back on, and for free.

The company, in collaboration with lidar manufacturer Hesai, launched this week an open-source data set called PandaSet that can be used for training machine learning models for autonomous driving. The data set, which is free and licensed for academic and commercial use, includes data collected using Hesai’s forward-facing PandarGT lidar with image-like resolution, as well as its mechanical spinning lidar known as Pandar64. The data was collected while driving urban areas in San Francisco and Silicon Valley before officials issued stay-at-home orders in the area, according to the company.

“AI and machine learning are incredible technologies with an incredible potential for impact, but also a huge pain in the ass,” Scale CEO and co-founder Alexandr Wang told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “Machine learning is definitely a garbage in, garbage out kind of framework — you really need high-quality data to be able to power these algorithms. It’s why we built Scale and it’s also why we’re using this data set today to help drive forward the industry with an open-source perspective.”

The goal with this lidar data set was to give free access to a dense and content-rich data set, which Wang said was achieved by using two kinds of lidars in complex urban environments filled with cars, bikes, traffic lights and pedestrians.

“The Zoox and the Cruises of the world will often talk about how battle-tested their systems are in these dense urban environments,” Wang said. “We wanted to really expose that to the whole community.”

Lidar - Scale AI PandaSet flyover GIF

Image Credits: Scale AI

The data set includes more than 48,000 camera images and 16,000 lidar sweeps — more than 100 scenes of 8s each, according to the company. It also includes 28 annotation classes for each scene and 37 semantic segmentation labels for most scenes. Traditional cuboid labeling, those little boxes placed around a bike or car, for instance, can’t adequately identify all of the lidar data. So, Scale uses a point cloud segmentation tool to precisely annotate complex objects like rain.

Open sourcing AV data isn’t entirely new. Last year, Aptiv and Scale released nuScenes, a large-scale data set from an autonomous vehicle sensor suite. Argo AI, Cruise and Waymo were among a number of AV companies that have also released data to researchers. Argo AI released curated data along with high-definition maps, while Cruise shared a data visualization tool it created called Webviz that takes raw data collected from all the sensors on a robot and turns that binary code into visuals.

Scale’s efforts are a bit different; for instance, Wang said the license to use this data set doesn’t have any restrictions.

“There’s a big need right now and a continual need for high-quality labeled data,” Wang said. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles overcome when building self-driving systems. We want to democratize access to this data, especially at a time when a lot of the self-driving companies can’t collect it.”

That doesn’t mean Scale is going to suddenly give away all of its data. It is, after all a for-profit enterprise. But it’s already considering collecting and open sourcing fresher data later this year.

Tesla drops lawsuit against Alameda County over Fremont factory reopening

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has officially dismissed a lawsuit filed earlier this month against Alameda County that sought to force the reopening of its factory in Fremont, California.

The dismissal, which was granted Wednesday, closes the loop on a battle between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and county health and law enforcement officials. The lawsuit filed May 9, hours after Musk threatened to sue and move operations out of state, sought injunctive and declaratory relief against Alameda County. Reuters was the first to report the dismissal.

The lawsuit was filed after Tesla’s plans to resume production at the Fremont factory were thwarted by the county’s decision to extend a stay-at-home order issued to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Musk had based the reopening on new guidance issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that allows manufacturers to resume operations. However, the governor’s guidance included a warning that local governments could keep more restrictive rules in place. Alameda County, along with several other Bay Area counties and cities, extended the stay-at-home orders through the end of May. The orders were revised and did ease some of the restrictions. However, it did not lift the order for manufacturing.

After several days of Twitter rants and negotiations with the county, Tesla was allowed to begin to reopen its factory as long as it adhered to approved safety measures.

Remote operators in Mexico are driving scooters to riders in this Atlanta suburb

By Kirsten Korosec

In one Atlanta suburb, finding and returning an electric shared scooter will be taken care of by teleoperators some 1,700 miles away in Mexico City.

Riders in the enclave of Peachtree Corners will be able to use an app beginning this week to hail a GoX scooter equipped with tech from teleoperations startup Tortoise. Using the “Hail my Scooter” app developed by GoX, riders can have the scooter cruise on its own to their location. After riders complete trips, the scooters will drive themselves back to a safe parking spot. From here, GoX employees charge and sanitize the scooters and then mark them with a sticker that indicates they have been properly cleaned.

These scooters are not truly autonomous, however. Instead, Tortoise’s teleoperators are able to remotely control the scooters thanks to its operating system and other modifications such as an extra set of wheels that make it easier to maneuver the micromobility devices.

The six-month pilot, which is done in collaboration with GoX, Tortoise and local tech incubator Curiosity Labs, makes this the first fleet of teleoperated electric scooters available for the public in the United States.

GoX-tortoise-scooter

Image Credits: Tortoise

The COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out public transit and shared micromobility ridership, has made Tortoise co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko more convinced and bullish than ever on scooter teleoperations.

“The pressure on unit economics is even greater now than it was pre-COVID,” Shevelenko said. “A use case that we had never really thought about before is the ability to disinfect vehicles throughout the day and that now feels pretty essential.”

The traditional shared scooter business model relies on gig economy workers to pick up and charge the devices. With the constant shuttling, scooters wear out more quickly. And they’re certainly not cleaned after every use.

“An important goal for us was to ensure that residents can enjoy the convenience of using e-scooters, while creating a world first in efficient, organized and advanced micromobility — right here in Peachtree Corners,” said Brian Johnson, city manager of Peachtree Corners.

The pilot also marks a bit of a coup for Tortoise. Peachtree Corners passed an ordinance mandating that all shared micromobility devices must be capable of automated repositioning in an effort to reduce clutter on sidewalks that have plagued other cities with dockless scooters.

“We didn’t even ask for this, it was just the city that did this on their own,” Shevelenko said.

This kind of mandate might become more common as city officials try to control scooter deployments. For instance, King County, which is home to Seattle and Bellevue, specifically called out remote repositioning as a technology that if an operator were deploying it, they would receive more points in their scoring mechanism to determine what companies receive permits.

“So it’s great to see cities embrace this technology right as it matures,” he said.

Polestar to open first US stores in the second half of 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar’s first U.S. retail stores will open in Los Angeles, New York City and two locations in San Francisco later this year — the latest milestone for the automaker as it gets closer to bringing its all-electric vehicle to market.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. The 2021 Polestar 2 is the first EV to come out of Polestar since it was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017.

The company has had plans to open physical retail showrooms called “Polestar Spaces.” Those plans have been delayed by stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stores are expected to open in the second half of 2020.

Polestars plans to expand its retail footprint in the first half of 2021 with locations in Boston, Denver, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Florida. More than 80% of Polestar 2 reservation holders reside within a 150-mile range of the stores scheduled to open by mid 2021, according to Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA.

Unlike the traditional dealership model, Polestar will sell or lease its cars online to customers in all 50 states. The physical stores, which will be in partnership with retailers such as Manhattan Motorcars, Galpin Motors and Price-Simms Automotive Group, are meant to supplement its digital strategy.

Porsche’s newest app lets buyers track the progress of their 911

By Kirsten Korosec

Porsche has been placing more resources into developing digital services as it tries to match the tech demands of its customers. The latest effort from its Porsche Digital subsidiary is an app that lets U.S. buyers who have ordered a 911 sports car track its progress from production to the dealership.

The app, which is integrated with the My Porsche web portal, provides customers updates on 14 events, including production in Germany, the vehicle’s departure and trek across the Atlantic, port entry into the U.S. and its arrival at the dealership. The digital service, called Porsche Track Your Dream, provides background information about each milestone and shows a countdown in miles and days. 

The Porsche tracker is a niche product with a narrow customer base. It will only be offered to 911 buyers. The automaker sold last year 9,265 Porsche 911 sports cars in the United States. But the company does plan to add other vehicles in the future, including its all-electric Taycan.

The app is part of a broader strategy to up its digital game. Earlier this month, Porsche Cars North America launched an online platform called Porsche Finder that lets customers search for used vehicles across its dealership network. The platform lets customers search by vehicle model and generation and includes additional filters for price, equipment and packages, as well as interior and exterior vehicle colors.

In April, the automaker unveiled a line of head units designed to replicate the vintage look while still featuring modern connectivity, such as Bluetooth, DAB+ and Apple CarPlay.

GM is working on a hands-off advanced driving system for city streets

By Kirsten Korosec

GM has a “big team” working on an advanced version of its hands-free driving assistance system, Super Cruise, that will expand its capability beyond highways and apply it to city streets, the automaker’s vice president of global product development Doug Parks said Tuesday.

GM is also continuing to improve its existing Super Cruise product, Parks said during a webcasted interview at Citi’s 2020 Car of the Future Symposium.

“As we continue to ratchet up Super Cruise, we continue to add capability and not just highway roads,” Parks said, adding that a separate team is working on the hands-free city driving product known internally as “Ultra Cruise.”

“We’re trying to take that same capability off the highway,” he said. “Ultra cruise would be all of the Super Cruise plus the neighborhoods, city streets and subdivisions. So Ultra Cruise’s domain would be  essentially all driving, all the time.”

Parks was quick to add that this would not be autonomous driving. Advanced driving assistance systems have become more capable, but they still require a human driver to take control and to be paying attention.

“What we’re not saying is that Ultra Cruise will be fully autonomous 100% of the time, although that could be one of the end games,” Parks said.

Parks didn’t provide a timeline for when Ultra Cruise might be available. A GM spokesperson said in a statement after his interview that the company continues to expand its hands-free driver assistance system technology across its vehicle portfolio and has “teams looking at how we can expand the capabilities to more scenarios.”

GM said it “does not have a name or anything specific to announce today, but stay tuned.”

This new Ultra Cruise feature would put it in competition with Tesla’s Autopilot advanced driving system, which is largely viewed as the most capable on the market today. Tesla’s “full self-driving” package, a more capable version of Autopilot, can now identify stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows the car to a stop on approach. This feature is still considered to be in beta.

GM’s Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS,  cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

GM has taken a slower approach to Super Cruise compared to Tesla’s method of rolling out software updates that gives early access to some owners to test the improved features. When GM launched Super Cruise in 2017, it was only available in one Cadillac model — the full-size CT6 sedan — and restricted to divided highways. That began to change in 2019 when GM announced plans to expand where Super Cruise would be available.

GM’s new digital vehicle platform, which provides more electrical bandwidth and data processing power, enabled engineers to add to Super Cruise’s capabilities. In January, GM added a feature to Super Cruise that automated lane changes for drivers of certain Cadillac models, including the upcoming 2021 Escalade.

This enhanced version of Super Cruise includes better steering and speed control. The improved version will be introduced starting with the 2021 Cadillac CT4 and CT5 sedans, followed by the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade. The vehicles are expected to become available in the second half of 2020.

Popping the hood on Vroom’s IPO filing

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Yesterday afternoon, Vroom, an online car buying service, filed to go public. Based on its SEC filing, Vroom is a highly-successful private company in fundraising terms that has attracted over $700 million during its life as a startup. T. Rowe Price, AutoNation, Durable Capital Partners, General Catalyst and other investors fueled the firm during its youth according to Crunchbase data.

Vroom most recently raised $254 million in December 2019, a Series H round that valued the company at around $1.5 billion. From its mid-2013 Series A to today, Vroom has tried to accelerate from the startup world to the grown-up domain of the public markets. How did it do?

Finding out is our goal this morning. We’re also curious why the firm would pursue an IPO today; public offerings tend to shun volatile, uncertain periods. So let’s dig into the numbers and do a bit of a unicorn check-up.

What does a private, car-focused e-commerce company worth $1.5 billion look like under the hood?

Un-profits

TechCrunch dug into Vroom’s market last year, writing that the company “looks a lot like Carvana and Shift,” and noting that in 2018 the company had “laid off 25-50% of its staff as it exited several markets.” Vroom was therefore a bit early to the waves of unicorn layoffs that we’ve seen in 2020.

I raise the layoffs as they imply that the company might be in reasonable financial shape; what did the cuts buy the company in terms of profitability?

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