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Yesterday — October 22nd 2020Your RSS feeds

Here integrates what3words’ super simple address system into its in-car API

By Natasha Lomas

Geocoding startup what3words — which chunks the world into 3mx3m squares, giving each a unique three-word label to simplify location sharing — has nabbed another in-vehicle integration, via a partnership with Here Technologies.

The pair said today that OEMs using Here’s navigation platform can include what3words as an in-car nav feature directly through the Here Search API, instead of needing to integrate itself. Existing users of the platform will be able to be given access to what3word’s addressing tech via an update.

Here says its map data services can be found in 150 million vehicles worldwide at this point.

It’s by no means the first such integration for what3words which has found cars to be a natural fit for its simplified, ‘rolls-off-the-tongue’ addressing system. The 2013-founded startup inked a partnership with Ford last year, for example. It also counts Daimler as an investor.

Letting drivers speak or type three words to input a location into their car’s GPS system has clear benefits vs requiring they correctly specify a full address. what3words also pinpoints a more specific location than a typical postcode — and works for destinations that don’t have a street address (the start of a hiking trial or specific lay-by; a particular entrance for a campus etc).

what3words further notes that its tech has been adopted by global car companies, logistics providers and mobility apps, including Mercedes-Benz, Tata Motors, DB Schenker, Hermes and Cabify.

In recent years the novel addressing system has also found favor with Airbnb as a way of simplifying location sharing for less traditional types of stays.

Commenting on its latest partnership in a statement, what3words CEO and co-founder, Chris Sheldrick, said: “We are seeing increasing demand from automakers and mobility services. Now that we are embedded in Here, we can enable our address system simply and easily in both new and legacy vehicles.”

“Automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers can now provide the what3words service to their customers through the Here Search API instead of having to integrate it themselves,” added Jørgen Behrens, SVP and chief product officer at Here Technologies in another supporting statement. “This will allow drivers to navigate easily in dense, urban environments with non-standard addressing schemes or seamlessly get to any location, be it a local pub or a trailhead.”

This former Tesla CIO just raised $150 million more to pull car dealers into the 21st century

By Connie Loizos

“I have to choose my words carefully,” says Joe Castelino of Stevens Creek Volkswagen in San Jose, Ca., when asked about the software on which most car dealerships rely for inventory information, to manage marketing, to handle customer relationships and to otherwise help sell cars.

Castelino, the dealership’s service director, laughs as he says this. But the joke has apparently been on car dealers, most of whom have largely relied on a few frustratingly antiquated vendors for their dealer management systems over the years — along with many more sophisticated point solutions.

It’s the precise opportunity that former Tesla CIO, Jay Vijayan, concluded he was well-positioned to address while still in the employ of the electric vehicle giant.

As Vijayan tells it, he knew nothing about cars until joining Tesla in 2011, following a dozen years of working in product development at Oracle, then VMWare. Yet he learned plenty over the subsequent four years. Specifically, he says he helped to build with Elon Musk a central analysis system inside Tesla, a kind of brain that could see all of the company’s internal systems, from what was happening in the supply chain to its factory systems to its retail platform.

Tesla had to build it itself, says Vijayan; after evaluating the existing software of third company providers, the team “realized that none of them had anything close to what we needed to provide a frictionless modern consumer experience.”

It was around then that a lightbulb turned on. If Tesla could transform the experience for its own customers, maybe Vijayan could transform the buying and selling experience for the much bigger, broader automotive industry. Enter Tekion, a now four-year-old, San Carlos, Ca., company that now employs 470 people and has come far enough along that just attracted $150 million in fresh funding led by the private equity investor Advent International.

With the Series C round — which also included checks from Index Ventures, Airbus Ventures, FM Capital and Exor, the holding company of Fiat-Chrysler and Ferrari — the company has now raised $185 million altogether. It’s also valued at north of $1 billion. (The automakers General Motors, BMW, and the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance are also investors.)

Eric Wei, a managing director at Advent, says that over the last decade, his team had been eager to seize on what’s approaching a $10 billion market annually. Instead, they found themselves tracking incumbents Reynolds & Reynolds, CDKGlobal and Dealertrack, which is owned by Cox Automotive, and waiting for a better player to emerge.

Then Wei was connected to Tekion through Jon McNeill, a former Tesla president and an advisory partner to Advent.

Says Wei of seeing its tech compared with its more established rivals: “It was like comparing a flip phone to an iPhone.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, McNeill, who worked at Tesla with Vijayan, also sings the company’s praises, noting that Tekion even bought a dealership in Gilroy — the “garlic capital” of California — to use as a kind of lab while it was building its technology from scratch.

Such praise is nice, but more importantly, Tekion is attracting the attention of dealers. Though citing competitive reasons, Vijayan declined to share how many have bought its cloud software —  which connects dealers with both manufacturers and car buyers and is powered by machine learning algorithms — he says it’s already being used across 28 states.

One of these dealerships is the national chain Serra Automotive, whose founder, Joseph Serra, is now an investor in Tekion.

Another is that Volkswagen dealership in San Jose, where Castelino — who doesn’t have a financial interest in Tekion — speaks enthusiastically about the time and expenses his team is saving because of Tekion’s platform.

For example, he says a customers need only log-in now to flag a particular issue. After that, with the help of an RFID tag, Stevens Creek knows exactly when that customer pulls into the dealership and what kind of help they need, enabling people to greet him or her on arrival. Tekion can also make recommendations based on a car’s history. It might, for instance, suggest to a customer a brake fluid flush “without an advisor having to look through a customer’s history,” he says.

As important, he says, the dealership has been able to cut ties with a lot of other software vendors, while also making more productive use of its time. Says Castelino, “As soon as a [repair order] is live, it’s in a dispatcher’s hand and a technician can grab the car.”

It’s like that with every step, he insists. “You’re saving 15 minutes again and again, and suddenly, you have three hours where your intake can be higher.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Tesla wows on latest numbers

By Jonathan Shieber

Tesla’s latest quarterly numbers beat analyst expectations on both revenue and earnings per share, bringing in $8.77 billion in revenues for the third quarter.

With the report that Tesla had already beaten Wall Street’s expectations for deliveries earlier this month, the question for today’s earnings call was how much efficiency (and by extension profit) the electric car and battery company was able to wring out of its manufacturing processes.

Now we have the answer as Tesla reported profits of $809 million on revenues of $8.77 billion for the third quarter. That’s up from 39% from the year ago period. Wall Street had expected $8.36 billion in revenue for the quarter, according to estimates published by CNBC.

Revenue grew 30% year-on-year, something the company attributed to substantial growth in vehicle deliveries and operating income also grew to $809 million showing improving operating margins to 9.2%.

And while the automotive business is clearly still the star of the show, both Tesla’s solar and storage businesses also showed marked improvements in the third quarter.

Energy storage reached a company record 759 Megawatt hours in the wuarter and the company said that megapack production for its large scale batteries is growing while Powerwall demand remains strong.

“We continue to believe that the energy business will ultimately be as large as our vehicle business,” the company said.

And the solar business is also improving, according to Tesla. “Our recently introduced strategy of low cost solar (at $1.49/watt in the US after tax credit) is starting to have an impact. Total solar deployments more than doubled in Q3 to 57 MW compared to the prior quarter, with Solar Roof deployments almost tripling sequentially.”

Operating expenses for the company were also up. New factories in Austin and Brandenburg, Germany mean additional expenses and Tesla poured $1.25 billion into operations, up 33% from the previous quarter.

Earlier this month, the company tipped its hand on the good news around deliveries saying that it had already delivered 139,300 vehicles in the third quarter, slightly above Wall Street’s expectations and a notable improvement from last quarter, as well as the same period a year ago.

The delivery beat marked a 43% improvement from the same quarter last year, when the company reported deliveries of 97,000 electric vehicles. And delivery numbers were up 53% quarter on quarter, as the globally spreading COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on sales and production operations for Tesla at its main U.S. factory.

The quarter also saw Tesla unveil a sweeping new vision for its battery manufacturing plans. During the shareholder presentation Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said that he expected deliver up to 40% more electric vehicles than in 2019 and laid out the roadmap for better battery manufacturing efficiency.

Tesla’s earnings beat comes amid mounting competition from some of the world’s largest automakers. Yesterday GMC unveiled its Hummer EV and, in September, Ford announced that it would be slashing the price on its Mustang Mach E to “stay fully competitive”.

Meanwhile startups like Lucid Motors are proving that they could be serious contenders to Tesla’s market dominance. Lucid’s recent pricing for its Air sedan was enough to force Tesla chief executive and head of public relations, Elon Musk, to parry back with a (… creatively selected…) price cut on the company’s own models.

This story is developing and will be updated. 

Feast your eyes on the all-new, all-electric GMC Hummer EV

By Darrell Etherington

GMC has a new all-electric version of its classic Hummer oversized SUV. This thing is a beast, as you might expect, with an advertised 350-mile range and a 3-second zero to 60 mph time. It’s a bit ridiculous to be honest, which is kind of what the Hummer has always been about so that makes sense.

Alongside a teaser, GMC released a number of press photos of the 1,000 HP bruiser, so take a look below. It definitely looks like a Hummer – which may or may not be your cup of tea.

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Proterra, which makes big honkin’ battery systems and electric buses, raises $200 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Proterra, the battery system technology developer for heavy-duty electric vehicles, said it has raised $200 million in a new round of funding.

The new cash comes from Cowen Sustainable Investment Advisors, which led the round, along with money from Soros Fund Management, Generation Investment Management and Broadscale Group.

Cowen took the bulk of the round with $150 million while Soros, Generation and Broadscale forked over another $50 million.

This new capital infusion follows a year’s worth of speculation about a potential public offering for the big honkin battery systems developer. TechCrunch last reported in August 2019 that Proterra had hit a $1 billion valuation according to investors and would be seeking a potential IPO at the time.

The company said the new money would go to support the company’s ongoing research and development efforst into battery and electric drivetrain technologies and business development to increase the company’s footprint in additional commercial vehicle segments.

Proterra’s also looking at charging and energy management technology development to lower fleet management costs associated with operating electric fleets.

To date, Proterra has raised equity and debt totaling at least roughly $1 billion from investors including G2VP, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Constellation Ventures, Mitsui & Co. as well as BMW i Ventures, Edison Energy, the Federal Transportation Administration, General Motors’s venture arm and Tao Capital Partners .

Proterra, mainly makes buses for local, state and federal agencies that can travel 350 miles on a single charge. The Burlingame, Calif. company, which has a number of former Tesla employees in leadership positions, including the company’s former chief executive Ryan Popple, has also diversified its business to provide its power trains to other heavy- and medium-duty commercial electric vehicle manufacturers.

The company is now working with OEMs like Thomas Built Bus, Van Hool, FCCC, BusTech and Optimal-EV to bring 100% battery-electric vehicles powered by its technology to market, the company said in a statement.

“As demand grows for battery-electric vehicles and 100% zero-emission fleets, we are excited to collaborate with CSI as well as our other investors to accelerate the transition to clean, quiet transportation for all and deliver even more Proterra Powered vehicles around the world,” said Jack Allen, Proterra’s current chairman and chief executive.

BofA Securities acted as sole placement agent on this transaction.

Tesla’s decision to scrap its PR department could create a PR nightmare

By Walter Thompson
Ayelet Noff Contributor
Ayelet Noff is the founder and CEO of SlicedBrand, a top global PR agency headquartered in Berlin.

A solid public relations team solves many issues within a company.

It helps spread important news announcements and topics integral to a company’s success. It communicates with the media in a timely manner to ensure accurate coverage and control the conversation. It builds a state of trust and engagement that propels a company’s vision and goals forward. Unless of course that company is Tesla, in which case it wants none of that.

According to numerous internal sources confirmed by automotive blog Electrik, Tesla has been slowly dissolving its internal PR department over the course of this year, leaving the sole voice of the company its founder, Elon Musk.

If true, this is a confounding decision by Musk and the decision-makers at Tesla.

What this creates for Tesla is a black hole of information coming from the company. Facts will be obfuscated if there is no official position on whatever happens in the news. For instance, consider the recent cases of self-driving collisions or a roof flying off a new car.

Or last month, when there was a major outage in Tesla vehicles, the press was left to speculate. There is no longer a PR department to reply to these incidents. It seems that Tesla has adopted a crisis management strategy that appears to think that the best course of action is to ignore future crises and they will just go away on their own. Unfortunately for Tesla, real life doesn’t work like that.

Tesla to begin production on 7-seat Model Y in November, with deliveries in early December

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk has shared some updated info about the timeline for the seven-seat version of the Model Y, Tesla’s more affordable electric SUV. The Model Y began deliveries to customers in March of this year in the U.S., but Musk said in June that he anticipated the company would start shipping seven-seat variants of the vehicle by sometime in the fourth quarter of this year.

A seven-seater Model Y would up the total passenger capacity of the vehicle by two, and we’ve known that it supports such a configuration ever since its official unveiling in 2019. The seven-seat version will include a third row, though it isn’t yet entirely clear what that will look like in the vehicle. The larger Model X offers a third row, but there’s less space to work with in the Model Y. There’s also a seven-seat Model S design for the Plaid variant that Tesla showed off last year.

Still, additional seats could be a key addition for anyone looking for a premium, but lower-priced SUV that can handle the whole family — including a couple of young kids. And if production sticks to Musk’s timeline, it won’t be long before we start to see the seven-seat version of the Model Y on roads. Typically, his timing projections have been overly optimistic, but the Model Y actually started being delivered earlier than anticipated, so maybe these dates will stick.

Toronto will trial automated shuttles from Local Motors in new pilot program

By Darrell Etherington

The city of Toronto is going to start operating autonomous shuttles on a trial basis, through an agreement with Local Motors that will see that company’s Olli 2.0 all-electric self-driving shuttle ferry passengers beginning in Spring 2021. The trial is being conducted with Pacific Western Transportation, a transportation operations company, and each ride over the course of the trial will include two full-time staffers, an operator on board from that partner, as well as a customer service rep from either TTC or Metrolinx, the company Toronto contracts for much of its commuter transportation services.

The Olli 2.0 vehicle has a passenger capacity of up to eight people at a time, and includes accessibility features like a wheelchair ramp and securing points. It also includes an AV system for providing information and updates to passengers. The safety operator onboard the vehicle has the ability to take over manual control at any time, should the need arise due to safety concerns or for any other reason.

This pilot route will provide service between West Rouge and Rouge Hill GO station, which is a neighborhood west of the city of Toronto proper in the Greater Toronto Area community of Scarborough. It’s designed to connect commuters to one of the area’s primary light rail networks for longer-distance transportation. The city says that the goal is to also ensure that the autonomous shuffle is maintained up to whatever cleanliness and sanitization standards are in place at the time in light of COVID.

Last mile use cases like this have been a target for autonomous transportation in cities, in part because they involve traveling a predictable, repeated route and doing so at relatively low speeds. This could eventually lead to the deployment of more service routes using Olli shuttles, adding infrastructure connecting the city’s light rail and subway systems to parts of the city not covered by those primary arteries right now.

Polestar CEO defends the Polestar 2’s recall and 233-mile EPA rating

By Matt Burns

Polestar is a young automaker spun out of Volvo and Geely. Now, just four years old, it has two cars on the market with more launching soon. Like many startups, the company is weathering early storms coming from government regulators and early recalls.

Earlier this week, the EPA released its findings on the Polestar 2’s electric range, certifying it as capable of traveling 233 miles on a charge. That’s about 90 miles less on a charge than the competing Tesla Model 3. Read our early impressions here.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath spoke at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility shortly after the EPA released its range guidance. In short, he said Polestar knows drivers see real-world results that exceed the EPA’s range.

“We know what the car does in reality,” Ingenlath said. “We know in reality, what might look like a very big difference, is not that much of a difference in real life. We think it’s definitely sufficient for day-to-day life as an EV. It’s one of our versions, and we ill be adding different variants to the Polestar 2 that will have a higher EPA [rating]. I think [the range] is absolutely in the ballpark of competing EVs that is really good for you 365 days a year.”

Ingenlath concedes his company is not beating Tesla in range but encourages side-by-side comparisons in the real world. What looks like a large difference on paper is much less in practice. And he says a longer-range version is on the way.

“Next year in 2021, we have in our plans to come out with a single motor version,” Ingenlath said. “This will, of course, provide a better range with the same battery. And, of course, along the way, we’ll have software improvements that will give more efficiency with the same kilowatt-hours battery.

“We are on a journey,” he said. “That is where we start, and it will get better from month to month.”

Ingenlath also addressed the Polestar 2’s recent full recall over vehicles that abruptly stopped while driving. “This happened in very, very rare cases,” he said, adding there are only 2,200 Polestar 2’s on the market, and none of the reported cases happened in the United States. None of the affected vehicles were involved in an accident.

The issue is being fixed with a software update.

“We have many things to learn, and as a company, improve,” Ingenlath said. “We are a startup that’s fresh out. And of course, you cannot expect everything to go smoothly. We have to improve, and our customers have to be with us on the way. And I think it’s a really great standard that the car industry, actually, does very early recalls to make sure no one gets into a problem.

He says he doesn’t see a big issue with the early recall. Instead, he says, he’s now focusing on ensuring the company excels at customer service when interacting with a Polestar 2 owner around the recall.


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Porsche is researching synthetic fuels to make gas-powered cars sustainable

By Matt Burns

The road to sustainable vehicles likely ends at electric cars, yet the route to this goal isn’t clear. There are multiple ways to get there, and Porsche is looking at synthetic fuels as a potential path. These so-called eFuels are produced from CO2 and hydrogen. If produced using renewable energy, they can help vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) become more sustainable before the end of their life.

Earlier this week, Porsche AG’s Detlev von Platen spoke to this alternative fuel at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility.

Looking at Porsche’s current lineup, it’s easy to see where the automaker is heading: Electric sports cars. Right now, in 2020, the automaker has one electric sports sedan and an electric version of its small SUV coming soon. The automaker has a handful of plug-in hybrids available, too. The automaker says half of its vehicles will be electric by 2025.

“We are seeing a lot of new regulations coming up everywhere in the world,” Detlev von Platen, member of the Executive Board, Sales and Marketing, said at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020. “California is one example. Europe and China will become even more complicated in the future, and we see the transformation coming up very quickly. And to a certain point of time, developing and producing combustion engines and cars around this technology will become even more expensive than a battery vehicle. Things are moving very fast.”

Governments worldwide are using aggressive regulations to push automakers toward an electric future, though that goal doesn’t address the millions of gasoline-powered vehicles already on the road.

Von Platen explains that it’s Porsche’s goal to reach the commitments laid out by the Paris Climate Accord ahead of schedule. To do so means reducing the environmental impact of the entire car industry, and Porsche sees eFuels as a way to reduce the environmental impact of current and future internal combustion vehicles. If produced using renewable energy, it would result in ICE-powered vehicles being powered by a renewable source fuel.

Porsche is in a unique position: 70% of the vehicles it ever produced are still on the road. Their owners are generally enthusiastic and unlikely to trade-in their classic air-cooled Porsche coupes for an electric vehicle. The company sees eFuel as a way to reduce the environmental impact of those vehicles while keeping them on the road.

This new type of synthetic fuel is produced out of hydrogen and CO2. Porsche says that this fuel shares properties with kerosene, diesel and gasoline produced from crude oil in its most basic term.

“This technology is particularly important because the combustion engine will continue to dominate the automotive world for many years to come,” said Michael Steiner, member of the Executive Board, Research and Development, in a statement released in September. “If you want to operate the existing fleet in a sustainable manner, eFuels are a fundamental component.”

Synthetic fuels were tried in the past and gained little long-term traction. Porsche wants to influence this new breed of synthetic fuel specifications to ensure the eFuel works within Porsche’s performance engines. “When E10 came onto the market, the blend had some disadvantages. It must be different this time: it must have advantages,” Steiner said.

“We started a pilot program to talk about the industrialization of this fuel technology to make it cheaper, as it is still quite expensive compared to fossil fuels,” von Platen said. “If this works in the future, we can have something that will increase the speed of creating sustainability besides battery technology.”


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Daily Crunch: Waymo opens up driverless ride-hailing

By Anthony Ha

Alphabet’s self-driving technology company hits a major milestone, Apple TV+ extends its free subscription period and Affirm files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for October 8, 2020.

The big story: Waymo opens up driverless ride-hailing

Waymo hit a major milestone today: It’s offering fully driverless rides to (some) members of the public.

While the Alphabet-owned company has offered plenty of self-driving rides before, they usually came with a human in the driver’s seat for safety. Members of the early rider program who’d signed nondisclosure agreements were able to try out fully driverless rides — but again, they had to sign NDAs first.

Today, the company said members of its more open Waymo One program in Phoenix will be able to go fully driverless, and to take friends and family with them. And over the next few weeks, the program will open up to even more passengers.

The tech giants

Apple is extending some Apple TV+ subs through February 2021 for free — Apple gave away a free year of Apple TV+ to new device purchasers last year; now it’s bumping those subs out to February.

Amazon debuts its first fully electric delivery vehicle, created in partnership with Rivian — The van’s unique features include sensor-based highway driving and traffic assist features.

IBM plans to spin off infrastructure services as a separate $19B business — The company said this will allow it to focus on newer opportunities in hybrid cloud applications and artificial intelligence.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Instacart raises $200M more at a $17.7B valuation — It’s not hard to trace a connection between COVID-19 and Instacart’s business results.

Affirm files confidentially to go public — The news comes after the impending debut was reported in July.

Delivery startup goPuff raises $380M at a $3.9B valuation — GoPuff delivers products like over-the-counter medicine, baby food and alcohol (basically, the stuff you’d buy at a convenience store) in 30 minutes or less.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Investors, founders report hot market for API startups — Startups that deliver their service via an API are having a moment.

Tech’s role in the COVID-19 response: Assist, don’t reinvent — Speakers at Disrupt explained how technology companies have taken a backseat to frontline workers, rather than attempting to “solve” the issues on their own.

These 3 factors are holding back podcast monetization — Fundamental fixes could unleash the channel’s revenue potential.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

General Motors finally gets serious about in-car tech, taps Unreal Engine for next-gen interface — Matt Burns writes that GM’s current crop of in-car user interfaces is among the worst on the market.

Consumers spent a record $28B in apps in Q3, aided by pandemic — According to a new report from App Annie, consumers in the third quarter downloaded 33 billion new apps globally.

US Space Force is getting an immersive space sim training tool built in part by the VFX studio behind ‘The Mandalorian’ — The U.S. Space Force obviously won’t be able to train most of their service people in actual space, so the new arm of America’s defense forces has tasked Slingshot Aerospace to create a VR space sim.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Waymo starts to open driverless ride-hailing service to the public

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo, the Google self-driving-project-turned-Alphabet unit, is beginning to open up its driverless ride-hailing service to the public.

The company said that starting today, members of its Waymo One service will be able to take family and friends along on their fully driverless rides in the Phoenix area. Existing Waymo One members will have the first access to the driverless rides — terminology that means no human behind the wheel. However, the company said that in the next several weeks more people will be welcomed directly into the service through its app, which is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Waymo said that 100% of its rides will be fully driverless — which it has deemed its “rider only” mode. That 100% claim requires a bit of unpacking. The public shouldn’t expect hundreds of Waymo-branded Chrysler Pacifica minivans — no human behind the wheel — to suddenly inundate the entire 600-plus square miles of the greater Phoenix area.

Waymo has abut 600 vehicles in its fleet. About 300 to 400 of those are in the Phoenix area. Waymo wouldn’t share exact numbers of how many of these vehicles would be dedicated to driverless rides. However, Waymo CEO John Krafcik explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview that there will be various modes operating in the Phoenix area. Some of these will be “rider only,” while other vehicles will still have trained safety operators behind the wheel. Some of the fleet will also be used for testing.

“We’re just ready from every standpoint,” Krafcik told TechCrunch. “And how do we know we’re ready? We’ve had our wonderful group of early riders, who’ve helped us hone the service, obviously not from a safety standpoint because we’ve had the confidence on the safety side for some time, but rather more for the fit of the product itself.” He added that these early riders helped the company determine if the product was “delivering satisfaction and delight for them.”

Later this year, Waymo will relaunch rides with a trained vehicle operator to add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area. Krafcik said the company is in the process of adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row and rear passenger cabin for in-vehicle hygiene and safety.

Waymo operates in about a 100-square-mile area. The driverless or “rider only” service area that will be offered to Waymo One members is about 50 square miles, Krafcik said.

Despite the various caveats, this is still a milestone — one of many the company has achieved in the past decade. The past five years has been particularly packed, starting with Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, taking the “first: driverless ride in the company’s Firefly prototype on Austin’s city streets in 2015. More than a dozen journalists experienced driverless rides in 2017 on a closed course at Waymo’s testing facility in Castle. Then last November, TechCrunch took one of the first driverless rides in a Waymo Pacifica minivan along the public streets of a Phoenix suburb.

waymo-driverless app

The company scaled its commercial product even as these demos and testing continued. In 2017, Waymo launched its early rider program, which let vetted members of the public, who had signed non-disclosure agreements, hail its self-driving cars in the Phoenix area. Those autonomous vehicles all had human safety operators behind the wheel.

Waymo then launched Waymo One, a self-driving ride-hailing service aimed for public use, no NDA strings attached. But again, those rides all had human safety operators in the driver’s seat, ready to take over if needed. Waymo slowly moved its early rider program members into the more open Waymo One service. It also started experimenting with charging for rides and expanded its footprint — or geofenced service area. Today, the company charges for rides across all of its programs (early rider and Waymo One) in the Phoenix area. The Waymo One service (with human safety operators) is about 100 square miles in Phoenix suburbs like Chandler.

The first meaningful signs that Waymo was ready to put people in vehicles without human safety operators popped up last fall when members of its early rider program received an email indicating that driverless rides would soon become available.

And they did. These driverless rides were limited and free. And importantly, still fell under the early rider program, which had that extra NDA protection. Waymo slowly scaled until about 5 to 10% of its total rides in 2020 were fully driverless for its exclusive group of early riders under NDA. Then COVID-19 hit and the service was halted. The company has continued testing with its safety drivers in Arizona and California. That has raised some concerns among those workers about the dual issue of catching COVID and dealing with air quality issues caused by wildfires in California.

Waymo said it has added new safety protocols due to COVID-19, including requiring users to wear masks, having hand sanitizer in all vehicles and conducting what Krafcik described as a cabin flush — essentially a four to five-time increase in air volume sent through the vehicle — after every ride.

Krafcik also said Waymo will soon add the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace to the mix, first testing them on public roads and then adding the vehicles to the early rider program.

Updated: The company charges for all rides now in Phoenix. 

General Motors finally gets serious about in-car tech, taps Unreal Engine for next-gen interface

By Matt Burns

The upcoming GMC Hummer EV will feature a new in-car user interface powered by Unreal Engine . This powerful platform underpins the latest video games and is well-suited to provide vehicle occupants with a dynamic and robust experience.

Epic Games made the announcement yesterday while unveiling the latest development tools for its human-machine interface program.

Here’s the ugly truth: General Motors’ current crop of in-car user interfaces are among the worst on the market. As one of the world’s leading auto manufacturers, it’s surprising, but the infotainment system constantly underwhelms me in Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles.

Compared to competitors, GM’s cars’ systems are slow, boring and lack the advanced features found in competing vehicles.

Unreal Engine is a powerful platform and should provide GM’s engineers with plenty of space to accommodate the latest features and interfaces car shoppers can find elsewhere.

As Epic Games, the company behind Unreal Engine, explains, the platform features a comprehensive set of developer tools that should improve designers’ and engineers’ workflow.

This news doubles down on the notion that the Hummer EV is a pivotal product for General Motors. The company unveiled the project at the beginning of 2020 with a Super Bowl ad spot and has since revealed little about the upcoming electric vehicle.

It’s unclear if GM intends to use Unreal Engine in additional vehicles.

Amazon debuts its first fully electric delivery vehicle, created in partnership with Rivian

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon has received delivery of its very first, custom-built EV delivery van – a vehicle built through its partnership with electric transportation startup Rivian. The van doesn’t look too different from existing, traditional fuel and hybrid commercial delivery vans (though there are a lot more rounded edges) but most of the innovation is happening in less obvious places.

In a blog post detailing the vehicle, Amazon outlined some of the unique features of its custom vehicle, including sensor-based highway driving and traffic assist features; exterior cameras that can provide a 360-degree view for the driver via a digital display; a larger interior floor space in the cabin to help with drivers getting to and from the cabin compartment; surround tail lights for better braking visibility for other drivers; integrated three-level shelving and a bulkhead cargo compartment separating door; and finally, of course – built-in Alexa voice assistant integration.

Amazon announced a sizeable investment in Rivian in 2019, when it led a $700 million round for the startup EV maker. The e-commerce giant then announced last September that it was ordering 100,000 of the custom-made electric delivery vans. Rivian also intends to build and ship electric pickups and SUVs to consumers, on top of its commercial vehicle plans.

Amazon plans to ramp deployment of its all-electric fleet form here, starting with 10,000 custom vans on roads globally within the next two years, and then expanding to a total fleet size of that full 100,000 order by 2030, the company says. Rivian, meanwhile, says it has begun a pilot production line run of its Illinois factory, and plans to begin delivery of its SUV starting in June 2021, with shipments of its SUV starting next August.

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Transportation VCs suggest frayed US-China ties will impact mobility markets

By Connie Loizos

On Tuesday, during TechCrunch’s annual Mobility event, we had the opportunity to interview three investors who spend much of their time focused narrowly on shifts in the transportation industry and we talked with the three — Amy Gu of Hemi Ventures, Reilly Brennan of Trucks VC, and Olaf Sakkers of Maniv Mobility — about a wide range of related issues to get their take. You can check out that interview below; in the meantime, we’re pulling out parts of the conversation that we found particularly interesting:

How the pandemic is affecting fundraising and the trends they’re watching

Olaf Sakkers: In dense cities, no one is taking transit, so you’re seeing a big shift toward micromobility, but in other cities, there’s been a big uptake in car use and secondhand and new-car demand despite of economic impacts. [You’re seeing this] trade-off between us getting out, and more goods and services that are coming to us than before, [including] food and other things. We’re also seeing a lot of geographic and culture variances, but those are things we’re seeing immediately.

Amy Gu: One thing that COVID has changed a lot is healthcare, which has become more important (during the pandemic) but also raised questions about how we make it more mobile. We’ve been looking at telemedicine companies and remote health care.

Is COVID-19 driving people to buy bikes, scooters and used cars instead of renting?

Reilly Brennan: People fell off micromobility platforms not because they didn’t like them, but they liked them so much, they wanted to buy [the scooters and bikes]. The ways a typical dealership makes money with financing, maintenance and service will come to micromobility. There isn’t much of a used market right now for e-bikes and e-scooters because there aren’t many of them, but that ecosystem will become stronger … [you can imagine] buying outright, leasing, subscriptions, wrapping in theft control … all the tricks you’ve seen carmakers bring to car financing, [meaning] not owning or renting but something in-between.

Polaris and Zero Motorcycles reach deal to bring electric off-roaders to market

By Kirsten Korosec

Polaris is a name synonymous with powersports — just head to any of the hundreds of snowmobile trails in Wisconsin, Minnesota or other sufficiently wintry place for evidence. Now, it’s teaming up with Zero Motorcycles, Santa Cruz-based maker of electric motorcycles and powertrains, to electrify its lineup.

The two companies announced Tuesday a 10-year agreement to work together to produce electrified off-road vehicles and snowmobiles using Zero’s powertrain technology, hardware and software. Polaris will develop, manufacture and sell the vehicles.

The companies will co-develop the technologies and vehicle platforms for this next generation of electrified powersports, according to Zero Motorcycles CEO Sam Paschel, adding that the aim is to dramatically expand the electric options currently in the market.

“Our EV expertise and millions of miles of real-world, rubber-meets-the-road EV experience, coupled with Polaris’ broad product portfolio, scale, supply chain and market leadership, makes this a game-changer for every powersports enthusiast,” Paschel said in a statement. 

Polaris already has several electric options in its portfolio, thanks to a series of acquisitions its made over the past decade. In 2011, the company acquired Goupil, a French manufacturer of on-road, commercial light duty electric vehicles for the European market as well as GEM, the street-legal passenger and utility electric vehicle company. Polaris more recently acquired Brammo Electric Motorcycles, a purchase that gave the company access to technology that would later be used in its Ranger EV off-road vehicles.

This latest deal aims to create a broader portfolio of products, not just one-offs. Polaris said the partnership will be the cornerstone of “rEV’D up,” the name of its long-term strategy to offer customers an electrified option within each of its core product segments by 2025. The first vehicle from this Zero-Polaris partnership will debut by the end of 2021.

“Thanks to advancements in power, pricing and performance over the last several years, and with customer interest surging, now is the right time for Polaris, with Zero Motorcycles as a key strategic partner, to implement our rEV’d up initiative and aggressively accelerate our position in powersports electrification,” Polaris CEO and Chairman Scott Wine said in a statement. Wine boasted the partnership will enable Polaris to “leapfrog technological hurdles around range and cost while providing a tremendous speed-to-market advantage.”

Arm launches new chip designs for autonomous systems

By Frederic Lardinois

Chip designer Arm today announced the launch of a new set of solutions for autonomous systems for both automotive and industrial use cases. These include the Arm Cortex-A78AE high-performance CPU,
the Mali-G78AE GPU and Arm Mali-C71AE image signal processor.

What makes all three of these chips stand out is that they have built-in safety features. ‘Safety,’ in this context, means that the chips feature additional capabilities that ensure that every calculation is essentially double-checked.

Traditionally, Arm has offered two modes for its CPU. In ‘split mode,’ all cores work independently and only go offline every now and then for quick sanity checks. This works well for applications with low or no safety requirements since the cores can run at close to their maximum performance.

Image Credits: Arm

In ‘locked mode,’ cores run in pairs and their operations are cross-checked against each other. This helps these chips satisfy various automotive safety requirements, but comes with an obvious performance penalty as you can only use half the cores.

Today, the company introduced its new hybrid mode for its CPUs, which combines the best of both worlds for high-performance use cases where only medium failure detection is needed. It allows the cores to still run in split mode, but the shared cluster logic, which integrates the cores, now runs in lock mode. That provides the safety mechanisms of lock mode — just at a different layer — with the performance of split mode.

For the new AE-version of the Mali GPU, Arm is introducing what it calls ‘flexible partitioning,’ which makes it easier to split the various GPU cores between workloads as needed. That means features like maps can run in one partition, separate from safety features like driver monitoring or running the instrument cluster.

Traditionally, Arm targeted these AE-branded designs at the automotive industry. ‘AE’ actually used to stand for ‘automative enhanced.’ Now, however, it is targeting the broader market for autonomous systems.

“We introduced this AE [intellectual property]. It was referring to ‘automotive enhanced,’ originally, and so it has specific features, performance, safety, for the automotive market,” Arm’s VP of its automotive business, Chet Babla, told me. “But fast forward to today and what we’ve realized that in talking to industrial OEMs and the compute requirements, the safety requirements they have, they’ve said, ‘actually, what you’re doing in the automotive space is very applicable to the compute and safety challenges that we face.'”

While Arm is remaining relatively quiet about its $40 billion acquisition by Nvidia, which is still going the regulatory process, it’s worth noting that both companies have set their eyes on this market for autonomous systems, with Nvidia offering its own platform for autonomous robots, using its Jetson AGX, for example, which use ARM CPUs in addition to Nvidia’s own GPUs. It looks like that won’t change anytime soon.

“Powerful new processing capabilities are needed to enable future autonomous vehicles and machines. As a lead partner for the new Arm Cortex-A78AE, NVIDIA delivers the advanced performance and safety
these edge AI systems require with our next-generation NVIDIA Orin SoC,” said Gary Hicok, senior vice president of hardware development at NVIDIA.

Hear from Postmates, Refraction AI and FedEx about autonomous delivery at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

Small startups and logistics giants alike are working on how to use automated vehicle technology and robotics for delivery. Some have even accelerated their efforts, with mixed results, as the COVID-19 pandemic drove up demand for delivery.

But is the world — or the tech — ready for the mainstream?

TechCrunch has tapped three experts from FedEx, Refraction AI and Postmates to join our virtual stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 to talk about the challenges and opportunities of using robots for delivery. TC Sessions: Mobility is a two-day conference scheduled for October 6 and October 7 that aims to bring together the best and brightest minds working on the future of transportation.

Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder of Refraction AI; Ali Kashani, VP of Special Projects at Postmates; and Rebecca Yeung, VP of Advanced Technology & Innovation at FedEx will discuss the changing face of delivery, what it will take to make this technology commercially viable and whether the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their strategy.

Johnson-Roberson’s company, Refraction AI, came out of stealth on our stage last year. The Midwest-based startup, which developed a delivery robot that uses the bike lane, has been ramping up testing and operations in its home state of Michigan. Johnson-Roberson has worked in robotic perception since the first DARPA grand challenge, and is associate professor of robotics at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

Kashani has co-founded several startups, including Lox, which was acquired by Postmates in 2017. When Kashani joined the company he launched Postmates X, which aimed to solve the economic and environmental dilemma of using vehicles to deliver food. His team came up with Serve, the robot that is now used to deliver food in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Yeung’s primary responsibility as VP of advanced technology is to accelerate innovation in the autonomous vehicles and robotics space and use it to improve FedEx’s operations and customer experience. Yeung has more than 20 years of experience in emerging technology, strategy, marketing and business development. She is the lead officer for FedEx’s same-day robot known as Roxo. She also oversees key autonomous vehicle and robotics initiatives at the enterprise level, evaluating emerging technologies to inform R&D investments.

In case you hadn’t heard, TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 is virtual this year. The virtual version of TC Sessions: Mobility will bring all of what you’d expect from our in-person events, from the informative panels and provocative one-on-one interviews to the networking and this year, even a pitch-off session. This year, we’re also holding Q&A sessions following several of the panels, allowing ticketholders to submit questions to the panelists.

We want TC Sessions: Mobility to be accessible to as many people as possible, so we’ve created a range of pass levels to fit just about every budget. Prices start at $25 for the Expo ticket and students can attend for $50. We also have discounts for groups. Or buy an Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package to claim a spot in our expo before we run out of space!

Nikola chairman, VectoIQ CEO Steve Girsky eyes his next transportation investment

By Kirsten Korosec

Steve Girsky, the former GM vice chairman, consultant and investor whose special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merged with hydrogen electric startup Nikola this summer, is in talks to back self-driving trucks startup TuSimple, according to four people familiar with the deal.

The capital would come from Girsky’s VectoIQ LLC, a consulting and investment company he runs with managing partner Mary Chan, and would be part of a consortium of investors, according to one unnamed source who requested anonymity because the deal had yet to be finalized. The deal could close as early as mid-October.

TuSimple as well as Girsky declined to comment.

It’s no secret that TuSimple has been seeking new capital. TechCrunch reported in June that TuSimple was in search of $250 million in fresh capital from investors. The company hired investment bank Morgan Stanley to help it raise funds, according to multiple sources familiar with the effort. Since then, TuSimple, which already has backing from Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corp., has announced a partnership with Navistar and most recently, the Traton Group.

Girsky has most recently captured headlines because of Nikola, where he is now the executive chairman. Girsky took over as chairman in September after Nikola’s founder, Trevor Milton, stepped down following fallout from a scathing report by short-seller firm Hindenburg Research that accused the company of fraud. VectoIQ Acquisition Corp., the SPAC that Girsky formed in 2018, announced a merger with Nikola in March, and Girsky oversaw its public listing this past June. He shepherded an introduction between Nikola and his former boss, GM CEO and chairwoman Mary Barra, according to one source familiar with the deal. By mid-September the automaker had announced a partnership valued at $2 billion with Nikola.

Girsky may be Nikola’s new chairman and certainly has executive experience, but his focus in recent years has been as an advisor, investor and matchmaker. Girsky has long had an interest in mobility-related companies. His firm VectoIQ LLC specializes in advising companies and connecting large companies with startups working on autonomous vehicle technology, electrification, connected, cybersecurity and mobility-as-a-service.

VectoIQ invested in lidar startup Luminar, which recently announced it was going public through a SPAC merger with Gores Metropoulos Inc., at a post-deal market valuation of $3.4 billion. Girsky also sat on the board of autonomous vehicle startup Drive.ai, which was acquired by Apple as the company prepared to shut down.

Girsky’s investment in TuSimple is separate from his interests in Nikola, which has yet to begin production of its Class 8 trucks, according to sources.

TuSimple, which launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Arizona, is focused on the autonomous vehicle technology stack that will allow Class 8 trucks to operate without a human driver. TuSimple operates a fleet of 40 self-driving trucks in the U.S. that are used for testing and to carry freight between Arizona and Texas.

TuSimple announced in July plans to develop and begin producing autonomous semi trucks by 2024 in partnership with Navistar. In September, Volkswagen AG’s heavy-truck business Traton Group said it took a minority stake in TuSimple as part of an agreement between the two companies to develop self-driving trucks. Neither company disclosed the financial terms of the partnership or the percentage of the minority stake. Traton did make a direct capital investment into TuSimple, according to one unnamed source familiar with the deal. It’s unclear if it also included in-kind contributions.

Battery tech superstars JB Straubel of Redwood Materials, Celina Mikolajczak of Panasonic coming to TC Mobility 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

It was a trickle at first that has evolved into a slow and steady stream. Now, a wave of new electric vehicles is building, promising to deliver an unprecedented number of models to North America, Europe and China over the next two to three years.

There might not be a better time to dig into EVs and we have two superstars coming to TC Sessions: Mobility 2020. JB Straubel, co-founder and CEO of Redwood Materials who pioneered the battery powertrain design for Tesla as its longtime CTO, and Celina Mikolajczak, the vice president of battery technology for Panasonic Energy of North America, will join us on our virtual stage to talk about all things electric vehicles.

This virtual event takes place October 6-7, and we’re excited to hear from these two technology leaders working at the forefront of the industry.

Straubel’s role at Tesla cannot be understated. The co-founder and executive was responsible for some of the company’s most important technology during his 15 years there, including leading the cell design, supply chain and the first Gigafactory concept through the production ramp of the Model 3.

But Straubel’s story isn’t just tied to Tesla. The former Tesla executive went on to found another startup in 2017 called Redwood Materials . The battery recycling startup is focused on circular supply chains, essentially turning waste into profit and solving the environmental impacts of new products before they happen. Its first named customer is Panasonic; and just this week announced Amazon has joined that list.

Mikolajczak has a long history researching and developing better lithium-ion batteries. Her technical consulting practice at Exponent focused on lithium-ion cell and battery safety and quality. She then took a senior management position at Tesla that was focused on cell quality and materials engineering. During her time at Tesla, Mikolajczak developed the battery cells and packs for Tesla’s Model S, Model X, Model 3 and Roadster Refresh.

After leaving Tesla, Mikolajczak went on to serve as director of engineering focused on battery development for rideshare vehicles at Uber Technologies. Last year, she joined Panasonic Energy of North America, where she is vice president of battery technology. Mikolajczak leads a team of more than 200 engineers and other technical staff to improve lithium-ion cell manufacturing and to bring the latest cell technologies to mass production for Tesla at the Gigafactory facility in Sparks, Nevada.

In short: these two know a lot about battery technology from how it has developed in the past decade to where it’s headed and the implications it will have on automakers, consumers and the economy.

Mikolajczak and Straubel are just two in a long list of all-star speakers, including Bryan Salesky, co-founder and CEO of Argo AI, Tekedra Mawakana, chief operating officer at Waymo, Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun as well as folks from Nuro, Aurora, Cruise, Lyft and Uber. There are startups as well including Refraction AI, which came out of stealth on our stage at last year’s mobility event.

We hope you can join in October 6-7, 2020 at the event. As you might have heard, TC Sessions: Mobility is a virtual event. Don’t worry, we know many of you want to network. We’ve built out features into our platform to give attendees unparalleled access to speakers, investors and fellow founders. Get your tickets before prices increase in a few short weeks! There are discounts for groups and students and exclusive opportunities for exhibiting for early-stage founders.

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