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Lucid Motors to begin producing Air electric vehicles for customers in early 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

Lucid Motors will begin producing its luxury electric vehicle for customers at its new Arizona factory in early 2021, about three months later than expected due to a slowdown caused by COVID-19.

The company, which plans to unveil a production version of the Lucid Air in an online event scheduled for September 9, said construction resumed several weeks ago at its factory Casa Grande, Arizona and is on target to complete phase one this year. Lucid Motors has also restarted vehicle development work, which was briefly delayed due to shelter-in-place orders, at its California facility.

Lucid Motors said Wednesday it will show off more than the vehicle’s final interior and exterior designs during the September 9 event. The company said new details on production specifications, available configurations, and pricing information will also be shared.

“Although we are experiencing an unprecedented time in our history, the determination of this company’s employees in developing a game-changing electric vehicle burns ever more brightly,” Lucid Motors CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson said in a statement.

With COVID-19 closures in the rearview mirror — at least for now — Lucid Motors is focused on expanding its workforce and wrapping up construction as it begins the big job of moving in and setting up production equipment. Major components and equipment for the paint and shell lines are being installed and are coming online in advance of the completion of construction, the company said in an update. Once complete, Lucid will begin producing prototypes at the factory. Those production prototypes, which will roll off the assembly line in 2020, won’t be sold. The first vehicles produced for customers will begin in early 2021, according to Lucid.

The company, which employs more than 1,000 people, has ramped up hiring ahead of the Air’s production debut. More than 160 new employees have been hired in the past three months. Lucid said it plans to add more than 700 employees to its roster by the end of the 2020.

Lucid motors factory

Lucid motors factory in Casa Grande, Arizona.

The global reveal as well as the anticipated completion of the first phase of its Arizona factory will be a critical milestone for a company that was founded 11 years ago with a different name and mission. The company, called Atieva at the time, was focused on developing electric car battery technology. It then shifted to producing electric cars and changed its name in 2016 to Lucid Motors.

At the time, Lucid Motors appeared to be on a roll. It had successfully raised money, unveiled the Air, announced plans to build a $700 million factory in Arizona, signed a deal with Samsung SDI to supply it with lithium-ion batteries and moved into spacious new digs. The company suddenly fell silent for nearly a year as it worked to raise the remaining money required to take on the capitally intensive pursuit of building a car factory and producing the Air.

In 2018, Lucid Motors secured $1 billion in funding from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Lucid said at the time that the $1 billion in funding would be used to complete engineering development and testing of the Lucid Air, construct its factory in Arizona, begin the global rollout of its retail strategy starting in North America and enter production.

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.

Energica CEO plots her Italian EV company’s reboot from lockdown

By Jake Bright

There could be more demand for electric vehicles post COVID-19 crisis, believes Energica founder Livia Cevolini.

The CEO of the high-performance Italian motorcycle manufacturer offered that point of optimism, as her Modena based EV company remains closed by government decree.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Energica to hit the brakes on production of its battery powered machines that can reach top speeds of 168 mph.

From lockdown in her Northern Italy home, Cevolini shared perspective on the future of motorcycling, acquisition offers and plans to recharge her company when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

At a time when her country has been hit particular hard by the coronavirus, she offered some upbeat thinking.

Energica CEO Livia Cevolini on lockdown in Modena, Italy

“I don’t want to look only at the negative…Maybe there are things that are positive that come out of this bad crisis,” Cevolini told TechCrunch on a video call.

One of those is greater demand for EVs after the pandemic. Cevolini highlighted greater awareness of the smog internal combustion mobility creates and scientific evidence that air pollution exacerbates viruses as factors that could swing more folks to electric.

Reporting has made much of urban areas attaining visibly cleaner air — featuring before shots of global cities with smog and after shots of clear skies since COVID-19 forced traffic off the roads.

“Maybe at the end of this situation we will have a greater awareness on climate change. Then people will approach electric with more consciousness,” Cevolini said.

Before the health crisis shutdown most of Italy, Energica had already seen larger demand for its high-performance e-motos, with a price range of $17,000 to $23,000. The company — that has has a California office and U.S. general manager (Stefano Benatti) — filled more orders in the first two months of 2020 than all its sales for 2019, according to Cevolini.

As an EV venture, Energica is located in the famed Italian motor valley and positions itself similar to its neighbors — Lamborghini, Ducati, Ferrari — in offering a merger of sleek design and elite performance.

MotoE Worldcup racing, Image Credits: Energica

The venture is also one of the few e-motorcycle companies drawing engineering tips from competition. In 2018, Energica was named the sole manufacturer to the MotoE Worldup — an electric version of MotoGP motorcycle racing. MotoE riders use the company’s EGO model as their base bike.

Technology from the track is transferring to production models, according to Cevolini. “The goal is to use racing to test in extreme but safe conditions and then we move stuff to the road bikes,” she said.

Energica credits the application of race tech to production e-motos for some of the increased order flow it saw early this year. The company reduced the weight of its 2020 production line by 5% and increased range by 60% based on adaptions it brought over from MotoE.

Track competition is a secondary arena for Energica. The primary venue is an increasingly crowded e-motorcycle marketplace, which will most certainly face declining demand given the economic impact of COVID-19.

Harley Davidson introduced its all electric $29K LiveWire in 2019, becoming the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-moto for sale in the U.S.

Harley’s entry followed several failed electric motorcycle startups — including Mission Motors — and put it in the market with existing EV ventures, such California startup Zero, with 200 dealers worldwide.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

When it comes to core e-motorcycle specs — such as performance, charge-times and range — Energica has held advantages with its 145 horsepower machines that can charge in 20 minutes for max ranges of 140 to 250 miles.

But the competition is closing in on some of the Italian EV maker’s numbers. In 2019, Zero launched its high-performance SR/F, with 110 horsepower and a top-speed of 120 mph. And the entire motorcycle industry — gas and electric — could face competitive pressures from new EV entrant Damon Motors. The Vancouver based startup debuted its 200 mph, $24K Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

On top of strong competition in the e-moto space, there’s a growing uncertainty on the buying appetite for motorcycles that could persist into 2020 — and beyond — given the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world.

In the U.S., new motorcycles sales didn’t weather the last recession very well, dropping 50% in 2008 and remaining stagnant since. In addition to Energica, other manufacturers, such as Harley Davidson have been forced to stop production due the coronavirus.

Energica CEO Livia Cevolini believes her company has a leg up on its e-moto competitors and an ability to rebound, once it restarts operations.

She flags the manufacturer’s racing connection as something that will continue to give Energica an edge in product development. Speaking to competition with Zero Motorcycles in particular, “We are in a different category,” she said. “They have less power, less range and less fast charge capability.”

Energica has also created another revenue stream through a joint-venture to provide battery, computing and drive-train technology to Dell’Orto, a supplier to the global scooter market.

As more of the major gas motorcycle companies enter the EV market, Cevolini is open to a merger or acquisition, but only on her terms.

“If someone comes to me with a real proposal…that you want to grow our business and our company and not destroy it, we can talk,” she said. “Otherwise, we prefer to go our own way.”

Energica

Image Credits: Energica

Energica is prepared to restart production, and has done contingencies for adaptations — such as safe and socially distanced operations — when it gets the go head from the Italian government to reopen.

“We’re ready to fulfill the orders we received before the shutdown and take more,” she said.

When Energica is able to switch on the plant electricity again, Cevolini suspects her niche market of motorcycle enthusiasts will be eager to roll.

“Our customers are telling us they are just waiting to ride again. And as soon as they can ride again, they will ride again,” she said.

GM and Honda are co-developing two new electric vehicles due to arrive in 2024

By Kirsten Korosec

GM and Honda will jointly develop two new electric vehicles slated for 2024, the latest move by the two automakers to deepen their existing partnership.

Under the plan, the automakers will focus on their respective areas of expertise. Honda will design the exterior and interiors of the new electric vehicles; GM will contribute its new electric vehicle architecture and Ultium batteries. This new architecture, which GM unveiled last month to showcase its own EV plans, is capable of 19 different battery and drive-unit configurations. The architecture includes large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint venture between LG Chem and GM.

The vehicles, which will have a Honda nameplate, will incorporate GM’s OnStar safety and security services. GM’s hands-free advanced driver assistance technology, known as Super Cruise, will also be available in the new vehicles.

The vehicles will be produced at GM plants in North America. Sales are expected to begin in the 2024 model year in Honda’s U.S. and Canadian markets.

The aim is to pull the strengths of both companies to unlock economies of scale around electric vehicles, according to Rick Schostek, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., who added that the two companies are already in discussions about further extending the partnership.

GM and Honda have worked together on projects before. The two automakers partnered on hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicle batteries, and are both invested in autonomous vehicle company Cruise .

The automakers formed a joint venture in 2017 to produce hydrogen fuel cell systems. A year later, the companies announced an agreement for Honda to use battery cells and modules from GM in electric vehicles built for the North American market.

GM acquired Cruise in 2016; Honda later committed $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and its self-driving technology subsidiary Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle. Cruise Origin, an electric, self-driving and shared vehicle and the first product of that arrangement, was revealed January 21.

White House says it is ordering more companies to make ventilators

By Taylor Hatmaker

With national the stockpile’s inventory of life-saving healthcare equipment getting dangerously close to zero, President Trump on Thursday signaled that he will leverage a key national security provision to order additional companies to produce ventilators.

Trump’s reluctance to employ the law known as the Defense Production Act (DPA) has puzzled many as the administration attempts to right the myriad early wrongs that allowed the novel coronavirus to spread within the nation’s borders—an unprecedented modern public health crisis expected to claim as many as 200,000 lives in the U.S.

“Today, I have issued an order under the Defense Production Act to more fully ensure that domestic manufacturers can produce ventilators needed to save American lives,” Trump said in a statement. “My order to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Homeland Security will help domestic manufacturers like General Electric, Hill-Rom, Medtronic, ResMed, Royal Philips, and Vyaire Medical secure the supplies they need to build ventilators needed to defeat the virus.”

The order will enable Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to use “any and all authority available” to steer production efforts.

After much early confusion around the president’s willingness to invoke the DPA without actually putting it to use, Trump appeared to change course and on Friday wielded the law against General Motors which had already announced its intention to start manufacturing ventilators in spite of a lack of federal guidance. That heel-turn came two days after the Trump was poised to announce a deal with GM and ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems to produce up to 80,000 devices. The announcement was reportedly scuttled when the White House and FEMA balked at the effort’s $1 billion price tag.

Trump has repeatedly called the crisis-level demand for ventilators, masks and other medical supplies into question. “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity last week. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.” The president has also repeatedly questioned the nationwide shortage of N95 masks and other basic health protective gear, suggesting that in New York health facilities are somehow losing the masks or allowing them to be stolen, a false claim for which there is no evidence.

As states still compete for vital life-saving resources, federal orders through the DPA would force any private companies on the receiving end of an order to prioritize federal contracts. The law also allows the federal government to use its muscle to ensure that supply chains are able to produce and provide materials every step of the way. While much has been made of the law’s potency to mobilize supplies in the midst of a national crisis, the Trump administration will likely need to actively manage and coordinate with these newly-tapped manufacturers to see such orders through.

In dragging its feet to issue orders through the DPA, Trump appeared to put full faith in the private sector to step up on their own without a directive from the White House. While some companies indeed did just that, those nascent production efforts are nowhere near meeting demand and distribution issues are not resolved. With the outbreak threatening regions around the nation, many states forge ahead without vital life-saving supplies as the acute health crisis unfolding in New York offers a glimpse of a potentially disastrous near-future.

‘A perfect storm for first time managers,’ say VCs with their own shops

By Connie Loizos

Until very recently, it had begun to seem like anyone with a thick enough checkbook and some key contacts in the startup world could not only fund companies as an angel investor but even put himself or herself in business as a fund manager.

It helped that the world of venture fundamentally changed and opened up as information about its inner workings flowed more freely. It didn’t hurt, either, that many billions of dollars poured into Silicon Valley from outfits and individuals around the globe who sought out stakes in fast-growing, privately held companies — and who needed help in securing those positions.

Of course, it’s never really been as easy or straightforward as it looks from the outside. While the last decade has seen many new fund managers pick up traction, much of the capital flooding into the industry has accrued to a small number of more established players that have grown exponentially in terms of assets under management. In fact, talk with anyone who has raised a first-time fund and you’re likely to hear that the fundraising process is neither glamorous nor lucrative and that it’s paved with very short phone conversations. And that’s in a bull market.

What happens in what’s suddenly among the worst economic environments the world has seen? First and foremost, managers who’ve struck out on their own suggest putting any plans on the back burner. “I would love to be positive, and I’m an optimist, buut I would have to say that now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a fund off the ground,” says Aydin Senkut, who founded the firm Felicis Ventures in 2006 and just closed its seventh fund.

It’s a perfect storm for first-time managers,” adds Charles Hudson, who launched his own shop, Precursor Ventures, in 2015.

Hitting pause doesn’t mean giving up, suggests Eva Ho, cofounder of the three-year-old, seed-stage L.A.-based shop Fika Ventures, which last year closed its second fund with $76 million. She says not to get “too dismayed” by the challenges. Still, it’s good to understand what a first-time manager is up against right now, and what can be learned more broadly about how to proceed when the time is right.

Know it’s hard, even in the best times

As a starting point, it’s good to recognize that it’s far harder to assemble a first fund than anyone who hasn’t done it might imagine.

Hudson knew he wanted to leave his last job as a general partner with SoftTech VC when the firm — since renamed Uncork Capital — amassed enough capital that it no longer made sense for it to issue very small checks to nascent startups. “I remember feeling like, ‘Gosh, I’ve reached a point where the business model for our fund is getting in the way of me investing in the kind of companies that naturally speak to me,” which is largely pre-product startups.

Hudson suggests he may have overestimated interest in his initial idea to create a single GP fund that largely backs ideas that are too early for other investors. “We had a pretty big LP based [at SoftTech] but what I didn’t realize is the LP base that’s interested in someone who is on fund three or four is very different than the LP base that’s interested in backing a brand new manager.”

Hudson says he spent a “bunch of time talking to fund of funds, university endowments — people who were just not right for me until someone pulled me aside and just said, ‘Hey, you’re talking to the wrong people. You need to find some family offices. You need to find some friends of Charles. You need to find people who are going to back you because they think this is a good idea and who aren’t quite so orthodox in terms of what they want to see in terms partner composition and all that.'”

Collectively, it took “300 to 400 LP conversations” and two years to close his first fund with $15 million. (Its now raising its third pre-seed fund).

Ho says it took less time for Fika to close its first fund but that she and her partners talked with 600 people in order to close their $41 million debut effort, adding that she felt like a “used car salesman” by the end of the process.

Part of the challenge was her network, she says. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of high-net-worth individuals or endowments or foundations. That was a whole network that was new to me, and they didn’t know who the heck I was, so there’s a lot of proving to do.” A proof-of-concept fund instill confidence in some of these investors, though Ho notes you have to be able to live off its economics, which can be miserly.

She also says that as someone who’d worked at Google and helped found the location data company Factual, she underestimated the work involved in running a small fund. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve started these companies and run these big teams. How how different could it be? Learning the motions and learning what it’s really like to run the funds and to administer a fund and all responsibilities and liabilities that come with it . . . it made me really stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this for 20 to 30 years, and if so, what’s the team I want to do it with?'”

Investors will offer you funky deals; avoid these if you can

In Hudson’s case, an LP offered him two options, either a typical LP agreement wherein the outfit would write a small check, or an option wherein it would make a “significant investment that have been 40% of our first fund,” says Hudson.

Unsurprisingly, the latter offer came with a lot of strings. Namely, the LP said it wanted to have a “deeper relationship” with Hudson, which he took to mean it wanted a share of Precursor’s profits beyond what it would receive as a typical investor in the fund.

“It was very hard to say no to that deal, because I didn’t get close to raising the amount of money that I would have gotten if I’d said yes for another year,” says Hudson. He still thinks it was the right move, however. “I was just like, how do I have a conversation with any other LP about this in the future if I’ve already made the decision to give this away?”

Fika similarly received an offer that would have made up 25 percent of the outfit’s debut fund, but the investor wanted a piece of the management company. It was “really hard to turn down because we had nothing else,” recalls Ho. But she says that other funds Fika was talking with made the decision simpler. “They were like, ‘If you sign on to those terms, we’re out.” The team decided that taking a shortcut that could damage them longer term wasn’t worth it.

Your LPs have questions, but you should question LPs, too

Senkut started off with certain financial advantages that many VCs do not, having been the first product manager at Google and enjoying the fruits of its IPO before leaving the outfit in 2005 along with many other Googleaires, as they were dubbed at the time.

Still, as he tells it, it was “not a friendly time a decade ago” with most solo general partners spinning out of other venture funds instead of search engine giants. In the end, it took him “50 no’s before I had my first yes” — not hundreds —   but it gave him a taste of being an outsider in an insider industry, and he seemingly hasn’t forgotten that feeling.

Indeed, according to Senkut, anyone who wants to crack into the venture industry needs to get into the flow of the best deals by hook or by crook. In his case, for example, he shadowed angel investor Ron Conway for some time, working checks into some of the same deals that Conway was backing.

“If you want to get into the movie industry, you need to be in hit movies,” says Senkut. “If you want to get into the investing industry, you need to be in hits. And the best way to get into hits is to say, ‘Okay. Who has an extraordinary number of hits, who’s likely getting the best deal flow, because the more successful you are, the better companies you’re going to see, the better the companies that find you.”

Adds Senkut, “The danger in this business is that it’s very easy to make a mistake. It’s very easy to chase deals that are not going to go anywhere. And so I think that’s where [following others] things really helped me.”

Senkut has developed an enviable track record over time. The companies that Felicis has backed and been acquired include Credit Karma, which was just gobbled up by Intuit; Plaid, sold in January to Visa; Ring, sold in 2018 to Amazon, and Cruise, sold to General Motors in 2016, and that’s saying nothing of its portfolio companies to go public.

That probably gives him a kind of confidence that it’s harder to earlier managers to muster. Still, Senkut also says it’s very important for anyone raising a fund to ask the right questions of potential investors, who will sometimes wittingly or unwittingly waste a manager’s time.

He says, for example, that with Felicis’s newest fund, the team asked many managers outright about how many assets they have under management, how much of those assets are dedicated to venture and private equity, and how much of their allotment to each was already taken. They did this so they don’t find themselves in a position of making a capital call that an investor can’t meet, especially given that venture backers have been writing out checks to new funds at a faster pace than they’ve ever been asked to before.

In fact, Felicis added new managers who “had room” while cutting back some existing LPs “that we respected . .. because if you ask the right questions, it becomes clear whether they’re already 20% over-allocated [to the asset class] and there’s no possible way [they are] even going to be able to invest if they want to.”

It’s a “little bit of an eight ball to figure out what are your odds and the probability of getting money even if things were to turn south,” he notes.

Given that they have, the questions look smarter still.

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