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Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

The SPAC trash ticker is counting down

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week had the whole crew aboard to record: Grace and Chris making us sound good, Danny to provide levity, Natasha to actually recall facts and Alex to divert us from staying on topic. It’s teamwork, people — and our transitions are proof of it.

And it’s good that we had everyone around the virtual table, as there was quite a lot to get through:

  • The team felt all kinds of ways about the Amazon-MGM deal. Some of us are more positive than the rest, but what gists out from the transaction is that for Amazon, the purchase price is modest and the company is famously playing a supposedly long-game. Let’s see how James Bond fits into it. Alex receives four points for not bringing up F1 thanks to the Bond-Aston Martin connection.
  • Turning to the SPAC game, we chatted through the recent Lordstown Motors earnings results, and what we can parse from them regarding blank-check companies, promises and reality.
  • After launching last June with just $2 million, Collab Capital has closed its debut fund at its target goal: $50 million. The Black-led firm invests exclusively in Black-led startups, and got checks from Apple, PayPal, and Mailchimp to name a few. We talk about this feat, and note a few other Black-led venture capital firms making waves in the industry lately.
  • We Resolved our transition puns and eventually spoke about the Affirm spin-out, which raised $60 million in a funding round for BNPL for businesses. There’s bigger questions there around the accessibility and point of BNPL, and if its really re-inventing the wheel or just repackaging it with simpler UX.
  • Next up, we got into a can of worms about the future of meetings thanks to Rewatch, which raised a $20 million Series A this week led by Andreessen Horowitz. The startup helps other startups create internal, private Youtubes to archive their meetings and any video-based comms. We could only spend a second on this, so if you want our longer thoughts in the form of text, check out our 3 views on the topic on Extra Crunch! (Discount Code: Equity)
  • From there we had Interactio and Fireflies.ai, two more startups that are tackling the complexities of meetings in the COVID-19 era, and whatever comes next. Both recently raised new funding, and Alex brought up Kudo to add one more upstart to the mix.
  • Noom, a weight loss platform, bulked up with $540 million in funding after nearly doubling its revenue from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic has made many people gain weight, but we chew into why Noom’s moment might be right now after a decade in the works.

Thanks for hanging out this week, Equity is back on Tuesday with our usual weekly kickoff, thanks to the American holiday on Monday. Chat then, unless you want to follow us on Twitter and get a first-look at all of Chris’ meme work. 

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Lucid Motors reveals all the tech inside its all-electric Air sedan

By Kirsten Korosec

Eight months after Lucid Motors showed off the final version of its all-electric Air sedan, the company has finally revealed the in-cabin tech — from the curved 34-inch display and second touchscreen to the underlying software, integrated apps and Amazon Alexa voice assistant —that drivers and passengers will use once the automaker begins deliveries of the vehicle in the second half of the year.

The aim of the company’s branded Lucid User Experience, or Lucid UX, is to include all the tech that customers might want in a vehicle priced between $80,000 and $169,000 without adding clutter and confusion.

“We really tried to follow a strong principle of ease-of-use and a short learning curve, for it to have quick responses and an overall feeling of elegance,” Derek Jenkins, Lucid’s head of design said in a recent interview. “I kind of wanted to move away from it being overly technical or sci-fi looking or spreadsheet-like and really move towards something that was more fitting with the brand and our design ethos.”

The interior isn’t as stark as a Tesla Model 3 or Tesla Model Y, nor as jam-packed as an Audi A8. Jenkins and his team have tried to hit the Goldilocks’s equivalent the perfect bowl of tech porridge.

“At the beginning of the project I always used to tell the team, ‘Listen I want my mom to be able to get in this car and figure it out the first time,'” Jenkins said. “She should be able to know instinctively probably the light switch and the door locks are on the left side because that’s where they always are and not have to dig through that stuff. Or that the climate controls are probably on the lower screen because that’s where it often is and traditionally has been. I just felt like it should have intuitiveness and a degree of simplicity, while still having impressive features and having a system that can grow.”

Lucid Motors interior cabin

Image Credits: Lucid Motors

The hardware

The curved 34-inch 5k display called the glass cockpit floats slightly above the dashboard and is the most visible hardware in the vehicle, although not the only component worth mentioning. It is actually three separate displays housed under a single plate of glass, a technique that Mercedes-Benz has used in its 56-inch hyperscreen. On the far left, is a touchscreen where Lucid has placed the most important, or core, vehicle controls such as window defrosters, lighting and wiper settings.

The middle screen, is the instrument cluster, which is where the driver will see the speed and remaining battery range displayed.  The right side of instrument cluster is a widget that can display a variety of information, depending on the user, including navigation or what music is playing. The instrument cluster is also where the driver will see whether the advanced driver assistance system is activated.

To the right of the steering wheel, is another touch display that Lucid is calling the home screen. It’s here where navigation, media and communications will be located.

Moving down and to the center console area is another curved screen that Lucid has dubbed the “pilot panel,” which displays climate controls, seat functions, including a massage feature, along with all the other vehicle settings. The driver or passenger can swipe menus from the home screen down to pilot panel to display in-depth controls for music or navigation. And if the driver doesn’t want that additional touchscreen, the pilot panel can be retracted, opening access to a storage space behind it.

It’s worth noting that analog switches are still within the vehicle in three areas: the doors, the steering wheel and a slice of space between the pilot panel and the upper home screen. Alongside the doors, the driver or passengers will find the window switches and interior door latches. Right above the center console display are four physical buttons that lets the driver or passenger control climate temperature and fan speed.

Image Credits: Lucid Motors

On the steering wheel is a touch bar and two toggles. These buttons can be used to launch the Alexa voice assistant and turn on and off the advanced driver assistance functions as well as adjust the following distance in cruise control and volume.

“We did a lot of research through this discussion of analog interaction such as physical buttons and digital interaction on a touchscreen,” Jenkins said. “What we found was there was some key functionality that people still wanted to have physical interaction with.”

The vehicle is also loaded with 32 sensors, including a single lidar that is located just below the nose blade on the exterior of the vehicle. Below that is a lower air intake and then a forward-facing radar. Other radar sensors are located on the exterior corners. There are exterior cameras as well in the nose and header area behind the rearview mirror.

Inside the vehicle, and tucked right below the instrument cluster is a camera that faces the driver. This camera is part of the driver-monitoring system, which is meant to ensure the operator is paying attention when the advanced driver assistance system is engaged.

Two other hardware items worth noting is the 21-speaker surround sound system from Dolby Atmos and a small vintage detail with the air vents. Lucid wanted the Air to have physical air vents that a person could touch and move unlike the Tesla Model 3, which requires the user to move the direction of the air flow through the digital touchscreen. But Lucid didn’t want the bulk of a vent in the chicklet style design, which has an additional side tab to turn on or off the air flow.

The solution is a slimmed down air vent with a single round dial right in the middle. That dial can be grabbed and move to shift air flow. It can also be turned to shut off the air to a particular vent.

“It was a breakthrough for us,” Jenkins said laughing, “which isn’t a breakthrough because that was super common in the 60s and 70s in cars.”

The software

Behind all of the physical touchscreens and sensors is the software that delivers functions and services.

Lucid started with the open source Android Automotive operating system and built out the apps and other features from there. Android Automotive OS is modeled after Google’s Android open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. Google has offered an open-source version of this OS to automakers for sometime. In recent years, automakers have worked with Google to natively build in an Android OS that is embedded with all the Google apps and services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. Lucid did not take the Google services platform route.

From here, Lucid worked with various third-party apps and integrated them into the infotainment system, a list that currently includes iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Dolby Atmos, Tidal and Spotify.

Lucid has also decided to make Alexa the default and primary integrated voice control system. Lucid Air will also come with Android Auto and Apple Carplay — apps that run on the user’s phone and wirelessly communicates with the vehicle’s infotainment system. This means the driver, or passenger, can access Google Assistant and Siri through these apps, they just won’t be able to control the vehicle functions like climate.

The vehicle will also have integrated mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity, which will allow Lucid to update the software of the vehicle wirelessly. The over-the-air update capability lets the company add new apps and services.

The future

Jenkins said they’re already looking at bringing more content to the infotainment system, including gaming and video streaming, which would only be accessible when the vehicle is parked.

The Lucid design team is also examining other more hardware-based additions to future model years of the Air, including rear entertainment displays.

“You probably won’t see that from us until sometime in 2023,” Jenkins noted. “We think that’s an important thing to bring to the car especially because the rear seat is such a nice place to be.”

 

NASA’s new lunar vehicle could be built by GM and Lockheed Martin

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The last time humans visited the moon in 1972, they got around on a relatively simple battery-powered vehicle. As NASA prepares for the next crewed mission to the moon, it’s looking to give the lunar rover an upgrade.

Lockheed Martin and General Motors said Wednesday they’re working together to develop a next-generation lunar vehicle designed to be faster and capable of traveling farther distances than its predecessor. If the project is selected by NASA, the rover would be used on the upcoming Artemis missions. The first mission, which will be an uncrewed test flight, is scheduled for November. The request for proposals will likely be published in the third or fourth quarter of this year, executives said at a media briefing Wednesday. NASA will award the contract after evaluating the submitted proposals.

The previous rover was only capable of traveling less than five miles from the Apollo landing site, limiting the astronauts’ ability to collect important data on far-flung lunar locales, like the north and south poles. The Moon’s circumference is nearly 7,000 miles. The two companies are aiming to improve the specs, Lockheed’s VP for lunar exploration Kirk Shireman said, noting that the exact materials used for the new rover, its range and other capabilities have yet to be determined.

GM will also be developing an autonomous driving system for the rover, which executives said Wednesday will improve safety and the ability for astronauts to collect samples and conduct other scientific research. GM is investing more than $27 billion through 2025 in electric and autonomous vehicle technologies and it aims to bring that research to the lunar rover project, Jeffrey Ryder, VP of growth and strategy at GM Defense, said. “We’re heads-down right now in investigating how we would take those capabilities and apply them to specific missions and operation associated with the Artemis program.”

GM also said it will be using its earth-bound research into battery and propulsion systems in developing the rover. Ryder anticipates that the rover program will lead to other market opportunities.

Both companies have supplied technology for NASA missions before, including its lunar missions. Auto manufacturer GM helped develop the previous lunar rover that was used during the Apollo era, including its chassis and wheels. It also manufactured and integrated guidance and navigational systems for the program. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s experience extends to building spacecraft and power systems that have been included on every NASA mission to Mars.

The companies said this was “one of several initiatives” they’re working on together, with further announcements regarding other projects expected in the future.

Opportunity knocks: Exhibit at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Alexandra Ames

No matter what slice of the mobility market you’ve claimed as your own — AVs, EVs, data mining, AI, dockless scooters, robotics or the batteries that will charge and change the world — you won’t find a better place to showcase your extraordinary tech and talent than TC Sessions: Mobility 2021.

Buy a Startup Exhibitor Package and virtually plant your early-stage mobility startup in front of a global audience that’s focused exclusively on one of the most complex, rapidly evolving industries. TC Sessions: Mobility, which takes place on June 9, features the top minds and makers, draws thousands of attendees, fosters collaborative community and creates a networking environment ripe with opportunities.

Pro tip: This package is for pre-Series A, early-stage startups only.

The Startup Exhibitor Package costs $380, and it comes with four all-access passes to the event. But wait (insert infomercial voice here), there’s more!

Your virtual expo booth features lead-generation capabilities. You can highlight your pitch deck, run a video loop and/or host live demos. Network with CrunchMatch, our AI-powered platform, to find and connect with the people who can help move your business forward. CrunchMatch lets you host private video meetings — pitch investors, recruit new talent or grow your customer base.

You’ll have access to all the presentations, panel discussions and breakout sessions, too. And video-on-demand means you won’t miss out.

Here’s a peek at just some of the agenda’s great programming you and, thanks to those extra passes, your team can attend — or catch later with VOD:

  • EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with the founders poised to take advantage of the rise in electric vehicle sales. This time, we will chat with Kameale Terry, co-founder and CEO of ChargerHelp! a startup that enables on-demand repair of electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Will Venture Capital Drive the Future of Mobility? Clara Brenner, Quin Garcia and Rachel Holt will discuss how the pandemic changed their investment strategies, the hottest sectors within the mobility industry, the rise of SPACs as a financial instrument and where they plan to put their capital in 2021 and beyond.
  • Driving Innovation at General Motors: GM is in the midst of sweeping changes that will eventually turn it into an EV-only producer of cars, trucks and SUVs. But the auto giant’s push to electrify passenger vehicles is just one of many efforts to be a leader in innovation and the future of transportation. We’ll talk with Pam Fletcher, vice president of innovation at GM, one of the key people behind the 113-year-old automaker’s push to become a nimble, tech-centric company.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place June 9. Buy a Startup Exhibitor Package and set yourself up for global exposure and networking success. Show us your extraordinary tech and talent!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

GM partners with 7 charging networks ahead of electric vehicle push

By Kirsten Korosec

GM revealed Wednesday a four-part plan meant to handle all the steps of charging an electric vehicle, including finding a public charger and paying for the power, as the automaker seeks ways to attract customers to the 30 EVs it plans to launch by 2025.

The so-called Ultium Charge 360 plan — named after the underlying electric vehicle platform and batteries of its upcoming EVs — aims to handle the access, payment and customer service components of charging an electric vehicle at home and on the road. As part of the plan, which the company’s chief EV officer Travis Hester said will be rolling out over the next 18 months, GM has signed agreements with seven third-party charging network providers, including Blink Charging, ChargePoint, EV Connect, EVgo, FLO, Greenlots and SemaConnect. Using their GM vehicle brand mobile app, EV drivers will be able to see real-time information, including location and whether a charger is being used, from nearly 60,000 charging plugs throughout the U.S. and Canada. These functions will be rolled into the existing brand apps GM has created for owners of its Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC vehicles.

The first GM and EVgo sites are now live in Washington, California and Florida. GM said each site is capable of delivering up to 350 kilowatts and averages four chargers per site. GM and EVgo are on track to have about 500 fast-charging stalls live by the end of 2021, according to the automaker.

Hester noted the plan isn’t just about how many third-party networks it partners with. (Although it should be noted that Electrify America is not on its list of partners announced Wednesday.)

“We know how critical the charging infrastructure is to our customers and how it plays a hugely significant role in EV adoption and experienced EV owners know that this is much more complicated than just a simple network quantity issue,” Hester said in a media briefing Wednesday.

For instance, the GM app will provide information on how to find stations along a route and initiate and pay for charging, Hester said. GM will continue to update the mobile app. GM is also planning to offer charging accessories and installation services for their home charger. The company said Wednesday it will cover standard installation of Level 2 charging capability for eligible customers who purchase or lease a 2022 Bolt EUV or Bolt EV in collaboration with Qmerit.

There were some gaps in the announcement, notably whether there would be Plug and Charge capabilities. Plug and Charge is a technology standard that allows the driver of an EV to pull up to a station, plug in and power up their EV without having to launch an app to begin the charging process or to pay for it. Instead, the vehicle is able to communicate with the charging infrastructure and the payment is integrated into that process. Alex Keros, the lead architect for EV infrastructure at GM, said the company wasn’t making any announcements around Plug and Charge, but noted that the company knows “that enabling that seamless experience is going to be an important part of that customer experience.”

The 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV lowers the cost of entry for some of GM’s most advanced tech

By Abigail Bassett

The 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV may look like a larger, slightly longer Chevrolet Bolt, but under that boxy exterior lies a whole lot of tech that’s both affordable and very advanced. With the launch of the Chevy Bolt EUV, and its available suite of advanced driver assistance systems, GM is putting both advanced driver assistance technology and electric drivetrains within reach of the masses.

As part of GMs much-touted goal to introduce 30 new electric vehicles in the next four years, the company recently launched an updated Bolt, as well as the all-new Bolt EUV, or Electric Utility Vehicle. I had two separate opportunities to test prototypes of the Bolt EUV with GM’s advanced Super Cruise system.

While the Bolt and Bolt EUV share similar DNA, they are two different vehicles. The EUV is the longer and larger of the two, with more bells and whistles, like Super Cruise: An advanced driver assistance system that allows for hands-free driving on certain highways, available as a $2,200 option. Super Cruise is not available on the 2022 Bolt.

Nuts and bolts

The Bolt EUV is powered by a 288-cell, 65-kWh battery pack that Chevy says makes 200 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. Chevrolet estimates that the EUV will get 250 miles on a full charge, and when charging on the go, can regain up to 95 miles of range in 30 minutes on a Level 2 charger.

On household power, (specifically 240V) the EUV will take around 7-8 hours to charge up to 100%, which is how Chevy says it expects most consumers will power their crossover. To assist with that, Chevrolet had teamed up with home charging installer Qmerit to offer free charger installation if you buy or lease a new Bolt or EUV. Installation of a home charger can cost as much as $2,000, so it’s a decent incentive.

The Bolt EUV won’t get the upgraded Ultium battery pack and underlying architecture that’s coming on the Hummer EV, Cadillac Lyric and other future GM electric vehicles. Instead, the Bolt EUV is built on the BEV2 architecture, the same one on which the 2021 Bolt is built. As mentioned, it also gets Super Cruise as an optional add-on.

Since Super Cruise’s introduction in 2017, the system has been siloed in Cadillac products, showing up on the 2018 CT6 and finally expanding to the 2021 CT5. The Bolt EUV is the first production vehicle outside of a luxury GM brand to offer the system even as paid upgrade.

The Bolt EUV starts at $33,995, which is $2,500 less than the 2021 Bolt that is sitting on dealer lots today. The 2022 Chevy Bolt ($31,995) is also around $4,500 cheaper than the 2021 Bolt. Chevy’s press department says that the goal is to “make EVs attainable to everyone.” Although this is also likely an effort to bring the new vehicles in line with earlier Bolt models that qualified for the $7,500 federal tax credit. That incentive in the U.S. disappeared after GM sold 200,000 EVs nationwide.

The Launch Edition, which included the optional Super Cruise, a lighted charging port and special badging, carried a sticker price of $43,495. As of this writing, reservations for the Launch Edition are completely full, but you can still reserve an LT or Premier trim in the 2022 Bolt EUV. Super Cruise, however, is only available as a $2,200 option on the Premier trim, which starts at $38,495. Keep in mind, these prices are all before including any state or local tax incentives or rebates for electric vehicles.

In contrast, a Tesla Model Y Long Range model, the most affordable of the bunch since Tesla dropped that vehicle’s base option, starts at $41,990 before incentives. Getting Tesla’s so called Full-Self Driving feature — which is not self-driving and is actually a driver assistance system — will cost you an additional $10,000.

User experience: Super Cruise

Super Cruise, while impressive, tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to implementing the technology. The system allows for drivers to take their hands and feet off the controls on more than 200,000 miles of mapped divided highway all over the country.

“If we can bring congestion and crashes to zero, then developing fully-autonomous driving is worth it,” Jeremy Short, the vehicle chief engineer who is responsible for the engineering, development, validation, testing and manufacturing of the Bolt EUV, said during my second time with the crossover. “The next 10 years are going to get really interesting in the autonomy space. Five years ago, would you have thought we would have what we have now with Super Cruise?”

That being said, Super Cruise isn’t perfect, and GM continues to iterate the product, even on the Bolt EUV. During my first drive in a Bolt EUV prototype from Marina Del Rey to Burbank and back in peak Los Angeles rush hour traffic, Super Cruise seemed a little bit “off.” The system ping-ponged in the wide lanes on the highway. When the vehicle was moving under 30 mph, the system lost track of the lane markings on mapped highways like the extremely busy 405, causing it to drift toward the other lanes and switch off a number of times.

2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV

2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV. Image Credits: GM

A few weeks later, on a second prototype drive that followed a 50-mile loop originating in Carson, the system appeared to have gained its sea legs. However, both Short, who was following in another prototype vehicle, and I noted that Super Cruise in the EUV still had problems when traffic slowed below 10 mph. When cars ahead slowed, the EUV would slow appropriately, but then begin to drift across the lane once traffic moved forward, as if it had lost the lane markings. Eventually, the alert to take over would sound and Super Cruise would shut off.

“I did notice some ping-ponging at low speeds,” Short said after our drive. He then joked that it will require some more engineers driving that stretch of road to teach the system to navigate it without bouncing around the lane. He also said that speed and California’s strange concrete roadbeds (they have textured surfaces that can look like lane markings to AI) can affect Super Cruise. “Think of it like tracer fire; the more data you have coming in, the more accurate the car can be.”

Short says that the Super Cruise system is continually learning and updating — even if it’s fully baked on vehicles like the CT5 and CT6. Every time Super Cruise is added to a new vehicle, the sensors, software and processing needs to be updated and tweaked because each car has different weights, potential speeds, dimensions, steering and braking, space for sensors and features. For example, you will be able to get a version of Super Cruise on the 2022 Cadillac Escalade which includes automatic lane changing features. The 2022 Bolt EUV, however, doesn’t get those sensors and therefore can’t automatically change lanes.

“Each vehicle that has Super Cruise implemented has different anatomy so it needs to process and do different things,” Short said. “The Super Cruise on the Bolt EUV was developed at the same time that engineers were developing it on the Escalade. There’s very different steering and braking in each car so the two systems are different.”

Super Cruise qualifies as an advanced Level 2 autonomous vehicle. As the driver, you still have to remain alert, and attentive, but you can remove your hands from the steering wheel and your feet from the pedals on roads where Super Cruise is available. Sensors embedded in the steering wheel track your eyes (even at night or when you’re wearing dark sunglasses) to ensure that you are paying attention to the road ahead and not watching a movie, napping or glancing at your phone. The system doesn’t give you much leeway to take your eyes off the road while using Super Cruise, either. At 65 mph, you can reach over and change the radio station on the 10.2-inch infotainment screen but alarms will sound if you look away for more than just a few seconds.

“If you were on a long drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas,” Short explained after I asked about it, “you’d essentially be a front passenger. Both you and your passenger would be looking down the road, keeping your eyes up for any potential issues. When I did that trip with a friend and used Super Cruise, I felt the same level of fatigue that he did, which is to say, not much.”

The other bells and whistles

We haven’t had the typical full week to test the 2022 Bolt EUV to fully evaluate. However, there was enough time to evaluate some of the vehicle’s features.

Chevy’s new onboard infotainment and navigation system runs on the company’s Infotainment 3 software. The system’s voice control, which has natural language processing, allowed me to do a quick search to find local charging stations.

The drawback? The system brought up a number of charging stations, but didn’t indicate which ones were available, in service, out of service, or if they were part of the EvGo system, the charging company that GM has partnered with. Driver’s also can’t page through results while using Super Cruise because the driver monitoring system will notice that their eyes aren’t on the road ahead.

In order to find EvGo chargers, owners need to use the myChevrolet App to locate the chargers and then send the directions to the navigation system. While driving, the system does lock out some features, and Short notes that you won’t be able to flip through pages of apps.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out once we get more time in the EUV. That being said, it’s not likely to be as seamless as the Tesla charging experience.

At its core, the 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV offers some of the most advanced driver assistance technology on the market in an EV package for an attainable price. After spending two separate four-hour stints in prototype versions of the EUV, it’s clear that this compact SUV has the space, power and high-tech capability that will allow it to go head-to-head with the likes of the Tesla Model Y, Volvo’s XC40 Recharge, Ford’s Mach-E and Volkswagen’s ID.4.

GM idles more North American plants as chip shortage drags on

By Kirsten Korosec

General Motors is idling more plants and extending shutdowns at other facilities in North America due to a continued shortage of semiconductor chips that are used to control myriad operations in vehicles, including the infotainment, power steering and brake systems.

In an update Thursday, GM indicated that eight assembly plants are affected by the temporary closures. CNBC was the first to report on the temporary plant closures. GM confirmed the shutdowns to TechCrunch and added that it plans to restart production next week at its Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri.

“GM continues to leverage every available semiconductor to build and ship our most popular and in-demand products, including full-size trucks and SUVs for our customers,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Our intent is to make up as much production lost at these plants as possible.”

As global chip shortage has dragged on, automakers including GM and Ford have had to idle plants and shuffle resources to the production of higher margin vehicles like SUVs. GM told TechCrunch that it has not taken downtime or reduced shifts at any of its full-size truck or full-size SUV plants due to the shortage. It’s also prompted automakers to build vehicles without specific parts. For instance, GM said last month that certain pickup trucks would be produced without a fuel management module, a device that will prevent these vehicles from achieving top fuel economy performance.

Automakers have also issued guidance on how the shortage will affect financial results in 2021. Ford has said that if the semiconductor shortage scenario is extended through the first half of 2021, the shortage could lower its earnings between $1 billion and $2.5 billion, net of cost recoveries and some production make-up in the second half of the year.

GM said in February that the global shortage of semiconductors will have a short-term impact on its production, earnings and cash flow in 2021.

GM’s Spring Hill Assembly in Tennessee, which builds the Cadillac XT5, Cadillac XT6 and GMC Acadia, will shut down for two weeks beginning April 12. GM is temporarily halting production of the Chevrolet Blazer at the Ramos Assembly in Mexico and Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave at the Lansing Delta Township factory during the week of April 19.

GM also extended downtime at Lansing Grand River Assembly through the week of April 26. This plant, which builds the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave, has been down since March 15.

The automaker is extending the shutdown at its CAMI Assembly plant in Canada and the Fairfax Assembly plant in Kansas, which is where the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac XT4 are extended through May 10. Both CAMI and Fairfax have been down since the week of February 8, GM said.

GM’s Bupyeong 2 Assembly in Korea has been operating at half capacity since February 8, and its Gravataí plant in Brazil is taking downtime for the months of April and May.

Giving EV batteries a second life for sustainability and profit

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Electric cars and trucks seem to have everything going for them: They don’t produce tailpipe emissions, they’re quieter than their fossil-fuel-powered counterparts and the underlying architecture allows for roomier and often sleeker designs. But the humble lithium-ion battery powering these cars and trucks leads a difficult life. Irregular charging and discharge rates, intense temperatures and many partial charge cycles cause these batteries to degrade in the first five to eight years of use, and eventually, they end up in a recycling facility.

Instead of sending batteries straight to recycling for raw material recovery — and leaving unrealized value on the table — startups and automakers are finding ways to reuse batteries as part of a small and growing market.

Low consumer uptake and the relatively recent introduction of EVs to the market has kept the supply of used batteries low, but automakers are already pursuing a number of second-life projects.

That’s because the average electric vehicle lithium-ion battery can retain up to 70% of its charging capacity after being removed. The business proposition for second-life batteries is therefore intuitive: Before sending the battery to a recycler, automakers can potentially generate additional revenue by putting it to use in another application or selling it to a third party.

Low consumer uptake and the relatively recent introduction of EVs to the market has kept the supply of used batteries low, but automakers are already pursuing a number of second-life projects.

To name only a few such projects that have popped up in recent years, Nissan is using old batteries to power small robots; French carmaker Groupe Renault, with partners, is launching stationary energy storage systems made with old EV batteries; and Audi Environmental Foundation, the daughter organization of Audi AG, worked with Indian startup Nunam to build solar nanogrids out of used e-tron battery modules.

Other OEMs, like Lucid Motors, BMW and Proterra, are incorporating reuse principles into their battery design. In fact, Lucid has built its batteries to work across its electric vehicle and energy storage products, including in second-life uses, Chief Engineer Eric Bach told TechCrunch. And BMW has used a “plug-and-play” concept with the batteries in its i3 model so that they can be easily removed and inserted into second-life applications, BMW spokesperson Weiland Bruch said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We believe that battery second-life will become its own self-standing business field,” he added.

A new lease on battery life

Automakers are increasingly bullish on second-life uses, though the size of their role in this budding market is still unclear. Matthew Lumsden, CEO of U.K.-based Connected Energy, told TechCrunch that he has noticed a shift in the past two years where some OEMs have begun viewing batteries as an asset rather than a liability.

EV makers oppose delay to automotive emissions penalty increase

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Electric vehicle manufacturers are pushing back against a decision to delay penalty increases for automakers who fail to meet fuel efficiency standards.

A lobbying group representing legacy automakers – many of whom are now making substantial investments in zero-emissions vehicles – said the increase would have a significant economic impact during a time when the industry is facing mass disruption from the COVID pandemic. But new EV entrants say the penalty mechanism is a powerful performance incentive to decrease tailpipe emissions and encourage investment in lower- or zero-emissions technology.  

The decision, issued in January by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), postpones imposing a penalty increase from the beginning of model year 2019 to model year 2022. Tesla is petitioning the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to review the ruling, saying that the delay “inflicts ongoing, irreparable injury” on the company and creates an “uneven playing field” by reducing the consequences of non-adherence.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) penalty has been increased just once – from $5 to $5.50 for every 0.1 mile per gallon that doesn’t meet the standard – since its instatement in 1975. Congress acted to rectify the effects of inflation on the penalty by raising it to $14 in 2015, but NHTSA and the courts have ping-ponged about the increase ever since. A decision from the Second Circuit last August seemed to settle the issue in favor of instating the higher penalty starting with model year 2019, but automakers last October successfully petitioned that the increase be delayed.

The CAFE penalty can be a huge boon for zero emissions automakers, who receive credits that they can then sell to other OEMs who fail to meet the fuel efficiency target. In a recent report to regulators, Tesla said it earned $1.58 billion from selling regulatory credits to other automakers in 2020, up from $594 million in 2019. Delaying the increase harms companies that have made economic decisions on the basis of an increase to the credit, Tesla said.  

EV start-ups Rivian and Lucid Motors told TechCrunch they also oppose any delay to increasing the CAFE penalty.

“The credit market is very beneficial for the entire EV industry, so every company that is looking to start building EVs, either as a startup or the existing manufacturers, when they build EVs it’s to their benefit to have robust credits,” Kevin Vincent, Lucid Motor’s Associate General Counsel, told TechCrunch. “A lot of existing manufacturers end up selling credits themselves, so it benefits the forward-thinking companies that are improving fuel economy.”

James Chen, Rivian’s VP of Public Policy and Chief Regulatory Counsel, said in a statement to TechCrunch that any rollback of the CAFE or other emission standard “only sets the U.S. backwards in terms of emission reductions ([greenhouse gas] and criteria pollutants), increased fuel efficiency, reduction of dependence on foreign oil, technology leadership and EV proliferation.” He added that the company “strongly supports efforts to bolster EV adoption that includes more stringent emission standards and higher penalties for failure to meet those standards.”

NHTSA postponed the increase on the grounds that the penalty should not be retroactively applied to model years that had already been manufactured. As manufacturers have no way to increase the fuel economy level in these vehicles, “it would be inappropriate to apply the adjustment to model years that could have no deterrence effect and promote no additional compliance with the law,” NHTSA said.

Automakers, in a petition filed by the lobbying group Alliance for Automotive Innovation and in supplemental comments, also cited economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mercedes-Benz told NHTSA that the pandemic caused disruptions to its supply chain, workforce and production.

“We believe that retroactively applying an increased penalty rate in such a tenuous financial climate is unconscionable and inconsistent with this Administration’s efforts to promote regulatory relief in light of the economic consequences of COVID-19,” the automaker said.

Tesla maintained in its court filing that relying on the COVID pandemic “falls flat” in the absence of specific evidence as to why it warrants the delay.  

Attorney generals from 16 states, including California and New York, as well as environmental groups Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have also objected to the delay.

The NHTSA decision was issued in docket no. NHTSA-2021-0001. Tesla filed with the second circuit under case no. 21-593.

H3X rethinks the electric motor to power the next phase of mobility

By Devin Coldewey

It’s plain to see that electric vehicles are the future, but there’s more to making that change happen than swapping out a gas motor for a battery-powered one — especially in aircraft. H3X is a startup that aims to accelerate that future with a reimagined, completely integrated electric motor that it claims outperforms everything on the market.

The small founding team — CEO Jason Sylvestre, CTO Max Liben, and COO Eric Maciolek — met in college while participating in an electric vehicle building and racing program. After stints in the tech and automobile industry (including at Tesla), the crew came back together when they saw that the Department of Energy was offering a bounty for improved high power density electric motors.

“The problem was uniquely suited to our abilities, and passions too — we’re excited about this stuff. We care about decarbonization of the different transit sectors, and aviation is going to become a growing part of the global carbon footprint over the next few decades as electric improves ground vehicles,” said Liben. “We just kinda decided to take a leap of faith, and applied to Y Combinator.”

Electric flight isn’t so much a wild idea as one that’s in its early, awkward stages. Lightweight craft like drones can do a great deal with the batteries and motors that are available, and converted small aircraft like seaplanes are able to make short flights, but that’s about the limit with the way things are today.

The problem is primarily a simple lack of power: The energy required to propel an aircraft fast enough to generate lift grows exponentially as the size and mass of the plane increase. A handful of kilowatt-hours will serve for a drone, and a few EV-scale batteries will work for a light aircraft, but beyond that the energy required to take flight requires batteries the bulk and weight of which make flight impractical.

The H3x lab with someone working on a motor the size of a toaster.

Image Credits: H3X

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. And there are two general avenues for improvement: better batteries or better motors. So either you can fit more energy in the same mass or use what energy you have more efficiently. Both are being pursued by many companies, but H3X claims to have made a huge leap forward in power density that could unlock new industries overnight. While even an improvement of 10% or 20% in power per kilogram (e.g., a 50-pound motor putting out 120 horsepower rather than 100) would be notable, H3X says its motor is performing at around 300% of the competition’s output.

How? It’s all about integration, Liben explained. While the pieces are similar in some ways to motors and power assemblies out there now, the team basically started from scratch with the idea of maximizing efficiency and minimizing size.

Electric motors generally have three main sections: the motor itself, a power delivery system and a gearbox, each of which may have its own housing and be sold and mounted separately from one another. One reason why these aren’t all one big machine is temperature: The parts and coolant systems of the gearbox, for instance, might not be able to operate at the temperatures generated by the motor or the power system, or vice versa. Put them together and one may cause the other to seize up or otherwise fail. The different sections just have different requirements, which seems natural.

Animated image of an electric motor rendered to be see-through.

Image Credits: H3X

H3X challenges this paradigm with a novel integrated design, but Liben was careful to clarify what that means.

“We’re not just taking the inverter box and slapping it on top and calling it integrated,” he said. “All the components are all intimately connected to the same housing and motor. We’re making a truly integrated design that’s one of the first of its kind at this power level.”

And by “one of the first” he doesn’t mean that Airbus has one in some powertrains, but rather that there have been research projects along these lines — nothing intended for production.

The idea that no one else has gone this far in putting everything in the same box at scales that could be used commercially may sound suspicious to some. One would think that the existing players in aerospace would have been barking up this tree for years, but Liben said large companies are too slow to innovate and too invested in other methods, while smaller ones tend to avoid risk by improving incrementally on successful existing designs and competing among themselves. “No one is targeting the level of performance we’re looking at right now,” he said.

Image Credits: H3X

But it isn’t like H3X stumbled over a single advance that magically tripled the performance of electric motors.

“We’re not relying on one big tech or something — there’s no magic bullet,” Liben said. “There are a few improvements that have very significant gains, like 50% better than the state of the art, and lots of areas that add 10%-20%. It’s good from the technical risk side.”

He went into considerable detail on a lot of those improvements, but the less technical-minded among our readers, if they’ve even read this far, might close the tab if I tried to recount the whole conversation. To be brief, it amounts to combining advances in materials, manufacturing and electric components so that they act synergistically, each enabling the other to be used to best effect.

For instance, recently improved power switching hardware can be run at hotter temperatures and handle higher loads — this raises performance but also allows for shared cooling infrastructure. The shared infrastructure can itself be improved by using new pure-copper 3D-printing techniques, which allow more cooling to fit inside the housing. Using 3D printing means custom internal geometries so that the motor, gearbox and power delivery can all be mounted in optimal positions to one another instead of bolted on where existing methods allow.

The result is an all-in-one motor, the HPDM-250, that’s smaller than a lot of the competition, yet produces far more power. The best production motors out there are around 3-4 kilowatts per kilogram of continuous power. H3X’s prototype produces 13 — coincidentally, just above the theoretical power density that would enable midrange passenger aircraft.

CG render of 3D printed copper coils.

Image Credits: H3X

There is the risk that stacking cutting-edge techniques like this makes the cost rise faster than the performance. Liben said that while it’s definitely more expensive in some ways, the smaller size and integrated design also lead to new savings in cost, time or material.

“People think, ‘3D-printing copper, that’s expensive!’ But when you compare it to the super high-performance windings you’d need otherwise, and the different ways that you manufacture them, that can require a lot of manual steps and people involved … it can be a lot simpler printing something,” he explained. “It can be counterintuitive, but at least from my BOM [bill of materials] cost, when you’re selling something three times smaller than the other guy, even if it’s high-performance materials, it’s actually not as expensive as you’d think. Based on the customers we’ve talked to so far, we think we’re in a good spot.”

Servicing a fully integrated motor is also fundamentally more complex than doing so for an off-the-shelf one, but Liben noted that they were careful to think about maintenance from the start — and also that, while it may be a little harder to service their motor than an ordinary electric one, it’s much, much simpler than servicing even the most reliable and well-known gas-powered motors.

Image Credits: H3X

Despite the huge gains H3X claims, the target market of passenger aircraft is hardly one that they, or anyone, can just jump into. Heavily regulated industries like air travel require years of work and technology proving to change a fastener style, let alone the method of propulsion.

So H3X is focusing on the numerous smaller, less regulated industries that could use vastly improved electric propulsion. Cargo drones, electric boats and air taxis might still be rare sights on this planet, but a big bump to motor power and efficiency might be what helps tip them from niche (or vaporware) to mainstream. Certainly all three of those applications could benefit hugely from improved range or payload capacity.

Graduating to passenger flights isn’t a distant dream, exactly, suggested Liben: “We’re already on our way — this isn’t 20-years-out type stuff. In the last few years the timelines have shrunk drastically. You could have a full-battery electric vehicle soon, but it isn’t going to cut it for longer flights.”

There’s still a role for motors like H3X’s in hybrid aircraft that use jet fuel, batteries and perhaps even hydrogen fuel cells interchangeably. Like the switch to electric cars, it doesn’t happen all at once and it doesn’t need to for the purposes of their business. “That’s the great thing about motors,” Liben said. “They’re so ubiquitous.”

H3X declined to disclose any funding or partners, although it’s hard to believe that the team could have gotten as far as it has without some kind of significant capital and facilities — this sort of project outgrows the garage workbench pretty fast. But with Y Combinator’s demo day happening tomorrow, it seems likely that they’ll be receiving a lot of calls over the next few weeks, after which it may be reasonable to expect a seed round to come together.

If H3X’s prototypes perform as well in the wild as they do on the bench, they may very well enable a host of new electric transportation applications. We’ll be watching closely to see how the startup’s play affects the future of electric mobility.

The Station: Uber’s new battles in the UK, Lucid Motors’ second life plans and Cruise acquires Voyage

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 friends and new readers, welcome to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B. Before I forget, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the newsletter, if you’re interested in attending our upcoming early-stage conference. I have a gift for you.

Um, there is a #$@% ton of mobility news to get to, including a few scoops, some investment news, and a new “market map” that takes a deep look into the business of Mobility-as-a-service apps. Buckle up.

First up, here’s the market maps story (I just mentioned) from writer Jason Plautz. The upshot: As transit agencies seek to win back riders, a flurry of platforms — some backed by giants like Uber, Intel and BMW — are offering new technology partnerships. Whether it’s bundling bookings, payments or just trip planning, startups are selling these mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings as a lifeline to make transit agencies the backbone of urban mobility. Third-party platforms have become more appealing to transit agencies as they scramble to keep buses, trains and rail full of customers.

And yep, this is an Extra Crunch story, which requires a subscription. As I’ve shared in here before, we’re bringing more transportation analysis to Extra Crunch. Last month, we had Mark Harris’ market analysis on solid state batteries. Next week, Extra Crunch will feature stories on the state of holographic tech in vehicles, the second-life battery marketplace and software plays in the micromobility industry.

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.

Micromobbin’

Bird peeped up this week (they’ve been sorta quiet lately) and announced it is investing $150 million into a European expansion plan that will include launching in more than 50 cities this year, a move that it says will double its footprint in the region.

According to Bird, this growth plan is already underway, with the shared micromobility company recently bringing its scooters to Bergen, Norway; Tarragona, Spain; and Palermo, Italy.

Bird emphasized that its European expansion will be more than just a geographic one. The company said it is adding more scooters to its existing fleets and made several other promises as part of its announcement, including plans to launch new mobility products and safety initiatives, “the next generation of recycling and second-life applications for vehicles,” investing in equity programs and “securing partnerships across the region.”

I might have raised an eyebrow or two when I first read this announcement. Why? Welp, for one it isn’t clear what these new mobility products or initiatives around safety or recycling will be. A Bird spokesperson told me these will be new vehicles and “transport modes” in the region. Bird didn’t provide details about what it means by “securing partnerships,” a phrase that could mean an extension of its franchise program called the Bird Platform or some other kind of arrangement with local governments or operators.

And then there’s the bit about that $150 million. A Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch it’s using “existing resources” to fund these various initiatives. However, the pandemic, its acquisition of Circ and its effort to launch operations in new cities while maintaining existing fleets have depleted its funds. (Last June, Bird shut down scooter sharing in several cities in the Middle East, an operation that was managed by Circ.) The company’s last public fundraising announcements were more than a year ago. The company raised $275 million in a Series D round back in September 2019. That round was later extended to $350 million.

Now, this could be the $100 million in convertible debt that Bird reportedly was close to finalizing (per The Information’s reporting back in January). But something tells me there is more to this. Stay tuned.

A few other interesting micromobbin’ nugs for you … 

Lime and Lyft appear to have secured a license that will allow the companies to exclusively operate scooter and bike share services in Denver. The city’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure said it is moving two licensing agreements through the Denver City Council approval process. On March 23, he DOTI will present the licensing agreements to Denver City Council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee  for approval before heading to full council for consideration.

The “license” term is important here and marks a shift in how Denver is thinking about dockless shared scooters and bikes. A license would replace how dockless electric scooter and bike companies currently operate in Denver, which is through a permit. If the licenses are approved by Council, Lyft and Lime would be the only two companies operating vehicles in Denver under the new bike and scooter share program. The license would be valid for 5 years.

Superpedestrian, the startup that makes e-scooters equipped with self-diagnostic software, is upgrading its product as it prepares for a major expansion into 10 new cities within the next two weeks, TechCrunch’s Rebecca Bellan reported. Superpedestrian might not be a household name, but it is an up-and-coming player in the micromobility world. The company has developed AI — which is integrated into the vehicle — that monitors and corrects scooter safety issues in real time.

The next-generation operating system that will provide those upgrades, codenamed “Briggs,” will be uploaded to its global fleet of LINK e-scooters. It includes improvements to geofencing capabilities and battery life, making Superpedestrian more attractive to cities looking for partners who can provide assurances around safety and reliability.

SMART, a startup founded in 2020, revealed its first product: An airless bicycle tire based on technology NASA engineers created to make future lunar and Martian rovers even more resilient. This nifty tech that shows how NASA investments towards space exploration can end up improving life on Earth. SMART has a partnership with NASA through the Space Act Agreement and is part of the agency’s formal Startup Program that aims to commercialize some of its innovations.

SMART's METL tire close up

Image Credits: SMART Tire Company

The company’s “METL tire” came out of its work with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where NASA engineers Dr. Santo Padula and Colin Creager first developed their so-called “shape memory alloy” (SMA) technology. SMA allows for a tire constructed entirely of interconnected springs, which requires no inflation and is therefore immune to punctures, but which can still provide equivalent or better traction when compared to inflatable rubber tires, and even some built-in shock-absorbing capabilities, TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington reports.

SMART’s  co-founders, Survivor: Fiji” champion Earl Cole and engineer Brian Yennie, are targeting the cycling market first with their METL tire, which is set to become available to the general public by early next year. SMART intends to bring SMA tires to the automotive and commercial vehicle industries.

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, my “deal of the week” has a financial figure tied to it. This time, I don’t have those terms. (Feel free to share,  if you do.) This deal made it to the top of the list because of its importance in the autonomous vehicle industry.

I am, of course, talking about Cruise acquiring Voyage, a four-year-old autonomous vehicle startup that is well-known in the industry despite its size relative to other major players. Voyage had 60 employees and raised about $52 million compared to giants like Cruise that has a nearly 2,000-person workforce and is valued at $30 billion. But Voyage made an indelible mark on the industry, in large part because of its co-founder and CEO Oliver Cameron. The company, which spun out of Udacity in 2017, is best known for its operations in two senior living communities. Voyage tested and gave rides to people within a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, California, as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida.

I’ve been told the majority of Voyage’s team will move over to Cruise and Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product. Basically, Cameron will be in charge of anything that touches the customer.

Importantly, Voyage’s ride-hailing service (which always included a human safety driver behind the wheel) at the two senior communities, one in California and the other in Florida, will be ending before summer. The Villages community in Florida is massive and its where Voyage scaled up and at one point had “hundreds” of riders. The shuttering of this service would seem to open up the opportunity to other AV companies; my guess is that Cameron has already fielded a few inquiries.

Voyage’s partnership with FCA, now called Stellantis, will also end once the acquisition with Cruise closes.

Other deals that stood out …

Aerovel, the manufacturer of uncrewed vertical take-off and landing aircraft designed for surveillance, has raised $2.5 million in Series B capital. The investment is from undisclosed leaders in aviation, according to the company.

Arbe Robotics, a company that sells long-range 4D imaging radar, has agreed to merge with special purpose acquisition company Industrial Tech Acquisitions Inc. The transaction is expect4ed to deliver about $177 million in gross cash  proceeds that includes Industrial Tech’s $77 million cash-in-trust as well as $100 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, M&G Investment Management, Varana Capital, Texas Ventures and Eyal Waldman, the founder and CEO of Mellanox Technologies. You can check out their investor presentation here.

For a little insight into Arbe, check out this Autonocast podcast episode from 2018, when I — along with my co-hosts Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer — interviewed Arbe CEO Kobi Marenko about his company’s high-resolution radar technology.

Charge Amps, the Swedish maker of smart charging stations, cables, and cloud software, raised 130 million crowns ($15.3 million) in a funding round led by Swedbank Robur. The company raised the funds ahead of a planned IPO next year, Reuters reported.

Fort Robotics raised $13 million in a round led by Prime Movers Lab, the round also features Prologis Ventures, Quiet Capital, Lemnos Labs, Creative Ventures, Ahoy Capital, Compound, FundersClub and Mark Cuban. The Philadelphia-based company was founded in 2018 by Samuel Reeves, who previous headed up Humanistic Robotics. That fellow Pennsylvania startup is focused on landmine and IED-clearing remote operating robotic systems.

Momenta, the five-year-old Chinese autonomous driving startup, closed another massive round of nearly $500 million. The funding lifts its total funding to more than $700 million and in its short life has attracted a dazzling list of investors, including Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, the government of Suzhou and Daimler.

Momenta’s chief of business development Sun Huan told TechCrunch’s Rita Liao that the investment marks an important step toward the firm’s international expansion. In a few months’ time, Sun will head to Stuttgart, the German hometown of Mercedes-Benz, and open Momenta’s first European office.

Unagi, the startup behind the portable, design-centric electric scooters, raised $10.5 million in a Series A round led by led by the Ecosystem Integrity Fund with participation from Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels and Gaingels, among others. Unagi, which was launched in late 2018 by former Beats Music CEO and MOG co-founder David Hyman, plans to use the money to fund its expansion and bring  its subscription service to six more U.S. cities, including Austin, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Unagi will also be expanding its existing service in the New York and LA metropolitan regions, including all five NYC boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and Northern New Jersey, as well as the Westside and Southeast LA, the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery

Lots. of. news. Let’s get to it.

Autonomous vehicles and robotics

Ford Motor announced plans to embed 100 of its researchers and engineers in a new $75 million robotics and mobility facility on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. The arrangement will give Ford space to conduct robotics research and access to students — and vice versa — from the top floor of the four-floor, 134,000 square-foot building. In addition to its fourth-floor lab, Ford will have access to a high-bay garage space to test autonomous vehicles.

Shortly after the event wrapped up, TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater hopped on the phone with Ford’s Technical Expert Mario Santillo, who will help head up the expanded robotics efforts. Here’s what Santillo had to say.

Electric

Amazon is expanding customer deliveries via electric cargo vehicle to San Francisco, making the Bay Area the second of 16 total cities the company expects to bring its Rivian-sourced EVs to in 2021. San Francisco’s unique terrain and climate were a couple of the reasons Amazon said it chose the city for its second round of testing. Its EVs, which were designed and built in partnership with Rivian, can last up to 150 miles on a single charge.

BMW takes the wraps off of the all-electric i4 sedan. The German automaker also announced version 8 of its iDrive operating system, which will feature a new dashboard layout and visual design, with two curved screens. It will make its debut in the i4 and iX.

Chanje, EV startup that emerged from stealth in 2017 and is owned by Chanje is owned by Chinese automotive company  FDG, is being sued by truck rental company Ryder for alleged failing to deliver 100 of the 125 vans it was promised, The Verge reported. Ryder says it’s owed nearly $4 million. Chanje was on The Autonocast waayyyyy back in 2018. At the time, I was impressed by the idea and the van, which I drove with co-host Alex Roy around downtown Los Angeles. But it seems that Chanje is riddled with problems — and lawsuits. The Verge reported that Chanje has been sued more than once in Los Angeles Superior Court by former employees who say they’re owed tens of thousands in back pay and bonuses. The company has also been hit with liens from the California Secretary of State for not paying taxes.

Lucid Motors, which is already experimenting with energy storage systems for commercial and residential customers, is also eyeing ways to repurpose batteries from its electric vehicles, according to this scoop by TechCrunch’s Aria Alamalhodaei. While Lucid CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson has previously discussed plans to eventually build energy storage systems like Tesla that uses new batteries, this is the first time the company has talked about second-life applications for the product.

This is interesting because Lucid is still years from having to contend with a large number of used batteries. After all, its first EV, the luxury Lucid Air sedan, isn’t coming to market until the second half of 2021.

Hyundai is offering owners of the 2021 Kona Electric and Ioniq Electric access to 250 kWh of complimentary charging (approximately 1,000 miles of EPA estimated driving range) on the  Electrify America fast-charging network.

Rivian plans to install more than 10,000 chargers by the end of 2023. The network will have a dual purpose: quickly power its electric vehicle models with fast chargers installed along highways and provide Level 2 chargers at further afield locations next to parks, trailheads and other adventurous destinations. The company said that its so-called Rivian Adventure Network will include more than 3,500 DC fast chargers at over 600 sites, which will only be accessible to owners of its electric vehicles. Each site will have multiple chargers and located on highways and main roads, often by cafes and shops.

Rivian is also installing thousands of “waypoint” Level 2 AC chargers throughout the United States and Canada. These waypoint chargers will have a 11.5 kW charging speed, which should be able add up to 25 miles of range every hour for its R1T pickup truck and R1S SUV. The waypoint chargers will be strategically located along and near routes that Rivian customers are likely to take. They will be found at shopping centers restaurants, hotels, campsites and parks.

Volkswagen AG revealed how it aims to seize the top spot as the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, outlining plans to have six 40 gigawatt hour (GWh) battery cell production plants in operation in Europe by 2030. To get there, the automaker put in a 10-year, $14 billion order with Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt — and that’s only one of the six planned factories. A second plant in Germany will commence production in 2025.

Volkswagen Power Day 2021

Thomas Schmall, VW Group board member and CEO of Volkswagen Group Components. Image credits: Volkswagen

Ride-hailing

Uber says that drivers in the U.K. who use its ride-hailing app will be treated as workers, a designation that will give them some benefits such as holiday pay. However, even as Uber seemingly concedes to a Supreme Court ruling last month, a new fight could already be brewing over the company’s decision to calculate working time from the point a trip commences — rather than when drivers log on to the app.

All drivers in the U.K. will be paid holiday time based on 12.07% of their earnings, which will be paid out every two weeks. Drivers will also be paid at least the minimum wage after accepting a trip request and after expenses. Eligible drivers in the U.K. will automatically be enrolled into a pension plan with contributions from Uber. These contributions will represent approximately 3% of a driver’s earnings.

However … Uber will only guarantee that drivers’ working time and other benefits will accrue once they accept a trip and not based on when they have signed into the app to begin working. That already has labor activists fuming.

Meanwhile, Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for a driver identity system is being challenged in the U.K., where the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE) have called for Microsoft to suspend the ride-hailing giant’s use of B2B facial recognition after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London (TfL).

The union said it has identified seven cases of “failed facial recognition and other identity checks” leading to drivers losing their jobs and licence revocation action by TfL, TechCrunch reporter Natasha Lomas writes.

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Lordstown Motors accused of faking EV truck pre-orders by short-seller firm Hindenburg Research

By Kirsten Korosec

Hindenburg Research, the short-seller firm whose report on Nikola Motor led to an SEC investigation and the resignation of its founder, is targeting another electric vehicle company. This time it’s Lordstown Motors, the Ohio electric automaker that went public after merging with special-purpose acquisition company DiamondPeak Holdings Corp., with a market value of $1.6 billion.

Hindenburg said in a report Friday that it has taken a short position on Lordstown Motors, causing shares to plummet 21%. Shares have recovered slightly and are now down about 15% from the previous day’s trade. Hindenburg’s short position is based on a company that it says has “no revenue and no sellable product, which we believe has misled investors on both its demand and production capabilities.”

In a report issued Friday, Hindenburg disputes that the company has booked 100,000 pre-orders for its electric pickup truck, a stat shared by Lordstown Motors in January. The short seller says that “extensive research reveals that the company’s orders appear largely fictitious and used as a prop to raise capital and confer legitimacy.” The firm goes further and alleges that Lordstown founder and CEO Steve Burns paid consultants for every truck pre-order as early as 2016 while he was leading Workhorse.

The report also provides photos and a 911 call of an incident in January when a Lordstown prototype vehicle burst into flames during a test drive.

Lordstown Motors could not be reached for comment. TechCrunch will update the article if the company responds. In comments to the Wall Street Journal, Burns said the report contained “half-truths and lies” and that it was an attempt by Hindenburg to hurt its stock ahead of its first quarterly earnings report as a publicly traded company.

The startup is named for the Ohio town where the company purchased a dormant former General Motors Co. assembly plant in 2019. As a result of that deal, GM acquired a small stake in Lordstown Motors.

Lordstown has an interesting history for company that is less than two years old. Lordstown Motors is an offshoot of Burns’ other company, Workhorse Group, a battery-electric transportation technology company that is also publicly traded. Workhorse holds a 10% stake in Lordstown Motors.

Workhorse is a small company that was founded in 1998 and has struggled financially at various points in its lifetime. Most recently, Workhorse lost a bid to become the supplier of electric vehicles to the U.S. Postal Service, which caused shares to fall nearly 15% in the days following the news. Workhorse shares are now hovering around $16.58, down 60% from its record price of $42.96 reached February 4.

Lordstown Motors acquired a 6.2 million-square-foot factory from GM in 2019. The company has said it plans to produce 20,000 electric commercial trucks annually, starting in 2021, at the former GM Assembly Plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

Lordstown revealed its Endurance electric pickup in a splashy and political-leaning ceremony in June 2020. At the time, the company didn’t provide details on the interior, performance or battery of its planned electric pickup truck. The entire second half of the event took a 90-degree turn away from the truck and centered on its special guest, former Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke for 25 minutes about former President Trump’s policies on jobs and manufacturing, China and the COVID-19 response.

Despite those lack of details, Burns told the crowd in June that it had received 20,000 pre-orders. That would mean the entire first year of production would be locked in if every customer who pre-ordered the truck followed through and bought the vehicle. Lordstown Motors said, at the time, that a number of potential customers had sent letters of intent, including AutoFlexFleet, Clean Fuels Ohio, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, GridX, Holman Enterprises and ARI, Summit Petroleum, Turner Mining Group and Valor Holdings, as well as several Ohio municipalities.

Burns later said pre-orders had reached 100,000. Hindenburg disputes those claims.

From the Hindenburg report:

Our research has revealed that Lordstown’s order book consists of fake or entirely non-binding orders, from customers that generally do not even have fleets of vehicles. According to former employees and business partners, CEO Steve Burns sought to book orders, regardless of quality, purely as a tool to raise capital and confer legitimacy. In addition, we show how, in desperation to claim there was demand for the proposed vehicle, he paid for customers to book valueless, non-binding pre-orders.

We detail conversations with Lordstown “customers” who were eager to explain that the letters of intent (“LOI”s) with the company were “promotional”. Others assured us they were “not committed to anything” and that the pre-order commitment size recorded by Lordstown was “totally impossible”. One CEO at a ‘key’ customer told us our outreach was the first he had heard of any arrangement with Lordstown.

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