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Tesla pitches a solar rental program to boost its renewable energy business

By Jonathan Shieber

Tesla is pitching customers on a new rental offering for solar power as a way to revive the flagging fortunes of its renewable energy business.

Once among the largest installers of renewables in the country through SolarCity, Tesla has seen its share of the market decline significantly since its acquisition of SolarCity three years ago. In the second quarter Tesla deployed only 29 megawatts of new solar installations, while the number one and two providers of consumer solar, SunRun and Vivint Solar installed 103 megawatts and 56 megawatts respectively.

That’s likely one reason why Elon Musk took to Twitter early Sunday morning to pitch the new solar rental program.

One click to order solar & save ~$500/year in utility bills with no long-term contract (cancel anytime)

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 18, 2019

According to Musk, the new program is “like having a money printer on your roof” for potential customers who live in states with high energy costs. “Still better to buy,” Musk exhorted, “but the rental option makes the economics obvious.”

Unlike SunRun and Vivint, which both used partnerships with homebuilders and retailers like Home Depot, BJ’s Wholesale, Costco and Sam’s Club to acquire customers, Tesla slashed ended door-to-door marketing and abandoned its partnership with Home Depot. The company began relying almost entirely on direct sales to power its solar business and eschewed the no-money-down lease model, which SolarCity had used so effectively.

Under the new system, Telsa is offering customers the option to rent solar systems for anywhere from $65 for a small installation to $195 for its largest installation. Customers only need to pay a fully refundable $100 charge.

Tesla said the contract can be canceled any time, but it would charge users $1,500 to remove the system once it has been installed.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

 

Elon Musk: Spotify is ‘coming’ to Tesla vehicles in North America

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla owners in the U.S. and Canada may finally get that free Spotify Premium integration they’ve been requesting.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted late Wednesday night that Spotify premium integration is “coming.” Musk, who has talked about bringing Spotify to owners in North America before, did not provide a timeline. In other words, the music streaming service could be integrated next week or six months from now.

Coming

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 15, 2019

But still, it’s a moment of celebration for many Tesla owners who have complained about Slacker Radio, the streaming music service integrated into all vehicles in the U.S. and Canada. Owners in Europe, Australia and Hong Kong have had Spotify Premium in their vehicles since late 2015.

Slacker Radio, which launched in 2007, has customizable radio stations based on the listener’s personal music tastes. The free and subscription-based service also tried to differentiate itself from the likes of Spotify and Pandora by using DJs to curate programs and, at one time, even sold a portable music player. Despite its efforts, Slacker has been overshadowed by Spotify, which had 232 million monthly active users and 108 million paying subscribers at the end of June 2019.

Slacker was acquired in 2017 for $50 million in cash and stock by LiveXLive, an entertainment and streaming service that focused on live music performances.

Last year, LiveXLive announced a partnership with Dash Radio, a digital radio broadcasting platform with more than 80 original live stations. Under the deal, Dash channels will be available across Slacker Radio, a move meant to bring more live radio to the streaming service.

Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

By Jonathan Shieber

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

Audi e-tron becomes the first all-electric vehicle to earn IIHS top safety rating

By Kirsten Korosec

The 2019 Audi e-tron has become the first battery-electric vehicle to earn a top safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an achievement that Tesla and other electric models like the Chevy Bolt have not been able to capture.

Scoring an IIHS top safety award isn’t easy. A vehicle has to earn good ratings in six crashworthiness evaluations, as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention and a good headlight rating.

IIHS said Wednesday that the e-tron fulfills the criteria to earn a top safety rating with standard equipment. The vehicle performed well in crashworthiness testing, earning good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, according to IIHS.

The SUV’s standard front crash prevention system rated superior in IIHS track tests. It avoided a collision in the 25 mph test and reduced its impact speed by an average of 11 mph in the 12 mph test. Its forward collision warning component meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

The award provides a much needed boost to the e-tron. There’s a lot riding on the e-tron, the German automaker’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. And while TechCrunch’s Matt Burns found it quick, comfortable and familiar, the vehicle has had a rocky start that included a voluntary recall in the U.S. due to the risk of battery fire.

Tesla has gotten close to the top safety pick designation. A Tesla Model S was tested in 2017 and performed well, but fell short of earning the top score due to poor headlights and an “acceptable” score in the small overlap crash test. The IIHS has never tested the Tesla Model X.

The electric automaker does have another chance. This time, it’s with the Tesla Model 3, which IIHS is currently testing, according to a recent tweet from the organization.

Tests of the 2019 Tesla Model 3 commence next week with the side crash test. pic.twitter.com/yXtbGDC9h9

— IIHS (@IIHS_autosafety) August 7, 2019

The Model 3 has already achieved an all-around five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite the high marks, NHTSA and Tesla have tussled over how the automaker has characterized the rating in an October 7 blog post when it said the Model 3 had achieved the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle the agency ever tested.

Earlier this month, Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell SUV, the Nexo, became the first fuel cell vehicle to be tested and to earn IIHS’s top safety award. 

Inside Voyage’s plan to deliver a driverless future

By Kirsten Korosec

In two years, Voyage has gone from a tiny self-driving car upstart spun out of Udacity to a company able to operate on 200 miles of roads in retirement communities.

Now, Voyage is on the verge of introducing a new vehicle that is critical to its mission of launching a truly driverless ride-hailing service. (Human safety drivers not included.)

This internal milestone, which Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron hinted at in a recent Medium post, went largely unnoticed. Voyage, after all, is just a 55-person speck of a startup in an industry, where the leading companies have amassed hundreds of engineers backed by war chests of $1 billion or more. Voyage has raised just $23.6 million from investors that include Khosla Ventures, CRV, Initialized Capital and the venture arm of Jaguar Land Rover.

Still, the die has yet to be cast in this burgeoning industry of autonomous vehicle technology. These are the middle-school years for autonomous vehicles — a time when size can be misinterpreted for maturity and change occurs in unpredictable bursts.

The upshot? It’s still unclear which companies will solve the technical and business puzzles of autonomous vehicles. There will be companies that successfully launch robotaxis and still fail to turn their service into a profitable commercial enterprise. And there will be operationally savvy companies that fail to develop and validate the technology to a point where human drivers can be removed.

Voyage wants to unlock both.

Crowded field

Tesla Model 3 owner implants RFID chip to turn her arm into a key

By Kirsten Korosec

Forget the keycard or phone app, one software engineer is trying out a new way to unlock and start her Tesla Model 3.

Amie DD, who has a background in game simulation and programming, recently released a video showing how she “biohacked” her body. The software engineer removed the RFID chip from the Tesla Model 3 valet card using acetone, then placed it into a biopolymer, which was injected through a hollow needle into her left arm. A professional who specializes in body modifications performed the injection.

You can watch the process below, although folks who don’t like blood should consider skipping it. Amie DD also has a page on Hackaday.io that explains the project and the process.

The video is missing one crucial detail. It doesn’t show whether the method works. TechCrunch will update the post once a new video delivering the news is released.

Amie is not new to biohacking. The original idea was to use the existing RFID implant chip that was already in her hand to be able to start the Model 3. That method, which would have involved taking the Java applet and writing it onto her own chip, didn’t work because of Tesla’s security. So, Amie DD opted for another implant.

Amie DD explains why and how she did this in another, longer video posted below. She also talks a bit about her original implant in her left hand, which she says is used for “access control.” She uses it to unlock the door of her home, for instance.

 

 

US regulators take aim at Tesla over Model 3 safety claims

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla’s claims about the safety of its Model 3 electric vehicle prompted U.S. regulators to send a cease-and-desist letter and escalate the matter by asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, according to documents released by the nonprofit legal transparency website PlainSite.

The documents show correspondence between the lawyers at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Tesla that began after the automaker’s October 7 blog post that said the Model 3 had achieved the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle the agency ever tested. PlainSite received the 79 pages of communications since January 2018 between NHTSA and Tesla through a Freedom of Information Act request. There were 450 pages of communication that were withheld due to Tesla’s request for confidentiality on the basis of “trade secrets.”

NHTSA took issue with the blog post, arguing that Tesla’s claims were inconsistent with its advertising guidelines regarding crash ratings. The matter might have ended with that demand. But NHTSA took the issue further and informed Tesla it would ask the Federal Trade Commission to weigh in.

“This is not the first time that Tesla has disregarded the guidelines in a matter that may lead to consumer confusion and give Tesla an unfair market advantage,” the letter dated October 17 reads. “We have therefore also referred this matter to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection to investigate whether these statements constitute unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

The automaker’s lawyers did, however, push back against NHTSA’s request, according to the correspondence released by PlainSite. Tesla lawyers argue in one letter that the company’s statements were neither “untrue nor misleading.”

“To the contrary, Tesla has provided consumers with fair and objective information to compare the relative safety of vehicles having 5-star overall ratings,” the letter from Tesla’s deputy general counsel.

The documents posted by PlainSite also showed NHTSA requested sales data on all Tesla vehicles produced since July 2016 with or without Autopilot, the automaker’s advanced driver assistance system. The agency also issued subpoenas to Tesla ordering it to produce information on several crashes, including a January 25, 2019 crash in San Ramon, Calif. The subpoenas requested information about the vehicle, its owner, history and videos and images related to the crash and were to be sent to NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations.

Nissan and EVgo to add 200 fast chargers as more electric vehicles hit US roads

By Kirsten Korosec

Nissan and EVgo said Tuesday they will install another 200 DC fast chargers in the United States to support the growing number of consumers who are buying electric vehicles, including the new Nissan Leaf e+ that came to market earlier this year.

The 100 kilowatt DC fast-charging stations will have both CHAdeMO and CCS connectors, making them accessible to more EV drivers. The inclusion of both charger connectors is logical; it’s also notable for Nissan, once the primary advocates for CHAdeMO chargers.

The announcement builds off of the companies’ six-year partnership, which included building out a corridor of EV chargers along Interstate 95 on the East Coast, as well as between Monterey, Calif., and Lake Tahoe.

Nissan says it has installed more than 2,000 quick-charge connectors across the country since 2010.

Plans to add another 200 fast chargers follows the launch of the 2019 Nissan Leaf e+. The Nissan Leaf e+, which came to the U.S. and Canada this spring, has a range of 226 miles and fast-charging capability.

This new version of the Leaf all-electric hatchback has 40% more range than other versions thanks to a 62 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That 226-mile range puts the Leaf e+ just under the Chevy Bolt EV, which has a 238-mile range, the Kia Niro EV with 239 miles and the Tesla Model 3 standard range plus with 240 miles.

“Given the tremendous driver response to the 2019 long-range all-electric LEAF, Nissan and EVgo will accelerate fast charging by committing to a multi-year charger construction program that will continue to expand fast-charging options for EV drivers across the country,” Aditya Jairaj, director, EV Sales and Marketing, Nissan North America said in a statement.

The companies also plan to partner on a marketing campaign to sell consumers on the benefits of EVs, and for Nissan, hopefully persuade more to buy its Nissan Leaf Plus. Nissan’s July sales figures were down compared to the same month last year, a slump that has affected the Leaf, as well.

Tesla brings back free unlimited supercharging for the Model S and X

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla is resurrecting a popular benefit that CEO Elon Musk once called “unsustainable” as it attempts to boost sales of its more expensive electric vehicles.

Tesla announced Saturday that all new Model S sedans and Model X SUVs will come with free unlimited access to its network of electric vehicle chargers known as superchargers.

The move comes on the heels of a second quarter of wider-than-expected losses of $408 million despite record deliveries of its electric vehicles.

The automaker reported in July it delivered a record 95,200 of its electric vehicles in the second quarter, a dramatic reversal from a disappointing first period. The company generated $6.3 billion in revenue in the second quarter from those sales, the bulk of which came from its lower margin and less expensive Model 3 vehicles.

Meanwhile, sales of the Model S and Model X have slowed. Of its 95,200 deliveries, just 17,650 were Model S and X vehicles. Tesla doesn’t separate delivery or production figures for the S and X.

BREAKING: All new Model S and Model X orders now come with ⚡ free ⚡ unlimited ⚡ Supercharging ⚡

— Tesla (@Tesla) August 3, 2019

In its early days, free unlimited supercharging was part of the package of buying a Tesla vehicle.

Tesla began phasing out free unlimited access to its supercharger network when it announced that customers who buy cars after January 1, 2017 will have 400 kilowatt-hours, or about 1,000 miles, of free charging every year. Once owners surpassed that amount, they would be charged a small fee.

Will see what we can do. Really need to bring this program to an end while being as fair as possible. It’s not sustainable long-term.

— E (@elonmusk) September 17, 2018

Tesla then narrowed the free unlimited access to superchargers through a referral program and only to buyers of performance versions of the Model S, Model X and Model 3. The free unlimited supercharger referral program is now set to end September 18.

Musk has brought back the perk several times since to drive sales.

It’s unclear how long this latest offer will last. The company has been tinkering with its pricing structure, vehicle configurations and rewards programs, with changes occurring monthly.

Elon Musk says The Boring Company will launch in China this month

By Natasha Lomas

Elon Musk wants to drill holes in China. The Tesla founder has tweeted to reveal that his tunnelling and transportation startup, The Boring Company, will be launch in China later this month.

Musk is due to speak at an AI conference, called the World Artificial Intelligence Conference, taking place in Shanghai on August 29-31. Replying to a tweet about the event he announced: “Will also be launching The Boring Company China on this trip.”

Will also be launching The Boring Company China on this trip

— E (@elonmusk) August 3, 2019

Another Twitter user chipped into the conversation to ask whether the company would also do underwater tunnels — to which Musk replied simply “yes“.

A securities filing last month revealed that the The Boring Company had raised its first outside investment via the sale of $120M in stock. So the company has some extra cash sloshing around to plough into new ventures.

It also recently landed its first commercial contract: $48.7M to build and operate an underground “people mover” in Las Vegas, focused on the Las Vegas Convention Center.

This underground ‘people mover’ is not, as you might imagine, a tried and tested metro train system. The plan apparently involves building two tunnels: One for vehicles (Musk does also sell electrics cars) and a second tunnel for pedestrians who will be carried in (modified) Tesla cars. The latter fully autonomous, under the plan.

Current generation Teslas are not capable of driving themselves, merely offering driving assistance features to humans. But autonomous driving inside a tunnel is about as much of a controlled environment you could hope for — without, y’know, sticking cars together on rails and making a driverless train (like the one that’s been serving London’s Docklands area since 1987).

The Las Vegas contract specifies three months of safety testing before Musk’s modified Teslas will be allowed to whisk people through the tunnel.

Another design that The Boring Company has proposed — for an ambitious Loop system from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore — is still on the drawing board, having attracted major safety concerns by failing to meet several key national safety standards, including lacking sufficient emergency exits and not taking note of the latest engineering practices.

So perhaps, in looking to expand The Boring Company by taking his spade to the Far East, Musk is hoping for a more accommodating set of building standards to drive an electric truck through.

It’s fight night in Las Vegas: Elon Musk’s Loop vs the Monorail

By Kirsten Korosec

The latest bout in Las Vegas is not taking place in a raucous casino boxing ring, but in the hushed rooms of planning committees. The reigning champion, the Las Vegas Monorail, is facing upstart challenger The Boring Company, in a fight to decide the future of Sin City’s urban transportation.

In May, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority approved a $48.7 million contract for The Boring Company (TBC) to design and build a short underground transit system at the city’s Convention Center, using Tesla electric vehicles running through narrow tunnels. 

The ambitious contract calls for the system, called the LVCC Loop, to be up and running in time for the city’s biggest trade show, CES, in January 2021. Over the next 18 months, TBC has to construct one pedestrian tunnel, two 0.8-mile vehicle tunnels and three underground stations, as well as modify and test seven-seater Tesla cars to carry up to 16 people. 

TBC has already submitted detailed construction plans to the city for review, which TechCrunch has obtained, and recently raised $120 million in funding. The company hopes to start construction later this summer. 

But TBC’s tight deadlines — and the payments it receives by meeting them — could be jeopardized by the Monorail’s concerns that the new tunnels could undermine its own system. To connect two parts of the Convention Center, the Loop will have to burrow directly beneath the Monorail’s elevated tracks.

‘It will shut the Monorail down’

“The proposed underground people mover system intersects our existing system route, and it appears the presented tunnel alignment interferes with our existing columns for the Las Vegas Monorail system and creates significant concern regarding both vertical and lateral loads,” Monorail CEO Curtis Myles wrote in a letter to Clark County planning officials in June.

Chris Kaempfer, a lawyer representing the Monorail, clarified the company’s position at a meeting of the Winchester Town Advisory Board the same day.

“When you have columns that would be this close, you’re not just concerned about contact with the columns, you’re also concerned about vibration,” Kaempfer said. “The record has to be absolutely clear, if there’s any damage at all to the columns, it will shut the Monorail down.”

Kaempfer lobbied the advisory board to increase oversight of the TBC project, and require the company to work with the Monorail and city officials during construction to prevent damage to the train system’s columns.

“It’s extremely important to the Monorail that everyone acknowledge that this potential exists and that it needs to be appropriately addressed,” Kaempfer said.

TBC pushed back against any new restrictions, telling the board that it was already committed to protecting existing infrastructure along the Loop’s route.

“[Tunneling] noise and vibration are imperceptible at the surface. We design our process to be deep enough underground such that a person walking [at ground level] creates more vibration than our tunnel-boring machine underground,” said Jane Labanowski, TBC’s government relations executive.

At the final bell, the Winchester Town Board awarded this round to the Monorail, conditioning the Loop design’s approval on regular coordination between TBC, the Monorail and the city’s Public Works department. “That way we all have a point of reference to go back to, just in case somebody forgets or doesn’t check in with other people,” said the chairperson. “All of a sudden, someone gets to be a bad actor who doesn’t mean to be.”

TBC did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

While the Monorail and Elon Musk’s Loop don’t yet compete directly, TBC’s ultimate ambition is to expand the LVCC Loop from a campus people mover to a Vegas-wide transit system serving the airport, the Strip and beyond. 

The Monorail itself started as a short, one-mile system shuttling tourists between the MGM Grand and Bally’s Hotel, using monorail cars bought from Disney World in Florida. It now extends nearly four miles and carries up to 67,000 passengers a day during its busiest times.

GettyImages 638158464

The Las Vegas Monorail crosses over the Las Vegas Convention Center as viewed on January 4, 2017 in Las Vegas.

TBC has promised that the Loop will be able to handle up to 4,400 passengers an hour — equivalent to more than 100,000 a day — as soon as it becomes operational. Its website states that the total journey time between the farthest LVCC stations will be around one minute. This means that the Loop will need at least six 16-person vehicles operating simultaneously to hit its goal. However, a one-minute journey might not be realistic at busy times. New York and Boston subway trains regularly stop for more than 30 seconds at popular stations.

Human drivers will pilot Loop Teslas

At the Winchester meeting, Labanowski also revealed further details about the Loop’s vehicles and operations. Although TBC’s website states that the system would use autonomous vehicles, presumably using Tesla’s Autopilot technology, Labanowski said the LVCC Loop vehicles would actually also have human drivers “for additional safety.”

Loop plans submitted by TBC to Las Vegas show a modest glass structure at surface level, with elevators, escalators and stairs leading down to a mezzanine level with gates, and then down again to three platforms. With no room at the platform level for vehicles to turn around, it appears TBC’s people movers will operate in both forward and reverse.

And although TBC hopes its Loop system will eventually span the city, a TBC contractor at the Winchester meeting said that public access could be limited for now. “We will monitor how it’s open to the public based on our commitment to our trade show customers on any given day,” said Terry Miller of the Cordell Corporation, which has been awarded a $1 million contract to oversee the project. “During CES it will be a little more difficult to have the public coming in and out than it would be for a [smaller] trade show.”

The next challenge for TBC is getting all the necessary permits to excavate a shaft to deploy its tunnel-boring machine underground. Its schedule calls for construction to begin in September.

Watch a Tesla Model 3 play chess against the top-ranked player in the US

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla cars can now take on human players in a game of chess, thanks to a software update it pushed out to vehicles last month. Its programmers likely didn’t imagine they were designing a chess program to take on the best players in the world, however: U.S. No. 1 ranked chess player Fabiano Caruana (also currently ranked No. 2 in the world) played a Tesla Model 3 in a recent match… but Deep Blue versus Kasparov, this was not.

Caruana bests the vehicle in just under five minutes of playing time, and he’s not particularly stressing the time, plus he’s offering a running commentary. The car makes some questionable moves, but to be fair, it’s not a super computer with deep artificial intelligence, and Caruana is one of the world’s best. He also gives it credit at the end, calling the game “challenging” and you can hear it’s probably more than he was expecting from a car’s infotainment system.

The car would probably beat me, but I’m unranked and haven’t played a game of chess in probably 15 years, so there’s that.

An autonomous robot EV charger is coming to San Francisco

By Kirsten Korosec

Electric-vehicle chargers today are designed for human drivers. Electrify America and San Francisco-based startup Stable are preparing for the day when humans are no longer behind the wheel.

Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over the diesel emissions cheating scandal, is partnering with Stable to test a system that can charge electric vehicles without human intervention.

The autonomous electric-vehicle charging system will combine Electrify America’s 150 kilowatt DC fast charger with Stable’s software and robotics. A robotic arm, which is equipped with computer vision to see the electric vehicle’s charging port, is attached to the EV charger. The two companies plan to open the autonomous charging site in San Francisco by early 2020.

Stable render 2 final

A rendering of an autonomous electric vehicle charging station.

There’s more to this system than a nifty robotic arm. Stable’s software and modeling algorithms are critical components that have applications today, not just the yet-to-be-determined era of ubiquitous robotaxis.

While streets today aren’t flooded with autonomous vehicles, they are filled with thousands of vehicles used by corporate and government fleets, as well as ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft . Those commercial-focused vehicles are increasingly electric, a shift driven by economics and regulations.

“For the first time these fleets are having to think about, ‘how are we going to charge these massive fleets of electric vehicles, whether they are autonomous or not?’ ” Stable co-founder and CEO Rohan Puri told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

Stable, a 10-person company with employees from Tesla, EVgo, Faraday Future, Google, Stanford and MIT universities, has developed data science algorithms to determine the best location for chargers and scheduling software for once the EV stations are deployed.

Its data science algorithms take into account installation costs, available power, real estate costs as well as travel time for the given vehicle to go to the site and then get back on the road to service customers. Stable has figured out that when it comes to commercial fleets, chargers in a distributed network within cities are used more and have a lower cost of operation than one giant centralized charging hub.

Once a site is deployed, Stable’s software directs when, how long and at what speed the electric vehicle should charge.

Stable, which launched in 2017, is backed by Trucks VC, Upside Partnership, MIT’s E14 Fund and a number of angel investors, including NerdWallet co-founder Jake Gibson and Sidecar co-founder and CEO Sunil Paul .

The pilot project in San Francisco is the start of what Puri hopes will lead to more fleet-focused sites with Electrify America, which has largely focused on consumer charging stations. Electrify America has said it will invest $2 billion over 10 years in clean energy infrastructure and education. The VW unit has more than 486 electric vehicle charging stations installed or under development. Of those, 262 charging stations have been commissioned and are now open to the public.

Meanwhile, Stable is keen to demonstrate its autonomous electric-vehicle chargers and lock in additional fleet customers.

“What we set out to do was to reinvent the gas station for this new era of transportation, which will be fleet-dominant and electric,” Puri said. “What’s clear is there just isn’t nearly enough of the right infrastructure installed in the right place.”

Tesla has a new energy product called Megapack

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has launched a new utility-scale energy storage product called Megapack modeled after the giant battery system it deployed in South Australia as the company seeks to provide an alternative to natural gas “peaker” power plants.

Megapack is the third and largest energy storage system offered by Tesla. The company also sells the residential Powerwall and the commercial Powerpack systems.

Megapack, which Tesla announced Monday in a blog post, is the latest effort by the company to retool and grow its energy storage business, which is a smaller revenue driver than sales of its electric vehicles. Of the $6.4 billion in total revenue posted in the second quarter, just $368 million was from Tesla’s solar and energy storage product business.

Tesla did deploy a record 415 megawatt-hours of energy storage products in the second quarter, an 81% increase from the previous quarter, according to Tesla’s second-quarter earnings report that was released July 24. Powerwalls are now installed at more than 50,000 sites.

The Megapack offering could provide an even bigger boost if Tesla can convince utilities to opt for it instead of the more common natural gas peaker plants used today. And it seems it already has.

Tesla’s Megapack will provide 182.5 MW of the upcoming 567 MW Moss Landing energy storage project in California with PG&E.

The so-called Megapack was specifically designed and engineered to be an easy-to-install utility-scale system. Each system comes fully assembled — that includes battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC main breaker and controls — with up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy storage and 1.5 MW of inverter capacity.

The system includes software, developed by Tesla, to monitor, control and monetize the installations, the company said in a blog post announcing Megapack.

All Megapacks connect to Powerhub, an advanced monitoring and control platform for large-scale utility projects and microgrids, and can also integrate with Autobidder, Tesla’s machine-learning platform for automated energy trading, the company said.

Megapack was inspired by Tesla’s Hornsdale project, which combined its 100 MW Powerpack system with Neoen’s wind farm near Jamestown in South Australia. The Tesla Powerpack system stored power generated by the wind farm and then delivered the electricity to the grid during peak hours. The facility saved nearly $40 million in its first year.

Today, the go-to option for utilities are natural gas “peaker” power plants. Peaker power plants are used when a local utility grid can’t provide enough power to meet peak demand, an occurrence that has become more common as temperatures and populations rise.

Tesla hopes to be the sustainable alternative. And in states like California, which have ambitious emissions targets, Tesla could gain some ground. Instead of using a natural gas peaker plant, utilities could use the Megapack to store excess solar or wind energy to support the grid’s peak loads.

Report: Lyft COO Jon McNeill is leaving

By Kate Clark

Shortly after going public, Lyft is losing one of its top executives, according to a new report from CNBC.

Jon McNeill, who joined the ride-hailing business from Tesla about 18 months ago, is reportedly stepping down. We’ve reached out to Lyft to confirm.

Lyft’s stock (NASDAQ: LYFT) is down nearly 3% on the news. Despite a turbulent first month on the public market, Lyft has traded up the past three months, closing Friday up about 1% at $65.52 per share with a market cap of $18.55 billion.

Of his COO pick, Lyft CEO and co-founder Logan Green said in a statement provided to TechCrunch last year that “Jon is a world-class leader who brings deep experience as a highly successful entrepreneur and executive.”

“Last year, the Lyft community experienced more growth than in all previous years combined, growing rides by 2.3x and increasing market share by more than 50%. Jon is the right leader to build upon this momentum with his unique background of starting companies from scratch and managing at scale.”

Tesla will deliver in-car YouTube and Netflix video streaming ‘soon’

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla is getting ready to “soon” deliver the in-car video streaming services that CEO Elon Musk suggested would eventually come to the automaker’s cars. Musk shared this (somewhat vague) updated timeline on Twitter over the weekend, after noting earlier in June at E3 that Tesla’s infotainment displays would eventually be getting YouTube and streaming video support.

This is also the first time Musk has specifically said that both YouTube and Netflix would be coming, after previously noting that version 10 of the in-car software would support video streaming generally in reply to a question from a fan on Twitter. Musk added that these would be available to stream video only while the vehicle is stopped — but the plan is to change that once full self-driving becomes a reality.

Once full autonomous driving capabilities are “approved by regulators,” Musk said, the plan is to turn on the ability to stream video in the vehicle while it’s in motion. This plan likely extends to Tesla’s in-car gaming features, too — though that’s a separate level of distraction as you’re actually interacting with what’s happening on the screen, which may not be the best idea for initial roll-out of autonomous features where a driver might be required to take over manual control in case of any incidents.

The Tesla CEO said the experience of watching video on Netflix and YouTube in a Tesla vehicle is akin to “an old-school drive-in movie experience, but with much better sound” and that it has an “immersive, cinematic feel” thanks to the surround audio available via the Tesla’s audio system and its “comfy seats.”

It may seem like a weird software update priority for a car, but it’s entirely possible Tesla owners spent so much on their vehicles that they don’t have spare cash for a fixed address, in which case an entertainment system for their tiny apartment actually makes a lot of sense.

Hit indie game Cuphead is headed to Tesla vehicles in August

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla’s games library is getting bigger, and the latest announced title is probably a familiar one to gaming fans: Cuphead. This indie game was released in 2017 for Xbox One and Windows after making a big debut in 2013, attracting a lot of attention thanks to its hand-drawn, retro Disney-esque animation style.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed that Cuphead would be getting a Tesla port sometime in August, replying to a post in which Tesla announced its latest addition to the in-car arcade library: Chess. The game will run at 60fps on the in-car display, Musk added, noting that while 4K isn’t supported for Tesla’s screens, the game “doesn’t need” that high resolution.

Cuphead for Tesla coming out in August

— e^👁🥧 (@elonmusk) July 27, 2019

Cuphead has since been released for both macOS and Nintendo Switch, and has gained critical acclaim for its challenging gameplay in addition to its unique graphic style. The game works with one or two players (which Tesla cars also now support via gamepad controllers for some other titles) and basically involves side-scrolling run-and-gun action punctuated by frequent boss fights.

Musk continued on Twitter regarding the Cuphead port that it will use a Unity port for Tesla’s in-car OS, which is already done, and currently they’re in the process of refining the controls. A limit of available onboard storage will be solved by allowing added game storage via USB, so that Tesla owners will be able to add flash drives to hold more downloaded games.

Earlier this month, Netflix announced that it would be developing an animated series based on Cuphead, and the game has sold over 4 million copies world-wide so far. Tesla launched Tesla Arcade last month as a dedicated in-car app to host the growing collection of games it’s brought to the car – and it’s worth noting that you can only access these games while in park.

 

Tesla starts rolling out Chess to ‘Tesla Arcade’ in-car gaming app

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla is making a new game available to its vehicle owners, with a roll-out starting today. The company started pushing out a new ‘Arcade’ app for its in-car infotainment system back in June at the annual E3 gaming conference, and now it’s adding the most thrilling game around to the mix: Chess.

This isn’t the first time games have been on Tesla’s infotainment screens; its had them available as ‘Easter eggs,’ or hidden software features. Tesla began demoing Arcade in its showrooms back in June, too, so that visitors to their showrooms could come in and give it a try through June 30.

Tesla’s teaser for the release of the Chess game includes a western-themed Tesla driver playing in a field, which is an interesting narrative choice. The promo also notably has the person using this while parked, which is the only way you can actually play the games for obvious reasons.

When your car can do zero-to-sixty faster than you can make your next move, we call that a checkmate.

Chess begins rolling out to the Tesla Arcade globally today 🤠♟pic.twitter.com/cNRf3kAtAA

— Tesla (@Tesla) July 26, 2019

In addition to the update going out broadly, Tesla also announced that ‘Beach Buggy Racing’, a kart racing game you can control with the Tesla’s steering wheel, gets an update which will let you use two game controllers as once to do local multiplayer with a passenger. Again, not while driving.

Bethesda also revealed at E3 that mobile game Fallout Shelter being played on the in-car display, and Musk has discussed opening up the platform more broadly to developers, so we’ll see if that’s the next step after this rollout of the Arcade app to users.

Tesla focuses on service with 25 new service centers in Q2, rate of new openings to ‘increase’

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla is set to aggressively ramp up the rate at which it opens new service facilities, according to CEO Elon Musk’s guidance on the company’s Q2 2019 earnings call. In total, Tesla opened 25 new service centers during the quarter, and added 100 new service vehicles to its existing fleet — which is in contrast to an earlier statement made by Musk that they’d look to close most of their physical stores in an effort to reduce costs.

Notably, Musk referred to the locations only as “service centers” during his comments on the subject on Wednesday’s earnings call, and never as stores — asked about “retail locations,” he corrected the analyst asking and again said that what Tesla opened were “service centers” specifically. He also emphasized the importance of ensuring that service scales in line with the size of Tesla’s overall fleet of vehicles in active use. Musk mentioned that the number of Tesla cars on the road doubled in the last year alone, meaning it’s seeing exponential growth in terms of the total size of the fleet it needs to service.

“Service scales not just with new production, but as the whole fleet sales,” Musk said, adding that they want to grow their service capabilities in a way that’s responsible when it comes to cost, but that that is “quite difficult” when it comes to the rate at which the company’s sales and shipments are increasing.

Even so, Tesla is taking on still more of its service work itself, rather than outsourcing to external vendors.

“We’ve in-sourced a great deal of the collision repair activities, which I think had quite a good impact on customer happiness,” Musk said. “This will continue in the months to come.” Musk also noted that the company is working hard to reset its processes in order to ensure that parts are available on-hand when and where needed for service, which is a gap that has prompted customer complaints in the past.

The Tesla CEO said that he meets with the Tesla service team “multiple times a week” to “get updates on the reliability of the vehicle,” noting the best service possible is “no service” because that would represent maximum reliability (and of course, lowest possible ongoing costs for Tesla). He also said that they’ve seen “fewer and fewer service visits for the most recent cars that we’re building, so we’re on a good trend there.”

Jerome Guillen, President of Automotive at Tesla also noted that the number one reason for service visits is actually people looking to learn how to use Autopilot, and in general education represents a high percentage of visits.

Tesla CFO Zach Kirkhorn addressed a question about the service center expansion later in the call, adding that the company is pursuing a path of systematic “focus on service and supercharging, as opposed to a retail presence.” He also noted that he believes efforts to improve their parts distribution, with a focus on ensuring that parts are available on-hand in inventory at the service centers where they’re needed will actually help bring down costs overall versus housing them centrally or ordering on-demand from suppliers and Tesla’s own fabrication facilities.

Tesla co-founder and CTO JB Straubel stepping down

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla co-founder and CTO JB Straubel is stepping down from his day-to-day role as an executive at the automaker, CEO Elon Musk announced during a conference call with analysts Wednesday.

Drew Baglino, vice president of technology, will take over his duties, Musk said. Straubel will stay on in a senior advisor role.

“I want to thank JB for his fundamental role in creating and building Tesla,” Musk said during the call. “If we hadn’t had lunch in 2003, Tesla wouldn’t exist, basically,” Musk added.

Straubel described his time at Tesla as an adventurous 16 years.

“I’m not disappearing, and I just wanted to make sure that people understand that this was not some, you know, lack of confidence in the company or the team or anything like that,” Straubel said, adding that he loves the company.

Straubel’s role at Tesla cannot be understated. The executive was responsible for some of the company’s most important technology, notably around batteries. His understated yet steady presence along with his technological acumen gave provided stability even when its CEO became embroiled in controversy.

His departure is the latest in a long string of high-profile executives to leave Tesla in the past year, most recently Steve McManus, a vice president in charge of engineering for car interiors and exteriors at Tesla, who joined Apple. Two other former Tesla executives, Michael Schwekutsch, and chief engineer Doug Field, have also left to join Apple.

Straubel is involved in another company called Redwood Materials, which emerged in 2017. An SEC filing in 2017 a $2 million initial investment in the Redwood City, Calif.-based company that describes itself at its site as focused on “advanced technology and process development for materials recycling, remanufacturing, and reuse.”

The filing lists Straubel and Andrew Stevenson, the former head of special projects at Tesla, as executive officers. Stevenson is now CFO at Redwood Materials. 

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