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Dutch startup Go Sharing raises $60M to expand beyond e-mopeds and into new markets

By Ingrid Lunden

On-demand access to electric mopeds — the small, motorised scooters that you sit on, not kick — has been a small but persistent part of the multi-modal transportation mix on offer to people in cities these days. Today, a startup out of The Netherlands is announcing some funding with ambitions to make e-mopeds more mainstream, and to expand into a wider set of vehicle options.

Go Sharing, which has a fleet of around 5,000 e-mopeds across in 30 cities in three countries — The Netherlands, Belgium and Austria — has picked up €50 million (around $60 million). The startup, based near Utrecht, plans to use the funding to expand its footprint for e-mopeds; add electric cars and e-bikes to its app; and continue building out the technology underpinning it all.

Go Sharing believes tech will be the answer to creating a profitable operation, using AI algorithms to optimize locations for e-mopeds, encouraging people to drop off in those locations with incentives like discounts, and keeping that network charged.

Germany, the UK and Turkey are next on Go Sharing’s list of countries, the company said.

The funding is being led by Opportunity Partners — a firm based out of Amsterdam that also backs online supermarket Crisp, with the startup’s founders — CEO Raymon Pouwels, Doeke Boersma, and Donny van den Oever — also participating. A previous round of about $12 million came from Rabo Corporate Investments, the VC arm of the banking giant.

In a world where we now have many choices for getting around cities — taxis, public transport, push and electric bikes, scooters, walking, carpools, car rentals or our own cars — e-mopeds occupy an interesting niche in the mix.

They can be faster than bikes and scooters — 25 km per hour is a typical speed limit in cities, 40 km per hour in less dense areas — more agile than cars, completely quiet compared to their very noisy fuel-based cousins, and of course much more eco-friendly. For those managing fleets, they less likely to break down and need replacing than some of the other alternatives like e-bikes and e-scooters.

But they also represent a higher barrier to entry for picking up customers: riders need a license to operate them as you would other moving vehicles, and in some (but not all) places they need to wear helmets; and the operators of fleets need to sort out how required insurance will work and need special permits as a vehicle provider in most places, and they can also face the same issue as other vehicles like bikes and kick scooters of being a public nuisance when parked.

That mix of challenges — and the fact that fleets can be expensive to operate and might even if all the boxes are ticked still not attract enough users — has meant that the e-moped market has been a patchy one, with some startups shutting down, some cancelling cities after low demand, or retreating over and then returning with better safety measures.

Yet with on-demand transport companies increasingly looking to provide “any” mode in their multi-modal plays to capture more consumers at more times, they remain a class of vehicle that the bigger players and newer entrants will continue to entertain. Lime earlier this year said it was adding e-mopeds to its fleet in certain cities. Uber teamed up with Cityscoot in Paris to integrate the e-moped’s fleet into its app. Cityscoot itself raised some funding last year and is active in several cities across Europe.

And while it can be work to get permits and other regulatory aspects in place to operate services, Pouwels said that Go Sharing was finding that many municipalities actually liked the idea of bringing in more e-mopeds as an eco-friendly alternative to more vehicles — the idea being to provide a transport option to people who are not interested in kick-scooters or bikes and might have driven their own cars, meaning they already have licenses.

The eco-friendly option is also motivating how the company is planning out other parts of its strategy:

“What we have heard from regulators is that they want to motivate people to walk or move in other ways, for example with bicycles,” Pouwels said in an interview. “What we’ve seen with kick scooters is that they ‘deactivate’ people. This is why we see bikes [not adding e-scooters] as the healthy way of moving forward.” The plan with adding electric cars, he said, is to address the needs of people to travel longer distances than shorter inner-city journeys.

Handling supply for its services is coming by way of GreenMo, a sister operation run by Boersma that has been procuring and running a rental service of e-mopeds that are used by drivers for delivery services, with some 10,000 bikes already used this way. GreenMo recently acquired Dutch startup e-bike and a took a majority stake in Belgian company zZoomer, to expand its fleet.

Micromobility’s next big business is software, not vehicles

By Rebecca Bellan

The days of the shared, dockless micromobility model are numbered. That’s essentially the conclusion reached by Puneeth Meruva, an associate at Trucks Venture Capital who recently authored a detailed research brief on micromobility. Meruva is of the opinion that the standard for permit-capped, dockless scooter-sharing is not sustainable — the overhead is too costly, the returns too low — and that the industry could splinter.

Most companies playing to win have begun to vertically integrate their tech stacks by developing or acquiring new technology.

“Because shared services have started a cultural transition, people are more open to buying their own e-bike or e-scooter,” Meruva told TechCrunch. “Fundamentally because of how much city regulation is involved in each of these trips, it could reasonably become a transportation utility that is very useful for the end consumer, but it just hasn’t proven itself to be a profitable line of business.”

As dockless e-scooters, e-bikes and e-mopeds expand their footprint while consolidating under a few umbrella corporations, companies might develop or acquire the technology to streamline and reduce operational costs enough to achieve unit economics. One overlooked but massive factor in the micromobility space is the software that powers the vehicles — who owns it, if it’s made in-house and how well it integrates with the rest of the tech stack.

It’s the software that can determine if a company breaks out of the rideshare model into the sales or subscription model, or becomes subsidized by or absorbed into public transit, Meruva predicts.

Vehicle operating systems haven’t been top of mind for most companies in the short history of micromobility. The initial goal was making sure the hardware didn’t break down or burst into flames. When e-scooters came on the scene, they caused a ruckus. Riders without helmets zipped through city streets and many vehicles ended up in ditches or blocking sidewalk accessibility.

City officials were angry, to say the least, and branded dockless modes of transport a public nuisance. However, micromobility companies had to answer to their overeager investors — the ones who missed out on the Uber and Lyft craze and threw millions at electric mobility, hoping for swift returns. What was a Bird or a Lime to do? The only thing to do: Get back on that electric two-wheeler and start schmoozing cities.

How the fight for cities indirectly improved vehicle software

Shared, dockless operators are currently in a war of attrition, fighting to get the last remaining city permits. But as the industry seeks a business to government (B2G) model that morphs into what companies think cities want, some are inadvertently producing vehicles that will evolve beyond functional toys and into more viable transportation alternatives.

The second wave of micromobility was marked by newer companies like Superpedestrian and Voi Technology. They learned from past industry mistakes and developed business strategies that include building onboard operating systems in-house. The goal? More control over rider behavior and better compliance with city regulations.

Most companies playing to win have begun to vertically integrate their tech stacks by developing or acquiring new technology. Lime, Bird, Superpedestrian, Spin and Voi all design their own vehicles and write their own fleet management software or other operational tools. Lime writes its own firmware, which sits directly on top of the vehicle hardware primitives and helps control things like motor controllers, batteries and connected lights and locks.

A Fatal Crash Renews Concerns Over Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ Claim

By Aarian Marshall
The company offers a feature called “Full Self-Driving Capability.” But it remains far from a self-driving car.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Tesla owners can now see how much solar or coal is powering their EVs

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla owners can now see exactly what kind of energy is powering their electric vehicles. TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, pushed out a new feature this week that shows the energy mix — breaking down the exact types and percentages of fossil fuels and renewable energy — coming from charging locations, including Superchargers and third-party networks throughout the United States.

“We’re tracking the origin of data as it relates to energy, so we know if you’re in Tucson or Brooklyn (or any location) where the energy is coming from and what the mix of that energy looks like,” Ben Schippers, the CEO and co-founder of TezLab explained in a recent interview. “As a result, we can see how much carbon is being pushed out into the atmosphere based on your charge, whether you’re charging at home, or whether you’re charging at a Supercharger.”

ElectricityMap, a project from Tomorrow, provided the energy data, which TezLab then folded into its consumer-facing app. Once downloaded, the app knows when and where a Tesla owner is plugging in. The energy mix feature builds off of an existing program on the app that gave owners more general information on how dirty or clean their charge is.

Image Credits: TezLab

Take Tesla’s Linq High Roller Supercharger in Las Vegas, a V3 Supercharger that is supposed to support a peak rate of up to 250 kilowatts and has been heralded for its use of Tesla solar panels and its Powerpack batteries to generate and store the power needed to operate the chargers.

According to TezLab’s data, 1.7% of the energy is from solar. The primary source of renewable energy is actually hydro at 65.6% — courtesy of the Hoover Dam. The remaining energy mix from the Supercharger is about 33% natural gas.

Tesla’s Supercharger in Hawthorne, California, which was one of the first to have solar panels, has an energy mix of 0.2% solar, 5.5% nuclear,13.3% natural gas, 27% coal and 49.9% wind.

The top 10 “cleanest” Superchargers — a list that includes Centralia, Leavenworth, Moses Lake and Seattle, Washington — achieved that goal thanks to hydroelectric power. Superchargers with the most solar energy are all located in the same power grid in California. Superchargers in Barstow, Oxnard, Cabazon, San Diego, Mojave, Inyokern, San Mateo, Seaside and Santa Ana, California all have 22.7% solar and 15% wind energy. The remaining mix at these locations is 0.2% battery storage, 2.9% biomass, 5.6% geothermal, 6.3% hydro, 6.6% nuclear and 40% natural gas.

TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups. HFC’s engineers, including co-founders Schippers (who is now chairman of the company’s board) and William Schenk, were attracted to Tesla largely because of its software-driven approach. The group was particularly intrigued at the opportunity created by the openness of the Tesla API. The Tesla API is technically private. But the endpoints are accessible to outsiders. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

TezLab launched in 2018 with some initial features that let owners track their efficiency, total trip miles and use it to control certain functions of the vehicle, such as locking and unlocking the doors and heating and air conditioning. More features have been added, mostly focused on building community, including one that allows Tesla owners to rate Supercharger stations.

All of that data is aggregated and anonymous. TezLab has said it won’t sell that data. It does post on its website insights gleaned from that data, such as a breakdown of model ownership, the average trip length and average time between plugging in.

As other electric vehicles come to market, TezLab is adding those to the app, including the Ford Mustang Mach-E.

GM’s second $2.3B battery plant with LG Chem to open in late 2023

By Kirsten Korosec

GM and LG Chem announced Friday plans to build a second U.S. battery cell factory — a $2.3 billion facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee that will supply the automaker with the cells needed for the 30 electric vehicle models it plans to launch by mid decade.

Construction on the plant, which is located next to GM’s existing Spring Hill factory, will begin immediately, the company’s CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said in a press conference. The battery factory, which is expected to be complete by late 2023, and create 1,300 jobs.

Once fully operational, the joint venture’s two battery factories will have production capacity of more than 70 gigawatt hours, which LG Chem Energy Solutions CEO Jong Hyun Kim noted is two times bigger than the Tesla gigafactory in Nevada. Tesla’s factory in Sparks, Nevada, which is part of a partnership with Panasonic, has a 35 GW-hour capacity.

The foundation of GM’s shift to EVs is its Ultium platform, and the Ultium lithium-ion batteries, which will be built at the Spring Hill factory. These new batteries will use less of the rare earth material cobalt and feature a single common cell design that can be configured more efficiently for higher energy density and a smaller space than our current batteries, Barra said.

“This versatility means we can put more battery power into a wider variety of vehicles, and at a better price for customers,” Barra said. “It’s truly a revolution in electric vehicle technology that will help democratize EV ownership for millions of customers, which will change lives and change the world.”

GM has used LG Chem as a lithium-ion and electronics supplier for at least a decade. The companies began working together in 2009. That relationship deepened as GM developed and then launched the Chevy Bolt EV.  In 2019, GM and LG Chem formed a joint venture to mass produce battery cells as the automaker began to shift towards more electric vehicles. The two companies said at the time that they would invest up to a total of $2.3 billion into the new joint venture and establish a battery cell assembly plant on a greenfield manufacturing site in the Lordstown area of Northeast Ohio that will create more than 1,100 new jobs.

Steel construction began in July 2020 on the Ultium Cells LLC battery cell manufacturing facility in Lordstown, a nearly 3-million-square-foot factory that will mass produce Ultium battery cells and packs. The Lordstown factory will be able produce 30 gigawatts hours of capacity annually.

The batteries produced at the Lordstown factory along with GM’s underlying electric architecture will be used in a broad range of products across its Cadillac, Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands, as well as the Cruise Origin autonomous shuttle that was revealed in January 2020. The Cadillac Lyriq EV flagship and an all-electric GMC Hummer, which will be revealed this fall and go into production in the fourth quarter of 2021, will use the Ultium battery system. GM plans to reveal the Lyriq at a virtual event August 6.

This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” (same as the battery) will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front, rear and all-wheel drive configurations. At the heart of the new modular architecture will be the large-format pouch battery cells manufactured at this new factory.

Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network

By Ingrid Lunden

Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next chapter of how that business will grow: it is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.

Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — most likely in closed environments like warehouses rather the less structured prospect of open streets — to be online in two years.

“We are not constraining ourselves to work in any one use case,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in an interview. But to roll out auotonomous systems everwhere, he added, “we realize there are areas where we will need regulatory compliance,” among other factors. The deal is non-exclusive, and both can work with other partners if they choose, the companies confirmed.

The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million. Oxbotica has not disclosed valuation but Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, confirmed in an interview that the valuation went up with this latest investment.

The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round.

Walmart, until February, owned one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado has made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s online grocery business, which went live this week, too. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.

More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year. Earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the UK (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the US have seen record demand, but they have also been joined by a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants also keen to seize that opportunity, and bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products) to do so.

In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, other big names looking to extend outside of their home turfs include Oda (formerly Kolonial); Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.

A lot of these companies will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic and how it drove many people to stay at home, and stay away from places where they might catch and spread the Covid-19 virus.

But now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.

As we pointed out earlier this week, Ocado has already laid out how demand is lower, although still higher than pre-pandemic times. And indeed, the new-new normal (if we can call it that) may well see the competitive landscape tighten some more.

That  could also be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services: one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.

The rationale of forking out big for autonomous tech, which is still largely untested and very, very expensive technology, to save money is a long-term play. Logistics today accounts for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.

My guess is also that with all of the subsidized services that are flying about right now, where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost.

So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work, even if it’s just a promise of discounts in years, not weeks. Of course investors might see it otherwise if that doesn’t go to plan.

In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado said it will be looking to make more investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities. While this is the company’s first investment into Oxbotica, it has made a number of investments into other startups, and collaborated to work on the next stage of technology. This has included research to build a robotic arm — which robotic pickers is something it will be introducing soon — as well as the recent acquisition of two robotics companies, Kindred and Haddington, for $262 million; and investments in robotics startups Karakuri and Myrmex, and more,

Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Newman, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.

“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”

Newman noted that while on-street self-driving might still be some years away, it’s less of a moonshot concept today than it used to be, and that Oxbotica is on the road to it already. “You can get to the moon in stages,” he said.

Updated with interviews with both companies, and to correct that Walmart closed its deal to sell ASDA in February.

All the tech crammed into the 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS

By Kirsten Korosec

Mercedes-Benz lifted the final veil Thursday on its flagship EQS sedan after weeks of teasers, announcements and even a pre-production drive that TechCrunch participated in. The company peeled off the camouflage of the EQS — the electric counterpart to the Mercedes S Class — and revealed an ultra-luxury and tech-centric sedan.

The exterior is getting much of the attention today; but it’s all of the tech that got ours from the microsleep warning system and 56-inch hyperscreen to the monster HEPA air filter and the software that intuitively learns the driver’s wants and needs. There is even a new fragrance called No.6 MOOD Linen and is described as “carried by the green note of a fig and linen.”

“There is not one thing because this car is 100 things,” Ola Kaellenius, the chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, told TechCrunch in an interview the morning of the EQS launch. “And it’s those 100 little things that make the difference and that makes a Mercedes, a Mercedes.”

Mercedes is betting that the tech coupled with performance and design will attract buyers. This is a high-stakes game for Mercedes. The German automaker is banking on a successful rollout of the EQS in North America that will erase any memory of its troubled — and now nixed — launch of the EQC crossover in the United States.

Quick nuts and bolts

Before diving into the all the techy bells and whistles, here are the basics. The EQS is the first all-electric luxury sedan under the automaker’s new EQ brand. The first models being introduced to the U.S. market will be the EQS 450+ with 329 hp and the EQS 580 4MATIC with 516 hp. Mercedes didn’t share the price of these models. It did provide a bevy of other details on its performance, design and range.

The EQS that will be available in the U.S. has a length that is a skosh over 17 feet, precisely 205.4 inches long, which is the Goldilocks equivalent to the Mercedes S Class variants.

Mercedes-EQS

Mercedes EQS 580 4MATIC

The vehicle has a co-efficient drag of 0.202, which sneaks below Tesla’s Model S and the upcoming Lucid Motors Air, making its the most aerodynamic production car in the world. All EQS models have an electric powertrain at the rear axle. The EQS 580 4MATIC also has an electric powertrain at the front axle, giving it that all-wheel drive capability. The EQS generates between 329 hp and 516 hp, depending on the variant. Mercedes said a performance version is being planned that will have up to 630 hp. Both the EQS 450+ and the EQS 580 4MATIC have a top speed of 130 miles per hour. The EQS 450+ will have a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of 5.5 seconds while its more powerful sibling will be able to achieve that speed in 4.1 seconds.

The EQS will have two possible batteries to choose from, although Mercedes has only released details of one. The heftiest configuration of the EQS has a battery with 107.8 kWh of usable energy content that can travel up 478 miles on a single charge under the European WLTP estimates. The EPA estimates, which tend to be stricter, will likely fall below that figure.

The vehicle can be charged with up to 200 kW at fast charging stations with direct current, according to Mercedes. At home or at public charging stations, the EQS can be charged with AC using the on-board charger.

Now onto some of the technological highlights within the vehicle.

ADAS

There are loads of driver assistance features in the EQS, which are supported by a variety of sensors such as ultrasound, camera, radar and lidar that are integrated into the vehicle. Adaptive cruise, the ability to adjust the acceleration behavior, lane detection and automatic lane changes as well as steering assist helps the driver to follow the driving lane at speeds up to 130 mph are some of the ADAS features. The system also recognizes signposted speed limits, overhead frameworks and signs at construction zones and includes warnings about running a stop sign and a red light.

Another new feature is the micro-sleep warning function, which becomes active once the vehicle reaches speeds over 12 mph. This feature works by analyzing the driver’s eyelid movements through a camera on the driver’s display, which is only available with MBUX Hyperscreen.

There are several active assist features that will intervene if needed. An active blind spot assist can give a visual warning of potential lateral collisions in a speed range from around 6 mph to 124 mph. However, if the driver ignores the warnings and still initiates a lane-change, the system can take corrective action by one-sided braking intervention at the last moment if the speed exceeds 19 mph, Mercedes said. The feature remains active even while parked and will warn against exiting if a vehicle or cyclist is passing nearby.

There is also an active emergency stop assist feature that will brake the vehicle to a standstill in its own lane if the sensors and software recognizes that the driver is no longer responding to the traffic situation for a longer period. The brakes are not suddenly applied. If the driver is unresponsive, it begins with an acoustic warning and a visual warning appears in the instrument cluster. Those warnings continue as the vehicle starts to slowly decelerate. Hazard lights are activated and the driver’s seatbelt is briefly tensioned as a haptic warning. The final step is what Mercedes describes as a “short, strong brake jolt” as an additional warning followed by the car decelerating to a standstill, with an optional single lane change if necessary.

Mercedes is also offering the option of DRIVE PILOT, which is an SAE Level 3 conditional automated driving system feature. This would allow hands free driving. Regulations in Europe prevent that level of automation to be deployed in production vehicles on public roads. However,  Kallenius told media in Germany on Thursday that the company is on “on the verge of trying to certify the first volume production car Level 3 system in Germany in the second half of this year,” Automotive News Europe reported.

The car that learns

Many of the technological gee-whiz doodads in the EQS tie back to an underlying AI that is designed to learn the driver’s behavior. That is achieved through software and a dizzying number of sensors. Mercedes said that depending on the equipment, the EQS will have up to 350 sensors that are used to record distances, speeds and accelerations, lighting conditions, precipitation and temperatures, the occupancy of seats as well as the driver’s blink of an eye or the passengers’ speech.

The sensors capture information, which is then processed by electronic control units (computers) and software algorithms then take over to make decisions. TechCrunch automotive reviewer Tamara Warren noticed the vehicle’s ability to learn her preference during a half day with the EQS.

Mercedes ran through a number of examples of how these sensors and software might work together, including an optional driving sound that is interactive and reacts to different parameters such as position of the accelerator pedal, speed or recuperation.

The intuitive learning is mostly apparent through interactions with the MBUX infotainment system, which will proactively show the right functions for the user at the right time. Sensors pick up on change in the surroundings and user behavior and will react accordingly. Mercedes learned from data collected from the first-generation MBUX, which debuted in the 2019 Mercedes A Class, and found most of the use cases fall in the Navigation, Radio/Media and Telephone categories.

That user data informed how the second-generation MBUZ, and specifically the one in the EQS, is laid out. For instance, the navigation app is always in the center of the visual display unit.

2022_Mercedes_EQS__79

Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

The MBUX uses a natural language processing and so drivers can always use their voice to launch a radio station or control the climate. But Mercedes is really pushing the EQS’ intuitive learning capabilities. This means that as a driver uses the vehicle, items that might be typically buried in the menu will appear up front, or offered up depending on the time or even location of the vehicle.

“The car gets to know you as a person and your preferences and what you do,” said Kaellenius. “It’s almost like it serves up the option that you want to do next, before you even think about it you get.”

“You get a pizza delivered before you even get hungry,” Kaellenius said, jokingly. “That phenomenal in terms of intuition.”

According to Mercedes there are more than 20 other functions such as birthday reminders that are automatically offered with the help of artificial intelligence when they are relevant to the customer. These suggestion modules, which are displayed on the zero-layer interface, are called “Magic Modules.” Here is how it might work: if the driver always calls a particular friend ore relative on the way home on certain evenings, the vehicle will deliver a suggestion regarding this particular call on this day of the week and at this time. A business card will appear with their contact information and – if this is stored – their photo, Mercedes said. All the suggestions from MBUX are coupled with the logged-in profile of the user. This means that if someone else drives the EQS on that same evening, with their own profile logged-in, this recommendation is not displayed.

If a driver always listens to a specific radio program on their commute home, this suggestion will be displayed or if they regularly use the hot stone massage, the system will automatically suggest the comfort function in colder temperatures. If a passenger is attempting to read documents at night

between them in a very intuitive and very simple way of doing this. Human Centered innovation, all of these little things are in the, in the EQ s at night when you’re writing you put your hand towards the seat next to you, you want to have some documents, maybe you’re writing back for work, you have a drive or what have you, light comes on there, it shines on the, where you have your hand you pull it up. I could go on and on and on

This also applies to the vehicle’s driving functions. For example, the MBUX will remember if the driver has a steep driveway or passes over the same set of speed bumps entering their neighborhood. If the vehicle approaches that GPS position, the MBUX will suggest raising the chassis to offer more ground clearance.

Health and wellness

Remember those sensors? There’s a way for drivers to take it a step further and link their smartwatch — Mercedes-Benz vivoactive 3, the Mercedes-Benz Venu or another compatible Garmin — to the vehicle’s so-called energizing coach. This coach responds to the user’s behavior and will offer up one of several programs such as “freshness,” “warmth,” “vitality,” or “joy” depending on the individual. Via the Mercedes me App, the smartwatch sends vital data of the wearer to the coach, including pulse rate, stress level and sleep quality. The pulse rate recorded by the integrated Garmin wearable is shown in the central display.

What does this all mean in practice? Depending on the user’s wants and the AI system’s understanding of what he or she wants, the lighting, climate, sound and seating might change. This is, of course, all integrated with the voice assistant ‘Hey Mercedes’ so drivers can simply make a statement to trigger the program they want.

If the driver says “I am stressed,” the Joy program will be launched. If the driver says “I’m tired,” they are then prompted to take a break the Vitality program.

Mercedes S Class owners might already be familiar with these options, although the automaker notes that EQS builds on the system. There are now three new energizing nature programs called forest glade, sounds of the sea and summer rain as well as training and tips options. Each program launches different and immersive sounds, which created in consultation with the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. For instance, “forest glade” will deliver a combination of birdsong, rustling leaves and a gentle breeze. The program is rounded off by warm music soundscapes and subtle fragrance.

Sounds of the Sea will produce soft music soundscapes, wave sounds and seagull sounds. Blasts of air from the air conditioning system completes the effect. Meanwhile “summer rain” offers up sounds of raindrops on leafy canopies, distant thunder, pattering rain and ambient music soundscapes.

2022_Mercedes_EQS__64

Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

For those long drives which require a break, Mercedes added a power nap feature. Once power nap is selected (and no never when driving), the program runs through three phases: falling asleep, sleeping, and waking up. The driver’s seat moves into a rest position, the side windows and panorama roof sunshade are close and the air ionization is activated. Soothing sounds and the depiction of a starry sky on the central display support falling asleep, according to Mercedes. Once it is time to wake up, a soundscape is activated, a fragrance is deployed and a brief active massage and seat ventilation begins. The seat raises and the sunshade in the roof liner opens.

Voice

As mentioned before the “Hey Mercedes” voice assistant uses natural language processing and can handle an array of requests. Mercedes said the assistant can now do more and certain actions such as accepting a phone call can be made without the activation keyword “Hey Mercedes.” The assistant can now explain vehicle functions.

The assistant can also recognize vehicle occupants by their voices. There is in fact individual microphones placed at each seating area within the vehicle. Once they have been learned, the assistant can access personal data and functions for that specific user.

The voice assistant in the EQS can also be operated from the rear, according to Mercedes.

These personal profiles are stored in the Cloud as part of “Mercedes me.” That means  the profiles can also be used in other Mercedes-Benz vehicles with the new MBUX generation. Security is built in and includes a PIN and then combines fingerprint, face and voice recognition to authenticate. This allows access to individual settings or verification of digital payment processes from the vehicle, the automaker said.

Screens and entertainment

Finally, yes the screens. All of the screens. The 56-inch hyperscreen gets the most attention, but there are screens throughout the EQS. What is important about them is how they communicate with each other.

The hyperscreen is actually three screens that sit under a common bonded glass cover and visually merge into one display. The driver display is 12.3 inches, the central display is 17.7 inches and front passenger display is 12.3 inches. The MBUX Hyperscreen is a touchscreen and also throws in haptic feedback and force feedback.

“Sometimes when I think about the first design and what we’ve actually done here, it’s like, ‘Are we mad to try to create a one meter 41 centimeters curved bonded glass, one piece in the car,” said Kaellenius. “The physical piece in its own right — It’s a piece of technological art.”

2022_Mercedes_EQS

Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

A lot of attention was paid to the backseat because the EQS, like its S Class counterpart, are often used to chauffeur the owner. Mercedes won’t call this a rear-seat entertainment system and instead refers to it as multi seat entertainment system because everything is connected to each other.

Kaellenius explained that if a driver wants the two rear passengers to watch a different movie, a simple drag and swipe motion on the main screen will throw that new programming back to the rear. The passengers can also throw movies from left to right.

Rivian to initially launch in-house insurance program in 40 states

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Electric truck startup Rivian released Thursday details of its in-house Rivian Insurance program, which it says will be integrated into its digital ordering process.

The insurance will initially be available in 40 states. Keeping in line with the company’s marketing as an “adventure vehicle” company, customers will also have the option to cover their home and recreational equipment, such as boats, dirt bikes, and campers. Rivian’s plans to start an insurance program first leaked more than a year ago after a job posting was spotted.

What makes the insurance offering stand out, however, is its integration with the Rivian vehicle platform and Driver+ safety suite, which the company said in a blog post will help deliver “tailored, data-driven coverage.” Customers who choose Rivian Insurance will get Driver+ rate reductions, with more details to come. Drivers can additionally opt in to a separate program that offers savings for using Rivian’s Active Driver Assistance software.

It’s a clever move for the company, which plans to bring its first electric pickup to market later this year. Like Tesla, Rivian intends to have Rivian Collision Centers and Service Centers performing the work – and by keeping everything in-house, the company is likely thinking customers will be attracted to a seamless insurance program. Rivian Insurance is another instance of the newer entrant following in the veteran’s lead, but with one big advantage: Tesla Insurance is only available to owners in California.

Tamika Butler, Remix’s Tiffany Chu and Revel’s Frank Reig to discuss how to balance equitability and profitability at TC Sessions Mobility

By Kirsten Korosec

The race among mobility startups to become profitable by controlling market share has produced a string of bad results for cities and the people living in the them.

City officials and agencies learned from those early deployments of ride-hailing and shared scooter services and have since pushed back with new rules and tighter control over which companies can operate. This correction has prompted established companies to change how they do business and fueled a new crop of startups, all promising a different approach.

But can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? And how?

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a virtual event scheduled for June 9, aims to dig into those questions. Luckily, we have three guests who are at the center of cities, equity and shared mobility: community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Butler, a lawyer and founder and principal of her own consulting company, is well known for work in diversity and inclusion, equity, the built environment, community organizing and leading nonprofits. She was most recently the director of planning in California and the director of equity and inclusion at Toole Design. She previously served as the executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Butler also sits on the board of Lacuna Technologies.

Chu is the CEO and co-founder of Remix, a startup that developed mapping software used by cities for transportation planning and street design. Remix was recently acquired by Via for $100 million and will continue to operate as a subsidiary of the company. Remix, which was backed by Sequoia Capital, Energy Impact Partners, Y Combinator, and Elemental Excelerator has been recognized as both a 2020 World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer and BloombergNEF Pioneer for its work in empowering cities to make transportation decisions with sustainability and equity at the forefront. Chu currently serves as Commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and sits on the city’s Congestion Pricing Policy Advisory Committee. Previously, Tiffany was a Fellow at Code for America, the first UX hire at Zipcar and is an alum of Y Combinator. Tiffany has a background in architecture and urban planning from MIT.

Early Bird tickets to the show are now available — book today and save $100 before prices go up.

Reig is the co-founder and CEO of Revel, a transportation company that got its start launching a shared electric moped service in Brooklyn. The company, which launched in 2018, has since expanded its moped service to Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Miami, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. The company has since expanded its focus beyond moped and has started to build fast-charging EV Superhubs across New York City and launched an eBike subscription service in four NYC boroughs. Prior to Revel, Reig held senior roles in the energy and corporate sustainability sectors.

The trio will join other speakers TechCrunch has announced, a list that so far includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JonBen Bevirt, investor and Linked founder Reid Hoffman, whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby, as well as investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital and Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing hits $400M valuation after latest funding round

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The safety pilot has his hands off the controls during an Xwing demonstration flight. Image Credits: Xwing

Xwing has scored another win two months after it completed its first gate-to-gate autonomous demonstration flight of a commercial cargo aircraft. The company said Thursday it has raised $40 million at a post-money valuation of $400 million.

The company is setting its sights on expansion — not only tripling its engineering team, but eventually running regular fully unmanned commercial cargo flights.

Xwing has been developing a technology stack to convert aircraft, including a widely used Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, to function autonomously. But it’s had to solve a few problems first: “the perception problem, the planning problem and the control problem,” Xwing founder Marc Piette explained to TechCrunch. The company has come up with a whole suite of solutions to solve for these problems, including integrating lidar, radar and cameras on the plane; retrofitting the servomotors that control the rudder, braking and other functions; and ensuring all of these are communicating properly so the plane understands where it is in space and can execute its flight.

The company has already performed close to 200 missions with its AutoFlight system. For all these flights, there’s been a safety pilot on board. In addition, a ground control operator sits in a control center and acts as a go-between from the autonomous aircraft to the human air traffic control operator.

“We don’t anticipate automating [communication with air traffic control], trying to do natural language processing and having a computer make the response to the air traffic controller,” Piette said. “For safety critical applications, we don’t view that as a useful path…but what we do, though, is we have a ground operator in our control room that just talks to air traffic control on behalf of the aircraft. So for the air traffic controller, it’s seamless. As far as they’re concerned, they are just talking to a pilot onboard the aircraft.”

Image Credits: Xwing

For its autonomous flight activities, the company has authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly under an experimental airworthiness certificate for research and development that was expanded in August of last year to include a special flight permit for optionally piloted aircraft (OPA).

The company is looking to eventually remove the safety pilot, but only once full safety redundancies are in place, Piette added. That includes redundancies across all sensors and computer systems. Fortunately for all of us that fly, commercial aviation safety levels are extremely high. It means a high airworthiness standard for aviation startups. Smaller Class III aircraft like the ones Xwing is targeting must demonstrate a risk of one catastrophic failure per hundred million flight hours.

Xwing’s activities have garnered attention from investors. This most recent funding round was led by Blackhorn Ventures, with participation from ACME Capital, Loup Ventures, R7 Partners, Eniac Ventures, Alven Capital and Array Ventures. Including this round, the company has raised $55 million in total capital.

The autonomous flights are only one part of Xwing’s business activities. It’s also been flying manned commercial cargo operations under a contract with a large logistics company signed December 1.

“We set up what’s effectively an airline,” Piette said. By modifying these aircraft with sensors to collect data, Xwing is able to feed this valuable flight time into a training algorithm, and collect other useful data, such as how often the pilots communicate with air traffic controllers and the types of directions the craft receives.

Looking ahead, the company will be significantly scaling its workforce over the next 12 months, in addition to increasing its commercial operations in parallel. On the technology side, Xwing is looking to fly autonomous commercial cargo flights, with a safety pilot onboard, under an experimental ticket and exemption from the FAA. The company will likely reach this milestone also within the next 12 months, Piette said. After that, it would look to remove the safety pilot from the aircraft. Even then, the company would still need to get its systems certified to completely remove any constraints on its movements in airspace.

Polestar raises $500M from outside investors as EV market grows

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar, Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand, has raised $550 million in its first external round led by Chongqing Chengxing Equity Investment Fund Partnership, Zibo Financial Holding and Zibo Hightech Industrial Investment.

SK Inc., the South Korean global conglomerate, and a range of other investors also participated.

While this is Polestar’s first external round, the company’s comments suggest it won’t be its last. Polestar said Thursday that the growing market for electric vehicles coupled with advancements in technology that have made EVs more economical have attracted investors. Polestar added that it is in ongoing discussions with global investors about possible additional fund raising.

“Our new investors have recognized that Polestar offers an alluring combination of established industrial and technological capability alongside superlative growth potential as the global auto industry goes electric,” Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said in a statement.

The new capital will diversify’s Polestar’s funding structure and “deepens the pool of resources available to accelerate product development and technological capabilities ahead of launching several ground-breaking cars in the coming years,” the company said in its announcement.

 

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

Since its launch, Polestar has opened a manufacturing facility in China, built a global sales and distribution operation, and launched two vehicles, the Polestar 1 and the all-electric Polestar 2.

The company is adding its lineup, announcing this week that it will produce two additional versions of the Polestar 2 EV with lower base prices.

One new variant will be a new single motor Polestar 2 that retains the 78 kWh battery of the dual motor model, and delivers an estimated EPA range of about 260 miles. Polestar offers the Plus Pack, which extends the range up to 10%. The single motor Polestar 2 will arrive in North America at the end of 2021.

Polestar said it will also a more simply configured dual motor version. The dual motor Polestar 2 has estimated EPA range of 240 miles, and can go even further on a charge when fitted with the new Plus Pack.

The company also announced grander ambitions to build the first climate-neutral car by 2030. That climate neutral badge won’t be earned throough carbon offsets, but by fundamentally change the way the new EV is made, Polestar said, including rethinking every piece of the supply chain, from materials sourcing through to manufacturing, and even by making the vehicle more energy efficient.

 

 

NFT Inc. reimagines urban and rural living with flying car ASKA

By Aria Alamalhodaei

A number of startups have promised to bring a drive-and-fly vehicle to market over the past few years, but none have yet managed to follow through. NFT Inc. is betting it will succeed where its rivals have failed, with preorders opening Thursday for ASKA, company’s first electric flying car.

The SUV-sized ASKA ( which means ‘flying bird’ in Japanese) may be better described as a plane that drives, rather than a car that flies. Even when its six rotors are folded closed, the vehicle has the unmistakable look of a flying craft, with a helicopter-esque bubble front windows and a distinct tail that would be familiar to anyone who has flown on an airplane.

ASKA isn’t anticipated to be delivered until 2026, which is the point by which the company estimates regulations on safety and traffic control will have developed enough to support consumer use of new aerial mobility vehicles. A company person confirmed that NFT has already started receiving preorders for the vehicle, which comes with a $789,000 price tag that includes pilot training.

Being the first company to bring a consumer flying car to market is an ambitious goal. NFT declined to disclose its backers, but it did say that the preorders – which require a $5,000 deposit – are fully refundable.

Company co-founders Guy Kaplinsky and Maki Kaplinsky told TechCrunch that aerial mobility vehicles – the ASKA chief amongst them – will fundamentally change urban and suburban life.

“It’s going to change the dynamic of the cities,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “Urban air mobility is going to redefine the suburb and rural areas,” Maki Kaplinsky added. “It’s going to transition wealth into outlying areas [. . .] and I’m sure it’s going to be of great interest for those surrounding suburbs.”

It’s easy to imagine how this might be the case: freed from the shackles of urban living and its attendant traffic patterns, the ultra-wealthy would be able to relocate to areas even beyond the suburbs, given ASKA’s 250-mile range, and travel into cities only when they needed or wanted to.

What sets ASKA apart from its competitors, the cofounders say, is that customers won’t need to go to an airport to use the craft. Likewise, regulators would not need to worry about a large influx of urban air mobility users in airports. Instead, they’ve designed ASKA for door-to-door transportation – all the driver needs is enough space for the vehicle to unfold its wings and rotor blades. While ASKA can take off on a runway, like a conventional airplane, it’s also capable of vertical lifting, like a helicopter. Guy Kaplinsky explained that conventional takeoff is less energy intensive, and that customers may choose this form of takeoff in a rural area, where there’s lots of space, and vertically land in the city.

Each rotor will be equipped with an independent battery pack, but the company also decided to install two range extenders for redundancy, which will supply power by gasoline. The two middle rotors of the plane can also act as wings and can support gliding in case of emergencies.

“Most of our users are going to be new pilots and for us safety is the number one,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “The problem right now is the [battery] cell. There is no chemistry cell developer in the world that would tell you that his cell would not fail in the air, and we cannot take that risk.” ASKA could become all-electric at some point in the future however, depending on developments in battery technology, Kaplinsky said.

The ASKA will be small enough to be kept in a conventional garage or driveway, and will be able to recharge using existing charging stations that already exist for electric vehicles. Also matching some EV companies, ASKA will be equipped with third-party semi-autonomous technology. “Since we are targeting consumers that include non-professional pilots, we believe that semi-autonomous technology will help them feel comfortable having a certain degree of control, rather than sitting in a fully autonomous ‘robot’,” the company spokesperson told TechCrunch. Even if regulations allow full autonomy at some point in the future, “we believe that still many customers would appreciate having semi-autonomous/some degree of control,” the spokesperson added.

NFT also wants to reimagine the buying experience with its ASKA showroom opening in Los Altos, California on Thursday. There, customers will be able to speak to experts in aerodynamics and flight control. If a person is among the first 1,500 preorders, they will be given one share of the company and be inaugurated into what the company is calling the Founder’s Club. Members will be able to meet every three to six months with company executives.

Walmart helps push Cruise’s latest investment round to $2.75B

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company aiming to deploy robotaxis in San Francisco and Dubai, has added Walmart as an investor in an extended fundraising round that has grown to $2.75 billion.

The company said it has a post-money valuation of more than $30 billion. Walmart and several unnamed institutional investors added capital to a $2 billion equity round announced back in January that was led by Microsoft. The companies didn’t disclose Walmart’s exact investment. Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM, is also backed by Honda, Softbank Vision Fund and funds managed by T. Rowe Price.

Cruise has long been viewed — and described itself — as a company solely focused on launching a commercial scale robotaxi service. However, comments from Walmart CEO John Furner in a blog post published Thursday suggest that laser focus continues to widened beyond robotaxis and San Francisco.

“The investment will aid our work towards developing a last-mile delivery ecosystem that’s fast, low-cost and scalable,” Furner wrote in a blog post published Thursday morning. He later wrote “this investment is a marker for us.”

Cruise has experimented with delivery over the past several years even as its efforts around robotaxis took most of its attention and resources. For instance, Cruise and DoorDash completed in 2019 a delivery pilot in San Francisco. And when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into North America, prompting government lockdowns, Cruise paused its testing in San Francisco and started delivering prepared meals for two food banks.

Walmart and Cruise also already have a relationship. The companies announced in November 2020 plans to test grocery delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Under the pilot program, the companies said that customers will be able to place an order from their local Walmart store and have it delivered via one of Cruise’s autonomous, electric Chevy Bolt cars. While the vehicles will operate autonomously, a human safety operator will always be behind the wheel.

Cruise is not Walmart’s only autonomous dancing partner. The retail giant has partnered with a handful of autonomous vehicle developers, including Waymo, to test out how the technology might eventually be used at a commercial scale. The retailer signed a deal in 2019 with startup Udelv to test the use of autonomous vans to deliver online grocery orders to customers in Surprise, Arizona. Autonomous delivery startup Nuro launched a pilot program with Walmart in Houston in 2020.

The retail giant participated in a pilot with Postmates and Ford in the Miami-Dade area and last year the retailer tapped AV startup Gatik to deliver customer online grocery orders from Walmart’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Ford takes aim at Tesla, GM with its new hands-free driving system

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford will debut its new hands-free driving feature on the 2021 F-150 pickup truck and certain 2021 Mustang Mach-E models through a software update later this year, technology that the automaker developed to rival similar systems from Tesla and GM.

That hands-free capability — which uses camera, radar sensors and software to provide a combination of adaptive cruise control, lane centering and speed sign recognition — has undergone some 500,000 miles of development testing, Ford emphasized in its announcement and tweet from its CEO Jim Farley in a not-so-subtle dig at Tesla’s approach of rolling out beta software to customers. The system also has an in-cabin camera that monitors eye gaze and head position to help ensure the driver’s eyes remain on the road.

The hands-free system will be available on vehicles equipped with Ford’s Co-Pilot360 Technology and will only work on certain sections of divided highways that Ford. The system, which will be rolled out via software updates later this year, will initially be available on more than 100,000 miles of highways in North America.

BlueCruise! We tested it in the real world, so our customers don’t have to. pic.twitter.com/dgqVkWH31r

— Jim Farley (@jimfarley98) April 14, 2021

The system does comes with a price. BlueCruise software, which includes a three-year service period, will cost $600. The price of upgrading the hardware will depend on the vehicle. For instance, on F-150 owners will have to plunk down another $995 for the hardware, while owners of the “select” Mustang Mach-E model variant will have to pay an additional $2,600. BlueCruise comes standard on CA Route 1, Premium and First Edition variants of the Mustang Mach-E.

While nearly every automaker offers some driver assistance features, Ford is clearly aiming to compete with or capture market share away from GM and Tesla — the two companies with the best-known and capable ADAS. Convincing customers that its system is worth the expense will be critical to meeting its internal target of selling more than 100,000 vehicles equipped with BlueCruise in the first year, based on company sales and take-rate projections.

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

Tesla’s Autopilot feature also combines sensors like cameras and radar, computing power and software. Autopilot, which comes standard in all new Tesla vehicles, will steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane. Tesla uses a torque sensor in the steering wheel to determine if drivers are paying attention, although many owners have found and publicly documented hacks so they can keep their hands off the wheels and eyes off the road ahead. Tesla charges $10,000 for its upgrade to FSD (its own internal branding meant to stand for full self-driving). FSD is not an autonomous system. It does provide a number of more capable driver assist functions including automatic lane changes, the ability to recognize and act upon traffic lights and stop signs and a navigation feature that will suggest lane changes on route and automatically steer the vehicle toward highway interchanges and exits.

Ford said that its system communicates with drivers in different ways, including displaying text and blue lighting cues in the instrument cluster, which it says is effective even for those with color blindness.

The so-called BlueCruise hands-free technology will be offered in other Ford vehicle models in the future, the company said. Drivers who opt for the technology will continue to receive software updates as it is improved. Ford said future improvements will include a feature that will let the vehicle change lanes by tapping the turn signal indicator as well as one that will predict and then adjust vehicle speed for roundabouts and curves. The company also said it plans to offer regular mapping updates.

Bird, Lime and VeoRide selected for NYC e-scooter pilot

By Rebecca Bellan

Lime, Bird and VeoRide have scored coveted permits to New York City’s first e-scooter pilot.

The New York City Department of Transportation, which originally released a request for proposals in October for the pilot that was meant to start in early March, made its selections public Wednesday. The three companies are expected to begin operations in the Bronx by early summer with 1,000 electric scooters each.

“After a competitive selection process, Bird, Lime and Veo unveil e-scooter models and pricing plans that will allow most rides for under $5,” said NYC DOT in a statement. “New bicycle lanes planned for pilot zone over the next two years will also enhance e-scooter mobility and safety.” 

Micromobility operators have been competing fiercely to win a dwindling number of city concessions. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, says Frank Sinatra, and winning the Big Apple plays a massive role in determining which operators will survive as the rideshare industry consolidates under a few powerful players. 

Bird is already in over 100 cities around the United States, Europe and the Middle East, while Lime is ubiquitous with around 130 cities in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Australia under its belt. This win calcifies the clout the two already have in the industry. Chicago-based VeoRide is arguably the underdog of the trio with service around 20 U.S. cities, so getting the chance to operate in New York could be a game-changer for the already profitable company. This is especially true in a city that’s simultaneously still wary of coronavirus and eager to get out and catch up with friends and family this summer. 

“This e-scooter pilot program couldn’t come at a better time, as New York focuses on providing low-cost transportation options that allow residents to travel socially-distanced in the open air,” Lime CEO Wayne Ting said in a statement. “In welcoming a new mode of transportation to its streets, New York demonstrates its dedication to shepherding a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 — one that isn’t hampered by the crippling traffic congestion that depresses growth.”

Superpedestrian and Spin are among the companies that weren’t selected for participation in the program. Superpedestrian CEO Assaf Biderman said in a statement that the company was proud of the proposal it presented. “We know this is just a beginning, and there are more communities in every corner of the city that are calling out for new, safe and sustainable transportation options–something we can deliver,” he said.

Despite general fanfare, there may be a limit to how far operations can spread beyond the Bronx in the future. The first phase of the pilot covers neighborhoods in the East Bronx spanning from Eastchester to Van Nest; the second phase extends south to Soundview and east to Edgewater with another 4,000 to 6,000 scooters. The DOT said it chose these geographic boundaries to reach transit deserts that are unserved by existing bike share programs.

That last bit is important to note. Lyft-owned Citi Bike has a monopoly over shared micromobilty in NYC, with bike docks all over Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the South Bronx. While 2018 legislation that allowed for the introduction of dockless e-scooters in NYC aims to “prioritize” hoods with no access to Citi Bike, the pilot zones were designed specifically to avoid overlap with Bronx neighborhoods targeted by the docked bike share’s expansion plans. 

What to expect from the e-scooter pilot in the Bronx

Aside from operating in alignment with NYC’s Vision Zero and equity goals, the DOT chose companies that would play ball with the city’s strong enforcement mechanisms, and that very much includes managing sidewalk clutter with dedicated parking corrals and fleet management software, a DOT spokesperson told TechCrunch. 

Lime intends to combine its corral and lock-to parking strategies for the first time in NYC to ensure its Gen 3 and Gen 4 scooters don’t become a bother to the community. It’ll also rely on its backend fleet management software and a “tidy crew” that will patrol the pilot area to rebalance scooters. 

“At high traffic locations like transit stations, riders must park in physical parking corrals enforced using Lime’s industry-leading geofence technology,” Phil Jones, Lime’s senior government relations director told TechCrunch. Lime uses a combination of onboard and cloud computing to determine the locations of geofences, so it’ll be interesting to see how this tech holds up in such a dense city, where even Google Maps often has trouble placing individuals. “Using our LimeLocks, riders must lock their e-scooters at bike racks or other places where traditional bike parking is permitted.”

Veo also plans to implement lock-to parking to keep scooters from falling over or blocking sidewalks.  

The pilot will cover an 18-square-mile area that’s home to 570,000 residents, 80% of whom are black or Latino. The median household income in the Bronx is $40,088 with a poverty rate of 26.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so equity was top of mind for the city when evaluating operators. 

Bird already has an Access program that offers unlimited rides to low-income residents who are on government assistance for $5 a month, and even allows riders to pay with cash and unlock vehicles via SMS. Veo has an access program, but unclear what terms

Lime’s Access Program is similar, in that it offers 50% off rides to those on public assistance, but with NYC the program will see a rebrand as Lime Aid and expand to cover frontline healthcare workers, teachers, and people in the performing arts, non-profit and hospitality sectors — those who have been most affected by the pandemic. Lime also has agreements with employment offices like BronxWorks and the Center for Employment Opportunities to source employees for the pilot locally.

About 11% of Bronx residents under the age of 65 have a disability, so the DOT also evaluated operators based on accessibility. Victor Calise, commissioner of the mayor’s office for people with disabilities, was one of the people on the grading panel, so Lime made a point of focusing on accessibility for the disabled community. 

Lime recently launched a program in San Francisco that allows people with disabilities to order an accessible scooter delivered to their house with 24 hours advance notice, and the company intends to try out the same service in New York. In preparation for the Bronx pilot, Lime designed and built seven different vehicle types to meet various physical abilities, including a three-wheeled, sit-down vehicle for someone who has challenges balancing; a two-wheeled sit-down for someone who can’t stand for long periods of time; a tandem scooter of sorts so someone who has trouble seeing or is blind can have a partner with full vision with them; and a tricycle with a shopping basket. These vehicles are available on demand and will be delivered directly to users upon request. 

[gallery ids="2138246,2138250,2138242"]

“We didn’t want to just think what might a disabled person want, but to actually go to the New York disabled community and learn from them,” said Jones, noting that Lime worked with New York’s Center for Independence of the Disabled, as well as other advocacy groups, prior to submitting its bid. “There’s a vocal and vibrant community here, and we are not just addressing their concerns around parking on the street, but how they can actually use our devices so we can provide a meaningful service to them.”

Veo will offer its stand-up Astro e-scooter and its futuristic-looking Cosmo seated e-scooter because seated rides are more accessible for many, especially those taking longer trips. The company has also stated that it’s committed to ADA compliance and will make electric-powered attachments that allow private non-motorized wheelchairs to operate as motorized devices available upon request.  

In terms of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, Veo also touts its waterproof, durable, swappable batteries, which don’t require a gas-guzzling van to replace batteries but which can be done via cargo bike or even the Cosmo. Lime also has swappable batteries, but according to a November blog post, Bird has still not implemented this technology in full. 

To enhance safety, Bird recently launched Beginner Mode as a new feature built for the Bird Two alongside autonomous emergency braking and skid detection. This gives new riders a gentle acceleration option so they can gradually work their way up to full speed.  

Toyota taps Apex.AI for its autonomous vehicle operating system

By Kirsten Korosec

Automakers shifting to all-electric and tech-laden vehicles have discovered that software — and more aptly software that is free of bugs and can be updated wirelessly — has become a consistent speed bump on the road to attracting customers. It is an issue that plagued Volkswagen’s launch of its all-electric VW ID.3, the 2022 Volvo XC40 Recharge and the Ford Mustang Mach-E. 

Apex.AI, a startup founded by Bosch veterans and automated systems engineers Jan Becker and Dejan Pangercic, has spent four years rewriting the robot operating system that will give automakers the tools to integrate software within the vehicle and make sure all the applications run reliably. Now, freshly armed with a safety certification that validates its software development kit (SDK) is sophisticated enough to be used in production vehicles, Apex.AI has landed Toyota and Japanese tech startup Tier IV as partners.

Toyota’s Woven Planet Group is integrating the Apex.OS SDK into its own vehicle development platform, called Arene. The Apex SDK will handle the safety-critical applications and aims to speed up autonomous software development and ultimately bring it to production vehicles. In a separate deal announced Wednesday, Tier IV, a startup in Japan known as the original creator of open-source software for autonomous driving, called Autoware, said it will use Apex.AI’s software stack for safety-critical autonomous systems.

“A trend that has become obvious in the past year, is in order to beat Tesla, car companies are aiming for what they call a software-defined vehicle,” Becker said in a recent interview. Automakers are moving away from distributing 100 electric control units (computers) throughout a vehicle and instead are having just a few high-performance computers with all the functions being implemented by the software, Becker explained.

That shift might mean hundreds or even thousands of software developers might be working on one vehicle. “And that really only works if they are all using the same interface, and not in silos,” Becker said. “And this is exactly what this SDK now enables. So it’s the first time, with Apex.OS that there’s this common abstraction layer or SDK, which can address practically all functions in a vehicle.”

Apex’s toolkit has attracted the attention of private and strategic investors. In 2018, the company raised a Series A round of $15.5 million. Since then, the company has taken strategic investment from Airbus, JLR’s InMotion Ventures, Toyota and Volvo Group. Becker wouldn’t disclose the amounts of those investments, but noted the company is now raising for a Series B.

The roots of Apex.OS are the open-source Robot Operating System known as ROS that is commonly used for R&D projects and the development of autonomous vehicles. Apex’s aim was to rewrite the code to handle functional safety and real-time processing. The SDK was recently certified by TÜV NORD for functional safety. This means the technology is verified for use in production vehicles.

It was a longstanding belief that open-source code was not certifiable, according to Becker. The company spent a year working on the certification.

“If a software crash happens on your laptop it’s inconvenient, but if software crashes in any safety-critical function of a vehicle it can be catastrophic,” Becker said. “This is why we set out to write reliable software that protects against system crashes or operation failures. The certification proves we accomplished our goal as our software targets failure rates so low that they cannot be expressed statistically.”

ZeroAvia’s hydrogen fuel cell plane ambitions clouded by technical challenges

By Kirsten Korosec

When ZeroAvia’s six-seater aircraft completed an eight-minute flight from Cranfield Airfield in the U.K. last September, the company claimed a “major breakthrough” with the first-ever hydrogen fuel cell flight of a commercial-size aircraft.

The modified Piper Malibu propeller plane was now the largest hydrogen-powered aircraft in the world, wrote the company. “While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells, the size of this aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon,” added Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s CEO.

But just how hydrogen-powered was it, and how close is ZeroAvia to flying passengers?

“[In] this particular setup, not all the energy is coming from hydrogen,” said Miftakhov at a press conference directly afterwards. “There is a combination of the battery and hydrogen. But the way the battery and hydrogen fuel cells combine is such that we are able to fly purely on hydrogen.”

Miftakhov’s comments don’t quite tell the whole story. TechCrunch has learned that batteries provided the majority of the power required for the landmark flight, and will continue to feature heavily in ZeroAvia’s longer flights and new aircraft. And while the Malibu is technically still a passenger aircraft, ZeroAvia has had to replace four of the Malibu’s five passenger seats to accommodate bulky hydrogen tanks and other equipment.

In less than four years, ZeroAvia has gone from testing aircraft parts in pickup trucks to gaining the support of the U.K. government, and attracting investment from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and — just last week — British Airways. Now the question is whether it can continue on its claimed trajectory and truly transform aviation.

Take off

Aviation currently accounts for 2.5% of humanity’s carbon emissions, and could grow to a quarter of the planet’s carbon budget by 2050. Biofuels can displace trees or food crops, while batteries are too heavy for anything more than short hops. Hydrogen, by contrast, can be generated using solar or wind power, and packs quite an energetic punch.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen from the air in an efficient reaction that produces only electricity, heat and water. But that doesn’t mean you can simply drop a fuel cell into an existing aircraft. Fuel cells are heavy and complex, hydrogen requires bulky storage and there are many technical problems for startups to solve.

Russian-born Miftakhov arrived in America in 1997 to study for a physics doctorate. In 2012, after starting several companies and a stint at Google, he founded eMotorWerks (aka EMW) to produce electric conversion kits for the BMW 3-series.

But in 2013, BMW accused EMW of infringing its trademarks. Miftakhov agreed to change its logo and marketing materials, and to refrain from suggesting it was affiliated with the carmaker. He also found demand from BMW owners to be sluggish.

EMW then pivoted to providing chargers and a smart energy management platform. The new direction succeeded, and in 2017 Italian energy company Enel acquired EMW for a reported $150 million. But Miftakhov faced legal difficulties here, too.

George Betak, an EMW vice president, filed two civil lawsuits against Miftakhov alleging, among other things, that Miftakhov had left his name off patents, withheld money and even faked a document to make it seem as though Betak had assigned his intellectual property rights to EMW. Betak later withdrew some claims. The cases were quietly settled in the summer of 2020.

Weeks after selling EMW in 2017, Miftakhov incorporated ZeroAvia in San Carlos, California with the stated aim of “zero emissions aviation.” He was counting on the aviation industry being more interested in electrifying existing aircraft than BMW drivers had been.

First step: batteries

The first public outing for ZeroAvia was in October 2018 at Hollister Airport, 50 miles southwest of San Jose. Miftakhov mounted a propeller, an electric motor and batteries in the bed of a 1969 El Camino and took it up to 75 knots (85mph) on electric power.

In December, ZeroAvia bought a Piper PA-46 Matrix, a six-seater propeller plane very similar to the one it would later use in the U.K. Miftakhov’s team installed the motor and about 75kWh of lithium ion batteries — about the same as in an entry-level Tesla Model Y.

In February 2019, two days after the FAA granted it an experimental airworthiness certificate, the all-electric Piper took to the air. By mid-April, the Matrix was flying at its top speed and maximum power. It was ready to upgrade to hydrogen.

Import records show that ZeroAvia took delivery of a carbon fiber hydrogen tank from Germany in March. One company photo exists of the Matrix with a tank on its left wing, but ZeroAvia never released a video of it flying. Something had gone wrong.

In July, ZeroAvia’s R&D director posted a message on a forum for Piper owners: “We have damaged a wing of our Matrix, which we loved and pampered so much. The damage is so bad that it has to be replaced. Is anyone aware of [a suitable aircraft] that is going to be sold for parts any time soon?”

Miftakhov confirmed that the damage, not previously reported, occurred while ZeroAvia was reconfiguring the aircraft. That aircraft has not flown since, and ZeroAvia’s time as a Silicon Valley startup was coming to an end.

Moving to the UK

With ZeroAvia’s U.S. flight tests on hold, Miftakhov turned his attention to Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is banking on ”a new green industrial revolution.”

In September 2019, Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), a U.K. government-supported company, funded a ZeroAvia-led project called HyFlyer, with £2.68 million ($3.3 million). Miftakhov committed to deliver a hydrogen fuel cell Piper that could fly more than 280 miles, within a year. Sharing the money would be Intelligent Energy, a fuel cell maker, and the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), which would provide hydrogen fueling tech.

“ZeroAvia had proved the concept of retrofitting an electric power train into an aircraft and instead of powering it by batteries, they wanted to power it with hydrogen,” said Richard Ainsworth, EMEC’s hydrogen manager at the time. “That was the whole purpose of the HyFlyer project.”

Gary Elliott, CEO of ATI, told TechCrunch that it was “really important” to ATI that ZeroAvia was using fuel cells rather than a battery system: “You need to spread your investment profile, so that you’ve got as much likelihood of success as you can.”

ZeroAvia set up in Cranfield and in February 2020, bought a six-seater Piper Malibu, similar to the damaged Matrix. Although the company fitted and flew it with batteries by June, the government still needed reassuring. “I’d be happy to catch up and think about what we can do to address the concerns that are nagging away at the ATI,” wrote an official, according to an email obtained by TechCrunch under a freedom of information request.

Intelligent Energy CTO Chris Dudfield told TechCrunch that the HyFlyer program went smoothly, but that his company is still years away from flying a larger fuel cell and that he never even saw ZeroAvia’s plane.

ZeroAvia’s partnership with Intelligent Energy might have helped it secure U.K. government funding but it wasn’t going to help power the Malibu. ZeroAvia needed to find a fuel cell supplier — fast.

Second step: Fuel cell power

In August, ZeroAvia wrote to government officials that “we are now gearing up for our first hydrogen-powered flight,” and invited the Secretary of State to attend.

Miftakhov said that ZeroAvia’s demonstration flight used a 250 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell powertrain — the largest ever in an aircraft. This is comparable in power to the internal combustion engine that Pipers typically use, giving a healthy margin of safety for the most demanding phase of flight: take off.

ZeroAvia never identified its fuel cell supplier, nor detailed how much of the 250kW came from the fuel cell.

However, the day after the demonstration flight, a Swedish company called PowerCell issued a press release stating that one PowerCell MS-100 fuel cell was “an integral part of the powertrain.”

The MS-100 generates a maximum power of just 100kW, leaving 150kW unaccounted for. This means the majority of the power needed for take-off could only have come from the Piper’s batteries.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Miftakhov acknowledged that the Piper could not have taken off on fuel cell power alone in the September flight. He said the plane’s batteries were probably operational for the entire demonstration flight, and provided “some additional safety margin for the aircraft.”

Many fuel cell vehicles use batteries, either to smooth out fluctuations or to boost power briefly, although some manufacturers have been more transparent about their sources of power. One problem with relying on batteries for take off is that the plane then has to carry them for the whole flight.

“The fundamental challenge for hydrogen fuel cell aircraft is weight,” said Paul Eremenko, CEO of Universal Hydrogen, which is collaborating on a 2000kW fuel cell powertrain for another aircraft. “One of the ways we save weight is having a much smaller battery that is only used when a pilot guns the throttle.”

In February, ZeroAvia’s vice president, Sergey Kiselev, said that the company’s goal was to do without batteries altogether. “Batteries may be used to provide an extra oomph during take off,” he told the Royal Aeronautical Society. “But if you use different types of propulsion or energy storage on the aircraft, the certification effort will be significantly harder.”

Relying heavily on batteries allowed ZeroAvia to pull off its high-profile demonstration flight for investors and the U.K. government, but could ultimately delay its first flights with paying passengers.

The problem of heat

Without an exhaust to expel waste heat, fuel cells usually need a complex air or liquid cooling system to avoid overheating

“This is really the key intellectual property, and why it isn’t just a matter of buying a fuel cell, buying a motor and plugging them together,” says Eremenko.

The German Aerospace Center in Cologne has been flying hydrogen fuel cell aircraft since 2012. Its current aircraft, the custom-designed HY4, can carry four passengers up to 450 miles. Its 65kW fuel cell has a liquid cooling system that uses a large, aerodynamically optimized channel for the cooling air flow (see picture).

A similar 100kW system would generally need a cooling intake longer and a third bigger than the HY4’s. ZeroAvia’s Piper Malibu has no additional cooling intakes at all.

“The openings look way too small for the air speed at take off, and even for cruise speed,” said an aviation fuel cell engineer who asked not to be named because they deal with some of the same companies as ZeroAvia.

“We had to experiment with the location and configuration of the heat exchangers… but we did not have to redesign the shape of the aircraft to handle the heat,” countered Miftakhov. He claims the fuel cell was operating at between 85 and 100kW during the flight.

Following TechCrunch’s interview with ZeroAvia, the company released a video that appears to show the Piper’s fuel cell operating at up to 70kW during a ground test, which could equate to a higher power level when airborne.

Although this still needs to be demonstrated with long-distance flights, ZeroAvia may have solved the heat problem that has dogged other engineers for years.

The next plane: bigger and better?

In September, aviation minister Robert Courts was at Cranfield to watch the demonstration flight. “It’s one of the most historic moments in aviation for decades, and it is a huge triumph for ZeroAvia,” he said after the flight. Time magazine named ZeroAvia’s technology as one of the best inventions of 2020.

Even with the HyFlyer extended flight still to come, in December the U.K. government announced HyFlyer 2 — a £12.3 million ($16.3 million) project for ZeroAvia to deliver a 600kW hydrogen-electric powertrain for a larger aircraft. ZeroAvia agreed to have a 19-seat plane ready for commercialization in 2023. (It now says 2024.)

On the same day, ZeroAvia announced its $21.3 million Series A investor lineup, including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Ventures Fund, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Horizon Ventures, Shell Ventures and Summa Equity. It announced another $23.4 million raise from these investors, without Amazon but with British Airways, in late March.

Miftakhov said the Malibu has now completed about a dozen test flights, with the long-distance U.K. flight pushed to later this year, due to COVID delays. And as for HyFlyer 2, Miftakhov now says that this will initially use half batteries and half fuel cells, although “the final certifiable flight configuration will get its full 600kW from the fuel cells.”

There is no doubt that ZeroAvia is facing a steep climb to deliver its promised aircraft, starting with the 19-seater, then a 50-seater plane in 2026, and a 100-seater by 2030.

Hydrogen fuel cells still have a whiff of snake oil about them, thanks to Nikola, a startup that exaggerated a public demonstration of a hydrogen fuel cell truck, triggering a collapse in its share price and investigation by the SEC. The best option for ambitious start-ups like ZeroAvia is to be more transparent about their current technology and the challenges that lie ahead, even if that means tempering the expectations of investors and a public excited by the prospect of sustainable air travel.

“I desperately want ZeroAvia to be successful,” says Paul Eremenko. “I think we have very complementary business models and together we help complete the value chain to make hydrogen aviation happen.”

China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

By Rita Liao

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

What’s fueling hydrogen tech?

By Kirsten Korosec

Hydrogen — the magical gas that Jules Verne predicted in 1874 would one day be used as fuel — has long struggled to get the attention it deserves. Discovered 400 years ago, its trajectory has seen it mostly mired in obscurity, punctuated by a few explosive moments, but never really fulfilling its potential.

Now in 2021, the world may be ready for hydrogen.

This gas is capturing the attention of governments and private sector players, fueled by new tech, global green energy legislation, post-pandemic “green recovery” schemes and the growing consensus that action must be taken to combat climate change.

Joan Ogden, professor emeritus at UC Davis, started researching hydrogen in 1985 — at the time considered “pretty fringy, crazy stuff.” She’s seen industries and governments inquisitively poke at hydrogen over the years, then move on. This new, more intense focus feels different, she said.

The funding activity in France is one illustration of what is happening throughout Europe and beyond. “Back in 2018, the hydrogen strategy in France was €100 million — a joke,” Sabrine Skiker, the EU policy manager for land transport at Hydrogen Europe, said in an interview with TechCrunch. “I mean, a joke compared to what we have now. Now we have a strategy that foresees €7.2 billion.”

The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance forecasts public and private sectors will invest €430 billion in hydrogen in the continent by 2030 in a massive push to meet emissions targets. Globally, the hydrogen generation industry is expected to grow to $201 billion by 2025 from $130 billion in 2020 at a CAGR of 9.2%, according to research from Markets and Markets published this year. This growth is expected to lead to advancements across multiple sectors including transportation, petroleum refining, steel manufacturing and fertilizer production. There are 228 large-scale hydrogen projects in various stages of development today — mostly in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Hydrogen breakdown

When the word “hydrogen” is uttered today, the average non-insider’s mind likely gravitates toward transportation — cars, buses, maybe trains or 18-wheelers, all powered by the gas.

But hydrogen is and does a lot of things, and a better understanding of its other roles — and challenges within those roles — is necessary to its success in transportation.

Hydrogen is already being heavily used in petroleum refineries and by manufacturers of steel, chemicals, ammonia fertilizers and biofuels. It’s also blended into natural gas for delivery through pipelines.

Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier — one with exceptional long-duration energy storage capabilities, which makes it a complement to weather-dependent energies like solar and wind. Storage is critical to the growth of renewable energy, and greater use of hydrogen in renewable energy storage can drive the cost of both down.

However, 95% of hydrogen produced is derived from fossil fuels — mostly through a process called steam-methane reforming (SMR). Little of it is produced via electrolysis, which uses electricity to split hydrogen and oxygen. Even less is created from renewable energy. Thus, not all hydrogen is created equal. Grey hydrogen is made from fossil fuels with emissions, and blue hydrogen is made from non-renewable sources whose carbon emissions are captured and sequestered or transformed. Green hydrogen is made from renewable energy. 

Where the action is

The global fuel cell vehicle market is hit or miss. There are about 10,000 FCVs in the U.S., with most of them in California — and sales are stalling. Only 937 FCVs were sold in the entire country in 2020, less than half the number sold in 2019. California has 44 hydrogen refueling stations and about as many in the works, but a lack of refueling infrastructure outside of the state isn’t helping American adoption.

5 questions about Grab’s epic SPAC investor deck

By Alex Wilhelm

As expected, Southeast Asian super-app Grab is going public via a SPAC, or blank check company.

The combination, which TechCrunch discussed over the weekend, will value Grab on an equity basis at $39.6 billion and will provide around $4.5 billion in cash, $4.0 billion of which will come in the form of a private investment in public equity, or PIPE. Altimeter Capital is putting up $750 million in the PIPE — fitting, as Grab is merging with one of Alitmeter’s SPACs.

Grab, which provides ride-hailing, payments and food delivery, will trade under the ticker symbol “GRAB” on Nasdaq when the deal closes. The announcement comes a day after Uber told its investors it was seeing recovery in certain transactions, including ride-hailing and delivery.

Uber also told the investing public that it’s still on track to reach adjusted EBITDA profitability in Q4 2021. The American ride-hailing giant did a surprising amount of work clearing brush for the Grab deal. Extra Crunch examined Uber’s ramp towards profitability yesterday.

This morning, let’s talk through several key points from Grab’s SPAC investor deck. We’ll discuss growth, segment profitability, aggregate costs and COVID-19, among other factors. You can read along in the presentation here.

How harshly did COVID-19 impact the business?

The impact on Grab’s operations from COVID-19 resembles what happened to Uber in that the company’s deliveries business had a stellar 2020, while its ride-hailing business did not.

From a high level, Grab’s gross merchandise volume (GMV) was essentially flat from 2019 to 2020, rising from $12.2 billion to $12.5 billion. However, the company did manage to greatly boost its adjusted net revenue over the same period, which rose from $1.0 billion to $1.6 billion.

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