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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

TuSimple as well as Girsky declined to comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HumanForest suspends London e-bike sharing service, cuts jobs after customer accident

By Natasha Lomas

UK-based startup HumanForest has suspended its nascent ‘free’ e-bike service in London this week, after experiencing “mechanical” issues and after a user had an accident on one of its bikes, TechCrunch has learned. The suspension has also seen the company make a number of layoffs with plans to re-launch next spring using a different e-bike.

The service suspension comes only a few months after HumanForest started the trial in North London — and just a couple of weeks after announcing a $2.3M seed round of funding backed by the founders of Cabify and others.

We were tipped to the closure by an anonymous source who said they were employed by the startup. They told us the company’s e-bike had been found to have a defect and there had been an accident involving a user, after which the service was suspended. They also told us HumanForest fired a bunch of staff this week with little warning and minimal severance.

Asked about the source’s allegations, HumanForest confirmed it had suspended its service in London following a “minor accident” on Sunday, saying also that it had identified “problems of a similar nature” prior to the accident but had put down those down to “tampering or minor mechanical issues”.

Here’s its statement in full: “We were not aware that the bike was defective. There had been problems of a similar nature which were suspected to be tampering or minor mechanical issues. We undertook extra mechanical checks which we believed had resolved the issue and informed the supplier. We immediately suspended operations following the minor accident on Sunday. The supplier is now investigating whether there is a more serious problem with the e-bike.”

In an earlier statement the startup also told us: “There was an accident last week. Fortunately, the customer was not hurt. We immediately withdrew all e-bikes from the street and we have informed the supplier who is investigating. Our customers’ safety is our priority. We have, therefore, decided to re-launch with a new e-bike in Spring 2021.”

HumanForest declined to offer any details about the nature of the defect that caused it to suspend service but a spokeswoman confirmed all its e-bikes were withdrawn from London streets the same day as the accident, raising questions as to why it did not do so sooner — having, by its own admission, already identified “similar problems”.

The spokeswoman also confirmed HumanForest made a number of job cuts in the wake of the service suspension.

“We are very sorry that we had to let people go at this difficult time but, with operations suspended, we could only continue as a business with a significantly reduced team,” she said. “We tried very hard to find a way to keep people on board and we looked at the possibility of alternative contractual arrangements or employment but unfortunately, there are no guarantees of when we can re-launch.”

“Employees who had been with the company for less than three months were on their probation period which, as outlined in their contract, had one week’s notice. We will be paying their salaries until the end of the month,” she said, reiterating that it’s a difficult time for the startup.

The e-bikes HumanForest was using for the service appear to be manufactured by the Chinese firm Hongji — but are supplied by a German startup, called Wunder Mobility, which offers both b2c and b2b mobility services.

We contacted both companies to ask about the e-bike defect reported by HumanForest.

At the time of writing only Wunder Mobility had responded — confirming it acts as “an intermediary” for HumanForest but not offering any details about the nature of the technical problem.

Instead, it sent us this statement, attributed to its CCO Lukas Loers: “HumanForest stands for reliable quality and works continuously to improve its services. In order to offer its customers the best possible range of services in the sharing business, HumanForest will use the winter break to evaluate its findings from the pilot project in order to provide the best and most sustainable solution for its customers together with Wunder Mobility in the spring.”

“Unfortunately, we cannot provide any information about specific defects on the vehicles, as we have only acted as an intermediary. Only the manufacturer or the operator HumanForest can comment on this,” it added.

In a further development this week, which points to the competitive and highly dynamic nature of the nascent micromobility market, another e-bike sharing startup, Bolt — which industry sources suggest uses the same model of e-bike as HumanForest (its e-bike is visually identical, just painted a more lurid shade of green) — closed its e-bike sharing service in Paris this week, a few months after launch.

When we contacted Bolt to ask whether it had withdrawn any e-bikes because of technical issues it flat denied doing so — saying the Paris closure was a business decision, and was not related to problems with its e-bike hardware.

“We understand some other companies have had issues with their providers. Bolt hasn’t withdrawn any electric bikes from suppliers due to defects,” a spokesperson told us, going on to note it has “recently” launched in Barcelona and trailing “more announcements about future expansion soon”.

In follow up emails the spokesperson further confirmed it hasn’t identified any defects with any e-bikes it’s tested, nor withdrawn any bikes from its supplier.

Bolt’s UK country manager, Matt Barrie, had a little more to say in a response to chatter about the various micromobility market moves on Twitter — tweeting the claim that: “Hardware at Bolt is fine, all good, the issues that HumanForest have had are with their bespoke components.”

“The Paris-Prague move is a commercial decision to support our wider business in Prague. Paris a good market and we hope to be back soon,” he added.

We asked HumanForest about Barrie’s claim that the technical issues with its hardware are related to “bespoke components” — but its spokeswoman declined to comment.

HumanForest’s twist on the e-bike sharing model is the idea of offering free trips with in-app ads subsidizing the rides. Its marketing has also been geared towards pushing a ‘greener commute’ message — touting that the e-bike batteries and service vehicles are charged with certified renewable energy sources.

California Plans to Ban Sales of Gas-Powered Cars by 2035

By Aarian Marshall
Governor Gavin Newsom outlines an ambitious plan for the nation's largest state to rely exclusively on electric-powered passenger cars and trucks.

Elon Musk Promises a $25,000 Tesla in 3 Years—Again

By Aarian Marshall
Reducing the cost of electric vehicles is all about a cheaper battery. Tesla outlined a plan that includes making more of the components itself.

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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoox becomes fourth company to land driverless testing permit in California

By Kirsten Korosec

Zoox, the automated vehicle technology startup that was acquired by Amazon this year, has been issued a permit from California regulators that will allow it to test driverless vehicles on public roads.

The permit is not for all public roads in the state, but it’s still notable considering the company will be able to test its vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel. The California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that regulates automated vehicle testing in the state, has issued a permit for a designated part of Foster City in San Mateo County.

Mark Rosekind, the former director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who is now chief safety officer at Zoox, called it another important milestone in the company’s “efforts to deliver safe, fully electric, and affordable autonomous mobility to riders in California.”

Zoox has taken the “all of the above” approach to autonomous vehicles. The company is aiming to build a purpose-built electric vehicle, develop, test and validate the automated vehicle technology and operate a robotaxi fleet. That mission seems to be intact. Amazon has said that Zoox will remain a standalone company.

Zoox has had a permit to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers since 2016. This new permit allows the company to test two autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified streets near its Foster City headquarters. The vehicles are approved to operate in fair weather conditions, including light rain or fog, on streets with a speed limit of no more than 45 mph, the agency said Friday.

While dozens of companies — 60 in all — have active permits to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver, it’s far less common to receive permission for driverless vehicles. Only AutoX, Nuro and Waymo hold this driverless permit. Companies who receive these driverless permits have to provide evidence of insurance or a bond equal to $5 million and follow several other rules such as training remote operators on the technology.

Zoox also has a permit, which it received in late 2018, to transport people in its automated vehicles on public roads. These ride-hailing permits fall under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission and have a variety of other requirements and rules. This permit, which allows Zoox to participate in the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, doesn’t allow companies to charge for rides.

Zoox has also been testing its technology in Las Vegas, which is considers another target market. Zoox received permission from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles in early 2019 to drive autonomously on state roads. The startup was mapping and test-driving new routes in the greater Las Vegas region last year.

German space agency reveals an autonomous, electric urban mobility prototype for use right here on Earth

By Darrell Etherington

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has debuted a prototype of what it calls ‘U-Shift,’ an urban mobility vehicle designed for multiple uses. U-Shift is a fully electric vehicle, designed for autonomous operation, and could serve in a number of capacities including as an on-demand shuttle, a bus, a mobile distribution center for package delivery, or even as travelling salesroom.

As you can see from the images, the base of the U-Shift itself is pretty simple, containing the wheels, drive system and batteries. DLR envisions a modular top component that can be swapped out depending on usage needs, with various add-on units depicted, including an airy, all-glass bus, and a more barebones cargo capsule.

This modularity could help the U-Shift better address the varied needs of city-based transportation, with the flexibility to shift modes relatively easily depending on what’s going on at the time. You could easily see how a fleet like this could be repurposed for on-demand package and grocery delivery during lockdowns like the ones that have been required during the COVID-19 pandemic, when personal transportation is less needed.

[gallery ids="2048697,2048700,2048701,2048699,2048698,2048696"]

This prototype is functional, but it’s not autonomous – it’s remote-controlled instead. The top speed also isn’t that high, but it is capable of operating continuously for 24 hours when necessary. The primary purpose of this prototype is to test the system that swaps out the cargo/passenger capsules in order to chart a path towards production with companies who will be supplying those, and to study its user interface, including things like how the doors open and how accessible it is.

DLR plans to use all the information it gathers from testing of this prototype to help develop a second, fully automated version that can reach speeds of up to 60 km/h (just under 40 mph) by 2024. That next prototype should be much closer to any potential production version, and there will be more focus then on business opportunities and commercialization as well.

ClearFlame Engine Technologies takes aim at cleaning up diesel engines

By Kirsten Korosec

Diesel engines are the workhorses of freight transportation and agriculture — and by extension keep the economy fed and well supplied. They also have a dirty side.

The founders of ClearFlame Engine Technologies, a four-year-old startup based in Geneva, Illinois, say they have found a way to clean them up.

The company, which participated in TechCrunch Disrupt’s 2020 Startup Battlefield competition, has developed a novel way to get diesel style engines to operate on renewable fuels like ethanol. The technology essentially combines the performance benefits of the diesel engine design with the low costs and the low emissions associated with these alternative fuels, co-founder and CEO BJ Johnson said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.

By replacing 100% of the petroleum fuel with a decarbonized fuel like ethanol, ClearFlame says its technology reduces net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40%, and reduces particulate matter and smog (NOx) to near zero levels.

ClearFlame isn’t redesigning the diesel engine. Instead, Johnson and co-founder and CTO Julie Blumreiter have developed a way to modify the internal components of the engine to alter its thermodynamics to be able to quickly ignite and combust decarbonized fuels. The company’s technology means 80% to 90% of the diesel engine parts remain unchanged, according to Johnson.

The upshot is a technology that provides a fast and low cost way to reduce emissions, Johnson told TechCrunch. It’s the kind of solution that companies might need as local, state and national governments tighten emissions regulations.

The technology can be retrofitted into existing older diesel engines or applied to new engines that have yet to be installed in trucks or used in other industrial applications. ClearFlame is aiming to work directly with the engine manufacturer, which will still give the company access to the secondary market because every OEM has its own aftermarket parts group, Johnson said.

“We want to leverage their supply chain, their ability to scale and reach these markets, and the trusted name that comes with them,” Johnson said, explaining the company’s reasoning for targeting OEMs.

The technology was first developed in a Stanford University lab, where Blumreiter and Johnson earned their Ph.D. degrees. At Stanford, they were focused mostly on ethanol and methanol, which are simple liquid alcohols. However, Johnson noted that further research has shown that the same concept works equally well on natural gas and ammonia.

“The big difference here is that you have to tweak the injection system if you want to move away from a regular ambient liquid fuel,” Johnson said. “There’s just a ton of business value in being able to run an engine efficiently and cleanly on a fuel that just sits in a glass at ambient conditions, which is what those alcohols do.”

ClearFlame has already made headway with its technology, including landing partnerships and raising capital. The company completed a proof-of-concept demonstration of their technology on a Caterpillar engine at Argonne National Laboratory. ClearFlame is also conducting a demonstration on a Cummins engine platform supported by funding from the Department of Energy.

In April, ClearFlame announced it raised $3 million in a round led by CleanEnergy Ventures. The company has also landed several million dollars in grant money, including Small Business Innovation Research awards from the National Science Foundation, DOE and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Amazon’s first five climate fund investments include Redwood Materials, Rivian

By Kirsten Korosec

Redwood Materials, the recycling startup founded by Tesla’s longtime CTO and co-founder JB Straubel, has landed Amazon as a new investor and customer.

Amazon’s investment in Redwood Materials is one of a handful announced Thursday that stems from the e-commerce giant’s $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund. Amazon announced in June that it would commit to invest $2 billion in sustainable technologies and services that will help it reach its commitment to have net-zero carbon operations by 2040.

Amazon said Thursday that the first recipients of its $2 billion fund also include CarbonCure Technologies, which developed technology that consumes carbon dioxide in concrete, climate technology company Pachama, electric automaker Rivian and Turntide Technologies. Amazon didn’t disclose the amount of the investments.

At least one of these investments has already been announced, although without the specific detail that the funds were coming from the climate fund. For instance, Amazon, an existing investor in Rivian, was a named a participant in the electric automaker’s $2.5 billion round in July. Rivian said 2019 it was developing an electric delivery van for Amazon using its skateboard platform. Amazon ordered 100,000 of these vans, with deliveries starting in 2021.

While Amazon’s interest in Rivian has been public for more than a year, the other investments have been unknown until now.

However, there were hints earlier this month that Amazon might have an interest in — and at the very least an awareness of — Redwood Materials. The startup, which launched in 2017, recently raised $40 million from investors, including Capricorn Investment Group and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the environmental-focused fund launched by Bill Gates that includes Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos as a board member. It’s possible that Amazon participated in that $40 million raise.

What’s perhaps more important than the investment amount is the relationship that has been established. Redwood Materials will also help Amazon recycle lithium-ion batteries from its electric vehicles as well as  e-waste from other parts of Amazon’s businesses and reuse their components.

Redwood Materials, a recycling startup based in Carson City, Nevada, is aiming to create a circular supply chain.

“We’ve made maybe more progress than some people may think and we’re actually running recycling operations and have revenue from those,” Straubel told TechCrunch. “In terms of customers, we have customers  on both sides of our company — on the incoming side there is material we recycle for companies and then on the outgoing side there are chemicals and materials that we sell back into the supply chain.”

Redwood already has customers on both sides of the business, Straubel said, although Panasonic and now Amazon are the only two that have been publicly named. Redwood is recycling the scrap from Panasonic’s battery cell manufacturing operation at the so-called Gigafactory it operates with Tesla in Sparks, Nevada. The company also has customers — that have yet to be named — on the consumer electronics side, Straubel said.

“We’re recycling and processing things as diverse as cell phone batteries, laptop computers, power tools, power banks, scooters and electric bicycles,” he said. “So it’s a kind of an amazing diversity of small- to mid-range applications that today really struggle to find a good solution. The recycling rates of those materials in particular are really atrocious in the market.”

Volocopter kicks off presales for its first air taxi flights — with a wait time of 2-3 years

By Natasha Lomas

If your sad-faced technology mantra is ‘we were promised flying cars and all we got were these shitty Internet trolls’ never fear, Berlin-based autonomous air mobility startup, Volocopter, wants to revive your sci-fi dreams.

It’s just kicked off presales for trips in its forthcoming electric air taxi service, VoloCity — albeit, there’s no date on when exactly (or where) the commercial service will fire up. But if you shell out for one of the 1,000 available pre-launch reservations — which it’s branding ‘VoloFirst’* — you’ll be able to look forward to a future flight of up to 15 minutes, within 12 months of the service’s commercial launch, whenever and wherever that will be.

“Services will start in 2-3 years,” a Volocopter spokeswoman told us. “Cities are not defined yet, as it is not clear which of the many cities we are in contact with for commercial start will make the race.”

The price for the limited edition joyride — which will include a video of your trip and a “limited edition, personalized certificate” — is €300 (~$355).

Volocopter notes that tickets can be reserved with a 10% deposit.

“Based on our public test flights and regulatory achievement record, we have paved the way to make electric flight in cities common in just a few years. With the start of reservations, we now invite our supporters and innovators around the world to join us and be amongst the first to experience this new and exciting form of mobility,” said Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter in a supporting statement.

“While the final certification for air taxis is still pending, we do have a detailed realistic timeline to launch commercial VoloCity flights in the next 2-3 years,” added Volocopter’s chief commercial officer, Christian Bauer, in another, further noting that VoloFirst ticket buyers will be able to get the latest updates on its progress and commercial launch plan.

Reservations for the VoloFirst flights are available via the Volocopter Reservation Platform.

The German startup undertook the first-ever manned flight of a purely electric multicopter back in 2011, and has gone on to demo numerous public flights with its full-scale aircraft — including public test flights at Singapore’s Marina Bay in October 2019 and the world’s first autonomous eVTOL flight in Dubai in 2017.

The company topped up its Series C funding round to $94M earlier this year, bringing its total raised to circa $132M.

It’s one of a number of flying taxi startups vying to get a commercial service off the ground. Others include EHang, Lilium and Airbus with its Vahana VTOL.

*Volocopter doesn’t guarantee ‘VoloFirst’ trip buyers will be the first public users of the air taxi service — rather it says these early birds will have “among the first” bragging rights

After lockdowns lead to an e-bike boom, VanMoof raises $40M Series B to expand globally

By Mike Butcher

E-bike startup VanMoof, has raised a $40 million investment from Norwest Venture Partners, Felix Capital and Balderton Capital. The Series B financing comes after a $13.5 million investment in May. The funding brings VanMoof’s total raised to $73 million and furthers the e-bike brand’s ultimate mission of getting the next billion on bikes.

The Series B funding will be used to meet the increased demand, shorten delivery times and build a suite of rider service solutions. It also aims to boost its share of the e-bike market in North America, Europe and Japan.

Partly driven by the switch of commuters away from public transport because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the e-bike craze is taking off.

Governments are now investing in cycling infrastructure and the e-bike market is set to surpass $46 billion in the next six years, according to reports.

Ties Carlier, co-founder VanMoof commented: “E-bike adoption was an inevitable global shift that was already taking place for many years now but COVID-19 put an absolute turbo on it to the point that we’re approaching a critical mass to transform cities for the better.”

VanMoof says it realized a 220% global revenue growth during the worldwide lockdown and sold more bikes in the first four months of 2020 than the previous two years combined.

Stew Campbell, Principal at Norwest said: “Taco, Ties and the VanMoof team have not only built an unparalleled brand and best-selling product, but they’re reshaping city mobility all over the world.”

Colin Hanna, Principal at Balderton: “As the COVID-19 crisis hit supply chains worldwide, VanMoof’s unique control over design and production was a key advantage that allowed the company to react nimbly and effectively. Moreover, VanMoof’s direct to consumer approach allows the company to build a close relationship to their riders, one that will be strengthened by new products and services in the years to come.”

VanMoof launched the new VanMoof S3 and X3 in April of this year. I reviewed the S3 here and checked out the earlier X2 version here.

Tuverl aims to bring order and access to transit in Africa

By Kirsten Korosec

Africa may be a diverse continent overflowing with different cultures, languages and customs, but Tuverl co-founder and CEO Hope Ndhlovu says there is one experience — or industry — that is consistent from South Africa up to Egypt and everywhere in between. Public transportation is the same fragmented, disorganized ecosystem of millions of small-to-medium private enterprises throughout Africa.

These public transport operators can be as small as a one-person outfit with a single van or bus up to a larger enterprise of several vehicles. There are no schedules or any coordination, and minibus operators will often wait until they can fill their vehicle with passengers. Meanwhile, the industry only accepts cash and without a means to monitor the number of trips and passengers, fraud and simple poor accounting is rampant.

The upshot: public transportation is unreliable for commuters and unprofitable for the public transport operators. In this chaos, Ndhlovu and co-founder Bahlakoana Mabetha see opportunity.

Their Zimbabwe-based startup Tuverl, which debuted Tuesday at TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield, is an app aimed at streamlining public transportation. Public operators pay Tuverl a fee to join. From here, operators can use the app to manage their fleets and locate vehicles as well as process fares. Commuters, meanwhile, can use the app to track intra-city buses and minibuses in real time, book trips, hail taxis on-demand and pay for their public transportation. Passengers can also rate and review their trips.

The app was released as a beta version in the Google Play Store in February and has 30 public transport operators and 253 commuters. Tuverl plans to expand as COVID-19 lockdown measures ease.

For now, Ndhlovi and Mabetha are focused on Zimbabwe. But the Harvard University grads have a grander vision for Tuverl.

“My motivation really was to try to improve public transportation for the ordinary person because it really makes a different in their lives,” Ndhlovi told me in a recent interview, adding that as a young student he was typically late for school because of inefficient public transport. “We need to build up operations in Zimbabwe and get some traction there. But we essentially want to make this an African thing. We want to be in every African country.”

Uber wants to help its drivers and delivery workers register to vote

By Megan Rose Dickey

With the 2020 general election coming up in November, Uber has partnered with TurboVote to launch an in-app feature designed to help riders, eaters, drivers and delivery workers register to vote. This comes after Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in August said the company would help every driver register to vote.

Uber will feature in-app banners and send emails giving people information about how to vote. They’ll then be directed to TurboVote to register to vote in their state.

Uber, as usual, also has initiatives to help voters find their polling place and will offer discounted rides to and from the polls. Uber is also asking folks to consider volunteering to be a poll worker, given the shortage this year as a result of COVID-19.

Uber has offered discounted rides to polling places for the last few years but this is the first time Uber has tried to help people register to vote through its app. Earlier this year, Lyft announced it would offer discounted as well as free rides to the polls throughout the general election.

This year, the fate of Uber and Lyft in California is up to voters. Prop 22, which Uber, Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash and Instacart have collectively poured $180 million into, seeks to keep their workers classified as independent contractors.

SEC to investigate short-seller’s claims against Nikola, report says

By Kirsten Korosec

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly looking into claims that Nikola Corp. is involved in an alleged “intricate fraud,” the latest development in a controversy that erupted last week just days after GM took an 11% stake in the newly public company.

Bloomberg reported Monday that the U.S. agency was examining the company to assess the merits of accusations made by short-seller Hindenburg Research. The Bloomberg report, which was based on unnamed sources, sent Nikola shares down more than 9% in after-hours trading.

Nikola’s statement, which was sent to TechCrunch, doesn’t answer the question of whether the SEC is in fact investigating the matter. The company said that on September 11, Nikola’s legal counsel “proactively contacted and briefed” the SEC regarding its “concerns pertaining to the Hindenburg report.”

“Nikola welcomes the SEC’s involvement in this matter,” the company added in the statement. TechCrunch has reached out to the SEC for confirmation that the agency is investigating the matter.

While this saga between Hindenburg Research and Nikola began last week, questions have swirled in recent months over some of the electric automaker’s past claims. The Hindenburg report, which was released September 10, caused Nikola shares to fall and its founder to take to Twitter in an effort to allay concerns. Hindenburg Research’s report raised questions about the validity of Nikola’s claims over the years, as well as accusations of nepotism.

Nikola issued Monday a carefully worded, point-by-point rebuttal that attempts to disprove Hindenburg Research’s report. Following each of the points that Nikola denies or explains, the company placed this statement: “These allegations by the short seller are false and misleading, and designed to manipulate the market to profit from a manufactured decline in Nikola’s stock price.”

“Nikola believes that the Hindenburg report, and the opportunistic timing of its publication shortly after announcement of Nikola’s partnership with General Motors Co. and the resulting positive share price reaction, was designed to provide a false impression to investors and to negatively manipulate the market in order to financially benefit short sellers, including Hindenburg itself,” Nikola said in its rebuttal issued Monday.

Despite Nikola’s lengthy report — and in some cases because of it — criticisms have arisen over the company’s previous promotional tactics, specifically surrounding its first hydrogen electric semi truck prototype, the Nikola One.

Nikola disputes fraud claims in carefully worded rebuttal

By Kirsten Korosec

Nikola Corp., the hydrogen electric vehicle startup that went public this year through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, released Monday a point-by-point rebuttal that attempts to disprove a report issued last week by short-seller Hindenburg Research that accused the company of fraud.

In spite of the careful wording of the rebuttal, some of the company’s counterpoints raise more questions and even reveal problematic promotional tactics.

Nikola’s lengthier denial follows a series of tweets made last week by the company’s founder, Trevor Milton, who called the report by the activist short-seller a “hit job” based on false allegations. Milton also said the company had retained law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.  The report by Hindenburg Research, which was released September 10, two days after GM announced it had taken an 11% stake in Nikola, sent the company’s share price into a free fall.

Nikola shares are up 7% in trading Monday following its rebuttal.

Nikola retained outside counsel Kirkland & Ellis LLP and authorized them to reach out directly to the SEC. The allegations are false and deceptive. On advice of counsel however, I won’t comment further now other than saying that we have involved SEC. It is in their hands and i pic.twitter.com/k1Cz3Hymca

— Trevor Milton (@nikolatrevor) September 11, 2020

“Nikola believes that the Hindenburg report, and the opportunistic timing of its publication shortly after announcement of Nikola’s partnership with General Motors Co. and the resulting positive share price reaction, was designed to provide a false impression to investors and to negatively manipulate the market in order to financially benefit short sellers, including Hindenburg itself,” Nikola said in its rebuttal issued Monday.

Following each of the points that Nikola denies or explains, the company has placed this statement: “These allegations by the short seller are false and misleading, and designed to manipulate the market to profit from a manufactured decline in Nikola’s stock price.”

Hindenburg Research’s report raises questions about the validity of Nikola’s claims over the years, as well as accusations of nepotism.

Two that stand out — largely because Nikola’s response seems to confirm Hindenburg’s criticism — focus on the company’s first semi truck, the Nikola One. Hindenburg said the truck wasn’t fully functioning, a claim that backed up a Bloomberg article this summer that reported the company had exaggerated its capabilities. Hindenburg also claims in its report that a 2017 promotional video of the Nikola One, which showed it rolling down a hill, misrepresented the capabilities of the prototype.

Nikola’s rebuttal today attempts to thread the needle on those claims. The company said the Nikola One, which was revealed in 2016, was designed to be powered and driven by its own propulsion and included a list of functioning parts, such as the gearbox and batteries. However, Nikola then states that the company “pivoted to the next generation of trucks,” and “decided not to invest additional resources into completing the process to make the Nikola One drive on its own propulsion.”

Nikola gets creative with the wording again to explain the 2017 promotional video, saying it “never stated its truck was driving under its own propulsion in the video, although the truck was designed to do just that.” 

Nikola said the truck was showcased and filmed by a third party for a commercial. Nikola said in its statement that this third-party video was described on the company’s social media as “In Motion.”

“It was never described as ‘under its own propulsion’ or ‘powertrain driven.’ Nikola investors who invested during this period, in which the company was privately held, knew the technical capability of the Nikola One at the time of their investment,” the company said.

However, that runs counter to previous statements by Milton, who repeatedly said the vehicle was not a “pusher.” Nikola also doesn’t provide further clarification into what, if anything, was powering the prototype. Instead, the company focuses on the fact that this prototype was ditched altogether and therefore irrelevant.

Lidar Is Finally Becoming a Real Business

By Timothy B. Lee, Ars Technica
The success of lidar companies was unclear until this summer, when three leading makers offered glimpses of their finances.

Uber Pledges to Go All-Electric, but It Doesn't Own the Cars

By Aarian Marshall
The ride-hail company joined rival Lyft with a “green” pledge. It's counting on incentives to encourage drivers to switch to battery power.

Wing’s Margaret Nagle will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 to discuss the future of urban air transportation

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Wing is among the companies leading the way for building a sustainable and scalable way for drones and other aircraft to share the skies and build a capable and safe aerial transportation network. Wing’s Head of Policy, Regulatory and Community Affairs Margaret Nagle will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility this year to talk about the work the company is doing to unlock the potential of this path forward for city skies, and what the landscape looks like from the perspective of someone who works at the linkage point between public and private sectors.

Wing’s primary business is building and deploying a local drone delivery service that works through an app on your phone to allow you to quickly and easily order items from its partner businesses. To make the deliveries possible, Wing uses a custom multi-rotor/fixed wing hybrid aircraft that uses an all-electric power source to operate emission-free. The roughly 4’x’3 vehicle can fly at up to 70mph, and can carry payloads of up to 3.3 lbs on board. Currently, Wing is engaged in trial service deployments in Finland, the U.S. and Australia.

Margaret Stewart Nagle, Head of Policy, Regulatory and Community Affairs at Wing

The company also created OpenSky, a platform designed to help drone operators (both individuals and companies) to understand flight restrictions and regulations for their area, in order to fly safely. Wing ultimately wants to help manage air traffic control across multiple drone delivery and logistics companies and operators, and OpenSky is one part of that longer-term goal, which will also involve working closely with local airspace regulators and oversight agencies.

Nagle’s work at Wing taps into her extensive experience working with public sector stakeholders at Google’s X Moonshot devision, as well as at Yahoo prior to that. She’s responsible for helping to pioneer brand new use cases for aviation, and evaluate and demonstrate its impact for communities large and small all around the world. We’ll be talking to Nagle about what Wing has already seen with its live service deployments, and what potential it could hold for the future in terms of changing the communities where it operates.

Get your tickets for TC Sessions: Mobility to hear from Margaret Nagle, along with several other fantastic speakers from Porsche, Waymo, Lyft and more. Tickets are just $145 for a limited time, with discounts for groups, students and exhibiting startups. We hope to see you there!

Tarform unveils Luna e-moto for folks who may not like motorcycles

By Jake Bright

Brooklyn-based EV startup Tarform unveiled its Luna electric motorcycle in New York last week—a model designed for an audience that may not actually like motorcycles.

Tarform’s first street legal entrant, the Luna, starts at $24,000, does 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds, has a city range of 120 miles, top-speed of 120 mph, and charges to 80% in 50 minutes—according to company specs.

The model was hatched out of the company’s mission to meld aesthetic design and craftsmanship to environmental sustainability in two-wheeled electric vehicles.

To that end, the Luna incorporates a number of unique, eco-design features. The bodywork is made from a flax seed weave and the overall motorcycle engineering avoids use of plastics. The Luna’s seat upholstery is made out of biodegradable vegan leather. Tarform is also testing methods to avoid paints and primers on its motorcycles, instead using a mono-material infused with algae and iron based metallic pigments.

The company was founded by Swede Taras Kravtchouk—an industrial design specialist, former startup head, and passionate motorcyclist. The Luna launch follows the debut of two concept e-motos in 2018.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

On Tarform’s target market, he explained the startup hopes to attract those who may be turned off by the very things that have turned people on to motorcycling over the last 50 years — namely gas, chrome, noise, and fumes.

“It’s more for people who want a custom bike and the techies: people who wanted to have a motorcycle but didn’t want to be associated with the whole stigmatized motorcycle lifestyle,” Kravtchouk told TechCrunch.

Tarform enters the EV arena with competition from several e-moto startups — and on OEM — that are attempting to convert gas riders to electric and attract a younger generation to motorcycling.

One of the leaders is California company Zero Motorcycles, with 200 dealers worldwide. Zero introduced a its $19,000 SR/F in 2019, with a 161-mile city range, one-hour charge capability and a top speed of 124 mph. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S.

In 2020, Harley Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S., the $29,000 LiveWire.

And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

On how Tarform plans to compete with these e-motorcycle players, Kravtchouk explained that’s not the company’s priority. “We’re not even close in production to Zero or the other big guys, but that’s not our intention. Think of the [Luna] as a custom production bike,” he said.

“We did not set out to build a bike that is fastest or has the longest range,” Kravtchouk added. “We set out to build a bike that completely revises the manufacturing and supply chain of e-motorcycles in a way where we ethically source our materials and create an ethical supply-chain.”

For this mission, Tarform has obtained funding from several family offices and angel investors, including LA based M13. The Brooklyn based e-motorcycle company is taking pre-orders on its new Luna and pursuing a Series-A funding round for 2021, according to CEO Taras Kravtchouk.

48 hours left to save on TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

By Alexandra Ames

Don’t you just love the feeling you get when crossing a task off your to-do list? It’s exponentially bigger and better when you can save $100 at the same time. Here’s the thing — you have just 48 hours to buy an early-bird pass to TC Sessions: Mobility 2020, save $100 and experience the all-too-elusive bliss of Getting. It. Done.

Want to feel all the feels? Buy your pass before the deadline expires on September 11 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Now that you’re all set in the pass department, let’s turn to the events of October 6-7. We have an outstanding agenda focused on the technology, trends and regulatory issues surrounding the current and future state of mobility.

Here are just a few of the many of the brilliant speakers and timely topics you can enjoy (see the entire Mobility 2020 agenda here):

  • The Future of Racing: Formula E driver Lucas Di Grassi is part of a new racing series, in which riders on high-speed electric scooters compete against each other on temporary circuits in cities. Think Formula E, but with electric scooters. The former CEO of Roborace and sustainability ambassador of the EsC, Electric Scooter Championship, will join us to talk about electrification, micromobility and a new kind of motorsport.
  • Investing in Mobility: Reilly Brennan, Amy Gu and Olaf Sakkers will come together to debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.
  • Uber’s City Footprint: Uber’s operations touch upon many aspects of the transportation ecosystem. Whether it’s autonomous vehicles, food delivery, trucking or traditional ride-hailing, these products and services all require Uber to interact with cities and ensure the company is on the good side of cities. That’s where Shin-pei Tsay comes in. Hear from Tsay about how she thinks through Uber’s place in cities and how she navigates various regulatory frameworks.

You can also explore more than 40 early-stage mobility startups exhibiting their tech and talent in the digital expo. Want to really strut your stuff? Apply here by September 15 to participate in our first Pitch Night — we’re looking for 10 outstanding early-stage founders to throw down in front of judges on October 5. Five finalists will move on to present live from the Mobility Main stage on October 6 — alongside folks like Boris Sofman of Waymo, Nancy Sun of Ike and Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan. You’ll gain world-wide exposure to thousands of TC viewers, including investors and press.

The early-bird deal disappears in 48 hours. Buy your TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 pass before September 11 at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Cross off the task, feel the joy, save $100 and do what it takes to drive your business forward.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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