FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Yesterday — January 17th 2021Your RSS feeds

Startups look beyond lidar for autonomous vehicle perception

By Devin Coldewey

Last CES was a time of reckoning for lidar companies, many of which were cratering due to a lack of demand from a (still) non-existent autonomous vehicle industry. The few that excelled did so by specializing, and this year the trend has pushed beyond lidar, with new sensing and imaging methods pushing to both compete with and complement the laser-based tech.

Lidar pushed ahead of traditional cameras because it could do things they couldn’t — and now some companies are pushing to do the same with tech that’s a little less exotic.

A good example of addressing the problem or perception by different means is Eye Net’s vehicle-to-x tracking platform. This is one of those techs that’s been talked about in the context of 5G (admittedly still somewhat exotic), which for all the hype really does enable short-distance, low-latency applications that could be life-savers.

Eye Net provides collision warnings between vehicles equipped with its tech, whether they have cameras or other sensing tech equipped or not. The example they provide is a car driving through a parking lot, unaware that a person on one of those horribly unsafe electric scooters is moving perpendicular to it ahead, about to zoom into its path but totally obscured by parked cars. Eye Net’s sensors detect the position of the devices on both vehicles and send warnings in time for either or both to brake.

CG illustration of a bicyclist and car being warned of an imminent collision.

Image Credits: Eye Net

They’re not the only ones attempting something like this, but they hope that by providing a sort of white-label solution, a good size network can be built relatively easily, instead of having none, and then all VWs equipped, and then some Fords and some e-bikes, and so on.

But vision is still going to be a major part of how vehicles navigate, and advances are being made on multiple fronts.

Brightway Vision, for instance, addresses the issue of normal RGB cameras having limited visibility in many real-world conditions by going multispectral. In addition to ordinary visible-light imagery, the company’s camera is mated to a near-infrared beamer that scans the road ahead at set distance intervals many times a second.

CG illustration of a camera using infrared to see further ahead at night.

Image Credits: Brightway Vision

The idea is that if the main camera can’t see 100 feet out because of fog, the NIR imagery will still catch any obstacles or road features when it scans that “slice” in its regular sweep of the incoming area. It combines the benefits of traditional cameras with those of IR ones, but manages to avoid the shortcomings of both. The pitch is that there’s no reason to use a normal camera when you can use one of these, which does the same job better and may even allow another sensor to be cut out.

Foresight Automotive also uses multispectral imagery in its cameras (chances are hardly any vehicle camera will be limited to visible spectrum in a few years), dipping into thermal via a partnership with FLIR, but what it’s really selling is something else.

To provide 360-degree (or close) coverage, generally multiple cameras are required. But where those cameras go differs on a compact sedan versus an SUV from the same manufacturer — let alone on an autonomous freight vehicle. Because those cameras have to work together, they need to be perfectly calibrated, aware of the exact position of the others, so they know, for example, that they’re both looking at the same tree or bicyclist and not two identical ones.

Image showing Foresight cameras being attached magnetically to a car's body.

Image Credits: Foresight Automotive

Foresight’s advance is to simplify the calibration stage, so a manufacturer or designer or test platform doesn’t need to be laboriously re-tested and certified every time the cameras need to be moved half an inch in one direction or the other. The Foresight demo shows them sticking the cameras on the roof of the car seconds before driving it.

It has parallels to another startup called Nodar that also relies on stereoscopic cameras, but takes a different approach. The technique of deriving depth from binocular triangulation, as the company points out, goes back decades, or millions of years if you count our own vision system, which works in a similar ways. The limitation that has held this approach back isn’t that optical cameras fundamentally can’t provide the depth information needed by an autonomous vehicle, but that they can’t be trusted to remain calibrated.

Nodar shows that its paired stereo cameras don’t even need to be mounted to the main mass of the car, which would reduce jitter and fractional mismatches between the cameras’ views. Attached to the rear view mirrors, their “Hammerhead” camera setup has a wide stance (like the shark’s), which provides improved accuracy because of the larger disparity between the cameras. Since distance is determined by the differences between the two images, there’s no need for object recognition or complex machine learning to say “this is a shape, probably a car, probably about this big, which means it’s probably about this far away” as you might with a single camera solution.

Image Credits: Nodar

The industry has already shown that camera arrays do well in harsh weather conditions, just as human eyes do,” said Nodar COO and co-founder Brad Rosen. “For example, engineers at Daimler have published results showing that current stereoscopic approaches provide significantly more stable depth estimates than monocular methods and LiDAR completion in adverse weather. The beauty of our approach is that the hardware we use is available today, in automotive-grade, and with many choices for manufacturers and distributors.”

Indeed, a major strike against lidar has been the cost of the unit — even “inexpensive” ones tend to be orders of magnitude more expensive than ordinary cameras, something that adds up very quickly. But team lidar hasn’t been standing still either.

Sense Photonics came onto the scene with a new approach that seemed to combine the best of both worlds: a relatively cheap and simple flash lidar (as opposed to spinning or scanning, which tend to add complexity) mated to a traditional camera so that the two see versions of the same image, allowing them to work together in identifying objects and establishing distances.

Since its debut in 2019 Sense has refined its tech for production and beyond. The latest advance is custom hardware that has enabled it to image objects out to 200 meters — generally considered on the far end both for lidar and traditional cameras.

“In the past, we have sourced an off-the-shelf detector to pair with our laser source (Sense Illuminator). However, our 2 years of in-house detector development has now completed and is a huge success, which allows us to build short-range and long-range automotive products,” said CEO Shauna McIntyre.

“Sense has created ‘building blocks’ for a camera-like LiDAR design that can be paired with different sets of optics to achieve different FOV, range, resolution, etc,” she continued. “And we’ve done so in a very simple design that can actually be manufactured in large volumes. You can think of our architecture like a DSLR camera where you have the ‘base camera’ and can pair it with a macro lens, zoom lens, fisheye lens, etc. to achieve different functions.”

One thing all the companies seemed to agree on is that no single sensing modality will dominate the industry from top to bottom. Leaving aside that the needs of a fully autonomous (i.e. level 4-5) vehicle has very different needs from a driver assist system, the field moves too quickly for any one approach to remain on top for long.

“AV companies cannot succeed if the public is not convinced that their platform is safe and the safety margins only increase with redundant sensor modalities operating at different wavelengths,” said McIntyre.

Whether that means visible light, near-infrared, thermal imaging, radar, lidar, or as we’ve seen here, some combination of two or three of these, it’s clear the market will continue to favor differentiation — though as with the boom-bust cycle seen in the lidar industry a few years back, it’s also a warning that consolidation won’t be far behind.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Feds ask Tesla to recall 158,000 vehicles over failing touchscreen displays

By Kirsten Korosec

U.S. safety regulators have asked Tesla to recall 158,000 vehicles over media control unit failures that cause the touchscreen displays to stop working, following a months-long investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Office of Defects Investigation unit of the agency determined that the failure of the media control unit is a safety issue since functions like the backup camera and defogging and defrosting setting controls stop working as well as audible chimes, which are used when the turn signal indicator is activated and to alert drivers while the vehicle’s Autopilot advanced driver assistance system is engaged. Reports of the MCUs suddenly failing have been a topic for years in Tesla forums.

The failure is caused when the memory storage in a flash drive used in the used in these vehicles reaches capacity, investigators concluded. The only solution is to replace the physical piece of hardware. Vehicles affected include Model S sedans built between 2012 and 2018 as well as Model X SUVs in 2016 through 2018.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. However, the company did provide information to NHTSA, which is contained in the report. Tesla confirmed to NHTSA that all units will inevitably fail given the memory device’s finite storage capacity. Tesla provided its own statistical model showing the number of projected weekly MCU repairs from 2020 to 2028. The automaker estimated that replacement rates for MCU failures will peak in early 2022 and gradually decline until (near) full part turnover has been accomplished in 2028, according to the report.

These vehicles are equipped with an NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor with an integrated 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory device. Part of this 8GB storage capacity is used each time the vehicle is started. The eMMC NAND cell hardware fails when the storage capacity is reached, resulting in failure of the MCU, the agency said.

The eMMC NAND flash device’s lifespan based upon the number of program/erase cycles, after which the MCU fails due to memory wear-out. Investigators determined that the expected usage life rating for the 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory device is about 3,000 Program-Erase cycles, after which the eMMC NAND flash memory device would become fully consumed and no longer be operational. At a daily cycle usage rate of 1.4 per block, accumulation of 3,000 P/E cycles would take only 5 to 6 years, the agency said.

The agency has officially requested that Tesla initiate a recall to notify all owners, purchasers, and dealers of the subject vehicles of this safety defect and provide a remedy.

Foxconn, Geely team up to build electric, autonomous and shared vehicles for automakers

By Kirsten Korosec

The electric, autonomous vehicles of the future might be manufactured by Apple’s main supplier Foxconn and Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

The two companies have agreed to form a joint venture focused on contract manufacturing for automakers, with a specific focus on electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving technology as well as vehicles designed for sharing. Each party will hold an equal 50% stake in new joint venture. The board of directors will consist of five members with Foxconn appointing three including the Chairman and Geely Holding appointing two, according to a statement issued by the two companies.

The agreement follows moves by both companies to take larger roles in contract manufacturing for automakers. Earlier this week, Geely said it would help China’s search giant Baidu set up a company to produce electric vehicles. Baidu will provide smart driving technologies while Geely will be in charge of car design and manufacturing. Meanwhile, Foxconn has announced plans to help troubled Chinese electric car startup Byton build its M-Byte SUV.

Geely Holding Group CEO Daniel Donghui Li said that the global automotive industry is undergoing profound changes. Geely must “actively embrace change build alliances, and synergize resources to create greater value for our users,” he said, adding that Foxconn’s expertise will offer important insight for the transformation and evolution of the automotive industry.

The joint venture will provide consulting services on whole vehicles, parts, intelligent drive systems and other automotive ecosystem platforms to automakers as well as ride-sharing companies. Geely will bring its experience in the automotive fields of design, engineering, R&D, intelligent manufacturing, supply chain management and quality control while Foxconn will bring its manufacturing and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) know-how.

The aim, the companies said, is to help automakers accelerate their transition to new innovative and efficient manufacturing processes and business models based on connected, autonomous, shared, and electrified technologies (referred to in the industry as CASE).

Dozens of new companies aiming to become the next Tesla or trying to commercialize autonomous vehicles have popped up in recent years, giving this Foxconn-Geely enterprise a long list of potential customers. One of the primary roadblocks to making vehicles at volume is the billions of dollars required to build and tool a factory. That need for capital has prompted a number of EV startups to become publicly traded companies by merging with a special purpose acquisition company. Canoo, Fisker, Lordstown Motors and Nikola Corp. are a few that have merged with a SPAC, otherwise known as a blank-check company.

Foxconn Technology Group chairman Young-way Liu called the alliance a milestone in cooperation between the automotive and information and communication technology (ICT) industries.

“With Foxconn’s globally leading R&D technologies, intelligent manufacturing, and hardware-software integration capabilities, the two parties form a highly complementary partnership which allows us to better serve and meet the diverse needs of different customers, and offer the most advanced, fastest, cost-effective full value-chain vehicle production service platform,” Young-way Liu said, adding that the partnership will result in tremendous change in the development of the automotive industry. 

Lime removes all Trump-owned properties from its list of approved corporate hotels

By Kirsten Korosec

Lime has changed its corporate travel policy to ensure not a dime of its money ends up in the coffers of the Trump Organization’s hotels and other properties in response to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that led to several deaths.

The micromobility startup wants to take that action further and has asked TripActions, the Palo Alto-based corporate travel booking service that it uses, to encourage other customers to do the same. TripActions has not returned emails seeking comment.

Earlier today, Lime asked TripActions to remove Trump properties from showing up in a search if one of its employees is booking corporate travel, according to an internal email written by Lime CEO Wayne Ting and sent to the rest of the staff.

“While some startups have argued that companies should never be political, we have always understood that the work we do here at Lime is inherently political,” Ting wrote. “We are speaking out and standing up for what we believe is right because that is the right thing to do. And we are looking for ways to ensure our actions — and dollars — don’t support those who are complicit in this attack on our democracy.”

Lime has not made any political contributions to date, according to the email. (TechCrunch confirmed with Lime that it hasn’t made any federal political contributions.) Ting wrote that the company will never support any elected official who voted to challenge the certification of the results of the Electoral College. He then went further, extending it to the Trump Organization, a real estate portfolio that includes hotels, golf properties and resorts as well as residential holdings like Trump Tower.

“Moreover, we are committing to never support or spend money at any of the business ventures and affiliates of the Trump and Kushner families,” Ting wrote. “In fact, earlier today, we asked TripActions to remove all Trump properties from Lime search results and encouraged them to institute this policy for all of their customers.”

Here’s the complete email, which TechCrunch has viewed:

I know many of us watched last week’s events in Washington DC in shock and horror. The bedrock of any democracy is the peaceful transfer of power based on the will of the people. It was horrific to see a mob of insurrectionists — including white supremacists, neo-nazis, and conspiracy theorists — spurred on by the President, storm the halls of Congress to undermine and overturn that most sacred democratic ritual through violence and intimidation. 

The day was made even more disturbing by the stark contrast in police response between last week’s violent riots and last summer’s overwhelmingly peaceful protests for racial justice. If the rioters last week had been black and brown and held high the flag of Black Lives Matter instead of Donald Trump and the Confederacy, would they have been allowed to overrun the Capitol, ransacked offices, and walked back out the front door in their own volition? The unfortunate thing is the answer is self-evident.  

As more information became available over the last few days, it’s also clear that President Trump and certain Members of Congress still do not comprehend the gravity of their offenses, show appropriate remorse for inciting such unbelievable violence, or commit to ensure they never happen again. 

While some startups have argued that companies should never be political, we have always understood that the work we do here at Lime is inherently political. We are speaking out and standing up for what we believe is right because that is the right thing to do. And we are looking for ways to ensure our actions — and dollars — don’t support those who are complicit in this attack on our democracy.

We signed on to PFNYC’s letter calling for Congress to certify the results of the Presidential election ahead of the unrest. And while we have not made political donations to date, we are committing now to never support any elected official who voted to challenge the certification of the results of the Electoral College. 

Moreover, we are committing to never support or spend money at any of the business ventures and affiliates of the Trump and Kushner families. In fact, earlier today, we asked TripActions to remove all Trump properties from Lime search results and encouraged them to institute this policy for all of their customers.

I know these events have been difficult to watch, painful to comprehend, and deeply hurtful on the most personal level for many of our colleagues. Please always know, we are here to support you and each other. And if it is helpful, you can find mental health support services here for US employees, and here for those in other countries. 

One of Dr. King’s quotes that has always given me great strength in hard times is that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The road ahead will feel long and winding, but I truly believe when we all do our part, the righteous cause slowly, begrudgingly, and eventually triumphs. 

Wayne

Sono Motors plans to license the tech that powers its solar electric car

By Kirsten Korosec

Sono Motors wants to bring technology it developed for its solar electric car to the masses. And it’s starting with autonomous shuttle startup EasyMile.

The German-based startup said Tuesday during a presentation at the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show that it will license its solar body panel technology to other companies. EasyMile, which provides electric autonomous shuttle buses governments, universities and other companies, will be the first to integrate the solar body panels onto its vehicles, according Sono Motors co-founder and CEO Laurin Hahn, who made the announcement after the company’s next-generation Sion solar electric car was revealed.

From afar, the Sono Motors’ electric Sion vehicle looks like a compact car with black paint. Upon closer inspection, the entire exterior of the vehicle is actually comprised of hundreds of solar cells that have been integrated into polymer instead of glass.

This makes them lighter, robust, cheaper and more efficient than any other technology available at the present in the markets, according to Arun Ramakrishnan, senior solar integration manager at Sono Motors, who added that they can integrated into almost any object. 

The solar body panels are lightweight — comparable to traditional body panels on today’s modern cars — and the polymer coating prevents the cells from splintering, the company said.

These solar cells convert sunlight into energy, which is stored in the vehicle’s battery. The solar cells, which works if a vehicle is driving or parked, can add up nearly 21.7 miles of range per day on the Sion car, the company said, noting that these stats are based on average weather in Munich.

The aim is to make vehicles less dependent on charging infrastructure, Hahn said.

Sono Motors

Image Credits: Sono Motors/screenshot

The solar body panels aren’t designed to replace traditional charging methods. However, it can reduce how often the vehicle needs to be plugged in. Sono Motors noted that the solar integration in the Sion car extends the need to plug in from once a week to every four weeks, stats based on an average daily commute in Germany of 10 miles.

Sono Motors showed Tuesday a trailer outfitted with the solar body panels, just one use case for the technology. The trailer, which is just a prototype, is capable of generating up to 80 kilowatt hours per day.

“Just imagine the massive potential,” Ramakrishnan said, noting that the tech could be used by refrigerated trucks or other fleets.

Gett raises $115M for its on-demand ride-hailing platform for business users

By Ingrid Lunden

As ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft continue to find their feet in a new landscape for transportation services — where unessential travel is being actively discouraged in many markets and people remain concerned about catching the coronavirus in restricted, shared spaces — a smaller player that has carved out a place for itself targeting business users is announcing more funding.

Gett, which started out as a more direct competitor to the likes of Uber and Lyft but now focuses mainly on ground transportation services for business clients in major cities around the world, said in a short statement that it has closed a round of $115 million. The company — co-headquartered in London and Israel — also said it is now “operationally profitable” and is hitting its budget targets.

The funding is being led by new backer Pelham Capital Investments Ltd. and also included participation from unnamed existing investors.

Including this round, Gett has now raised $865 million, with past investors including VW, Access and its founder Len BlavatnikKreos, MCI and more. Gett’s last confirmed valuation was $1.5 billion, pegged to a $200 million fundraise in May 2019. It’s not talking about current valuation, or any recent customer numbers, today.

Dave Waiser, Gett’s founder and CEO, described the funding earlier today in a note to me as an extension to the company’s previous round, a $100 million equity investment that it announced in July last year.

Chairman Amos Genish, said in a statement that the funding round was oversubscribed, “which shows the market’s interest in our platform and long-term vision. Gett is disrupting and transforming a fragmented market delivering ever-critical cost optimisation and client satisfaction.”

The company has been building out a focus on the B2B market for several years now — a smart way of avoiding the expensive and painful race to compete like-for-like against the Ubers of the world — and this most recent round is focused on doubling down on that.

The Gett of the past — it was originally founded in 2010 under the name GetTaxi — did indeed try to build a business around both consumers and higher-end users, but the idea behind Gett today is to focus on corporate accounts.

Gett provides those businesses’ employees with a predictable and reliable app-based platform to make it easier to order car services wherever they happen to be traveling, and those businesses — which in the past would have used a fragmented mix of local services — then have a consolidated way of managing, accounting for and analysing those travel expenses. It claims to be able to save companies some 25%-40% in costs.

The company previously said that its network covered some 1,500 cities. In certain metropolitan areas like London and Moscow, Gett provides transportation services directly. In markets where it does not have direct operations (such as anywhere in the U.S., including New York), it partners with third parties, such as Lyft.

“We are on a journey to transform corporate ground travel and I’m delighted that investors find our model attractive,” Waiser said in a statement today. “This investment will allow us to further develop our SaaS technology and deepen our proposition within the corporate ground travel market.”

Updated to correct that this is an extension to the $100 million round.

The Cadillac personal drone is the cadillac of personal drones

By Kirsten Korosec

GM revealed Tuesday a Cadillac -branded electric vertical takeoff and landing drone concept that is designed — if it’s ever built — to let owners cruise the skies in isolated luxury.

The single seat eVTOL, which was showcased alongside an autonomous vehicle during GM’s keynote presentation at the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show, is the automaker’s first foray into aerial mobility. This is a mere concept, which means it’s unlikely to become a real product. However, these concepts can signal where a company is headed on the design or product front. And when it comes to electric and autonomous vehicles, GM has proven its willingness to invest in the technologies.

“We are preparing for a world where advances in electric and autonomous technology make personal air travel possible,” Michael Simcoe, GM’s global design chief, said during the presentation. “It is a concept designed for the moment when time is of essence and convenience is everything.”

GM electric evtol ces

Image Credits: GM

The eVTOL concept is equipped with 90-kilowatt hour electric motor to power four rotors that can whisk the passenger off of a rooftop to their destination. It also comes with air-to-air and air-to-ground communications capabilities.

Simcoe said the company has more concepts planned, including a “luxurious two-seater designed for you and someone very special to decompress, relax and enjoy a multi sensory experience choreographed for more intimate journeys.”

The entire exercise, as Simcoe explained, is to show the world what autonomy and Cadillac luxury might look like in the “not too distant future.” 

Of course, these concepts are also designed to convey just how serious GM is about the future of transportation, which in its view centers around electrification, automated vehicle technology and connected car services.

Uber expands green rides option to 1,400 cities

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber has expanded a program that incentivizes drivers to use all-electric and hybrid vehicles to more than 1,400 cities in North America including Austin, Houston, Miami and New York City as part of the ride-hailing company’s broader plan to become a zero-emission platform by 2040.

The program, known as Uber Green, gives customers the option to request an EV or hybrid electric vehicle. Drivers receive an extra $0.50 from a $1 rider surcharge for every Uber Green trip completed. Uber said Tuesday it is integrating the program into its Uber Pass membership service and will give members 10% off on “green” trips, the same discount provided for a standard ride.

Of course, the success of Uber Green hinges on its ability to get drivers to make the switch. The company has set aside $800 million to get its drivers to use electric vehicles by 2025.

Now, it’s beginning to roll out programs through partnerships with automakers, charging network providers, and EV rental and fleet companies to provide further incentives. Uber said Tuesday drivers in Los Angeles can rent electric vehicles through a partnership with Avis. The program will expand nationwide in 2021.  

Uber has also partnered with Ample. Starting this month, drivers in San Francisco can rent a vehicle with Ample battery swapping technology, which lets switch out the electric vehicle batteries in minutes. 

The company has also expanded its partnership with EVgo to give drivers on its ride-hailing platform access to charging discounts at more than 800 U.S. locations.

Uber’s zero-emission goal will require more than getting drivers and riders to use EVs. The company is expanding other programs as well, including its journey planning feature for public transit users. The feature, which is now available in more than 40 cities globally, is accessed through the Uber app and lets users plan their public transit journey and includes walking directions to stations and real-time schedules. The company said Tuesday it has added the feature for users in Atlanta, Auckland, Brisbane, Buenos Aires, Guadalajara, Philadelphia, Rome, Bangalore, Chennai, and Mumbai. 

Uber said it is also bringing a multimodal trip planner that combines ride-hailing with walking directions and city bus, subway, or train connections to Mexico City and London. The feature launched in Sydney and Chicago. 

Uber and Moderna partner on COVID-19 vaccine access and information

By Darrell Etherington

Uber and pharmaceutical company Moderna have announced a partnership around COVID-19 vaccination, which will include a number of different initiatives. To start, it’s only confirmed component is to provide users with credible, factual information about COVID-19 vaccine safety through Uber’s consumer app, but the companies have also discussed additional “options” including building ride scheduling via Uber directly into the immunization appointment booking process.

Still in its early days, the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination program is already beset with challenges, including providing timely access to vaccines to swaths of the population who need it most. The inoculation program also has to contend with significant misinformation proliferating on social media about vaccine safety, and any app with the surface area of something like Uber has a chance to get positive messages and accurate information in front of a lot of people, so that’s good news on its own.

But one of the very real challenges to an effective vaccination campaign remains logistical, and getting people to make their initial and follow-up appointments for the first round of the Moderna vaccine, and its second shot booster, is a bigger challenge than many might suspect. I spoke to Healthvana CEO Ramin Bastani about their work with  LA County on creating an immunization record that integrates with Apple Wallet to provide patients with timely info and reminders about vaccination appointments, but integrating a ride-booking service or appointment reminder directly in the Uber app that most users already have on their phone anyway could be another very effective way to increase success rates for first and follow-up inoculation visits.

Uber has already offered up free and discounted rides to help lower the friction of actually going out and getting a vaccine, but a product-level integration could do a lot more than that by providing easy, user-friendly access. As noted, this is still just one of the options being discussed, but if Uber and Moderna are willing to commit it to print, that at least means they’re serious about trying to find a way. We’re holding them to account, too, so rest assured we’ll follow up on their progress as this collaboration develops.

Air taxi startup Archer is partnering with automaker FCA on production of its electric aircraft

By Darrell Etherington

Archer, a company that’s looking to develop an airline of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for sue in urban transport, will work with automaker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) in a new partnership to benefit from the latter’s expertise in engineering, design, supply chain and materials science. Archer aims to start production of its eVTOLs at scale beginning in 2023, with an initial unveiling to occur early this year.

The new team-up will see FCA provide input that contributes to the design of Archer’s eVTOL cockpit, as well, another area where the automaker has ample expertise, since it has designed spaces for drivers for many decades in its automotive business. Archer’s aircraft will be powered by an electric motor, and will be able to fly for up to 60 miles at top speeds of 150 mph. The Archer eVTOL is designed to be quiet and efficient, with efforts from the FCA collaboration going towards lowering the cost of its manufacturing to make high-volume manufacturing achievable and sustainable.

Ultimately, Archer is looking to FCA to help it realize efficiencies in its process that can make bringing its eVTOL to market a sound business that can also be accessed affordably by end users. Palo Alto-based Archer is looking to ultimately scale production to the point where it can produce “thousands” of its eVTOL aircraft per year, for use in future air taxi services serving cities globally.

Based in Palo Alto and led by co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, and including industry executives like Chief Engineer Goeff Bower, who previously served int hat role at Airbus’ Vahana eVTOL initiative, Archer launched out of stealth earlier this year with backing from Marc Lore, current President and CEO of Walmart’s ecommerce business (he was co-founder and CEO of Jet when it was acquired by the retailer).

Sony reveals more details on its secretive Vision-S sedan

By Kirsten Korosec

Sony’s Vision-S prototype sedan, one of the biggest surprises at CES last year, didn’t fade away after the tech trade show ended.

The Vision-S is back in a series of new videos released by Sony during 2021 CES, which kicked off Monday. Two videos show the Vision-S prototype driving on a private track and then public roads in Austria. But it’s a third, longer video (included below) that sheds more light on how Sony designed and developed the prototype, its partners and some of the tech that’s under the hood.

Sony Vision-S car

Image Credits: Sony/screenshot

Importantly, the Vision-S prototype also appears to be just the starting point for Sony, according to Frank Stein, president of automotive contract manufacturer Magna Steyr, one of Sony’s partners on the project. Stein, who is interviewed in the nearly 9-minute video, suggests that Sony and Magna’s partnership will continue, comments that might help quash speculation that the prototype was a mere dalliance.

The video, along with more information on its website, suggests that Sony and its numerous partners have been further developing the vehicle over the past year.

Sony increased the number of sensors on the vehicle to 40 to allow for 360-degree awareness and experimented with ways to increase their capabilities, according to Izumi Kawanishi, a senior vice president at the company who was featured in the video. Sony also created a system to verify the safety and security of its connected vehicle, he said.

The dashboard-length display screen, shown below, has five playing card-sized tiles in the center labeled camera, settings, navigation, music and video.

Sony Vision S car CES

Image Credits: Sony/screenshot

Video footage suggests several other features that have been added, or are in development, including a voice assistant, gesture control, entertainment such as video games, the ability to update the car’s software wirelessly, 5G connectivity and a driver monitoring system that uses an in-cabin camera. That camera, which Sony describes in more detail on its website, is particularly interesting.

The camera is used to identify and recognize the condition of the occupant. If it detects a sleeping passenger in the back seat, the car will automatically control the climate around that seat to a suitable temperature, according to Sony. The system continues to evolve through everyday use, learning the driver’s preferred temperature and music and driving routes. Actual driving data is used to make the space even more comfortable, the company says.

The video featured an array of partners on Vision-S, including Bosch and Continental, Hungarian automated driving startup AIMotive, software company Elektrobit Automotive, French automotive supplier Valeo, telecommunications giant Vodafone and German car parts maker ZF Group. The collection of partners, which also includes mapping company HERE, Nvidia and Blackberry/QNX and Qualcomm, leaves little doubt that this someday there will be a Sony car that consumers can buy.

“Getting closer to people is our corporate direction,” Izumi Kawanishi, a senior vice president at Sony said in the video. “I think that mobility serves as a tool to achieve it.”

Mobileye is bringing its autonomous vehicle test fleets to at least four more cities in 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, is scaling up its autonomous vehicle program and plans to launch test fleets in at least four more cities over the next several months, including Detroit, Paris Shanghai and Tokyo.

Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua said Monday during the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show that if the company can receive regulatory approval it will also begin testing on public roads in New York City.

The expansion announcement, along with details about a new lidar System on Chip product that is under development and will come to market in 2025, illustrates Mobileye’s ambitions to commercialize automated vehicle technology and bring it to the masses.

The selection of the cities and countries is based on two factors: customers and the regulatory environment, according to Jack Weast, a senior principal engineer at Intel and the Vice President of Automated Vehicle Standards at Mobileye.

“That’s why we put our cars in the U.S. in Detroit, rather than Silicon Valley because all major OEMs are in Detroit,” Weast said in an interview Monday, adding that Peugeot Renault are in Paris and Toyota and Nissan are in Japan. “The selection of the cities had a lot to do with putting the vehicles near our customers so that they would all have the opportunity to experience the technology firsthand because we expect our OEM customers to continue to be an important part of our business going forward even, even as we supply a complete self driving system.”

A test fleet is already on the road in Detroit, according to the company. Mobileye launched its first test fleet in Jerusalem in 2018 and added one in Munich in 2020.

Mobileye is taking a three-pronged strategy to developing and deploying automated vehicle technology that combines a full self-driving stack — that includes redundant sensing subsystems based on camera, radar and lidar technology— with its REM mapping system and a rules-based Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) driving policy. Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data by tapping into nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with its tech to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems. Shashua said Mobileye’s technology can now map the world automatically with nearly 8 million kilometers tracked daily and nearly 1 billion kilometers completed to date. 

This strategy will allow the company to efficiently launch and operate commercial robotaxi services as well as bring the technology to consumer passenger vehicles by 2025, Shashua said Monday.

Mobileye has long dominated a specific niche in the automotive world as a developer of computer vision sensor systems that help prevent collisions. In 2018, the company expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier to becoming a robotaxi operator; now it’s aiming to bring autonomous vehicle technology to passenger cars by augmenting its computer vision technology with the new lidar SoC it is developing with Intel.

Mobileye has already partnered with Luminar to supply lidar for its robotaxis. However, Mobileye revealed more about the lidar SoC that it says will be ready for passenger vehicles by 2025. Shashua nor Weast would say if it planned to end its partnership with Luminar once its own lidar SoC is ready for the market.

The lidar, which will use Intel’s specialized silicon photonics fab, is notable because Mobileye is known for its camera-based technology. And yet it’s not backing away from that camera-first approach. Shashua explained Mobileye believes the best technological and business approach is to develop a camera-first system and use the lidar and radar as add-ons for redundancy.

“The idea is that you have this camera subsystem,” Shashua said. “Since it’s camera based, it’s at a consumer price level. So now you have scalable thinking. And this scalable thinking is really the cure for sustaining for a long time until level four becomes ubiquitous.”

Shashua pointed to its long-term high-volume agreement for advanced driver-assistance systems with Geely Auto as an example of how a camera-first approach could later be adapted. The lidar and radar can be added on to support greater automation capabilities once the market is ready.

Recycling startup Redwood Materials is now accepting your old smartphones

By Kirsten Korosec

Redwood Materials, the recycling startup founded by former Tesla CTO JB Straubel, has quietly opened up its enterprise to everyday consumers and all of the old electronics sitting in their junk drawers.

The move expands upon the Carson City, Nevada-based company’s existing and primary strategy to recycle scrap from battery cell production and consumer electronics for corporate customers like Panasonic and Amazon.

The startup has posted a “recycle with us” tab on its website, which states “Have lithium ion batteries or e-waste? We’ll recycle your phones, tablets, power tools and any other device with a lithium-ion battery.” There isn’t anymore information on the website beyond an address, where consumers can send their e-waste, and a “contact us” button.

Straubel told TechCrunch in October that its business model could someday evolve to include consumers because they had received so many inquiries from people. It seems that Redwood has decided to take the leap.

Redwood Materials isn’t setting strict parameters on what consumers can send, a spokesperson said, who confirmed the company is even taking cables. Redwood told TechCrunch it wants to hear from consumers and will determine over time how it might expand the program. For instance, the company said it might formalize the consumer program and add shipping boxes and labels to make the process easier.

For now, Redwood is going to open it up and see what happens.

The majority of lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and other consumer electronics are not recycled and instead either sit forgotten in the owner’s junk drawer or enter the waste stream and end up in a landfill.

Redwood Material is aiming to change that by creating a circular supply chain. Redwood collects scrap from Panasonic’s battery cell production and as well as consumer electronics such as cell phone batteries, laptop computers and power tools from other corporations. The company then processes the discarded goods, extracting materials like cobalt, nickel and lithium that are typically mined, and supplies those back to Panasonic and other customers.

Eventually, Straubel wants Redwood to be part of the end-of-life solution for electric vehicle batteries as well. The CEO has aspirations to set up facilities in strategic regional locations around the world to meet this need. For now, most of the items recycled and processed at Redwood’s two facilities in Carson City are for Panasonic and other unnamed consumer electronics-related companies.

The Station: The 2021 predictions issue, part two

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Sunday in your inbox

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

Last week, I provided some of my predictions for 2021 focused on autonomous vehicle technology and electric vehicles. I’ll weigh in today with a few predictions about the rest of the “future of transportation” sector, including ride-hailing, on-demand delivery and in-car tech.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Alrighty, here’s the remaining predictions for the 2021.

Delivery the-station-delivery

On-demand delivery will continue to grow even as consumers return to physical stores, which will put pressure on the logistics ecosystem. The retailers that have the best success will be the ones that have locked in multiple channels to get their “goods” to the consumer.

Big retailers and even smaller local stores have come to understand that their physical location has become an extended part of the supply chain. Startups that have developed platforms to make it easier to manage inventory and get it to the consumer will continue to pop up.

Meanwhile, the increase in demand for delivery will encourage giants like Amazon and Walmart invest in technological solutions to meet their needs. This might include partnering with or acquiring startups. (This goes beyond interests in longer term efforts like autonomous vehicle delivery).

Delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Instacart will face increased scrutiny for use of gig economy workers as well as whether businesses benefit from using them. This may very well spawn local businesses to find their own in-house solutions. Demand will rise for digital tools that help optimize delivery fleets and platforms designed to help companies gets goods to consumers without relying on Uber, DoorDash and others.

Restaurant groups will pull together to offer delivery hubs from ghost kitchens, a prediction that mirrors one shared with me from Khaled Naim, the CEO last mile delivery management software startup Onfleet. I believe local stores will make the same efforts. 

I expect more pitches from companies hawking curbside management tools and subscription delivery platforms.

On the ride-hailing front, shuttle companies like Via will continue to grow (despite concerns about sharing rides) and make acquisitions to round out their current offerings. Via will continue to sell its platform to cities as opposed to standing up more of its own operations. Via handles booking, routing, passenger and vehicle assignment and identification, customer experience and fleet management. And it will likely look for ways to broaden its services to become more appealing.

In-car tech

Some of the trends that started two years ago will continue to play out. Automakers are increasing the size and display resolution of infotainment screens in its vehicles. Sadly, only a handful will unlock the more important piece of the infotainment system: the user interface.

Two announcements this past week — one from holographic startup Envisics and the other from Mercedes — hint at what’s to come in 2021.

Mercedes unveiled January 7 its next-generation MBUX Hyperscreen, which features a 56-inch curved screen that runs the length of the dashboard. The MBUX Hyperscreen will be optional in the 2022 Mercedes EQS, the flagship sedan under the automaker’s electric EQ brand.

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen. Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

I’m interested and maybe even encouraged (I have yet to test it) in the UI. Mercedes chose to put information on charging, entertainment, phone, navigation, social media, connectivity and massage — yes massage — right up front on the screen. This means no scrolling through menus or using the voice assistant to locate these options.

The system’s software, which will learn the patterns of the driver, will prompt the user, removing any need to go deeper into the sub-menu. The navigation map is always visible in the center and located just below it are the controls for the phone and entertainment — or the feature that best suits the specific situation, according to the automaker.

Meanwhile, Envisics announced a partnership with Panasonic Automotive Systems to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of head-up displays for cars, trucks and SUVs.

Envisics’ technology allows for head-up displays to have higher resolution, wide color gamut and large images that can be overlaid upon reality. The technology can also project information at multiple distances simultaneously. The company’s founder Jamieson Christmas told me that in the short term this will provide relatively simple augmented reality applications like navigation, highlighting the lane you’re supposed to be in and some safety applications.

Envisics Navigation

Image Credits: Envisics

“But as you look forward into things like autonomous driving it unlocks a whole realm of other opportunities like entertainment and video conferencing,” he said.

Finally, I expect more chatter and maybe even deployments of driver monitoring systems as automakers roll out more advanced driver assistance systems that allow for “hands-free” operations in certain conditions.

I want to stress however, that having a DMS is only part of the solution. The safe operation of an advanced driver assistance system comes down to how well the driver understands the features and can easily see or hear when they’re on and off. A number of vehicle models, with the regular ol’ less “advanced versions of ADAS, already fail at properly communicating to drivers when features are on and off. My hope for 2021 and beyond is that there’s an effort to improve this shortfall.

For those who missed last week’s predictions, here is my recap on AVs and EVs.

the station autonomous vehicles1

Autonomous vehicles

The wave of consolidation that began in 2020 will continue this year, leaving fewer players that are aiming to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology in three distinct areas: robotaxis, trucking and delivery.

In 2020, Starsky Robotics shut down, Uber sold its self-driving subsidiary to Aurora and autonomous delivery startup Nuro acquired Ike Robotics. This evolution is not yet complete.

I’ll be paying attention to the activities of all the big AV players including Cruise, Motional, Waymo and Zoox. I’m particularly interested in how Aurora will handle absorbing Uber ATG into its operations. I’m also watching for progress at Argo AI, which has spent the past several months integrating VW’s self-driving subsidiary Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID) into its operations.

I expect big moves by the often-overlooked Voyage, including new partnerships and driverless operations.

Autonomous delivery will see the most investment, consolidation and commercialization activity in 2021. This won’t be the year when autonomous delivery becomes ubiquitous. But expect more pilot programs in urban, and even suburban and rural areas as companies try to figure out what environment and form factor — sidewalk bots, purpose-built vehicles that operate on roads or drones — produces the best economics.

New regionally focused entrants will pop up in 2021 and drone delivery companies will expand to larger geofenced areas.

I’m also curious to see what becomes of Postmates’ autonomous robot now that Uber has completed its acquisition of the on-demand delivery company.

Nuro R2 delivery bot

Nuro’s second-generation R2 delivery robot. Image credit: Nuro

Companies pursuing autonomous trucking are going to learn that long-haul logistics are more difficult and expensive than previously thought. While companies will continue to focus on Class 8 trucks that can operate without a human, expect greater activity in the so-called middle-mile logistics market. This is an area that startup Gatik AI has targeted with some successful results.

The middle-mile market, in which autonomous trucks run frequent trips from large distribution centers to local retailers, will become increasingly important as consumers continue to order groceries and other goods online. Amazon, Walmart and Kroger are just a few of the large and deep-pocketed companies keenly interested in finding faster and cheaper ways to move goods. Expect more investments and even acquisitions from big retailers.

Autonomous vehicle regulations in the United States will shift in 2021 due to the new Biden Administration. The changes won’t happen immediately; there will be far more activity in 2022 and beyond. But there will be change nonetheless.

The Trump Administration has taken a light touch to autonomous vehicle development and deployment, choosing to stick with voluntary guidelines instead of creating new mandatory rules. For instance, last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted a notice that clarified AV policy and seemed to make the path to deployment much easier. (Read the details in my Dec. 21 newsletter)

President-elect Joe Biden nominated former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as the next Secretary of Transportation, a Cabinet position that will have him overseeing the Federal Highway Administration and NHTSA among other roles. The expectation is that Buttigieg will lead the charge (ahem) for electric charging infrastructure. What’s less clear is how he and the Biden Administration will approach automated vehicle technology and the advanced driver assistance systems found in today’s modern vehicles.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the automotive industry group, released its four-year plan last month for how it wants the federal government to act. The group made 14 recommendations that includes reforming regulations to allow for AV deployment at scale. Expect the Alliance for Automotive Innovation to push for a national AV pilot program and a new vehicle class for AVs.

Electric vehicles

the station electric vehicles1

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

A bevy of new electric vehicles from startups and legacy automakers will arrive in 2021. The Lucid Air, Rivian R1T and R1S, Audi Q4 etron and Nissan Ariya will come to market, while production ramps up for the Ford Mustang Mach-E and VW ID.4 .

In the latter half of the year, we should also see a few electric pickups from Lordstown Motors and the first deliveries of the BMW iX and the GMC Hummer EV.  I don’t expect the Tesla Cybertruck to appear until the very end of 2021, if not 2022.

In the U.S., I’ll be watching for policy changes at the federal level that might encourage more consumers to make the switch to electric vehicles. According to Politico, there is $40 billion in unused Energy Department loan authority that was awarded under the 2009 stimulus. These funds could become central piece of the incoming Biden Administration’s climate and infrastructure plan. While those loans will likely go towards energy storage and other infrastructure, it’s worth noting that former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm will be heading up the DOE. Granholm was directly involved in the Obama Administration’s bailout of the U.S. auto industry during the Great Recession.

Electric bikes, mopeds, scooters and even skateboards will continue to grow in 2021 as consumers look for means of getting around town without buying a car or using personal transit.

That doesn’t mean every ebike or scooter company will prosper. Some shared electric scooter companies have struggled in 2020 or shut down altogether. Others are switching to subscription -based models. Expect the tinkering to continue.

NHTSA determines sudden acceleration complaints in Tesla vehicles were due to driver error

By Megan Rose Dickey

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined the reports of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) involving four different Tesla models were due to user error.

The NHTSA first began investigating the claims last January, shortly after Brian Sparks requested the agency recall all Model S, Model X and Model 3 vehicles made during or after 2013. In its review, the NHTSA analyzed the 232 SUA complaints Sparks provided to the agency, as well as 14 other complaints and all available crash data.

The NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation has now determined that all of the crashes involving SUA that Sparks cited were caused by the driver. Therefore, the NHTSA is denying Sparks’ petition to formally review 662,109 vehicles and potentially recall them.

“There is no evidence of any fault in the accelerator pedal assemblies, motor control systems, or brake systems that has contributed to any of the cited incidents,” the report states. “There is no evidence of a design factor contributing to increased likelihood of pedal misapplication. The theory provided of a potential electronic cause of SUA in the subject vehicles is based upon inaccurate assumptions about system design and log data.”

Tesla had previously denied the claims, calling the petition “completely false” and outing Sparks as a Tesla short-seller.

“We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input, and in every case where we had the vehicle’s data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed,” the company said last January. “In other words, the car accelerates if, and only if, the driver told it to do so, and it slows or stops when the driver applies the brake.”

The NHTSA’s investigation confirmed Tesla’s own findings. TechCrunch has reached out to Tesla and will update this story if we hear back.

 

 

Cruise taps former Delta executive for COO post as it creeps toward commercialization

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle technology subsidiary of GM, said Friday it has hired Delta Air Lines’ former chief operating officer Gil West as it makes the transition toward early commercialization.

West, who had retired from Delta last year, will become Cruise’s first chief operating officer. The announcement comes more than a month after Cruise launched tests on public roads using autonomous vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel. The testing is still being conducted in a limited geographic area in San Francisco and in one of the city’s less congested neighborhoods, but it is still viewed as a milestone for the company and a necessary step to secure a permit to launch a shared, commercial service that can charge for rides.

West comes to Cruise with more than 12 years pf experience running a massive global operation that had an annual $16 billion budget. During his tenure, he helped Delta grow its earnings per share by more than 15% year-over-year, and led the company’s merger integration with Northwest Airlines.

Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, who was president of GM until 2018, said West’s track record of customer experience, operating performance and safety at a large scale makes him “a perfect fit for Cruise as we begin the journey to commercialize our self-driving technology.”

Cruise had once aimed to launch a commercial service using so-called “driverless” vehicles by the end of 2019, but backed off of that timeline — a decision that came after several other autonomous vehicle companies delayed their own plans to launch ride-hailing services that use autonomous vehicles. Cruise has yet to publicly provide a new date for launching a commercial service, the first of which will be in San Francisco.

Cruise, which is also backed by SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price & Associates, has hundreds of autonomous vehicles in its fleet — however, most still have a human safety operator behind the wheel. In November, Cruise started driverless testing — nomenclature meaning the human safety operator has been removed from the driver’s seat — with a fleet of five autonomous vehicles. The rest of Cruise’s fleet is being used to perform its regular testing with a human safety driver, some of which are used to deliver goods to area food banks.

The California DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing in the state, issued Cruise a permit in October that allows the company to test five autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified streets within San Francisco. Cruise has had a permit to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers behind the wheel since 2015.

In February, Cruise received a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission allowing it to transport passengers in its autonomous vehicles in the state. The CPUC modified its regulations late last year to allow properly permitted companies the ability to charge for shared driverless rides.

Cruise has to show data that it tested driverless rides for a 30-day period before it can qualify for the CPUC permit, according to information on the CPUC website.

West’s hiring comes as that 30-day timeline ends. The executive will be responsible for all of Cruise’s commercial operations, an enterprise that will include managing a fleet of hundreds of vehicles and customer service.

“Cruise is leading the way to change lives and up-end the status quo of transportation,” West said in a statement. “There will be no bigger shift in the transportation industry in my lifetime than the move to self-driving. I’ve been training my entire career for an opportunity like this one.”

Tesla has decided to sell the cheaper Model Y standard range after all

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has started taking orders for a cheaper standard range version of the Model Y in an apparent reversal by CEO Elon Musk who earlier this year seemed to put plans to release the vehicle on hold. 

Electrek was the first to report that Tesla had updated its website to include the Model Y standard range, which will start at $41,990. That’s nearly $9,000 cheaper than the long range version that is currently sold by Tesla. The model Y standard range is a rear-wheel drive while the long range and even more expensive performance versions comes in all-wheel drive.

The cheaper price comes with a lower estimated EPA range of 244 miles compared to the 326 miles in the long range version. 

Tesla said nearly two years ago that it planned to begin producing the standard range version of the Model Y in spring 2021. But in July, Musk tweeted that the variant had been removed from the website because the lower range “would be unacceptably low (< 250 mile EPA).”

No, as range would be unacceptably low (< 250 mile EPA)

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 13, 2020

Tesla is now offering a 7-seat option for the Model Y as well, according to updates on its website.

Elon Musk has a new title: world’s richest person

By Kirsten Korosec

Elon Musk, the controversial and enigmatic entrepreneur who heads up SpaceX and Tesla, has reached a status that only three others have held in the past two decades: world’s richest person.

On his way to the top spot, Musk has surpassed a bevy of billionaires this year, including Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. He reached the pinnacle Thursday thanks to Tesla’s share price that has skyrocketed nearly 830% since March 2020, along with a substantive pay package that was triggered after achieving certain market capitalization and profitability milestones. In the process, Musk unseated rival Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon who held the world’s richest person position since 2017. 

Musk is now worth more than $188 billion, per Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index. Tesla shares continued their seemingly unabated climb on Thursday, trading up more than 5% to $795.75.

In true Musk fashion, he acknowledged the milestone in a tweet, noting “how strange” and “well, now back to work.”

Well, back to work …

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021

The world’s richest person title isn’t what makes Musk’s position so intriguing. It’s the speed at which he reached it. Just a year ago, Musk was in the dregs of the world’s wealthiest list. This year, Musk was propelled forward by some $150 billion thanks to Tesla’s popping share price. Musk holds about 20% equity in Tesla. He also has some $42 billion in vested stock options, according to SEC filings.

It’s a stock that has historically suffered from volatility, with huge swings occurring after a tweet or financial update. Take 2018, for example. Tesla’s share price ended the year with about 3.8% gain. In between those two bookends of the stock market calendar — January 2 and December 31 — and the 3.8% gain they produced obfuscated a year of tumult and whipsaw-like swings in the stock price.

Tesla shares were on an upward trend in 2020. This year, and after only one decade as a publicly traded company, Tesla became the most valuable automaker in the world by market value, passing the valuations of Ford, GM, VW Group and Toyota. Tesla’s market cap is now $757 billion.

Waymo is dropping the term ‘self-driving,’ but not everyone in the industry is on board

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo will no longer use the term ‘self-driving’ to describe the technology it has been developing for more than a decade, opting instead for ‘autonomous.’

The Alphabet company said that this seemingly small shift is an important effort to clarify what the technology does and doesn’t do. It’s also been viewed as an attempt to set the standard for the rest of the autonomous vehicle technology industry as well as distance itself from the “full self-driving” terminology that Tesla uses to describe its advanced driver assistance system.

“This past year, we explored the importance of language and how terms like “self-driving car” inaccurately describe what autonomous driving companies, like Waymo, are building,” the company wrote in a blog post Wednesday. “Waymo’s vehicles don’t drive themselves. Rather, Waymo is automating the task of driving and thus the term “autonomous driving” is more accurate. The conflation of terms used to describe vastly different technology — such as advanced driver assist systems and autonomous driving technology — is referred to as and has serious implications for road safety. find people consistently overestimate the capabilities of driver-assisted features.”

Waymo’s decision to drop the self-driving term has been viewed by other AV companies as a call to action by the entire industry. But not everyone in the industry on board.

Several industry insiders and founders that TechCrunch spoke to wondered if a push to drop “self-driving” might have the unintended effect of ceding the term to Tesla. Others suggested efforts would be better spent on other means of education.

“We’re pursuing a driverless application of this technology, and will continue to educate the public on its benefits with language that makes a clear distinction between technologies that drive a truck or car as opposed to technologies that assist a driver,” Aurora CEO Chris Urmson said. “Rather than rename technology based on misleading marketing efforts of other companies, we agree it is important as an industry to align on clear language to define the life-saving technology we’re building.”

The light push back on Waymo is in part an acknowledgement of the company’s position in the industry. Waymo, the former Google self-driving project, is one of the leaders in the development and commercialization of autonomous vehicles. Its efforts carry weight and influence in a nascent industry.

Waymo, which changed the name of its education campaign from Let’s Talk About Self-Driving to Let’s Talk About Autonomous Driving as part of its announcement, argues that automakers have described or marketed the advanced driver assistance systems in personally owned vehicles as self-driving or semi-autonomous. That, the company says, is creating confusion. Waymo never names Tesla as one of the drivers behind this name change. However, Tesla and its use of the terms Autopilot and FSD has prompted criticism from an array of automotive and safety organizations as well as autonomous vehicle companies.

Waymo points to research that has found that human drivers operating cars, trucks and SUVs that have been marketed as self-driving don’t understand the limited capabilities of the technology, which can lead to misuse. The company cited one study conducted in 2019, in which half of respondents believed a driver-assist feature allowed them to drive hands-free, even though these systems require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.

Questions and confusion around how to describe technology that allows a vehicle to operate on its own without a human driver behind the wheel have persisted for years. Terms like autonomous, automated driving, driverless and self-driving have been used interchangeably for a decade, some fading off for a time before popping back up in popularity. Fully autonomous driving is another more recent entrant in the sphere of AV linguistics. Even Waymo uses the term autonomous and “fully autonomous” at different times within its blog post announcing its decision to drop the self-driving term.

‘Self-driving’ has been the go-to term for companies dedicated to developing and commercializing autonomous vehicle technology. Argo AI, Aurora, Cruise, Motional, Nuro and Voyage — other leading companies in the industry — use the term ‘self-driving’ on their websites to describe what they’re doing. Zoox is perhaps the one outlier that uses autonomous ride-hailing.

Other companies such as Argo AI are taking a different approach, opting for a storyteller or learn through conversation strategy. Argo AI, which is backed by Ford and VW, launched a podcast in November 2019 and has published about three dozen episodes to date. The company has expanded that effort with the launch of Ground Truth, which Argo describes as a “storytelling platform that provides an inside look at the development of autonomous driving technology.”

“Since there’s no shortage of hype and speculation about self-driving cars, there is a need for a place where people can get a realistic understanding of this revolutionary technology and how it could one day impact their lives,” Argo AI co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky said in a statement about the new platform. “Ground Truth will be a destination for stories not just about the technology, but about the people doing the work, the cities where it will be deployed, and the businesses it can enable.”

FAA issues rules for supersonic jet flight testing in the US

By Darrell Etherington

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new final rules to help pave the way for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial flight. The U.S. airspace regulator’s rules provide guidance for companies looking to gain approval for flight testing of supersonic aircraft under development, which includes startups like Boom Supersonic, which has just completed its sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft and hopes to begin flight testing it this year.

Boom, which is in the process of finalizing a $50 million funding round and has raised around $150 million across prior fundraising efforts, rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator jet in October. This test aircraft is smaller than the final design of its Overture passenger supersonic commercial airliner, but will be used to prove out the fundamental technologies in flight that will then be used to construct Overture, which the company is targeting for a 2025 rollout with airline partners.

Other startups, including Hermeus, are also pursuing supersonic flight for commercial use. Meanwhile, SpaceX and others focused on spaceflight like Virgin Galactic are exploring not only supersonic flight, but how point-to-point flight that includes part of the trip at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere might reduce flight times dramatically and turn long-haul flights into much shorter, almost regional trips.

The FAA’s rules finalization comes in under the wire as the agency prepares for a transition when current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao moves aside for incoming Biden pick Pete Buttigieg. You can read the full FAA final rule in the embed belt.

❌