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Self-driving vehicle startup Argo AI completes $2.6B deal with Volkswagen, expands to Europe

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen Group finalized Tuesday its $2.6 billion investment into Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving car startup that came out of stealth in 2017 with $1 billion in backing from Ford.

The deal turns Argo into a global company with two customers — VW and Ford — as well as operations in the U.S. and Europe and an instant jump in its workforce. Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group, will be absorbed into Argo AI. AID’s Munich offices will become Argo’s European headquarters.

That integration, which can begin now that the deal has closed, will expand Argo’s workforce to more than 1,000 people. Argo also has offices in Detroit, Palo Alto, and Cranbury, New Jersey. The company has fleets of autonomous vehicles mapping and testing on public roads in Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. That mission now expands to VW. Ford and VW will share the cost of developing Argo AI’s self-driving vehicle technology under the terms of the deal.

“Building a safe, scalable and trusted self-driving service, however, is no small task. It’s also not a cheap one,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC CEO John Lawler said in a blog post.

Two years ago, Ford said it would spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC houses the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams.

Lawler emphasized that “sharing development costs” doesn’t mean Ford is reducing its overall spend in autonomous vehicles. Instead, the company said it will reallocate money towards development of transportation as a service software and fleet operations for its eventual self-driving service.

Despite this shared investment, Ford and VW will not collaborate on the actual self-driving vehicle service.

Lawler, who is also vice president of mobility partnerships at Ford, said the U.S. automaker “will remain independent and fiercely competitive in building its own self-driving service.”

Argo’s board will now be comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.

Audi launches high-tech car unit Artemis to fast-track a ‘pioneering’ EV to market

By Kirsten Korosec

Audi has created a new business unit called Artemis to bring electric vehicles equipped with highly automated driving systems and other tech to market faster — the latest bid by the German automaker to become more agile and competitive.

The traditional automotive industry, where the design to start of production cycle might take five to seven years, has been grappling with how to bring new and innovative products to market more quickly to meet consumers’ fickle demands. The model is more akin to how Tesla or a consumer electronics company operates.

The first project under Artemis will be to “develop a pioneering model for Audi quickly and unbureaucratically,” Audi AG CEO Markus Duesmann said in a statement Friday. The unit is aiming to design and produce what Audi describes as a “highly efficient electric car” as early as 2024.

Artemis will be led by Alex Hitzinger, who was in charge of Audi’s Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched just in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group. AID was absorbed into the European headquarters of Argo AI, a move that was made after VW invested $2.6 billion in capital and assets into the self-driving startup.

Hitzinger, who takes the new position beginning June 1, will report directly to Duesmann. Artemis will be based at the company’s tech hub of its INCampus in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Artemis is under the Audi banner. However, the aim is for this group’s work to benefit brands under its parent company VW Group.  Hitzinger and the rest of his team will have access to resources and technologies within the entire Volkswagen Group . For instance, Car.Software, an independent business unit under the VW Group, will provide digital services to Artemis.  The upshot: to create a blueprint that will make VW Group a more agile automaker able to bring new and technologically advanced vehicles to market more quickly.

VW Group plans to produce and sell 75 electric vehicle models across its brands by 2029, a group that includes VW passenger cars and Audi. The creation of Artemis hasn’t changed Audi’s plans to produce 20 new all-electric vehicles and 10 new plug-in hybrids by 2025.

“The obvious question was how we could implement additional high-tech benchmarks without jeopardizing the manageability of existing projects, and at the same time utilize new opportunities in the markets,” Duesmann said.

Porsche’s newest app lets buyers track the progress of their 911

By Kirsten Korosec

Porsche has been placing more resources into developing digital services as it tries to match the tech demands of its customers. The latest effort from its Porsche Digital subsidiary is an app that lets U.S. buyers who have ordered a 911 sports car track its progress from production to the dealership.

The app, which is integrated with the My Porsche web portal, provides customers updates on 14 events, including production in Germany, the vehicle’s departure and trek across the Atlantic, port entry into the U.S. and its arrival at the dealership. The digital service, called Porsche Track Your Dream, provides background information about each milestone and shows a countdown in miles and days. 

The Porsche tracker is a niche product with a narrow customer base. It will only be offered to 911 buyers. The automaker sold last year 9,265 Porsche 911 sports cars in the United States. But the company does plan to add other vehicles in the future, including its all-electric Taycan.

The app is part of a broader strategy to up its digital game. Earlier this month, Porsche Cars North America launched an online platform called Porsche Finder that lets customers search for used vehicles across its dealership network. The platform lets customers search by vehicle model and generation and includes additional filters for price, equipment and packages, as well as interior and exterior vehicle colors.

In April, the automaker unveiled a line of head units designed to replicate the vintage look while still featuring modern connectivity, such as Bluetooth, DAB+ and Apple CarPlay.

Volkswagen to start sales of first-edition all-electric ID.3 hatchback in June

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen plans to start selling the launch edition of its ID.3 vehicle next month to customers who placed pre-orders of the all-electric hatchback.

Customers who made reservations for the launch edition, known as ID.3 1st, will be able to order their vehicle starting June 17, according to a tweet posted by Volkswagen board member Jürgen Stackmann. Volkswagen has registered more than 37,000 reservations for the first edition, which will be limited to 30,000 units. Orders for right-hand drive markets will open in July, Stackmann said.

The announcement follows the automaker’s decision last month to restart production of the ID.3 at its Zwickau, Germany factory, which had been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Production of the ID.3 1st resumed April 23, initially with reduced capacity and slower cycle times.

The ID.3 is the first model in the company’s new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of its ambitious plan to sell 1 million electric vehicles annually by 2025. The ID.3 will only be sold in Europe. Other models under the ID brand will be sold in North America.

Our #VWID3 1st pre-bookers can order their car from 17th June, 2020 ❗You will be contacted by your dealer shortly! In right-hand-drive markets the start of ordering should be about 4 weeks later. You will be contacted by your dealer shortly! Thanks for your patience! pic.twitter.com/fOpxB5sYu2

— Jürgen Stackmann (@jstackmann) May 5, 2020

The four-door, five-seater hatchback is as long as the VW Golf. However, thanks to the ID.3’s shorter overhangs, its wheelbase is larger, giving the vehicle a roomier interior. The special-edition version will start less than €40,000 in Germany, the company has previously said.

Volkswagen will fulfill its orders for the special launch edition of the ID.3 first. VW customers paid a deposit of €1,000 ($1,122 based on conversion last year) to pre-order the special-edition vehicle. Volkswagen said that the ID.3 1st will include free electric charging for the first year, up to a maximum of 2,000 kWh, at all public charging points connected to the Volkswagen charging app WeCharge and using the pan-European rapid charging network IONITY.

Volkswagen plans to produce the ID.3 in three configurations — the Pure, Pro and Pro S.

The ID.3 Pure is the entry-level model that will be equipped with a 45 kWh battery pack that can travel up to an estimated 260 miles under the WLTP standard. The entry-level version will be priced less than €30,000 on the German market and come standard with 18-inch steel wheels, LED headlights with automatic lighting control and LED tail-light clusters.

The ID.3 Pro has a larger battery than the Pure, increased range, more power and shorter charging times, and will start at less than €35,000 in Germany. The Pro S sits at the top of the model range and includes sportier equipment, including 19-inch Andoya wheels and “Play & Pause” design pedals.

The Station: Audi punts on Level 3, Lyft layoffs and Nio’s $1 billion deal

By Kirsten Korosec

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

Hi readers. Welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

While COVID-related stay-at-home orders have been extended in places like the San Francisco Bay area, officials in other counties and states in the U.S. have decided to open up for business. The rest of us are watching and waiting to see how these two experiments play out.

These opposing approaches have managed to create even more tension in the United States. If politics didn’t divide us before, how and when to open amid a health pandemic is proving to be an effective wedge.

The “how” is as important, or even more so, than the “when.” What will life and business look like? Wuhan, China, a transportation and manufacturing metropolis of 11 million people and where COVID-19 started, offers a view into one approach. (The photo below shows a worker disinfecting a bus in Wuhan on April 30.)

China-wuhan-bus-covid

A staff member sprays disinfectant on a bus at a long-distance bus station in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on April 30, 2020, ahead of the Labor Day holiday which started May 1.

When those stay-at-home orders are finally lifted, returning to work won’t be quick or easy. Wuhan was placed on lockdown January 23. Wuhan officials eased outgoing travel restrictions April 8. While the strictest component of that lockdown has been lifted, many businesses remain closed. Didi didn’t reopen its ride-hailing services in the city until April 30.

In short, it’s going to be complex. Ford’s back-to-work playbook is a case in point. The plan includes a number of daily measures such as online health self-certifications completed before work every day, face masks and no-touch temperature scans upon arrival. But that’s just a sliver of what it will take. Check out their complete playbook.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Alrighty folks, shall we dig in? Vamos. 

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility. Over at Lyft, the company laid off 982 employees and furloughed 288 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyft also permanently ceased scooter operations in Oakland, San Jose and Austin.

“We’re focusing our resources where we can have the biggest impact and best serve cities and riders,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to invest in our bike and scooter business, but have made the tough decision to shift resources away from three scooter markets and toward opportunities where we are set up for longer-term success.”

At Lime, the startup let go 13% of its staff while the very next day relaunching its electric scooters in Baltimore and Ogden, Utah.

“Almost overnight, our company went from being on the eve of accomplishing an unprecedented milestone — the first next-generation micromobility company to reach profitability — to one where we had to pause operations in 99% of our markets worldwide to support cities’ efforts at social distancing,” Lime CEO Brad Bao wrote in a note to employees.

Just one day after those layoffs, the company relaunched scooters in Baltimore to help support essential medical workers as well as in Ogden.

Uber is weighing its own layoffs. The Information reported that the company could cut up to 20% of its staff. That translates to more than 5,000 jobs. Those cuts could be announced in stages over the next several weeks. Meanwhile, Thuan Pham, who was hired as Uber’s chief technology officer by former CEO Travis Kalanick back in 2013, is leaving the company in three weeks, the ride-share giant revealed in an SEC filing.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio secured a $1 billion investment from several state-owned companies in Hefei in return for agreeing to establish headquarters in the city’s economic development hotspot and giving up a stake in one of its business units.

The injection of capital comes from several investors, including Hefei City Construction and Investment Holding Group, CMG-SDIC Capital and Anhui Provincial Emerging Industry Investment Co.

Why deal of the week? The deal alleviates some concerns about Nio’s liquidity. It also marks the latest Chinese EV startup to turn to the state as private capital has shrunk.

There is no free lunch, however. The deal itself is complex and involves some asset shuffling. Nio is transferring its core businesses in China into a new company called Nio China. The investors will get a 24.1% stake in Nio China. The shareholding structure of the parent company is unchanged.

Other deals announced this week are below. Keep in mind that just because a deal is announced that doesn’t mean it closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising rounds often close weeks and even months before they’re announced.

Otonomo, an automotive data services startup based in Israel, raised $46 million in a Series C funding round that included investments from SK Holdings, Avis Budget Group and Alliance Ventures. Existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners also participated. Otonomo has raised $82 million, to date.

The company has a software platform that captures and anonymizes vehicle data so it can then be used to create apps to provide services such as electric vehicle management, subscription-based fueling, parking, mapping, usage-based insurance and emergency service.

KlearNow, a startup that has built a software platform to automate the customs clearance process, raised $16 million in a Series A funding round led by GreatPoint Ventures, with additional participation from Autotech Ventures, Argean Capital and Monta Vista Capital. Ashok Krishnamurthi, managing partner at GreatPoint Ventures, will join KlearNow’s board. Daniel Hoffer from Autotech Ventures is joining as a board observer.

Skycell, a Switzerland-based startup that builds hardware and operates a logistics network designed to transport pharmaceuticals has raised $62 million.

A merger between U.K.’s JustEat and the Netherlands’ Takeaway.com has been approved by regulators. The merged company announced that it had raised €700 million ($756 million) in new outside funding in the form of new shares and convertible bonds.

Cheetah, a San Francisco-based startup that provided a wholesale delivery service and has pivoted to selling to consumers during COVID-19, raised $36 million in Series B funding.

Innovation of the week

Computer vision company Eyesight Technologies has tweaked its driver monitoring system so it can detect driver distraction and drowsiness even while wearing a medical face mask.

This “innovation of the week” gets back to my opening remarks about “how” we get back to work. Face masks will likely be a part of our world for some time.

Driver monitoring systems, which are increasingly being used by commercial fleets, are trained to detect and monitor facial features of the driver. The system will take in data points like head pose, mouth, eyes and eyelids and use the gathered visual data to detect signs of drowsiness and distraction. If the sensor can’t read one or more of these features the system could fail to detect a drowsy truck driver or inattentive transit worker.

Driver Monitoring with mask

Eyesight Technologies

Eyesight Technologies says that its computer vision and AI algorithms have been trained to detect distraction and drowsiness even if a driver is wearing a mask and glasses.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” Eyesight Technologies CEO David Tolub said. “Without a concrete end date to the current situation, wearing medical masks may be a reality for the foreseeable future. Eyesight Technologies is forging ahead and adapting to provide a reliable solution to help guarantee safety even under less than ideal circumstances.”

Audi punts on Level 3

Audi has scrapped plans to roll out a Level 3 automated driving system in its A8 flagship sedan. Automotive News Europe broke the story.

The feature, which is branded Traffic Jam Pilot, theoretically allows the vehicle to operate on its own without the human driver keeping their eyes on the road. But it’s never been commercially deployed.

Traffic Jam Pilot was supposed to be in the latest-generation A8 that debuted in 2017. It’s now 2020. What happened? Regulations, or lack of them, have been the primary scapegoat. But it’s not quite the whole story.

TechCrunch reached out to Audi to dig into why? In short, the company told us, that it’s complicated. The lack of a legal framework has raised concerns about liability. To further complicate the problem, the A8 is now progressing through its generational life cycle. And Audi was faced with continuing to pour money into the feature to adapt it without promise of framework progressing.

Here’s a few tidbits from the folks at Audi.

On the legal framework:

As of now, there is no legal framework for Level 3 automated driving. Consistently it is not possible to homologate such function anywhere in the world in a series production car. It is still very challenging to plan the exact introduction scenarios for level 3 systems, as we continuously moving in an intensive interplay between the findings from ongoing testing and the requirements that legislators and approval authorities are now defining for conditional automated driving.

On development costs:

As these clarifications and safeguards continue to take time, we also monitor economic aspects in addition. This includes development costs, which are summing up continuously. Secondly, the remaining life of the determined target model A8 combined with the forecasted installation rate and the expected market greediness in the individual countries are playing an important role.

This has brought us to the following decision: We will not see the traffic jam pilot on the road with its originally planned level 3 series function in the current model generation of the Audi A8 because our luxury sedan has already gone through a substantial part of its model life cycle.

Audi’s belief in automated driving:

We still believe in the technology of automated driving and today we know better than almost anyone when it comes to the decisive technological key factors. During the development phase we continuously learned more and more technical “unknown unknowns” and developed approaches how to handle the fact, that there will appear more.

Together with the above mentioned dependencies concerning legislation and type approval, we believe that actually it is not the right moment to deliver the function to the customer. This is our attitude of responsibility.

How Audi is moving forward:

An important part of the truth, which the industry is now facing: development of automated driving is extremely complex and cost-intensive. Our aim more than ever before is to generate the greatest possible synergies.

Within the VW group we therefore have the best preconditions. We have consolidated our efforts to further develop level 3 automated driving in the Car.Software organization. This is a new organization within the Volkswagen Group .

Former Audi managers will be head of two out of the five domains within this new organization: Thomas Müller will manage the automated driving area, and Dr. Klaus Büttner will manage the Intelligent Body&Cockpit area. Together with the specialists coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche, this ensures that the current expertise in this cross-brand organization is available for the greatest possible benefit to everyone in the Volkswagen Group.

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

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

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

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