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 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.
A new annual survey taken before the current COVID-19 crisis led to restrictions of movement in much of the U.S. suggests good news for Amazon, Facebook’s dominance unthreatened and continued growth in podcasting.
Edison Research and Triton Digital released their annual Infinite Dial survey last week, compiling data on consumers’ use of smart speakers, podcasts, music streaming and social media from 1,500 people (aged 12 and older) to compare year-over-year changes. Here are a few interesting findings:
Sixty-two percent said they use a voice-based virtual assistant, most commonly via a phone or a computer. There has been a lot written about interactive voice as the next major medium for human-computer interaction after mobile phones, so it’s noteworthy to see that use of the technology is still associated with personal computing devices rather than hands-free smart speakers placed in the surrounding environment.
Smart speaker ownership did increase to 27% of respondents, up from 24% in 2019, even though respondents owned an average 2.2 speakers. In fact, the cohort that owned three or more speakers increased from one-quarter to one-third of owners in just a year, with Amazon Alexa continuing to dominate market share.
Just a few weeks back at CES, Google gave a sneak peak of a feature that would let your Android devices read entire web pages aloud to you — perfect for when you don’t have a hand free to scroll but still need to catch up on some text, or for when you just don’t feel like looking at your screen anymore. You’d say “Hey Google, read this page”, and they’d spin up Google Assistant’s neural networks to generate a pretty dang spot-on reading of it.
Today that feature starts rolling out to all Android users.
A few interesting bits:
Google says this feature should work on just about every modern Android phone going back to Android 5 (Lollipop).
Intuition Robotics, the company best known for its ElliQ robot, a digital home companion for the elderly, today announced that it has raised a $36 million Series B round co-led by SPARX Group and OurCrowd. Toyota AI Ventures, Sompo Holdings, iRobot, Union Tech Ventures, Happiness Capital, Samsung Next, Capital Point and Bloomberg Beta also participated in this round. This brings the total funding for the company, which was founded in 2016, to $58 million.
As the company, which sees it as its mission to build digital assistants that can create emotional bonds between humans and machines, also disclosed today, it is working with Toyota to bring its technology to the automaker’s LQ concept. Toyota previously said that it wanted to bring an empathetic AI assistant to the LQ that could create a bond between driver and car. This assistant, dubbed “Yui,” is powered by Intuition Robotics’ Q platform.
Intuition Robotics CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler tells me that the company spent the last two years gathering data through ElliQ. In the process, the company spent more than 10,000 days in the homes of early users to gather data. The youngest of those users were 78 and the oldest 97.
On average, users interacted with ElliQ eight times per day and spent about six minutes on those interactions. When ElliQ made proactive suggestions, users accepted those about half the time.
“We believe that we have been able to prove that she can create an enduring relationship between humans and machines that actually influences people’s feelings and behaviors,” Skuler told me. “That she’s able to create empathy and trust — and anticipate the needs of the users. And that, to us, is the real vision behind the company.”
While Intuition Robotics is most closely identified with ElliQ, though, that’s only one area the company is focusing on. The other is automotive — and as Skuler stressed, as a small startup, focus is key, even as there are some other obvious verticals it could try to get into.
In the car, the empathetic AI assistant will adapt to the individual user and, for example, provide personalized suggestions for trying out new features in the car, or suggest that you open the window and get some fresh air into the car when it senses you are getting tired. As Skuler stressed, the car is actually a great environment for a digital assistant, as it already has plenty of built-in sensors.
“The agent gets the data feed, builds context, looks at the goals and answers three questions: Should I be proactive? Which activity should I promote? And which version to be most effective? And then it controls the outcomes,” Skuler explained. That’s the same process in the car as it would be in ElliQ — and indeed, the same code runs in both.
The Intuition team decided that in order to allow third-parties to build these interactions, it needed to develop specialized tools and a new language that would help designers — not programmers — create the outlines of these interactions for the platform.
Unlike ElliQ, though, the assistant in the car doesn’t move, of course. In Toyota’s example, the car uses lights and a small screen to provide additional interactions with the driver. As Skuler also told me, the company is already working with another automotive company to bring its Q platform to more cars, though he wasn’t ready to disclose this second automotive partner.
“Intuition Robotics is creating disruptive technology that will inspire companies to re-imagine how machines might amplify the human experience,” said Jim Adler, founding managing partner at Toyota AI Ventures, who will also join the company’s board of directors.
Intuition Robotics’ team doubled over the course of the last year and the company now has 85 employees, most of whom are engineers. The company has offices in Israel and San Francisco.
Unsurprisingly, the plans for the new funding focus on building out its assistant’s capabilities. “We’re the only company in the world that can create these context-based, nonlinear personalized interactions that we call a digital companion,” Skuler told me. “We assume people will start doing similar things. There’s a lot more work to do. […] A big part of the work is to increase our research activities and increase the tools and the performance of the runtime engine for the agent.” He also told me that the team continues to gather data about ElliQ so it can prove that it improves the quality of life of its users. And in addition to this, the company obviously also will continue to build out its work around cars.
“We cracked something nobody’s cracked before,” Skuler said. “And now we’re on the verge of getting value out of it. And it will be hard work because this is not an app. It’s really hard work but we want to capture that value.”
Google Assistant is today rolling out support for Tile’s Bluetooth tracker, designed to help you keep up with your often misplaced items — like your keys, purse, wallet, remote, and more. The new integration will allow Google Assistant users on any Nest device to ask questions like, “Hey Google, where is my purse?” They can instruct the Assistant to ring their device” by saying things like “Hey Google, make my backpack ring.”
Variations on these commands are also supported, like, “Hey Google, find my…” or “Hey Google, ring my…”
In addition, you can ask for the location of an item. If the item is in the house, the Assistant will return an appropriate location using Tile’s Bluetooth capabilities, by saying something like “your keys were last seen today at 9 PM near the Kitchen speaker.” If the item is out of Bluetooth range, the Assistant will instead return the item’s last known location, based on Tile’s location services.
Tile leverages its large network of users as a crowd-finding platform to help when items are missing. To date, the company has sold 20+ million Tile devices worldwide and is locating more than 5 million items per day across 230 countries.
Google announced its partnership with Tile back in September 2019, but had said at the time the feature would launch later that year.
The partnership arrives at a critical time for Tile’s business. Apple is reportedly preparing to launch a Tile competitor, possibly called AirTags, that integrates deeply with iOS. According to the latest forecast from well-known Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple in the first half of 2020 will introduce the produce. But unlike Tile, Apple’s are ultra-wideband tags that promise greater accuracy than Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi.
Evidence of Apple’s tags was already found in iOS 13 code, as well.
Apple’s plan to move into Tile’s business was one of the examples brought up in a recent congressional hearing about Apple’s anti-competitive practices. At the hearing, Tile general counsel Kirsten Daru commented on how hard it is to compete with Apple.
“You might be the best team in the league, but you’re playing against a team that owns the field, the ball, the stadium, and the entire league, and they can change the rules of the game at any time,” she said.
In this context, Tile’s move to partner with Google isn’t just about expanding its business — it’s about saving it.
To take advantage of the new feature, you’ll need to set up your Tile to sync with the Google Home app.
In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.
Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:
In a series of three interviews, I’m exploring the startup opportunities in both of these spaces in greater depth. First, Michael Dempsey, a partner at VC firm Compound who has blogged extensively about digital characters, avatars and animation, offers his perspective as an investor hunting for startup opportunities within these spaces.