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Ford, BMW lead Solid Power’s $130M Series B round

By Aria Alamalhodaei

A Solid Power manufacturing engineer holds two 20 ampere hour (Ah) all solid-state battery cells for the BMW Group and Ford Motor Company. The 20 ampere hour (Ah) all solid-state battery cells were produced on Solid Power’s Colorado-based pilot production line. Source: Solid Power.

Solid state battery systems have long been considered the next breakthrough in battery technology, with multiple startups vying to be the first to commercialization. Automakers have been some of the top investors in the technology, each of them seeking the edge that will make their electric vehicles safer, faster and with increased range.

Ford Motor Company and BMW Group have put their money on battery technology company Solid Power.

The Louisville, Colorado-based SSB developed said Monday its latest $130 million Series B funding round was led by Ford and BMW, the latest signal that the two OEMs see SSBs powering the future of transportation. Under the investment, Ford and BMW are equal equity owners and company representatives will join Solid Power’s board.

Solid Power received additional investment in the round from Volta Energy Technologies, the venture capital firm spun out of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Solid state batteries are so named because they lack a liquid electrolyte, as Mark Harris explained in an ExtraCrunch article earlier this year. Liquid electrolyte solutions are usually flammable and at risk of overheating, so SSBs are considered to be generally safer. The real value of SSBs versus their lithium-ion counterparts is the energy density. Solid Power says its batteries can provide as much as a 50% to 100% increase in energy density compared to rechargeable batteries. Theoretically, electric vehicles with more energy dense batteries can travel longer distances on a single charge.

This latest round of investment will help Solid Power boost its manufacturing to produce battery cells with the company’s highest ampere hour (Ah) output yet. Under separate joint development agreements with Ford and BMW, it will deliver to the OEMs 100 Ah cells for testing and vehicle integration from 2022.

Until this point, the company has been manufacturing cells with 2 Ah and 10 Ah output. “Hundreds” of 2 Ah battery cells were validated by Ford and BMW late last year, Solid Power said in a statement. Meanwhile, it is currently producing 20 Ah solid-state batteries on a pilot basis with standard lithium-ion equipment.

As opposed to the 20 Ah pilot-scale cells – which are composed of 22-layers at 9×20 cm – these 100 Ah cells will have a larger footprint and even more layers, Solid Power spokesman Will McKenna told TechCrunch. (‘Layers’ refers to the number of double-sided cathodes, McKenna explained – so the 20 Ah cell has 22 cathodes and 22 anodes, with an all-solid electrolyte separator in-between each, all in a single cell.)

Unlike Solid Power’s manufacturing, traditional lithium-ion batteries must undergo electrolyte filling and cycling in their production processes. Solid Power says these additional steps accounts for 5% and 30% of capital expenditure in a typical GWh-scale lithium-ion facility.

This isn’t the first time Solid Power has landed investments from the automakers. The company’s $20 million Series A in 2018 attracted capital from BMW and Ford, as well as Samsung, Hyundai, Volta and others. It’s part of a new wave of companies that have attracted the attention of OEMs. Other notable examples include Volkswagen-backed QuantumScape and General Motors, which has put its money on SES.

Ford is also independently researching advanced battery technologies and is planning on opening a $185 million R&D battery lab, the company said last week.

Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks team up in hydrogen fuel cell joint venture

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Competitors Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks are teaming up to produce hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul trucks, which the companies say will lower development costs and boost production volumes. The joint venture, which is called cellcentric, aims to bring large-scale “gigafactory” production levels of hydrogen fuel cells to Europe by 2025.

While the two companies are teaming up to produce the fuel cells via the cellcentric venture, all other aspects of truck production will remain separate. The location of the forthcoming gigafactory will be announced next year. The companies also did not specify the production capacity of the forthcoming factory.

Even as Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks used ambition-signaling terms like “gigafactory” — a term popularized by Tesla due to the giga capacity of its factories — executives added a few cautionary caveats on their goal. Europe’s hydrogen economy will depend in part on whether the European Union can produce a policy framework that further drives down costs and invests in refueling stations and other infrastructure, executives noted in a media briefing. In other words, manufacturers like Daimler and Volvo that are looking to invest in hydrogen face a ‘chicken and the egg’ problem: boosting fuel cell production only makes sense if it occurs in tandem with the buildout of a hydrogen network, including refueling stations, pipelines to transport hydrogen, and renewable energy resources to produce it.

“In the long run, I mean, this must be a business-driven activity as everything else,” Volvo CTO Lars Stenqvist told TechCrunch. “But in the in the first wave, there must be support from our politicians.”

Together with other European truck manufacturers, the two companies are calling for a build out of hydrogen refueling stations around Europe of around 300 by 2025 and around 1,000 by 2030.

The Swedish and German automakers suggested policies such as a tax on carbon, incentives for CO2-neutral technologies or an emissions trading system could all help ensure cost-competitiveness against fossil fuels. Heavy-duty trucking will only compose a fraction of hydrogen demand, around 10%, Stenqvist pointed out, with the rest being used by industries such as steel manufacturing and the chemical industry. That means the push for hydrogen-supportive policies will likely be heard from other sectors, as well.

One of the biggest challenges for the new venture will be working to decrease inefficiencies associated with converting hydrogen to electricity. “That’s the core of engineering in trucking, to improve the energy efficiency of the vehicle,” Stenqvist said. “That has always been in the DNA of engineers in our industry … energy efficiency will be even more important in an electrified world.” He estimated that the cost of hydrogen would need to be in the range of $3-4 per kilogram to make it a cost-effective alternative to diesel.

Volvo is also making investments in battery electric technologies and Stenqvist said he sees potential use cases for internal combustion engines (ICE) run on renewable biofuels. He is in agreement with Bosch executives who said earlier this month that they see a place for ICE in the future. “I’m also convinced that there is a place for the combustion engines for a long period of time, I don’t see any end, I don’t see any retirement date for the combustion engines,” he said.

“From a political side, I think it would be completely wrong to ban a technology. Politicians should not ban – should not approve technologies – they should point out the direction, they should talk about what they want to achieve. And then it’s up to us as engineers to come up with the technical solutions.”

The Station: Lyft sells its self-driving unit, Uber makes a big product push and Revel jumps into ride-hailing

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 weekend in your inbox.

Hi there, new and returning readers. This is The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

We took a week off and now we’re back. Whoop. Let’s catch up on all things transportation.

My email inbox is always open. 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.

Micromobbin’

JOCO, a new docked e-bike service in New York City, has launched and is already facing some headwinds. The service started with 300 e-bikes at 300 stations in private parking garages and plans to expan to about 1,000 e-bikes at 100 stations by June. That is, unless the NYC Department of Transportation has anything to say about it.

The city has exclusive rights with Citi Bike for docked bikeshares, which has somewhat stunted NYC’s shared micromobility growth. The city has sent JOCO a cease and desist letter. Assistant commissioner of the DOT, Michelle Craven, wrote:

It has been brought to our attention that [JOCO] commenced bicycle share operations in the City of New York. Please be advised that you do not have the authorization or permission, pursuant to a concession, franchise, permit, contract or otherwise, required for such operations. Additionally, the City of New York will actively enforce all laws and its police powers, including but not limited to those that protect its rights of way and ensure the safety and service provided by the city’s rights of way.

Accordingly, you are hereby directed immediately to cease and desist from any such bicycle share operations.

JOCO’s lawyers maintain that the company is doing nothing illegal because it parks the bikes on private property, not city streets, like Citi Bike. The city did not respond to requests for more information about whether or not the DOT’s power extends to private property.

A turning point for micromobility at scale?

Within the past month, there’s been the e-scooter pilot in the Bronx, JOCO’s e-bike launch and now Lime’s decision to compete with Revel for the e-moped market. These moves suggest that New York is finally opening the doors to electric micromobility.

Lime announced the release of 100 electric mopeds in Brooklyn, with planned expansions in Queens and lower Manhattan. A little competition will hopefully do the micromobility industry good, and that needs to happen if NYC is going to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Let’s not forget, making e-mobility the norm is absolutely essential to reducing carbon emissions in cities.

Another company is working on making it easier to scale up micromobility. Wunder Mobility, a company that sells software to shared mobility startups, has launched a new subsidiary called Wunder Capital, which will help micromobility operators finance fleet. On top of that, the company has partnered with consumer micromobility vehicle manufacturer Yadea to refit its e-mopeds for sharing purposes. German shared e-moped company emmy is the first to publicly take advantage of all three Wunder Mobility offerings — the software, the loans and the Yadeas.

Meanwhile in the U.K., Wind has reported success in its e-scooter trial in Nottingham. Since the launch of the trial last October, city residents have taken more than 240,000 rides. According to Wind’s city manager in Nottingham, more than 100 users in the city download the Wind app every day, and there are rates of five to six daily rides on each scooter.

Vaccine efforts

Superpedestrian has announced it will offer one million free rides on its LINK e-scooters to help citizens get to vaccination centers in communities in Italy and Spain. The company is giving away up to €10 million in free rides. The company said these rides will be made available in all European cities served by LINK scooters, including Rome, Madrid, Turin, Palermo, Málaga and Alcalá de Henares.

Ready to outdoor e-bikes

Retrospec, the brand that makes fun toys like paddle boards, skateboards and bikes is now adding electric bikes to the mix. There’s the Beaumont Rev City ($1,999.00) for swift city rides, the Beaumont Rev Step Through for an easy-to-mount swooped frame ($1,999.00) and the Jax Rev Folding e-bike ($1,399.99) with fat tires and good suspension so you can take it off road.

 — Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

money the station

The march of consolidation continued this week with ride-hailing company Lyft agreeing to sell its autonomous vehicle unit to Toyota’s Woven Planet Holdings subsidiary for $550 million. The agreement shakes out with Woven Planet forking over $200 million in cash upfront, and then paying off the remaining $350 million over a five-year period. About 300 people from Lyft Level 5 will be integrated into Woven Planet. The Level 5 team, which in early 2020 numbered more than 400 people in the U.S., Munich and London, will continue to operate out of its office in Palo Alto, California.

The transaction, which is expected to close in the third quarter of 2021, officially ends Lyft’s nearly four-year effort to develop its own self-driving system.

In the 24 hours or so after this deal was reported I received a number of texts and DMs from folks in the industry — investors and AV developers — all who said something like “wow, Lyft is giving this away,” or “this is a steal.” It reminded me of comments I received after Uber sold off its own self-driving subsidiary to Aurora.

Lyft is also making some structural organizational changes to reflect this renewed focus. The company said it will retain its team of engineers, product managers, data scientists and UX designers that have been working on the consumer experience of hailing and then riding in an autonomous vehicle, which will be headed up by Jody Kelman. This team, now known as Lyft Autonomous, will be folded into the company’s fleet division that manages more than 10,000 vehicles via its rental and express drive programs. Lyft Fleet, which was founded in 2019 and is led by Cal Lankton, is also the group spearheading the company’s transition to 100% electric vehicles on the network by 2030. The idea is to bring all of these efforts — shared, electric and self-driving — under one roof.

So, who is left in the AV developer industry? Not many. There are the big well-capitalized players like Aurora, Argo AI, Cruise, Motional, Waymo and Zoox, then a smattering of other startups and companies pursuing self-driving trucks, logistics and delivery. Who do you think is going to get gobbled up next?

On a side note: The Autonocast, that is the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, just taped an episode discussing the sale. We brought on Lyft co-founder and CEO John Zimmer to learn more on the why? and what’s next? Stay tuned for the episode to drop this week.

Other deals that got my attention …

EasyMile, a Toulouse, France-based autonomous vehicle company that builds shuttles for transporting both people and goods, closed a Series B of €55 million ($66 million) round led by Searchlight Capital Partners. McWin and NextStage AM along with previous investors rail industry heavyweight Alstom, Bpifrance and auto giant Continental also participated.

Hello, the Ant Financial-backed Chinese ebike-sharing company, filed for an IPO. The company, which has raised more than $3 billion, plans to list on the Nasdaq. A few interesting items from its S-1, the company reported $926.3 million in revenue in 2020, a 25% increase from the previous year. Hello is not yet profitable, however. The company reported a net loss of $173.7 million in 2020.

IRP Systems, a maker of powertrains for electric vehicles, raised a $31 million Series C funding round, bringing its total funding to $57 million. The financing was led by Clal Insurance and Altshuler Shaham, which are Israeli institutional investors. Also participating was Samsung Ventures, Renault-Nissan importer Carasso Motors and Shlomo Group, as well as existing investors such as Entrée Capital, Fosun RZ Capital and JAL Ventures.

Manna, the Irish drone startup planning to launch delivery services in the UK and US, raised $25 million Draper Esprit, Team Europe, the venture capital firm of Delivery Hero founder Lukasz Gadowski, and DST Global. The founders of online payments group Stripe also backed the group as private investors, the Financial Times reported.

Plus, the self-driving truck startup, is in talks to merge with special purpose acquisition company Hennessy Capital Investment Corp. V, Bloomberg reported citing people familiar with the matter. The deal would reportedly put the valuation of Plus at more than $3 billion.

Zomato, the Indian food delivery startup, filed for an initial public offering. The company, which counts Info Edge and Ant Group among its largest investors, plans to raise $1.1 billion from the IPO (about $1 billion from issuing new shares), according to the filing. The startup intends to list on Indian stock exchanges NSE and BSE. Zomato has been on a tear and now operating in 24 markets. It’s also raised more than $2.2 billion (according to research firm Tracxn), and was valued at $5.4 billion in its most recent fundraise round. The company said it may consider raising an additional $200 million ahead of public listing.

Policy corner!

the-station-delivery

It was a busy week in Washington. First up: Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) introduced legislation that calls for earmarking more than $7 billion each year in grants and rebates to scale up America’s electric vehicle charging network and accelerate domestic manufacturing of EVs. Rep. Rush introduced a similar bill last year that didn’t end up going anywhere, but with President Biden’s recent push for big spending on green infrastructure, we may see a different result this time around.

Meanwhile, a Senate Democrat sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency calling for stricter policies on greenhouse gas emissions that exceed those outlined in Biden’s climate plan. The letter, which was obtained by the Associated Press, says the EPA should introduce incrementally tighter fuel economy standards until 2035, at which point there would be a ban on the sale of new gas-powered cars.

“If the U.S. does not establish a robust policy that leads to zero emission vehicle deployment, combined with appropriate incentives, we will be at risk of losing our automotive jobs and industry leadership to other nations, as well as enduring unnecessary public health impacts from pollution,” the AP reported Carper wrote in the letter.

Notice Carper’s invocation of jobs? He’s not the only one that’s arguing for (or against) a speedy transition on the basis of how it will affect workers. At a recent hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, a representative from the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association told lawmakers that a fully electric vehicle fleet could put at risk up to 30% of the auto supplier industry’s workforce.

Biden, of course, has said that the shift to EVs will not cost Americans jobs — but that’s hard to see how that’s the case without his plan passing. Bosch executives told me recently that only one employee is needed to manufacture an electric powertrain system, versus 10 for a diesel powertrain. Although Bosch is referring to operations in Europe, it’s an instructive example.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery

Welp, lots happened. Shall we attempt to squeeze it all in? OK, let’s proceed.

Electric vehicles

GM revealed a four-part plan meant to handle all the steps of charging an electric vehicle, including finding a public charger and paying for the power, as the automaker seeks ways to attract customers to the 30 EVs it plans to launch by 2025. The Ultium Charge 360 plan — named after the underlying electric vehicle platform and batteries of its upcoming EVs — aims to handle the access, payment and customer service components of charging an electric vehicle at home and on the road. Importantly, GM has signed agreements with seven third-party charging network providers, including Blink Charging, ChargePoint, EV Connect, EVgo, FLO, Greenlots and SemaConnect.

This is more than just locking up partnerships though. If GM hopes to convert drivers to EVs it has to think about how to integrate real-time information about EV charging stations into the vehicle’s infotainment system. It appears the company is making an attempt at that through. Using their GM vehicle brand mobile app, EV drivers will be able to see real-time information, including location and whether a charger is being used, from nearly 60,000 charging plugs throughout the U.S. and Canada, the company said.

Tesla reported first quarter earnings. Tesla generated revenues of $10.389 billion, gross profit of $2.215 billion and net income of $438 million. The upshot: regulatory credits and bitcoin combined with volume growth and some gross margin improvement buoyed results and helped offset additional supply chain costs, R&D investments, the costs associated with changing over Model S and Model X and lower ASP (average selling price). Revenue jumped some 75% from the same period last year — certainly notable growth. Regulatory credits brought in $518 million and bitcoin made a $101 million “positive impact” to the company’s profitability in the first quarter, according to Tesla CFO and “master of coin” Zach Kirkhorn.

Tesla invested $1.5 billion in bitcoin this quarter and then trimmed its position by 10%. The company believes in the longevity of bitcoin, despite its volatility, Kirkhorn said during an earnings call. He noted that Tesla turned to bitcoin as a place to store cash and still access it immediately, all while providing a better return on investment than more traditional central bank-backed safe havens. Of course, the higher yields provided by the volatile digital currency comes with higher risk.

One more piece of Tesla news … CEO Elon Musk wants to turn every home into a distributed power plant that would generate, store and even deliver energy back into the electricity grid, all using the company’s products, according to comments he made during last week’s earnings call.

While the company has been selling solar and energy storage products for years, a new company policy will only sell customers solar coupled with the energy storage products. In short: it’s a package deal only. Musk’s pitch is that the grid would need more power lines, more power plants and larger substations to fully decarbonize using renewables plus storage. Distributed residential systems — of course using Tesla products — would provide a better path, in Musk’s view.

Volkswagen’s “Voltswagen” stunt is being investigated by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, according to Der Spiegel.

Future of flight

Luminar Technologies said it is expanding its lidar business beyond automotive and into aviation through a partnership with Airbus. Until now, Luminar has exclusively focused on applying its light detection and ranging radar to automated vehicles on the ground — not in the skies. The partnership won’t immediately bring lidar into commercial aircraft. Unlike Luminar’s deal with Daimler, Mobileye and Volvo this is not a production contract, although the aim is that it will lead to one. Instead, the partnership is with Airbus’ UpNext subsidiary, which is focused on developing and eventually applying new technological breakthroughs to aviation.

The effort will be folded into Airbus Flightlab, an ecosystem that offers access to flight test platforms across Airbus’ business lines, including commercial aircraft, helicopters, defense and space. Luminar and Airbus will develop and test how lidar can be used to enhance sensing, perception and system-level capabilities to ultimately enable safe, autonomous flight, the companies said.

Wingcopter launched a new autonomous delivery drone designed to remove a technical bottleneck hindering the growth of drone transport services. The Wingcopter 198 is capable of making three separate deliveries per flight, the company said. Wingcopter has couched this multi-stop capability as a critical feature that will allow it to grow a cost-efficient — and hopefully profitable — drone-delivery-as-a-service business.

In-car tech

Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess told Handelsblatt newspaper that the company plans to design and develop its own chips and software for autonomous vehicles. To be clear, VW doesn’t plan to manufacture these chips. Instead, it wants to own the patents and intends to have its software division Cariad develop the chips.

Sharing

Revel, the company that made its name by planting dockless blue e-mopeds in Brooklyn and then expanded swiftly this year into monthly subscription e-bikes and a “Superhub” EV charging station, is now rounding out its strategy to own electrification in cities. Last week, Revel announced it will be launching an all-Tesla, ridehail service in Manhattan below 42nd Street. To add a bit of drama to the launch, NYC’s Taxi & Limousine Commission has come out with a statement saying the company has no right to operate a for-hire taxi service. The TLC has issued a cap on for-hire vehicles because supply exceeds demand, according to TLC Commissioner Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk. Revel says its actions are perfectly legal because its service falls under the electric battery exemption, which Jarmoszuk says “exists to encourage already-licensed cars to go green, not to flood an already saturated market or to disenfranchise the Yellow Taxi sector in Manhattan.”

Stellantis has a short-term vehicle service called Free2Move that is expanding into the United States. The car on-demand subscription service will first launch in Los Angeles before opening in five other American markets by the end of the year. The service has been deployed in several European countries since 2019.

Uber is launching more than a half-dozen new features, including one that will let users book vaccine appointments at Walgreens and reserve a ride to get their jab, as the company homes in on a business model that will finally deliver profitability. The features fall under what Uber is describing as its “go get” strategy and is meant to mark a return to more “normal” business operations following 14 months of shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The numerous features that include vaccine booking, a valet service that will drop off a rental car, reserved rides at airports that offer up to an hour of wait time and options to pick up food during a ride-hailed route are all centered around Uber’s core services of delivery and ride hailing. Side note: Earnings alert! We will be listening in May 5.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

The TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, which is scheduled for June 9,  will be virtual again — as I have mentioned before. We released a “mostly” final agenda. There may be a surprise or two more.

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

Other guests to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, whose SPAC merged with Joby, investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, as well as Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. We also plan to bring together community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig to talk about equity, accessibility and shared mobility in cities.

Only four more days to save $100 on passes to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Alexandra Ames

The only thing happening faster than tech mobility right now is the speed at which our early bird price for TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 will disappear. You have just four days left to save $100 to our June 9 deep-dive exploration into the current and future state of mobility and transportation.

Buy your pass to TC Sessions Mobility 2021 before the price increase goes into effect on Thursday, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT).

The event is virtual (thanks a bunch, you nasty pandemic), but the information you’ll glean and the worldwide connections you’ll make are very real. The global nature of the opportunities waiting for you to find is a big democratizing benefit of going virtual.

The day comes jam-packed with presentations, one-on-one interviews and breakout sessions with the top founders, investors and makers in mobility. Don’t stress about missing out over a schedule conflict — your pass includes access to video-on-demand once the event ends.

Here’s what Rachael Wilcox, a creative producer at Volvo Cars, told us about her experience at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020.

“I was impressed with the virtual platform. It was easy to navigate and a great format for asking questions. Combining live-stream and VOD options provided schedule flexibility, which let me be more focused and attend more presentations than I could at a live event.”

Let’s take a quick look at just some of the topics and the people who will cover them. Check out the agenda here and plan your strategy.

  • Will Venture Capital Drive the Future of Mobility? Clara Brenner, Quin Garcia and Rachel Holt will discuss how the pandemic changed their investment strategies, the hottest sectors within the mobility industry, the rise of SPACs as a financial instrument and where they plan to put their capital in 2021 and beyond.
  • Equity, Accessibility and Cities: Can mobility be accessible, equitable and remain profitable? We have brought together community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler; Remix by Via co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig to discuss how (and if) shared mobility can provide equity in cities, while still remaining a viable and even profitable business. The trio will also dig into the challenges facing cities and how policy may affect startups.
  • EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with the founders poised to take advantage of the rise in electric vehicle sales. This time, we will chat with Kameale Terry, co-founder and CEO of ChargerHelp! a startup that enables on-demand repair of electric vehicle charging stations.

If you’re into mobility, you can’t afford to miss the information, trends, networking and connection opportunities you’ll find at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. You also can’t afford to miss out on the early bird price. Buy your $95 pass before Thursday, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT), and you’ll save $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

ByteDance CFO assumes role as new TikTok CEO

By Lucas Matney

Eight months after former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer quit in the midst of a full-court press from the Trump administration against the Chinese-owned social media giant, TikTok finally has a new permanent leader.

ByteDance’s recently-hired CFO Shouzi Chew will be assuming the role as TikTok CEO while still holding the CFO role at its parent organization, the company announced Friday morning. It’s a bold move likely signaling that the company believes that the worst of its tussles with the US Executive branch are over as President Biden has seemed uninterested in picking up former President Trump’s pet project.

Vanessa Pappas, who was serving as interim CEO, will take the role of COO going forward.

“The leadership team of Shou and Vanessa sets the stage for sustained growth,” ByteDance CEO Yiming Zhang said in a press release. “Shou brings deep knowledge of the company and industry, having led a team that was among our earliest investors, and having worked in the technology sector for a decade. He will add depth to the team, focusing on areas including corporate governance and long-term business initiatives.”

Prior to joining ByteDance earlier this year, Chew was an executive at Xiaomi with stints at DST and Goldman Sachs earlier in his career.

 

GM partners with 7 charging networks ahead of electric vehicle push

By Kirsten Korosec

GM revealed Wednesday a four-part plan meant to handle all the steps of charging an electric vehicle, including finding a public charger and paying for the power, as the automaker seeks ways to attract customers to the 30 EVs it plans to launch by 2025.

The so-called Ultium Charge 360 plan — named after the underlying electric vehicle platform and batteries of its upcoming EVs — aims to handle the access, payment and customer service components of charging an electric vehicle at home and on the road. As part of the plan, which the company’s chief EV officer Travis Hester said will be rolling out over the next 18 months, GM has signed agreements with seven third-party charging network providers, including Blink Charging, ChargePoint, EV Connect, EVgo, FLO, Greenlots and SemaConnect. Using their GM vehicle brand mobile app, EV drivers will be able to see real-time information, including location and whether a charger is being used, from nearly 60,000 charging plugs throughout the U.S. and Canada. These functions will be rolled into the existing brand apps GM has created for owners of its Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC vehicles.

The first GM and EVgo sites are now live in Washington, California and Florida. GM said each site is capable of delivering up to 350 kilowatts and averages four chargers per site. GM and EVgo are on track to have about 500 fast-charging stalls live by the end of 2021, according to the automaker.

Hester noted the plan isn’t just about how many third-party networks it partners with. (Although it should be noted that Electrify America is not on its list of partners announced Wednesday.)

“We know how critical the charging infrastructure is to our customers and how it plays a hugely significant role in EV adoption and experienced EV owners know that this is much more complicated than just a simple network quantity issue,” Hester said in a media briefing Wednesday.

For instance, the GM app will provide information on how to find stations along a route and initiate and pay for charging, Hester said. GM will continue to update the mobile app. GM is also planning to offer charging accessories and installation services for their home charger. The company said Wednesday it will cover standard installation of Level 2 charging capability for eligible customers who purchase or lease a 2022 Bolt EUV or Bolt EV in collaboration with Qmerit.

There were some gaps in the announcement, notably whether there would be Plug and Charge capabilities. Plug and Charge is a technology standard that allows the driver of an EV to pull up to a station, plug in and power up their EV without having to launch an app to begin the charging process or to pay for it. Instead, the vehicle is able to communicate with the charging infrastructure and the payment is integrated into that process. Alex Keros, the lead architect for EV infrastructure at GM, said the company wasn’t making any announcements around Plug and Charge, but noted that the company knows “that enabling that seamless experience is going to be an important part of that customer experience.”

Tesla sees bitcoin as important financial tool to access cash quickly

By Rebecca Bellan

Tesla’s relationship with bitcoin is not a dalliance, according to the comments made by the company’s CFO and dubbed “master of coin” Zach Kirkhorn during an earnings call Monday. Instead, the company believes in the longevity of bitcoin, despite its volatility.

Tesla invested $1.5 billion in bitcoin this quarter and then trimmed its position by 10%, Kirkhorn said during the company quarterly earnings call. That sale made a $101 million “positive impact” to the company’s profitability in the first quarter, he added. Tesla also allows customers to make vehicle deposits and final vehicle purchases using bitcoin. 

Tesla turned to bitcoin as a place to store cash and still access it immediately, all while providing a better return on investment than more traditional central bank-backed safe havens. Of course, the higher yields provided by the volatile digital currency comes with higher risk.

Tesla bucks the trend of the more cautionary Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell who noted back in March at virtual summit hosted by the Bank for International Settlements that the Fed considers crypto speculative assets that are highly volatile and therefore not useful stores of value. That matters because the basic function of currency is its ability to store value. He also noted that digital currencies are not backed by anything and compared it to gold and not the dollar.

From Kirkhorn:

Elon and I were looking for a place to store cash that wasn’t being immediately used, try to get some level of return on this, but also preserve liquidity, you know, particularly as we look forward to the launch of Austin and Berlin and uncertainty that’s happening with semiconductors and port capacity, being able to access our cash very quickly is super important to us right now.

And, you know, there aren’t many traditional opportunities to do this or at least that we found and and talking to others that we could get good feedback on, particularly with yields being so low and without taking on additional risk or sacrificing liquidity. Bitcoin seemed at the time, and so far has proven to be a good decision, a good place to place some of our cash that’s not immediately being used for daily operations or maybe not needed till the end of the year, and be able to get some return on that.

Tesla is watching the digital currency closely, Kirkhorn said, noting that there is a lot of reason to be optimistic.

“You know, thinking about it from a corporate treasury perspective, we’ve been quite pleased with how much liquidity there is in the bitcoin market,” he said. “Our ability to build our first position happened very quickly. When we did the sale later in March we also were able to execute on that very quickly. And so as we think about kind of global liquidity for the business in risk management, being able to get cash in and out of the market is something that I think is exceptionally important for us.”

While Tesla did trim its position in March, Kirkhorn added that the company’s intent is to hold what it has long term and to continue to accumulate bitcoin from transactions from its customers as they purchase vehicles. Musk, who also goes by Technoking, announced in March that Tesla would accept bitcoin as a form of payment in the United States.

Tesla wants to make every home a distributed power plant

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants to turn every home into a distributed power plant that would generate, store and even deliver energy back into the electricity grid all using the company’s products.

While the company has been selling solar and energy storage products for years, a new company policy to only sell solar coupled with the energy storage products, along with Musk’s comments Monday, reveal a strategy that aims to scale these businesses by appealing to utilities.

“This is a prosperous future both for Tesla and for the utilities,” he said. “If this is not done, the utilities will fail to serve their customers. They won’t be able to do it,” Musk said during an investor call, noting the rolling blackouts in California last summer and the more recent grid failure in Texas as evidence that grid reliability has become a bigger concern.

Last week, the company changed its website to prevent customers from only buying solar or its Powerwall energy storage product and instead required purchasing a system. Musk later announced the move in a tweet, stating “solar power will feed exclusively to Powerwall” and that “Powerwall will interface only between utility meter and house main breaker panel, enabling super simple install and seamless whole house backup during utility dropouts.”

Musk’s pitch is that the grid would need more power lines, more power plants, and larger substations to fully decarbonization using renewables plus storage. Distributed residential systems — of course using Tesla products — would provide a better path, in Musk’s view. His claim has been backed up by in part by recent studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that the U.S. can reach a zero-carbon grid by more than doubling its transmission capacity, and another from Princeton University showing that the country may need to triple its transmission systems by 2050 to reach net-zero emissions.

Musk is imagining a radically different electricity grid system than the one we have today, which is centrally controlled and run by grid operators, independent organizations such as the California Independent System Operator or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It’s a vision that is riddled with bureaucratic and logistical challenges. Utilities and regulatory policy would need to solve how to handle a large influx of so-called ‘distributed energy resources,’ such as solar panels on residential roofs, which may run contrary to utilities’ long-established business models.

It’s important to note that whether renewables-plus-storage will be alone sufficient to decarbonize the energy grid is a contentious question. Many experts believing that the land use demands, storage requirements and intermittency issues of renewables may make their role as the country’s primary electricity generator a pipe dream. But Musk has long been bullish on the renewables-plus-storage model, tweeting last July that “physics favors electric transport, batteries for stationary storage & solar/wind for energy generation.”

Tesla grows 74% in the first quarter, besting expectations as its shares ease after hours

By Alex Wilhelm

Today after the bell, American electric car company Tesla reported its Q1 2021 financial performance. The company lost modest ground on the stock market after its news broke.

For the broader electric vehicle and battery startup market that has pursued many SPAC-led combinations in recent months, the generally positive Tesla trailing results could prove a boon, underscoring continued market demand for their category’s hardware.

Turning to the numbers, in the first three quarters of the year, Tesla generated revenues of $10.389 billion, gross profit of $2.215 billion and net income of $438 million.

Tesla earned adjusted net income of $1.052 billion, leading to diluted, non-GAAP earnings per share of $0.93. The street had expected the company to report $10.29 billion in revenue and adjusted earnings per share of $0.79. Shares of Tesla are off around 1% in after-hours trading, after the company reported its top and bottom-line beat.

Tesla grew sharply compared to its year-ago period, in which the company generated $5.985 billion in top-line revenue, leading to just $68 million worth of net income. Compared to that year-ago period, Tesla’s Q1 2021 saw its revenues expand by 74%, its automotive gross margin improve by just under 1% (95 basis points), its aggregate gross margins better themselves by slightly less (70 basis points), and its net income explode 1,850% while its adjusted net income grew by an also impressive 304%.

In the same four-month period, Tesla’s operating cash flow came to $1.641 billion. The company can comfortably self-fund at that pace of cash generation. That’s underscored by the fact that Tesla closed its first quarter with cash and cash equivalents worth a total of $17.1 billion.

Tracking neatly with its 75% revenue growth was automotive production growth of 76% in the first quarter, with the company producing 180,338 cars, far above its year-ago Q1 tally of 102,672 units. Deliveries of vehicles rose 109%, to 184,877, over the same timeframe.

The company’s solar and energy storage businesses also posted material growth: Solar deployments rose 163% to 92 megawatts, while storage deployment rose 71% to 445 megawatt hours.

Turning to outlook, Tesla told investors in its deck that “over a multiyear horizon, [the company expects] to achieve 50% average annual growth in vehicle deliveries.” The company added that it anticipates Tesla Semi deliveries to commence this year, adding another revenue line to the company’s product mix.

Looking ahead, investors expect Tesla adjusted net income to rise to $0.99 per diluted share this quarter, off of revenues totaling $11.39 billion.

Lyft sells self-driving unit to Toyota’s Woven Planet for $550M

By Kirsten Korosec

Ride-hailing company Lyft has sold off its autonomous vehicle unit to Toyota’s Woven Planet Holdings subsidiary for $550 million, the latest in a string of acquisitions spurred by the cost and lengthy timelines to commercialize the technology that have occurred within the autonomous vehicle industry.

Under the acquisition agreement announced Tuesday, Lyft’s so-called Level 5 division will be folded into Woven Planet Holdings. Lyft will receive $550 million in cash with $200 million paid upfront. The remaining $350 million will be made in payments over five years. About 300 people from Lyft Level 5 will be integrated into Woven Planet. The Level 5 team, which in early 2020 numbered more than 400 people in the U.S., Munich and London, will continue to operate out of its office in Palo Alto, California.

The transaction, which is expected to close in the third quarter of 2021, officially ends Lyft’s nearly four-year effort to develop its own self-driving system.

The transaction will remove a costly annual expense from Lyft’s budget. The ride-hailing company said that by offloading Level 5 it expects to be able to remove $100 million of annualized non-GAAP operating expenses on a net basis. Those savings will be critical for Lyft as it pursues profitability — a point co-founder and president John Zimmer made special note of in the announcement.

“Assuming the transaction closes within the expected timeframe and the COVID recovery continues, we are confident that we can achieve Adjusted EBITDA profitability in the third quarter of this year,” Zimmer said in a statement.

Free from this annual expense, Lyft will dedicate its resources to what the company says it was really was aiming for all along: to become the go-to ride-hailing network and fleet management platform used by any and all commercial robotaxi services. Lyft already has partnerships with AV developers, notably the $4 billion Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture known as Motional as well as  Waymo. The intent is to lock up the rest. As part of the acquisition agreement, Woven Planet signed commercial agreements to use the Lyft platform and fleet data.

Lyft said that the agreement with Woven Planet is not exclusive and it will continue its partnership with Motional and others. Motional and Lyft have been partners for more than three years, a relationship that kicked off with what was supposed to be a weeklong pilot program to offer rides in autonomous vehicles on the Lyft network in Las Vegas during the 2018 CES tech trade show. (The partnership actually predated the joint venture with Hyundai.) That temporary experiment, which has always included a human safety driver, was extended and still exists today. As of February 2020, the program had given more than 100,000 paid self-driving rides in Aptiv’s — now Motional’s — self-driving vehicles, per the Lyft app. Motional announced in December plans to launch fully driverless robotaxi services in major U.S. cities in 2023 using the Lyft ride-hailing network.

Lyft is making some structural — and accompanying name changes — to reflect this renewed focus. Lyft will take its team of engineers, product managers, data scientists and UX designers that have been working on the consumer experience of hailing and then riding in an autonomous vehicle since 2016 will be headed up by Jody Kelman. This team, now known as Lyft Autonomous, will be folded into the company’s fleet division that manages more than 10,000 vehicles via its rental and express drive programs. Lyft Fleet, which was founded in 2019 and is led by Cal Lankton, is also the group  spearheading the company’s transition to 100% electric vehicles on the network by 2030. The idea is to bring all of these efforts — shared, electric and self-driving — under one roof.

Other strategic shuffling is happening over at Toyota’s Woven Planet. The Level 5 workforce, researchers from Toyota Research Institute and Woven Planet will be combined into one team of about 1,200 employees. The company said the acquisition of Level 5 is a carve-out of Lyft’s self-driving division focusing on accelerating safety of the automated driving technology and does not directly affect Toyota’s relationship with other partnerships such as AV startup Aurora.

Woven Planet Holdings is a new entity that has already made a splash. The holding company, which folded in Toyota Research Institute — Advanced Development Inc. or TRI-AD, also includes an investment arm known as Woven Capital and Woven City, a testing ground for new technologies set in an interconnected smart city prototype. In February, Toyota broke ground at the Higashi-Fuji site in Susono City, Japan, at the base of Mount Fuji.

Earlier this year, Woven Capital kicked off off its new $800 million strategic fund by announcing an investment into autonomous delivery vehicle company Nuro.

 

Hear about building AVs under Amazon from Zoox CTO Jesse Levinson at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress toward those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.

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In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.

Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.

We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.

Book your early-bird pass today and save $100 before prices increase next week and join today’s leading mobility-startup event.

Airbus taps Luminar to test how lidar could be used to make flying safer and autonomous

By Kirsten Korosec

Luminar Technologies is expanding its lidar business beyond automotive and into aviation through a partnership with Airbus. The collaboration with the French aerospace giant, which was announced Monday morning, marks the latest in a string of partnership announcements between Luminar and companies like Daimler, Volvo and Mobileye. Until now, these have exclusively focused on applying its light detection and ranging radar to automated vehicles on the ground — not in the skies.

The partnership won’t bring lidar into commercial aircraft. Unlike Luminar’s deal with Daimler, Mobileye and Volvo this is not a production contract. Instead, the partnership is with Airbus’ UpNext subsidiary, which is focused on developing and eventually applying new technological breakthroughs to aviation. The effort will be folded into Airbus Flightlab, an ecosystem that offers access to flight test platforms across Airbus’ business lines, including commercial aircraft, helicopters, defense and space. Luminar and Airbus will develop and test how lidar can be used to enhance sensing, perception and system-level capabilities to ultimately enable safe, autonomous flight, the companies said.

“We’re able to directly re-apply what we’ve accomplished for the automotive industry into aviation, an established nearly $1 trillion industry,” Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell said in a statement Monday. “We believe that automation and safety enhancements will transform how we move across all modes of transport as we take our technology from roads to the skies. We look forward to accelerating our shared vision to define the future of flying.”

Lidar, which measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world, is considered by most in the autonomous vehicle industry critical to commercial deployment. Automakers have also begun to view lidar as an important sensor to be used to expand the capabilities and safety of advanced driver assistance systems in new cars, trucks and SUVs available to consumers.

Airbus is interested in how Luminar’s lidar and perception stack can be used to automatically detect obstacles, a key step toward autonomous operation of aircraft such as urban air mobility vehicles. The companies said the sensor also has the potential to “substantially improve the safety of existing aircraft applications.”

Increasing helicopter safety is one of Airbus’ missions. The company said Monday it will introduce a number of new features to its helicopter Flightlab through a project code-named Vertex. These technologies, which include lidar and other sensors coupled with software for obstacle detection, fly-by-wire for enhanced auto-pilot and a touchscreen and head-worn display for inflight monitoring and control, aim to reduce helicopter pilot workload and increase safety. Airbus said that when combined, the system will be able to manage navigation and route preparation, automatic take-off and landing, as well as following a predefined flight path. The incremental integration of these technologies onto the helicopter Flightlab has begun ahead of a complete demonstration in 2023. Airbus said its Urban Air Mobility project will also benefit from this technology as a step toward autonomous flight.

Luminar, which burst onto the autonomous vehicle scene in April 2017 after operating for years in secrecy, became a publicly traded company in late 2020. The company announced in February that it would work with Volvo Cars to develop and eventually sell to other automakers an automated driving system for highways. The partnership, which is between Luminar and Volvo’s self-driving software subsidiary Zenseact, builds upon an existing relationship with Volvo. The two companies are combining their tech to create what Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell described as a “holistic autonomous vehicle stack” made for production vehicles. Volvo will be the first customer. Russell and Zenseact CEO Ödgärd Andersson said at the time that they plan to also offer this system to other automakers.

Last year, ahead of its public debut, Luminar also locked in a supplier deal to furnish Intel subsidiary Mobileye with lidar for its fleet of autonomous vehicles. Under that contract, Luminar’s lidar will be part of Mobileye’s first-generation fleet of driverless vehicles, which are being piloted in Dubai, Tel Aviv, Paris, China and Daegu City, South Korea.

 

Honda targets 100% EV sales in North America by 2040

By Rebecca Bellan

Honda’s new goal is to achieve 100% EV sales in North America by 2040 as part of its broader target of being carbon neutral by 2050. CEO Toshihiro Mibe announced planned shift away from internal combustion engines at a news conference on Friday, his first since taking over executive leadership of the company in early April.

This is the latest in a stream of pledges from legacy car manufacturers to introduce high percentages of zero-emissions vehicles into their fleets and achieve carbon neutrality. General Motors plans to eliminate gas and diesel light-duty cars and SUVs by 2035 and be carbon neutral by 2040, and Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan have all said they plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Honda’s goals are also in alignment with Japan’s electrification strategy, which aims for a 46% cut in emissions by 2030.

Honda will start on this road immediately, expecting EVs to account for 40% of sales by 2030, and 80% by 2035 in all major markets. By the second half of 2020, Japan’s second-largest automaker will launch a series of new electric models in North America based on the company’s in-house e:Architecture platform.

Honda, and its subsidiary Acura, will also introduce two large-sized EV models using GM’s Ultium batteries by 2024. The company will further its collaboration with GM by using fuel cell technology for a range of vehicles and applications, like commercial trucks and power sources.

Hyundai invests in teleoperations startup Ottopia as part of $9M round

By Kirsten Korosec

After spending much of his career in mission-critical environments, including the Israeli Air Force, Israeli Intelligence and leading development of a cybersecurity product at Microsoft, Amit Rosenzweig turned his attention to autonomous vehicles.

It was a technology that he soon recognized would need what every other mission-critical system requires: humans. 

“I understood that there are so many edge cases that will not be solved purely by AI and machine learning, and there must be some kind of human-in-the-loop intervention,” Rosenzweig said in a recent interview. “You don’t have any mission-critical system on the planet — not nuclear power plants, not airplanes — without human supervision. A human must be in the loop or present in some way for autonomous mobility to exist, even in 10 or probably 20 years from now.”

That “human in the loop” conclusion led Rosenzweig to found teleoperations startup Ottopia in 2018. (His brother, Oren Rosenzweig is also in the autonomous vehicle business via the lidar company he co-founded, Innoviz.) Ottopia’s first product is a universal teleoperation platform that allows a human operator to monitor and control any type of vehicle from thousands of miles away. Ottopia’s software is combined with off-the-shelf hardware components like monitors and cameras to create a teleoperations center. The company’s software also includes assistive features, which provide “path” instructions to the AV without having to remotely control the vehicle.

Since launching, the small 25-person company has racked up investors and partners such as BMW, fixed-route AV startup May Mobility and Bestmile. Ottopia said Friday that it has raised $9 million from Hyundai Motor Group as well as Maven and IN Venture, the Israel-focused venture capital arm of Sumitomo Corporation. Existing investors MizMaa and Israeli firm NextGear also participated.

Hyundai and IN Venture also gained board seats. Woongjun Jang, who heads up Hyundai’s autonomous driving center, and IN Venture managing partner Eyal Rosner, are now on Ottopia’s board.

Ottopia has raised a total of $12 million to date, and Rosenzweig has already set his sights on a larger round to help fund the company’s growth.

For now, Rosenzweig is focused on doubling his workforce to 50 people by the end of the year and opening an office in the United States. Rosenzweig said the company is also expanding into other applications of its teleoperations software, including defense, mining and logistics. However, most of Ottopia’s resources will continue to be dedicated to automotive, and specifically the deployment of autonomous cars, trucks and shuttles.

“The motivation is really simple — it’s simple but it’s hard to do — and that’s to make affordable autonomous transportation closer to reality,” Rosenzweig said. “The problem of course is that when an AV does not have any kind of backup or any kind of safety net in the form of teleoperations and it gets stuck, passengers are going to get anxious, ‘what’s going on, why, why is this not moving’.”

The other problem, Rosenzweig noted, is that AVs need to be combined with an efficient transit service. That’s where he sees his newest partner, on-demand shuttle and transit software company Via, coming in.

Under the partnership, which was also announced this week, Via will offer autonomous vehicle fleets that combine its fleet management software with Ottopia’s teleoperations platform. Via is not developing its own self-driving software system. In November 2020, Via announced it had partnered with May Mobility to launch an autonomous vehicle platform that integrates on-demand shared rides, public transportation and transit options for passengers with accessibility needs.

Disney Imagineering’s Project Kiwi is a free-walking robot that will make you believe in Groot

By Matthew Panzarino

The black curtain pulls aside and a character straight out of the movies waves hello. This is not an uncommon occurrence when I’m around Imagineers, but this time is special. The character isn’t a costume, it’s a robot. And, unlike the m​any animatronic figures you’ve seen in the parks, it’s not stuck in one place. No, this character is walking towards me, attached only by a thin cable used for programming. 

The gait is smooth, the arms swing in a lifelike manner and the feet plant realistically. The body sways exactly as you’d expect it to. There’s no other way to say it, it’s ambling. This is Project Kiwi, a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor — the first of its kind for Disney and a real robotics milestone.

The holy grail of themed entertainment has been established for decades now: a fully mobile, bipedal character that matches the appearance, personality and scale of the original. Various non-mobile levels of this vision have been achieved at parks around the world, including the incredibly lifelike Na’Vi Shaman, The A1000 figure that powers characters like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’s Hondo Ohnaka and the smoothly expressive Belle from Beauty and the Beast at Tokyo Disneyland. There have also been some cool mobile experiments like the self-piloting droid “Jake”. 

The pint sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize. This is a real, walk around character that is at the proper scale, kid scale. 

A couple of weeks ago at Walt Disney Imagineering in Southern California, I saw just how close they finally are to making that dream come true. A bipedal platform, developed completely in house over the past 3 years by WDI researchers and roboticists — dressed up to look like a roughly two and a half foot tall Groot.

Even though the version of Kiwi that I’m looking at is Groot-flavored, it’s important to stress that this is a platform first and foremost, which means that it could take this form when it gets to the parks, or another form entirely. It’s important while developing a character to have a target character that can tell you whether or not you’re hitting an established mark of believability. 

Kiwi is also is still very much a work in progress. I wouldn’t expect to see this in the wild soon, there is still a lot of work to be done on the way that Kiwi works and interacts with people and WDI does not have immediate plans to put it in the parks. 

But even at this stage it’s an incredible feat of engineering that genuinely radiates that elusive characteristic that Disney always searches for with its figures: presence.

How did we get here?

I was able to speak to the lead on Project Kiwi, R&D Imagineer Principal Scott LaValley as well as Advanced Development Studio Executive SVP Jon Snoddy about how the platform came together over the past few years. 

“Project KIWI started about three years ago to figure out how we can bring our smaller characters to life at their actual scale in authentic ways,” LaValley says. “It’s an exciting time for bipedal robotics and with an incredible team and our combination of technology, artistry, and magic, we are bringing characters to life that could not have happened anywhere but Disney.”

I’ve talked a bit about the unique Imagineering process in my previous pieces on how Disney builds reactive robotics, autonomous stuntbots and even entire lands. Imagineering works a lot like a startup in the way that it comes up with a problem to solve and then goes about pulling in other departments to help it get a solution. There is a remarkably ego-free nature to much of the way that WDI actually finds those solutions, too. They are as likely to find a key component off the shelf as they are to design, develop and patent it in house. 

The interconnected nature of Imagineering departments like ride design, show systems, special effects, animatronics department, Tech Studio R&D and Disney Research means that they share solutions across the stack as well.

The guiding thread to all of it, of course, is storytelling. This guiding force exists at all levels of the process, keeping the project moving in the right direction — towards a better way to tell stories and transport guests. 

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

With Kiwi, the end goal was clear, a character that could walk on its own and interact with park guests. Unfortunately, due to the scale and complexity of the figure and the requirements for interaction and walking, no ‘off the shelf’ platforms would do. The fact is that there are actually only a handful of truly viable bipedal robotics platforms anywhere in the world and the vast majority of them are being created for industrial applications, with a handful of ‘human-scale’ solutions that are designed as marketing set pieces rather than truly autonomous systems. 

So to hit that goal, Imagineering turned to R&D and LaValley’s team. LaValley had come to Disney from Boston Dynamics, where he worked on the first version of its biped robot Atlas. 

The project scope was that they needed a biped robot that was battery powered and could be programmed to handle autonomous interactions with park guests and striped gestures and emotes. The team would take the next 3 years to build what they needed — much of which was custom for reasons we’ll get into shortly. 

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

It’s clear at a glance that Kiwi has no operator inside. The human brain is pretty good at instinctually understanding whether a space is just too small to have a person in it. In order to achieve the small size, the team had to first build a custom skeleton that had room for every motor and actuator Kiwi would need to achieve 50 degrees of freedom, all while keeping it humanoid in shape so that it could be ‘dressed up’ as any number of characters. 

First came the frame. Prototypes were built from custom printed polymer and then eventually custom metal parts using industrial printers. The armatures and segments that they needed to house the critical components were just too complex to mill or cast. The cleverly printed metal skeleton is hollow throughout, allowing a ‘marrow conduit’ for air which rushes through the body cooling the motors and actuators. In the current Kiwi prototype the air comes in through the collar area of the suit, flows throughout the body, propelled by fans embedded in the skeleton and exhausts near the bottom of the unit. Eventually it will use the clothing as a shroud to help air flow out near the feet.

Though there is some audible noise, even in this early state it is very low, allowing audio playing out of a speaker to enable conversation. 

As you can see in the exclusive progress video embedded above, the lower sections were built first. Early testing around the office shows the legs and torso sneaking, bouncing, shuffling and strutting through Imagineering. This is probably the only workplace in the world where the bottom half of a torso can tiptoe past your office while you’re eating lunch and it doesn’t even merit a pause between bites. 

An enormous amount of completely custom robotics work went into the Kiwi platform. In the demonstration I saw, young Groot had a safety tether and control cable for live programming but nothing on the rig itself needed support, it was free roaming with on board battery power that LaValley says hits around the 45 minute mark currently with more longevity hoped for in the final version. In fact, a next-generation skeleton is already under development that is lighter and more efficient.

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc. / Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

The legs use a system that offers a kinetic counter-balance, allowing the force of having to move and plant a foot to be off-set, making motions more power efficient and quicker. Think of a spring loaded heavy gate that makes it easier for you to swing open — but no springs, and a robotic limb instead of a gate.

The feet plant realistically for the very simple reason that they must actually support the figure. This gives it an additional layer of believability that just doesn’t happen with externally supported characters that “fake” a foot plant. LaValley demonstrated that the figure could easily stay afoot even if it was shoved gently or if a hand was rested on its shoulder. This kind of self-balancing is something that humans do unconsciously and continuously but it must be built and programmed in to an ambulatory robot. 

Many patentable inventions went into this creation. One of them is a clever system of gears that translates energy across joints, allowing them to share motors with one another even across a joint like a knee or wrist. This means fewer components and the ability to keep motor and actuator packages small and compact enough to fit underneath theming. 

In order to minimize the amount of wiring throughout Kiwi — since wires are always the biggest points of failure — the team created a set of origami-like circuit boards joined by integrated flex cabling. Think of your standard computer circuit board but sliced into segments and mounted to the exterior of the hollow ‘bones’. They wrap around the limbs and other body parts, binding the control systems and motors being controlled together into a local group that reduces the amount of harnessing that needs to be spread across joints and throughout the structure. 

No actuators — the components that decide how to move a limb — that exist had the capabilities that the team needed, so they built them from scratch. At one point, LaValley handed me a ring holding iteration after iteration of a dozen actuator elements. I was holding years worth of engineering, experimentation, failure and progress on a simple bit of wire twisted together at the end.

Up next for Project Kiwi is a new set of actuators that can dynamically apply torque plus added sensing capabilities for more stability and reaction to uneven ground or interactions. You can imagine that, as a free roaming character people will want to take pictures with it and I doubt kids would be able to resist running up for a hug. The skeleton must be able to sense and react quickly and smoothly to those sudden external inputs in order to stay upright and keep looking natural. 

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc. / Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

Moving from a pure IK system to a fully torque sensing system will allow for the platform to make on the fly adjustments that compensate for terrain or interaction with other performers or guests.

All of the work the team put into custom gearing, motors and actuation has paid off in spades with the ridiculously smooth and natural looking movements of Kiwi’s arms and legs. Quick waves, shrugs, dance moves and even boxing jabs all look like a real — if slightly gentle — creature is performing them. 

The team also demonstrated the custom built performance software that they designed which allows Kiwi to have different kinds of gaits with personality layered on top. The bottom layer is an IK-style gait system that keeps Kiwi upright and walking, but then layering the personalities on top adds character to the walk while still maintaining stability. Bouncy, jaunty walks, limps, sad or downhearted walks, all with the other motions of arms and head contributing to a constantly shifting center of mass and momentum. The paddling ducks feet under the water is that gait system that takes the external inputs and integrates it into the walk naturally.

The current prototype software has a series of set behaviors, with a timeline that allows them to program new behaviors and actions by toggles or adjusting curves that control movement. With a series of tweaks in the software the changes become evident immediately, with Groot’s “mood” becoming immediately evident in his walk. 

One moment he is bouncing along swinging his arms jauntily, clearly happy to be there. Then the next moment his arms are slumped, his head is hung and he is slowly plodding — clearly sad to be leaving the fun behind. It’s a remarkable bit of performance software. 

And even though the expressive eyes are already impressive — the team is not done. Up next on the agenda is a sensory package that allows Kiwi to more fully understand the world around it and to identify people and their faces. This becomes important because eye contact is such an emotive and powerful tool to use in transporting a participant. 

Even without the sensing software I can tell you that the experience of this 2.5ft Groot locking eyes with me, smiling and waving was just incredibly transportive. Multiple times throughout my interaction I completely forgot that it was a robot at all. 

As I mentioned at the top, the Project Kiwi platform still has a lot of work left to do before it makes any appearances in the parks. But it’s already well on the road to being viable for things like stage performances, photo ops and eventually free roaming deployment in the parks.

That is really the vision, Snoddy says that the goal is to move the characters we love from across Disney’s pantheon into the spaces of the guests, elevating the entirety of the park to a live transportive experience, rather than a single ride or dark room. And to do it at the proper scale to make them genuine and capable of making guests believe. With these kinds of platforms, the possibilities are there to make the entire parks themselves a living breathing home for the characters, rather than the tightly controlled environments of the rides themselves.

The arc of history in this Imagineering journeys is drawn in robots. From Great Moments with Mr Lincoln, to incredibly expressive characters like the Na’Vi Shaman anchored inside a dark ride, to characters that hold up in bright, well lit spaces. Project Kiwi is the next frontier, allowing them to step off of the pedestal and right into the world of the guest.

One of the most fascinating fields in robotics currently is HRI or human-robot interaction. This multidisciplinary effort to help humans and robots communicate better is often focused on safety and awareness in industrial settings. But I’ve long had that the most incredibly interesting work in this space is being done in Imagineering R&D. Over 100 million people pass through Disney’s parks per year, and the number of opportunities that they have to react to and interact with robotic characters grows yearly. And with projects like Kiwi on the horizon, this field is going to explode with new kinds of data and learnings. 

And, of course, we’ll get to meet some of our favorite characters looking and acting as real as we’ve ever seen them in our world. 

Bosch sees a place for renewable fuels, challenging proposed European Union engine ban

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Bosch executives on Thursday criticized proposed EU regulations that would ban the internal combustion engine by 2025, saying that lawmakers “shy away” from discussing the consequences of such a ban on employment.

Although the company reported it is creating jobs through its new businesses, particularly its fuel cell business, and said it was filling more than 90% of these positions internally, it also said an all- or mostly-electric transportation revolution would likely affect jobs. As a case in point, the company told reporters that ten Bosch employees are needed to build a diesel powertrain system, three for a gasoline system — but only one for an electrical powertrain.

Instead, Bosch sees a place for renewable synthetic fuels and hydrogen fuel cells alongside electrification. Renewable synthetic fuels made from hydrogen are a different technology from hydrogen fuel cells. Fuel cells use hydrogen to generate electricity, while hydrogen-derived fuels can be combusted in a modified internal combustion engine (ICE).

“An opportunity is being missed if renewable synthetic fuel derived from hydrogen and CO2 remains off-limits in road transport,” Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner said.

“Climate action is not about the end of the internal-combustion engine,” he continued. “It’s about the end of fossil fuels. And while electromobility and green charging power make road transport carbon neutral, so do renewable fuels.”

Electric solutions have limits, Denner said, particularly in powering heavy-duty vehicles. The company earlier this month established a joint venture with Chinese automaker Qingling Motors to build fuel cell powertrains in a test fleet of 70 trucks.

Bosch’s confidence in hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic fuels isn’t to the exclusion of battery-electric mobility. The company, which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of automotive and industrial components, said its electromobility business is growing by almost 40 percent, and the company projects annual sales of electrical powertrain components to increase to around €5 billion ($6 billion) by 2025, a fivefold increase.

However, the German company said it was “keeping its options open” by also investing €600 million ($721.7 million) in fuel cell powertrains in the next three years.

“Ultimately Europe won’t be able to achieve climate neutrality without a hydrogen economy,” Denner said.

Bosch has not been immune from the effects of the global semiconductor shortage, which continues to drag into 2021. Board member Stefan Asenkerschbaumer warned that there is a risk the shortage “will stifle the recovery that was forecast” for this year. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company executives told investors earlier this month that the situation may persist into 2022.

Ornikar raises $120M as its driving school marketplace goes up a gear with car insurance

By Ingrid Lunden

A French startup that set out to bring a new approach to driver education and road safety, and then used that foothold to expand into the related area of car insurance, is today announcing a big round of funding to continue building its service across Europe.

Ornikar, which prepares people for driving tests by providing online drivers education courses, lets those users organize in-person lessons with driving instructors, provides a booking system for taking their written and practical examinations, and finally provides them with competitive rates for getting car insurance as new drivers, has raised €100 million ($120 million).

The company intends to use the funding to expand its business. Drivers education services are live today in France and Spain, while insurance is offered today only in France: the plan will be to expand both of those to more markets.

The Series C is being led by KKR, with previous investors Idinvest, BPI, Elaia, Brighteye, and H14 also participating. Benjamin Gaignault, Ornikar’s CEO who co-founded the company with Flavien LeRendu (who also jointly holds the title of CEO), said the startup is not disclosing its valuation, but we understand from a source that it is around $750 million. The company has raised $175 million to date.

Ornikar has been around since 2013 and was founded, in Gaignault’s words, “to disrupt driving education.”

Coming into the market at a time when most of the process of organizing, learning and booking your driving education was not only very fragmented but completely offline, Ornikar’s internet-based offering represented a step change in how French people learned to drive: the process not only became easier, but on average about 40% cheaper to arrange.

Ornikar’s driving education business today includes not just online course materials and booking services, but a network of instructors across 1,000 towns and cities in France, and a business that launched last year in Spain, under the Onroad brand. Some 1.5 million people have taken Ornikar’s driving education courses to date, with another 2 million using its driving school, with growth accelerating: 420,000 new customers signed up with Ornikar in the last year alone.

Last year was a tricky one for companies in the business of transportation. People were generally staying put and not traveling anywhere, but when they were getting around, they wanted plenty of their own space to do so.

Translating that to markets like France and Spain where many towns will have solid public transportation and taxi services, people might have opted to use these less, looking instead to private vehicles in their place. And translating that to Ornikar, Gaignault said that people being at home more, and looking to use the time productively with a view to driving more in the future, the startup saw business growing by 30% each month last year.

Interestingly, it was in the middle of the pandemic that Ornikar launched its car insurance product, which came out of the same impetus as the driver education services: it was built to fill a hole in the market rethought with Ornikar’s users in mind.

Car insurance in France — a €17 billion ($20 billion) market annually — is dominated by big players, and when it comes to first-time drivers and looking for competitive rates, “the bigger companies are not comfortable with user experience,” said Gaignault. “It’s pretty poor and not aligned with expectations of the customers.”

The car insurance product — sold as Ornikar Assurance — is now on track to hit some 20,000 users by August (when it will have been in the market for a year).

While it accounts today for a small fraction of Ornikar’s revenues compared to its driver education platform, that take up — not just from alums of Ornikar’s drivers ed, but from those who had never used an Ornikar service before — is a good sign that it’s on to something big, Gaignault said.

“In October we noticed that 80% of our new insurance customers were not coming from Ornikar but from social media, Google ads and other outside sources,” he said. “That’s why we decided to create a new business unit and explore a business as an insuretech.”

But, he added, that will not be at the expense of the driving education: the two go hand in hand for a common goal of improving how people drive and improving road safety. Indeed, Gaignault said he envisions a time when one will feed into the other: not only will the driving school serve as a way of bringing in new insurance customers, but insurance rates can be impacted by how many driving courses a person takes to keep their knowledge of the driving code and best practices fresh.

“Ornikar has done a tremendous job creating a great experience for students and driving instructors through engaging online education courses and a well-designed marketplace,” said Patrick Devine, director at KKR and member of the Next Generation Technology Growth investment team. “We are thrilled to invest behind Benjamin, Flavien, and their talented team as they expand internationally and accelerate their insurance offering following the successful launches of Onroad in Spain and Ornikar Assurance.”

As UiPath closes above its final private valuation, CFO Ashim Gupta discusses his company’s path to market

By Alex Wilhelm

After an upward revision, UiPath priced its IPO last night at $56 per share, a few dollars above its raised target range. The above-range price meant that the unicorn put more capital into its books through its public offering.

For a company in a market as competitive as robotic process automation (RPA), the funds are welcome. In fact, RPA has been top of mind for startups and established companies alike over the last year or so. In that time frame, enterprise stalwarts like SAP, Microsoft, IBM and ServiceNow have been buying smaller RPA startups and building their own, all in an effort to muscle into an increasingly lucrative market.

In June 2019, Gartner reported that RPA was the fastest-growing area in enterprise software, and while the growth has slowed down since, the sector is still attracting attention. UIPath, which Gartner found was the market leader, has been riding that wave, and today’s capital influx should help the company maintain its market position.

It’s worth noting that when the company had its last private funding round in February, it brought home $750 million at an impressive valuation of $35 billion. But as TechCrunch noted over the course of its pivot to the public markets, that round valued the company above its final IPO price. As a result, this week’s $56-per-share public offer wound up being something of a modest down-round IPO to UiPath’s final private valuation.

Then, a broader set of public traders got hold of its stock and bid its shares higher. The former unicorn’s shares closed their first day’s trading at precisely $69, above the per-share price at which the company closed its final private round.

So despite a somewhat circuitous route, UiPath closed its first day as a public company worth more than it was in its Series F round — when it sold 12,043,202 shares sold at $62.27576 apiece, per SEC filings. More simply, UiPath closed today worth more per-share than it was in February.

How you might value the company, whether you prefer a simple or fully-diluted share count, is somewhat immaterial at this juncture. UiPath had a good day.

While it’s hard to know what the company might do with the proceeds, chances are it will continue to try to expand its platform beyond pure RPA, which could become market-limited over time as companies look at other, more modern approaches to automation. By adding additional automation capabilities — organically or via acquisitions — the company can begin covering broader parts of its market.

TechCrunch spoke with UiPath CFO Ashim Gupta today, curious about the company’s choice of a traditional IPO, its general avoidance of adjusted metrics in its SEC filings, and the IPO market’s current temperature. The final question was on our minds, as some companies have pulled their public listings in the wake of a market described as “challenging”.

Why did UiPath not direct list after its huge February raise?

Micromobility’s next big business is software, not vehicles

By Rebecca Bellan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the fight for cities indirectly improved vehicle software

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

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

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

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