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Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.
In case you missed it, our scoop machine Mark Harris was at it again. This time, he found some interesting and entertaining documents related to Elon Musk’s underground Loop system in Las Vegas received via a Freedom of Information Act. Among the treasure is a “ride script” that instructs drivers for the Loop system to bypass passengers’ questions about how long they have been driving for the company, declare ignorance about crashes, and shut down conversations about Musk himself.
The takeaway: the script shows just how serious The Boring Company, which built and operates the system, is about controlling the public image of the new system, its technology and especially Musk.
Importantly, the documents confirm that Autopilot, the advanced driver assistance system in the Tesla vehicles used in the Loop system, must be disabled.
This is a step outside the norm of what I usually think of when I think of micromobility (you’ll see what I did there in a second), but this week I wrote about a new in-shoe navigation system that helps the visually impaired walk around town.
Ashirase, as both the system and the name of the company is called, involves attaching a three-dimensional vibration device, including a motion sensor, inside a pair of shoes. This bit of hardware is connected to a smartphone app that someone with low vision can use to enter their destination. Vibrations in the front part of the shoe give the cue to walk straight, and vibrations on the left and right cue the user to make a left or right turn. The aim is to free up the hands while walking to use a cane and allow the walker to put more of their full attention on audio signals in the environment, thus making their commutes a bit more intuitive and their lives more independent.
It’s a really interesting bit of tech because it uses a similar stack to what we’re seeing in autonomous driving and advanced driver assistance systems. Which makes sense because that’s the founder’s background. Wataru Chino worked in Honda’s EV motor control and automated driving systems departments since 2009. His startup is a product of Honda’s incubator, Ignition, that features original technology, ideas, and designs of Honda associates with the goal of solving social issues and going beyond the existing Honda business.
Cabify recently announced a new feature that makes its rideshare service more accessible to the elderly, people with partial visual impairment and people with cognitive disabilities. The feature provides voice notifications to alert the user when a driver is on their way or has just arrived, when the ride starts, when a stop has been reached, when a message has come into the app’s chat, etc.
The notification makes use of a text-to-speech functionality that Android and iOS phones have.
“Apple and Google operating systems allow us to pronounce sentences with the system’s voice but we have developed the text and established the situations where we inform and draw the user’s attention,” a Cabify spokesperson told me.
And we’re back with the latest on Lime’s plans to take over the world, one electric scooter at a time. The micromobility goliath has announced an integration with the Moovit transit planning app. From Monday onwards, Moovit users in 117 cities across 20 countries will see Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds show up as an option for travel, either as the whole journey or as part of a multi-modal journey. This news follows a trend we’re seeing as cities start to see micromobility companies as less of a public nuisance and more of a public solution, particularly for first- and last-mile travel. Integrating with Moovit, an app that’s solely focused on public transportation, is a move that helps in the long run creating a broader transportation ecosystem.
Espin released its limited edition fixie style e-bike called the Aero. It’s just the thing for Seattle hipsters, particularly ones with a stick-and-poke bike tattoo. The bike frame is just as sleek as you’d expect from a single gear bike, all clean lines and comes in either a forest green or a smoke gray. The Aero can reach top speeds of 20 mph and can hit 30 miles on a single charge. Best of all, it doesn’t break the bank at $1,399.
Splach, which normally makes e-scooters and e-bikes, has come out with something it’s calling the Transformer. I truly don’t know how to categorize it but it looks like a lot of fun to ride. The company is calling the light-duty e-vehicle a “mini-moto Robust scooter specialized for rugged terrains.” It looks like a dirt bike has been sized way down and given a long neck so you can stand on it and still steer it. It also looks like it would indeed do well on rugged terrains, based on videos of people shredding down dirt paths. Splach used Indiegogo to fund the thing, and said it reached its goal within an hour.
Get ready to hear a lot more about supply chain constraints around batteries with virtually every automaker shouting out pledges to shift their entire portfolio away from internal combustion engines and towards electric powertrains.
Cell producers need access to the raw materials like nickel that are needed to make batteries. Mining those materials is the most common means, but that isn’t sustainable (and I’m not just talking about the environmental toll). JB Straubel, who is best known as the former Tesla co-founder and longtime CTO, is tackling the supply chain issue through his startup Redwood Materials. The battery recycling company is aiming to create a circular supply chain. This closed-loop system, Straubel says, will be essential if the world’s battery cell producers hope to have the supply needed for consumer electronics and the coming wave of electric vehicles.
High-profile investors like Amazon, funds managed by T. Rowe and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Ventures fund recognize the opportunity and have injected $700M in fresh capital into Redwood Materials. This is comically large compared to the startup’s last raise of $40 million. And sources tell me that this pushes Redwood Material’s valuation to $3.7 billion.
I interviewed Straubel about the raise and what struck me was how aggressively he wants to scale; he is treating this issue as if there is no time to lose — and he’s not wrong.
Other deals that got my attention this week …
Clarios, the maker of low-voltage vehicle batteries, postponed its IPO, citing market volatility, Bloomberg reported. the Milwaukee area-based company backed by Brookfield Asset Management had filed to raise $1.7 billion by offering 88.1 million shares at a price range of $17 to $21.
Fisker, the electric vehicle startup turned publicly traded company via a SPAC, has turned investor to support EV charging company Allego. Fisker said it is investing $10 million in private-investment-in-public equity (PIPE) funding for the merger of Allego and special purpose acquisition company Spartan Acquisition Corp III. The merger puts Allego at a pro forma equity value of $3.14 billion.
Flock, which went from providing drone insurance to commercial vehicle insurance, raised $17 million in a Series A funding led by Social Capital, the investment vehicle run by Chamath Palihapitiya, best known as a SPAC investor and chairman of Virgin Galactic. Flock’s existing investors Anthemis and Dig Ventures also participated. This round brings Flock’s total funding to $22 million. Justin Saslaw (Social Capital’s fintech partner) joins Flock’s board of directors, as does Ross Mason (founder of Dig Ventures and MuleSoft).
HappyFresh, the on-demand grocery app based in Indonesia, raised $65 million in a Series D round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V., with participation from STIC, LB and Mirae Asset Indonesia and Singapore. It also included returning investors Mirae-Asset Naver Asia Growth Fund and Z Venture Capital. The company’s previous round of funding was a $20 million Series C announced in April 2019.
Lordstown Motors got a lifeline from a hedge fund managed by investment firm Yorkville Advisors about five weeks after the automaker issued a warning that it might not have enough funds to bring its electric pickup truck to market. The hedge fund agreed to buy $400 million worth of shares over a three-year period, according to a regulatory filing.
Merqueo, the on-demand delivery service that operates in Latin America, raised $50 million in a Series C round of funding co-led by IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest. MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders also participated. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.
Niron Magnetics, a company developing permanent magnets free of rare earths, raised $21.3 million in new financing from the Volvo Cars Tech Fund and Volta Energy Technologies, which joined existing investors Anzu Partners and the University of Minnesota. Niron will use the funding to build its pilot production facility in Minnesota.
Onto, the EV car subscription company raised $175 million in a combined equity and debt Series B round. The equity piece was led by Swedish VC Alfvén & Didrikson. British investment company Pollen Street Capital provided the senior-secured asset-backed debt facility. The company, which has raised a total of $245 million, says it plans to double its fleet size every three to six months and that any new vehicles will be used as collateral. Onto did not disclose how much of the round came from equity versus debt.
Zūm, a student transportation startup, was awarded a five-year $150 million contract to modernize San Francisco Unified School District transport service throughout the district. Zūm, which already operates its rideshare-meets-bus service in Oakland, much of Southern California, Seattle, Chicago and Dallas, will be responsible for handling day-to-day operations, transporting 3,500 students across 150 school campuses starting this fall semester.
I hear things. But I’m not selfish. Let me share!
You might have missed my article late Friday about Argo AI landing a permit in California that will allow the company to give people free rides in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads.
Tl;dr: The California Public Utilities Commission issued Argo the so-called Drivered AV pilot permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. This puts Argo in a small and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing — a signal that the industry, or at least some companies, are preparing for commercial operations.
Regulatory hurdles remain and don’t expect Argo to be offering and charging for “driverless” rides anytime soon. But progress is being made and I would expect the company to secure the next permit — in a long line of them — later this year.
Argo has never officially indicated what city it is targeting for a robotaxi service in California. The company has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Ford vehicles around Palo Alto since 2019. Today, the company’s test fleet in California is about one dozen self-driving test vehicles. It also has autonomous test vehicles in Miami, Austin, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Detroit. (In July, Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years, starting with Miami and Austin.)
I’m hearing from some sources familiar with Argo’s strategy for California that we should look south of the Bay Area. Way south.
The city that jumps to mind is San Diego. Some AV companies are already playing around the Irvine area and Los Angeles seems too unwieldy. Plus, Ford already has a footprint in San Diego. The automaker partnered way back in 2017 with AT&T, Nokia and Qualcomm Technologies to test Cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) at the San Diego Regional Proving Ground with the support of the San Diego Association of Governments, Caltrans, the city of Chula Vista, and intelligent transportation solutions provider McCain. The upshot of these trials? To improve traffic efficiency, vehicle safety and “support a path towards autonomous vehicles.”
Hi everyone. Let’s dive into two key pieces of proposed legislation this week: the infrastructure bill and the tailpipe emissions standards.
After months of negotiations, U.S. senators have finally settled on a $550 billion infrastructure package that includes investments in roads, bridges, broadband and more. The bill would provide $7.5 billion to electrify buses and ferries, including school buses, and $7.5 billion to build out a national network of public EV charging stations. Subsequent statements on the bill from the White House say directly that the EV investments are intended to keep the U.S. competitive on the world stage: “U.S. market share of plug-in electric vehicle (EV) sales is only one-third the size of the Chinese EV market. The President believes that must change.”
The budget is just a fraction of the $2.25 trillion bill President Joe Biden originally introduced in March. That version of the bill earmarked billions more for transportation electrification, especially in rebates and incentives to get consumers buying more EVs. The bill is still with the Senate for final approval. Then it will head to the House before finally ending up on Biden’s desk.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have proposed rules that would beef up tailpipe emissions standards, which had been rolled back under President Donald Trump. The rules would be identical to the agreement the state of California reached with Ford, VW, Honda, BMW and Volvo in 2019, the AP reported. If approved, the rules would apply starting with model year 2023 vehicles.
The aim is to cut carbon emissions from transportation and encourage more people to buy hybrid and electric. But many environmental groups like the Sierra Club — plus some EV automakers — don’t think they go far enough.
“This draft proposal would drive us in the right direction after several years in reverse–but slowly getting back on track is not enough,” Chris Nevers, senior director of environmental policy at Rivian, told TechCrunch. EPA and NHTSA must maximize the stringency of the program beyond the voluntary deal and account for current and future developments in vehicle electrification.
One more thing that caught my eye this week…The Washington Post reported that Biden and a group of automakers are negotiating for the latter group to make a “formal pledge” to have at least 40% of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. The article doesn’t specify which OEMs are part of the talks. However, it’s hard to imagine automakers signing onto anything — even a “voluntary pledge” — without some hefty federal spending to go along with it. We’ll have to see if the provisions in the infrastructure bill are enough.
— Aria Alamalhodaei
As per ushe, there was a ton of transportation news this week. Let’s dig in.
Yep, ADAS gets its own section now in an effort to make it abundantly clear that advanced driver assistance systems are not self-driving cars. Never. Never ever.
New York Times’ Greg Bensinger weighs in on beta testing and Tesla in this opinion column.
Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson put out a blog and a bunch of tweets to layout a blueprint for an autonomous ride-hailing business that will launch in late 2024 with partners Toyota and Uber. Aurora has spent the past year or so pushing its messaging on self-driving trucks, which the company says is its best and most viable first commercial product. Aurora never entirely ditched the robotaxi idea, but it was pretty quiet on the topic. Until now.
The blog comes about a week after competitor Argo AI and Ford announced a partnership with Lyft. While the timing might not be related, it does show that competition is heating up in both areas — robotaxis and self-driving trucks — with every AV company keen to show progress and deep partnerships.
TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations. Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network.
Ford released Wednesday its second quarter earnings for 2021, which besides containing a surprise profit despite the ongoing chip shortage, revealed that its F-150 Lightning electric pickup has generated 120,000 preorders since its unveiling in May. Ford reported revenue of $26.8 billion, slightly below expectations, and net income of $561 million in the second quarter.
Lucid Group (formerly Lucid Motors) will be expanding its factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, by 2.7 million square feet, CEO Pete Rawlinson said just hours after the company officially went public with a $4.5 billion injection of capital. The company also said it has 11,000 paid reservations for its flagship luxury electric sedan, the Lucid Air.
Polestar said it plans to launch in nine more markets this year, doubling its global presence as it seeks to sell more of its electric sedans. The company, which is the electric performance vehicle brand under Volvo Car Group, also wants to double the number of retail stores to 100 locations and add more service centers by the end of the year. The Swedish automaker has more than 650 so-called “service points” in Polestar markets and wants to exceed 780 by the end of 2021.
REE Automotive has picked Austin for its U.S. headquarters. The company said the headquarters will help it address the growing U.S. market demand for mission-specific EVs from delivery and logistics companies, Mobility-as-a-Service and new technology players.
Tesla reported its second-quarter earnings and it was packed with news, including that the company generated $1.14 billion in net income, marking the first time the company’s quarterly profit (on a GAAP basis) has passed the three-comma threshold. And they hit that profitability metric without completely relying on the sale of zero-emissions credits to other automakers.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk weighed in on the company’s battery strategy and disclosed that the company is pushing the launch of its electric Semi truck program to 2022 due to supply chain challenges and the limited availability of battery cells. And everything is pointing to the Cybertruck also being delayed until next year.
And finally, Tesla’s latest quarterly earnings report showed growth in its energy storage and solar business. The company reported $801 million in revenue from its energy generation and storage business — which includes three main products: solar, its Powerwall storage device for homes and businesses, and its utility storage unit Megapack. More importantly, the cost of revenue for its solar and energy storage business was $781 million, meaning that for the first time the total cost of producing and distributing these energy storage products was lower than the revenue it generated. That’s good news.
Joby Aviation completed the longest test flight of an eVTOL to date: Its unnamed full-sized prototype aircraft concluded a trip of over 150 miles on a single charge. The test was completed at Joby’s Electric Flight Base in Big Sur, California, earlier this month. It’s the latest in a succession of secretive tests the company’s been conducting, all part of its goal to achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and start commercial operations.
Lilium, the electric air taxi startup, has tapped German manufacturer Customcells to supply batteries for its flagship seven-seater Lilium Jet.
AEye, a lidar company, has been adding to its executive team in the past few months. The most recent is the hiring of automotive veteran and former Valeo executive Bernd Reichert as senior vice president of ADAS. the company has also hired Velodyne’s former COO Rick Tewell, Bob Brown from Cepton and Hod Finkelstein as chief research and design officer from Sense Photonics.
Cruise is also on a bit of an executive and engineering hiring spree. The company sent me a list of recent folks who have joined including former Southwest Airlines employee Anthony Gregory as VP of market development, Phil Maher, the former Virgin Atlantic COO, as VP of central operations and Bhavini Soneji as VP of product engineering. Soneji was most recently VP of engineering at Headspace, and was at Microsoft and Snapchat before that.
Cruise also hired Vinoj Kumar, who oversaw Google’s cloud infrastructure and software systems, as VP of Infrastructure and Yuning Chai, former lead perception researcher at Waymo, as head of AI Research. In all, Cruise now employs more than 1,900 people.
Don Burnette, the co-founder and CEO of self-driving trucks company Kodiak Robotics, sat down with TechCrunch as part of our ongoing Q&A series with the founders of transportation startups. The interview covers a lot of ground, including Burnette’s views on the company’s strategy, current funding conditions in the industry and what he learned at Otto. the self-driving trucks startup he co-founded and that was acquired by Uber.
Trevor Milton, the fast-talking showman founder of Nikola and the electric truck startup’s former CEO and executive chairman, was charged with three counts of fraud. He is free on $100 million bail.
Milton “engaged in a fraudulent scheme to deceive retail investors” for his own personal benefit, according to the federal indictment unsealed by U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Milton was charged with two counts of securities fraud and wire fraud by a federal grand jury.
TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations.
Under the deal announced this week, Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s freight network. TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network, is a collection of shipping routes and terminals designed for autonomous trucking operations that will extend across the United States by 2024. UPS, which took a minority stake in TuSimple before it went public, carrier U.S. Xpress, Penske Truck Leasing and Berkshire Hathaway’s grocery and food service supply chain company McLane Inc. were the inaugural partners in the network.
TuSimple’s AFN involves four pieces that includes its self-driving trucks, digital mapped routes, freight terminals and a system that will let customers monitor autonomous trucking operations and track their shipments in real-time.
Ryder’s facilities will primarily serve as strategic terminals where TuSimple trucks can receive maintenance and have sensors used in the self-driving system calibrated, if needed. In some cases, the terminals might be used as a transfer hub for smaller operator that might want to pick up cargo. But this is not meant to be a hub-to-hub system where its customers would come and pick up freight, according to TuSimple President and CEO Cheng Lu.
“These trucks needs to be serviceable and maintainable and they need to have higher uptime, which is what every carrier cares about regardless of whether it is autonomous or not,” Lu said.
Small shippers and carriers might use these terminals to pick up and drop off freight. However, Lu stressed that in most cases, especially large-scale operators UPS, TuSimple will take the freight directly to the customer’s distribution centers. The Ryder facilities work as nodes, or stops, on its network to allow TuSimple to reach more customers over a larger geographic area, Lu added.
The partnership will start gradually. TuSimple has 50 autonomous trucks in its fleet that — along with a human safety operator behind the wheel — transport freight for customers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The partnership will initially use Ryder’s facilities in these areas and eventually expand to the company’s 500 maintenance facilities in the United States.
TuSimple said it expects to expand operations to the East Coast, carrying freight between Phoenix and Orlando later this year. TuSimple has about 25 new trucks on order, which will be added to the fleet once they become available.
Waymo, Google’s former self-driving car project that’s now an independent business unit under Alphabet, is expanding its presence in the eastern U.S. The company said Thursday it would be opening offices in Pittsburgh, joining a growing suite of companies developing and testing autonomous vehicle technology in the Steel City.
The company will start by hiring around a dozen engineers, a source familiar with the move told TechCrunch, and they’ll co-locate in Google’s existing offices in the Bakery Square district. As of Thursday, only around three open positions for the Pittsburgh area were listed on Waymo’s website, but the company will be adding more roles soon.
Some of the new team will come from Pittsburgh-based RobotWits, a tech startup focused on autonomous vehicle decision-making. That includes RobotWits’ founder and CEO Maxim Likhachev, and other members of its engineering and technical team. While Waymo did not technically acquire the startup, it did acquire RobotWits’ IP rights, the source said.
There are no current plans to deploy the so-called Waymo Driver, its autonomous driving platform, in Pittsburgh, the source added. Instead, the new team will work on motion planning development, real-time route planning and developing Driver. Thus far, Driver has seen deployment in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. Its Waymo Via trucking and cargo service will be deployed in a test run with trucking logistics company J.B. Hunt Transport Services in Texas.
AV tech rivals Aurora, Motional, Argo AI have already established offices in the city; combined with talent at Carnegie Melon University, the city has established itself as a bona fide hub for autonomous engineering development. Pittsburgh is also home to many smaller AV startups, including Locomation, which is working on autonomous trucks.
Waymo’s Pittsburgh location will join its network of offices in Mountain View, San Francisco, Phoenix, New York, Dallas, and Hyderabad, India.
The myriad emerging and longer-term transportation technologies promise to change how people and packages move about the world or within their own neighborhoods. They also present myriad regulatory and policy hurdles that lawmakers, advocates and even investors and industry executives are attempting to navigate.
At the center — at least in the United States — sits Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. The small-town mayor in Indiana turned presidential candidate and now cabinet member under the Biden administration oversees public transport, highway safety and nascent technologies like autonomous vehicles. The Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and former U.S. Navy officer is in a position to bring complexity or clarity to the future of transportation.
At Disrupt 2021, Secretary Buttigieg will join us for a fireside chat where we’ll dig into some of the thorniest questions around transportation and how to ensure that moving from Point A to Point B is a universal right, not a privilege. We’ll ask Buttigieg about micromobility and public transit, President Biden’s push for the federal government to use electric vehicles, autonomous vehicle guidance and new regulatory requirements around reporting vehicle crashes when an advanced driver assistance and automated driving system is engaged — a move that could spur a new wave of startups and benefit some in-car technologies.
The upshot: If it involves technology that moves people and packages, we aim to talk about it.
Secretary Buttigieg is just one of the many high-profile speakers who will be on our Disrupt Stage and the Extra Crunch Stage. During the three-day event, writer, director, actor and Houseplant co-founder Seth Rogen will be joined by Houseplant Chief Commercial Officer Haneen Davies and co-founder and CEO Michael Mohr to talk about the business of weed, Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn will discuss gamifying education and prepping for a public offering and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong will dig into the volatile world of cryptocurrency and his company’s massive direct listing earlier this year.
Other speakers include Twitter CISO Rinki Sethi, Calendly founder and CEO Tope Awotona, Mirror co-founder and CEO Brynn Putnam, Evil Geniuses CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson and Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Katie Haun.
Disrupt 2021 wouldn’t be complete without Startup Battlefield, the competition that launched some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Cloudflare and Dropbox. Join Secretary Buttigieg and over 10,000 of the startup world’s most influential people at Disrupt 2021 online this September 21-23. Get your pass to attend now for under $99 for a limited time!
Autonomous vehicle technology startup Argo AI and its backer and customer Ford plan to launch up to 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years starting with Miami and Austin.
The first Ford self-driving vehicles, which are equipped with Argo’s autonomous vehicle technology, will become available on Lyft’s app in Miami later this year. Ford and Argo have had a presence in Miami for years now and have an active fleet of test vehicles.
Austin will follow in next year with the remaining U.S. cities being added to the Lyft app in 2023 and beyond, according to Jody Kelman, who heads up Lyft’s Autonomous, the company self-driving deployment business unit. Argo currently tests in Detroit, Palo Alto, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.
“It’s the biggest deployment certainly that we’re doing and that I think anyone else is doing,” Kelman said. “One thousand cars across six markets is a big leap forward in terms of scaled commercialization.”
This isn’t just about Argo and Ford jumping on the Lyft network. Lyft will also provide access to driving data from its entire network in exchange for a 2.5% stake in Argo AI, under terms of the agreement announced Wednesday. Lyft already captures driving data, which includes telemetry information such as hard-braking events and even collisions. Argo is most interested in two areas of data: safety information around human drivers on its app and more generally what trip movements look like across a city, Argo CEO Bryan Salesky told TechCrunch.
“This will really help us hone and figure out where the demand is and what peak demand looks like, which helps us figure out where we need to map, where we need to go, where we need to operate,” Salesky said. “It helps us spend our test resources wisely.”
For instance, the Lyft data should help Argo spot areas where public transit is plentiful and other neighborhoods where it’s less available or entirely absent.
“We really want to take a holistic view of the demand picture using their data,” Salesky said. “That helps us really be precise about where to deploy in order to have the greater benefit.”
The Ford vehicles will be operated by Argo and include a human safety driver behind the wheel. Salesky did note that the vehicles will drive autonomously from pickup to drop-off point.
The agreement is an indication that Argo has made progress in its AV development and specifically its work with Ford. The automaker announced in February 2017 that it was investing $1 billion in Argo AI, which was not even six months old at the time. Since then, Argo has focused on developing the virtual driver system — all of the sensors, software and compute platform — as well as high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.
In July 2019, VW Group announced it was investing $2.6 billion in Argo. That deal, which was finalized last summer, gives Ford and VW equal ownership stakes, which will be roughly 40% each over time. The remaining equity sits with Argo’s co-founders as well as employees. Argo’s board is comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.
Lyft is also a beneficiary in the deal — and beyond that small equity stake. Lyft main goal is 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 other AV developers, notably the $4 billion Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture known as Motional, as well as Waymo.
Motional vehicles are on the Lyft ride-hailing network in Las Vegas. All of the vehicles have human safety operators behind the wheel. The companies have an agreement deploy fully autonomous cars on the Lyft network in 2023.
Lyft’s intention was always to lock up the rest. Unclear with which companies might commercialize the tech first, Lyft also took on the expensive pursuit of developing autonomous vehicle technology internally through a division called Level 5. That self-driving division was acquired in April by Toyota’s Woven Planet Holdings subsidiary for $550 million.
As part of the acquisition agreement, Woven Planet signed commercial agreements to use the Lyft platform and fleet data.
A Tesla in full self-driving mode makes a left turn out of the middle lane on a busy San Francisco street. It jumps in a bus lane where it’s not meant to be. It turns a corner and nearly plows into parked vehicles, causing the driver to lurch for the wheel. These scenes have been captured by car reviewer AI Addict, and other scenarios like it are cropping up on YouTube. One might say that these are all mistakes any human on a cell phone might have made. But we expect more from our AI overlords.
Earlier this month, Tesla began sending out over-the-air software updates for its Full Self-Driving (FSD) beta version 9 software, an advanced driver assist system that relies only on cameras, rather than cameras and radar like Tesla’s previous ADAS systems.
In reaction to videos displaying unsafe driving behavior, like unprotected left turns, and other reports from Tesla owners, Consumer Reports issued a statement on Tuesday saying the software upgrade does not appear to be safe enough for public roads, and that it would independently test the software update on its Model Y SUV once it receives the necessary software updates.
Running preproduction software is both work & fun. Beta list was in stasis, as we had many known issues to fix.
Beta 9 addresses most known issues, but there will be unknown issues, so please be paranoid.
Safety is always top priority at Tesla.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2021
The consumer organization said it’s concerned Tesla is using its existing owners and their vehicles as guinea pigs for testing new features. Making their point for them, Tesla CEO Elon Musk did urge drivers not to be complacent while driving because “there will be unknown issues, so please be paranoid.” Many Tesla owners know what they’re getting themselves into because they signed up for Tesla’s Early Access Program that delivers beta software for feedback, but other road users have not given their consent for such trials.
Tesla’s updates are shipped out to drivers all over the country. The electric vehicle company did not respond to a request for more information about whether or not it takes into account self-driving regulations in specific states — 29 states have enacted laws related to autonomous driving, but they differ wildly depending on the state. Other self-driving technology companies like Cruise, Waymo and Argo AI told CR they either test their software on private tracks or use trained safety drivers as monitors.
“Car technology is advancing really quickly, and automation has a lot of potential, but policymakers need to step up to get strong, sensible safety rules in place,” says William Wallace, manager of safety policy at CR in a statement. “Otherwise, some companies will just treat our public roads as if they were private proving grounds, with little holding them accountable for safety.”
In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a standing general order that requires manufacturers and operators of vehicles with SAE Level 2 ADAS or SAE levels 3, 4 or 5 automated driving systems to report crashes.
“NHTSA’s core mission is safety. By mandating crash reporting, the agency will have access to critical data that will help quickly identify safety issues that could emerge in these automated systems,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s acting administrator, in a statement. “In fact, gathering data will help instill public confidence that the federal government is closely overseeing the safety of automated vehicles.”
The FSD beta 9 software has added features that automates more driving tasks, like navigating intersections and city streets with the driver’s supervision. But with such excellent graphics detailing where the car is in relation to other road users, down to a woman on a scooter passing by, drivers might be more distracted by the tech that’s meant to assist them at crucial moments.
“Tesla just asking people to pay attention isn’t enough — the system needs to make sure people are engaged when the system is operational,” said Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s Auto Test Center in a statement. “We already know that testing developing self-driving systems without adequate driver support can — and will — end in fatalities.”
Fisher said Tesla should implement an in-car driver monitoring system to ensure drivers are watching the road to avoid accidents like the one involving Uber’s self-driving test vehicle, which struck and killed a woman in 2018 in Phoenix as she crossed the street.
Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, has expanded its autonomous vehicle testing program to New York City as part of its strategy to develop and deploy the technology.
New York City joins a number of other cities including Detroit, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo where Mobileye has either launched testing or plans to this year. Mobileye launched its first test fleet in Jerusalem in 2018 and added one in Munich in 2020.
“If we want to build something that will scale, we need to be able to drive in challenging places and almost everywhere,” Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua said during a presentation Tuesday that was streamed live. As part of the announcement, Mobileye also released a 40-minute unedited video of one of its test vehicles equipped with a self-driving system navigating New York’s city streets.
New York City has been in Shashua’s sights for more than six months. He first mentioned a desire to test on public roads in New York during the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show in January with the caveat that the company would need to receive regulatory approval. Now, with that regulatory approval in hand, Mobileye is the only company currently permitted to test AVs in the state and city. GM’s self-driving subsidiary Cruise outlined in 2017 a plan to test AVs in New York and even mapped parts of lower Manhattan. The company never scaled up the test program in NYC, deciding instead to focus on its primary target for commercial deployment: San Francisco.
Mobileye applied for a permit through New York State’s autonomous vehicle technology demonstration and testing program. The company met the requirements outlined in the program which includes compliance with all federal standards and applicable New York State inspection standards as well as a law enforcement interaction plan, according to Mobileye.
“I don’t think there’s anything special about receiving approval you simply need to go through this process, Shashua said, who described it has lengthy and in some ways similar to the stringent requirements to test in Germany. “I think what is special is that it’s very very difficult to drive here.”
Mobileye is perhaps best known for supplying automakers with computer vision technology that powers advanced driver assistance systems. It’s a business that generated nearly $$967 million in sales for the company. Today, 88 million vehicles on the road are using Mobileye’s computer vision technology.
Mobileye has also been developing automated vehicle technology. Its full self-driving stack — which includes redundant sensing subsystems based on camera, radar and lidar technology — is combined with its REM mapping system and a rules-based Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) driving policy.
Mobileye’s REM mapping system crowdsources data by tapping into consumer and fleet vehicles equipped with its so-called EyeQ4, or fourth generation system on chip, to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems. That data is not video or images but compressed text that collects about 10 kilobits per kilometer. Mobileye has agreements with six OEMs, including BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen, to collect that data on vehicles equipped with the EyeQ4 chip, which is used to power the advanced driver assistance system. On fleet vehicles, Mobileye collects data from an after-market product it sells to commercial operators.
Mobileye’s technology is mapping nearly 8 million kilometers day globally, including in New York City.
The strategy, Shashua contends, will allow the company to efficiently launch and operate commercial robotaxi services as well as bring the technology to consumer passenger vehicles by 2025. Shashua explained this dual approach in an interview with TechCrunch in 2020.
“There was realization that dawned on us awhile ago,” he said at the time. “The Holy Grail of this business is passenger car autonomy: where you buy a passenger car and you pay an option price and with a press of button it can take you autonomously to wherever you want to go. The realization is that you can’t reach that Holy Grail if you don’t go through the robotaxi business.”
On Tuesday, Shashua said Mobileye was the only company that has its foot in both camps. (Although it should be noted that Toyota’s Woven Planet does have some strategic overlap.)
“We’re building our technology in a way that supports scale, especially geographic scale, using our crowdsourced mapping technology and building new sensors such that the entire package — the entire system — will be under $5,000 cost to allow consumer AVs, and on the other hand, we have a division building a mobility-as-a-service or robotaxi service,” Shashua said Tuesday. “This is one of the reasons why we purchased Moovit last year, to enable the customer facing of all the layers above the self-driving system to enable mobility-as-a-service business.”
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Hello and welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.
Before we jump into the deals, policy moves and micromobbin’ news, I wanted to share the latest founders interview, a new series we launched this spring over at Extra Crunch.
Here’s the opener to the interview:
Jen Young and Jeff Cavins were sitting in a beige conference room at a downtown Vancouver hotel, wasting away under fluorescent lights, an endless PowerPoint and a pair of sad Styrofoam cups of coffee between them. Young was there on a marketing contract. Cavins was a board member. They shared one of those looks that only couples can understand. It said: There’s got to be something better than this.
The “something better than this” ended up becoming Outdoorsy, peer-to-peer RV and camper rental startup.
The interview with Cavins and Young covers why they started Outdoorsy, how they have evolved and improved their business model and what is coming next. Our series has a tiny twist: We will check in with these founders a year from the date that the interview was published.
You know how those memes keep going around about why it makes total sense the Roaring 20s happened after the Spanish Flu a century ago? They bring up an important point. A very drunken, boisterous summer is already underway in places that are opening up (sorry, Melbourne), and these shenanigans are flying parallel to the rise of electric micromobility vehicles. The end result? People will — and already are — trying to ride these things drunk.
Bird announced this week it is launching Safe Start, a new in-app checkpoint designed to discourage people, but ultimately not stop them, from riding under the influence. It kicks off between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when trouble is usually afoot, asking riders attempting to unlock a Bird if they can safely handle the vehicle by correctly entering a keyword into the app. The hope is that within the time it takes a would-be rider to stop swaying, close one eye, squint with the other and punch in those letters, they’ll have realized that they’re in no position to operate machinery and call a cab or hail a ride via an app instead.
Lime has had a similar feature for the past couple of years, also activating after 10 p.m. in most markets. It asks riders to type in “Y-E-S” in response to the question, “Do you affirm you are not drunk and fit to ride?” I think it should be a simple, “Are you drunk?” but I have a thing against negative sentence structures.
A spokesperson from Lime told me the company is working on a more robust cognitive test as well as something else he can’t share yet, but if I were a betting woman, I’d say it has something to do with sensing whether someone is driving in a straight line or wobbling, an idea the company talked to The Verge about two years ago.
Spin also has a similar feature it’s working on that hasn’t yet been launched. However, it’s a bit more involved than what Bird and Lime have launched.
Spin will soon feature a quiz that will test reaction times of the rider. The logic follows that people with higher blood alcohol content have slower reaction times. A Spin spokesperson told me the company would work with the city to determine which hours are of most concern and only implement the test during those hours. Slowpokes will have to source another means of transport home, probably with a stop off at the pizza place.
Fenix, the shared e-scooter operator out of Abu Dhabi, is launching a 10-minute fresh grocery delivery service on Reem Island, some boujie, high-tech, super dense mixed-use development off the city’s coast. The company figures it’s already paying for the vehicles themselves, the space to charge batteries and the employees to swap batteries and service the scooters, why not put those to use with another business line?
It might be a logistical stroke of genius, especially if the software managing the fleets, deliveries and rides are integrated well. The company will have an undisclosed number of “dark stores” or private convenience stores (which will also house the batteries for charging) around the island so that those fresh avocados or packs of diapers are never too far from a millionaire’s penthouse. Fenix’s full-time employees will be stationed within the dark stores, accepting orders and putting together the delivery in two minutes before relaying it to a, no doubt, anxious co-worker who will have eight minutes to drop off the goods.
I have my doubts about that 10-minute success rate, many of which reside in my concern for the workers, but we’ll see how it goes, I guess. It’s a cool business model.
Irish micromobility company Zipp Mobility is making its first expansion off the island, launching its e-scooter operations in Katowice, Poland. It’s a small city in the southern part of the country, but Zipp appears to be putting a stake hold in the region, with plans to launch in the surrounding cities of Sosnowiec and Dabrowa Gornicza by the end of August.
Meanwhile, Veo is on its own expansion plans. The company raised $16 million in a Series A, which it’ll use to fund the expansion of its fleet to new cities like Santa Monica, San Diego and New York, while also focusing on developing new form factors for untapped use cases.
Speaking of New York, Revel has announced a partnership with GridRewards, an app that develops “virtual power plant” software. Essentially, Revel wants to save money while also not messing up NYC’s power grid, so it’s going to try its best to only charge its e-moped fleet when peak demand is low, and less expensive.
Revel is also doing a thing with FlixBus, an intercity bus operator. If you book with one, you get discounts with the others. FlixBus passengers travelling between DC and New York City will be eligible for a $5 one-time credit when booking electric mopeds in Revel’s app.
Finally, Santa Cruz-based electric bike startup Blix has some new updates to their rides that provide better performance, increased power and range, better brakes, fatter tires and a range of new colors.
— Rebecca Bellan
The big AV and deal news of the week is Aurora Innovation’s move to become a publicly traded company through a merger with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson.
The announcement confirmed my reporting in June that the companies were close to finalizing a deal.
Once the transaction closes, the combined company will be listed on Nasdaq with the ticker symbol AUR and have an implied valuation of $13 billion. Aurora was last valued at $10 billion following its acquisition of Uber’s self-driving unit.
Through the deal, Aurora is capturing $1 billion from private investors, including Baillie Gifford, funds and accounts managed by Counterpoint Global (Morgan Stanley), funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., PRIMECAP Management Company, Reinvent Capital, XN, Fidelity Management and Research LLC, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Index Ventures and Sequoia Capital, as well as strategic investments from Uber, PACCAR and Volvo Group.
One other note; Aurora also laid out some financial and deployment projections. Aurora plans to begin to generate revenue from trucks without vehicle operators in late 2023 and from cars without vehicle operators in late 2024, according to regulatory filings. Aurora expects to own and operate the trucks Aurora deploys through 2024, and cars that Aurora deploys through 2025 and will transition to a “Driver as a Service” (I guess, DaaS is going to be a thing?) business model.
Other deals that got my attention this week …
Bookaway, the travel tech startup, raised $46 million in funding from investors Aleph, Corner Ventures and Entrée Capital.
Carmera, an HD mapping startup based in New York, has been acquired by Woven Planet Holdings. The announcement comes less than two months since Woven Planet Holdings — an entity created by Toyota to invest in, develop and eventually bring future of transportation technologies like automated driving to market — acquired Lyft’s autonomous vehicle unit known as Level 5 for $550 million. The financial terms were not disclosed.
Under terms of the deal, Carmera will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Woven Planet. Carmera will essentially become the U.S. outpost of Woven Planet’s automated mapping platform (AMP) team, which is headquartered in Tokyo. Ro Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Carmera, will report to Mandali Khalesi, who heads up AMP.
The startup’s 50-person team will maintain its offices in New York and Seattle and will eventually be integrated into Woven Planet’s 1,000-person-and-growing enterprise, according to Woven Planet CEO James Kuffner.
Colis Privé, the French parcel delivery company, has postponed its initial public offering initially planned for early July, citing unfavorable market conditions, Reuters reported.
Delhivery gained FedEx Express, a subsidiary of delivery services giant FedEx, as a backer via $100 million investment. The investment comes less than two months after the Indian startup, which is valued at $3 billion, secured $277 million ahead of an initial public offering in the coming quarters.
Heart Aerospace, the Swedish electric aviation startup, raised a $35 million Series A funding round. Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, United Airlines’s venture arm and its regional airline partner Mesa Air Group led the round. Seed investors EQT Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital also participated. The company also received an order from United and Mesa for 200 of its inaugural ES-19 electric aircraft.
LG Chem earmarked $5.2 billion over the next four years to build out its battery materials business. The investment comes as automakers and state regulators set targets to transition away from internal combustion engine vehicles, in a shift that will likely be the most transformative to the mobility industry since the invention of the car.
Lineage Logistics, a temperature-controlled industrial REIT and logistics provider, has agreed to a strategic alliance with venture capital firm 8VC to invest in and “revolutionize” the transportation and logistics technology sector. The two companies have already co-invested in several companies over 8VC’s past three funds, including Project44, Trackonomy and Baton.
Netradyne, a startup that uses cameras and edge computing to improve commercial driver safety, raised $150 million in Series C funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Existing investors Point72 Ventures and M12 also participated in the round, bringing Netradyne’s total funding to more than $197 million.
Shopmonkey, a startup that offers a cloud-based shop management software designed for the auto repair industry, raised $75 million in a Series C round led by previous investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Index Ventures, as well as additional participation from returning investors Headline and I2BF, and new investor ICONIQ Growth. The funding comes less than a year after announcing a $25 million Series B.
NoTraffic, an Israeli-based startup that has built an AI-based traffic management platform, raised $17.5 million in a Series A that it will use to support its “rapid scale” of deployments. The company says it will be expanding into dozens of U.S. cities during the second half of this year, and hopes to move into European and Asian markets, as well.
The $17.5 million Series A was led by Nielsen Ventures, a fund founded by former Uber and Dropbox executive and Balderton Capital GP Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen and VEKTOR Partners. Leading early-stage venture capital investment firm Grove Ventures, insurance leader Menora Mivtachim Group and Meitav Dash, as well as existing investors like lool ventures, Next Gear Ventures and North First Ventures also participated. Lior Handelsman, one of the founders of Solar Edge, an energy manager system, will join the company’s board.
Taylor Hatmaker spent quite a bit of time with the VanMoof X3 and published her review this week. As she writes, “some of the best consumer tech from the last decade, I didn’t know I needed an e-bike until I was on one, breezing down the bike lane contemplating my newfound freedom.”
Hatmaker provides a deep dive into the tech, appearance, value, rideability and other features in the bike. Check it out.
(We hope and plan to be doing more bike reviews in the future; stay tuned!)
Welcome back to Policy Corner! It’s finally here: The European Commission released its ambitious plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and as everyone expected, a proposed ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035 is included.
I mentioned in last week’s Policy Corner that I was curious if it would include any mandates for EV chargers or other infrastructure to support transportation electrification, and I was pleased to see that it does. While not quite a mandate, the proposal says it wants EU countries to install public charging stations every 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) on major roads by 2025, and every 150 kilometers (93.2 miles) for hydrogen refueling stations. The ultimate goal is to build 3.5 million new EV charging stations by 2030 and 16.3 million by 2050. Measures like these will hopefully help dissipate range anxiety, a common reason people cite for not choosing an EV today.
But hold onto your hats: The proposal still needs to be approved by all 27-member states before it can take effect. And France — where automaking is a cornerstone of the economy, thanks to OEMs like Stellantis and Renault — is reportedly pushing back against the terms. It could mean a longer battle over the specific deadlines and emissions reductions targets.
It’s an interesting question, whether a technology ban is the best path forward to achieve some end goal (in this case, lowering carbon emissions). That seems like the stick. I’ll be looking out for the honey — how legislators are going to sweeten the deal for consumers and automakers alike, so there can be as few jobs lost as possible and as many new EVs purchased.
For what it’s worth, I read an interesting post from Christian Brand, associate professor in the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University, who argues that the focus on EVs is slowly down the path to zero emissions. He points out that as many as 50% of car trips are less than five kms (3.11 miles), so he suggests cities should invest in making areas more micromobility friendly to encourage more people to take up these forms of transport. Food for thought.
Speaking of carbon emissions, there’s a new partnership between eVTOL developer Joby Aviation, aircraft carrier JetBlue Airways and Signature Flight Support to help develop a new system for carbon credits in the aviation industry. Right now, there’s no current pathway for companies like JetBlue to purchase carbon credits from green aviation companies, probably because they’re just so new.
The three companies will “define the framework for the creation, validation and eventual use of these new credits on aviation carbon markets, including identifying a third party to oversee and validate transactions,” a news release said. The companies anticipate releasing more details later this year.
This could be a very profitable development for Joby. Tesla, for example, made $518 million in revenue from the first quarter of 2021 alone from selling regulatory credits to other automakers.
— Aria Alamalhodaei
Let’s get right to it. Here’s what else happened this week.
Audi, BMW, Denso and chipmaker NXP have partnered on an international working group aimed at defining a safe automated driving system architecture for self-driving vehicles. The inaugural group, which was actually created last month but that I’m just sharing with you now, is being spearheaded by The Autonomous. Companies from the industry are invited to learn more about this cross-industry collaboration at The Autonomous Main Event on September 29, 2021.
Volkswagen laid out a plan to ramp up its software, mobility as a service and battery tech to stay competitive in the coming decades. CEO Herbert Diess said the strategy will cover everything from manufacturing to revenue streams.
Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal said it will double the number of its electric vehicle fast charging stations in the United States and Canada by the end of 2025. The commitment, if successful, means 1,800 fast charging stations — or 10,000 individual chargers — will be installed and operational by that time.
GM and its new EV business unit BrightDrop are launching a fleet-charging service as the automaker aims to ramp up its bet on connected and electric commercial vehicles. The service, branded Ultium Charge 360 fleet charging service offers many of the tools that a commercial delivery, sales or motor pool business might need. It also includes an effort to add home charging for drivers.
Rivian pushed back deliveries of its long-awaited R1T electric pickup truck and R1S SUV several more months due to delays in production caused by “cascading impacts of the pandemic,” particularly the ongoing global shortage of semiconductor chips, according to a letter sent to customers from CEO RJ Scaringe. The R1T deliveries will begin in September with the R1S to follow “shortly,” Scaringe wrote in the message.
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration issued an alert recommending owners of Chevrolet Bolt Model Year 2017-2019 park their vehicles away from homes due to the risk of fire. Those are the same vehicles that were recalled in November 2020, due to the possibility of fire from the battery pack underneath the backseat’s cushion. The recall affected 50,932 2017-2019 Chevy Bolt vehicles.
Mark Moore, who was most recently director of engineering at Uber Elevate until its acquisition by Joby Aviation, launched his own company called Whisper Aero. The startup is aiming to design an electric thruster it says will blend noise emitted from delivery drones and eVTOLs alike into background levels, making them nearly imperceptible to the human ear.
Tesla launched a monthly subscription for its Full Self-Driving subscription package for $199 per month or a cheaper $99 for those who already purchased the since discontinued Enhanced Autopilot package, according to its website.
Volkswagen will ramp up its software, mobility as a service and battery tech to stay competitive in the coming decades, as it and other automakers prepare for the largest transition in personal mobility since the invention of the car.
Laying out the company strategy Tuesday, Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess emphasized a top-to-bottom transformation in everything from manufacturing to revenue streams. If revenue was historically driven by sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, Volkswagen CFO Arno Antlitz said the rest of the decade bring income derived not only from electric vehicle sales, but also software, autonomous driving and even ridesharing.
To that end, the company has been busy, planning six battery Gigafactories in Europe and an €800 million ($944 million) hardware platform research and development facility in West Berlin. The company’s also beefing up its in-house automotive software arm Cariad, which VW said could generate as much as €1.2 trillion ($1.4 trillion) in revenue by 2030, via subscriptions and other sales.
Volkswagen also has big plans for autonomous driving. The company wants to take a chunk of the market share from ridesharing and car rental, and it sees an integrated AV platform as the way to do it. Executives painted a vivid picture of customers being able to request a Volkswagen electric AV taxi or shuttle by the end of the decade, one that may not even include a steering wheel or driver’s seat, according to renderings shown during the presentation.
“Imagine that your grandmother or your eight-year-old son can hop in a Volkswagen cab to visit one another, whenever they want, without mom or dad behind the wheel,” Diess suggested. “You can use one of our mobility apps, and an ID Bus will pick you up and your friends.”
Personal vehicles will be powered by Cariad, which the OEM said will have “level 4 readiness” by 2025. Shared mobility vehicles, like shuttles or taxis, will also be VW-owned and operated, and run on tech developed by AV company Argo AI. Volkswagen closed a $2.6 billion investment in the startup last June.
Europe’s largest automaker anticipates its investments in MaaS will pay off: the company expects annual revenues of over $70 billion in the five largest European markets alone by 2030, Christian Senger, CTO of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, said. The autonomous rideshare ID Bus, which is being tested in a pilot project in Munich, will be rolled out as a commercial service in Hamburg in 2025, followed shortly by the U.S.
Image Credits: Volkswagen (opens in a new window)
In line with these estimates, the automaker anticipates BEV sales will account for 25% of sales by 2025 and 50% by 2030. ICE margins will likely come under increased pressure due to declining demand, tighter emissions regulations and comparative tax disadvantages, so Volkswagen plans to decrease its number of ICE models by 60% in Europe by 2030. Cost parity between ICE and BEV should be achieved within two to three years, Antlitz said, thanks to economies of scale and lower factory costs.
It’s an optimistic future, but one in which Volkswagen is fully confident: the company upped its profit target for 2025 to 8-9%, from 7-8%.
“Until 2030, the world of mobility will have seen the greatest transformation since the transition from horses to cars at the beginning of the 20th century,” Diess said. “The future of cars, the future of individual mobility will be bright.”
BMW’s Silicon Valley-based venture capital arm is investing in Kodiak Robotics, a company that develops autonomous trucking technology.
Kodiak will use the funds to build out a safety case for its self-driving tech stack so it can more quickly commercialize. It will also work on hiring fresh talent and expanding its truck fleet, with a stated goal of at least doubling the number of vehicles it operates each year. The startup currently has 10 trucks in rotation between its commercial route in Texas and its test pilot in Mountain View, California.
The terms of the deal were not disclosed. BMW i Ventures usually invests in companies that can provide solutions to BMW’s current and future business, but Kodiak’s CEO and co-founder Don Burnette told TechCrunch that BMW’s investment was purely financial and not strategic, meaning there is currently no technical partnership between the two.
This new investment comes just a week after tire-maker Bridgestone announced a minority stake in Kodiak. The financials behind that deal were not revealed either. To date, Kodiak has publicly announced $40 million in funding from its Series A, and Burnette says the startup has had several additional investments since then.
Burnette also shared the company’s plans to achieve driverless operations at scale for less than 10% of what Waymo has publicly raised to date – $5.7 billion – and less than 25% of TuSimple’s total existing fundraise – about $1.94 billion, including the money it raised through its IPO. That leaves us with a number roughly around $500 million.
“That’s the total amount of money that we think we need to get to driverless, and that’s because we think we’ve been a much more efficient company up until this point, and we will continue to be much more efficient going forward,” said Burnette.
The BMW i Ventures funding will eventually make up part of Kodiak’s Series B. With this latest investment, the company isn’t trying to further develop its self-driving capabilities or features, but rather it wants to build out its safety case and prove that its system can handle the road with no driver on board, says Burnette.
“We are building toward a Level 4 autonomy system, but we still have a driver in the seat that’s actually monitoring our system at all times,” said Burnette. “Today, we are technically a Level 2 system, which is true for just about everybody else out there.”
Vehicles with a human driver supervising operations such as steering, brake and acceleration support, as well as things like lane centering and adaptive cruise control fit under the Society of Automobile Engineer’s (SAE) definition of Level 2 autonomy. Level 4 means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.
Kodiak says it’s made progress. In January it announced its Kodiak Driver achieved “disengagement-free deliveries” (meaning the autonomous system didn’t have to be switched off for safety reasons) during a commercial route from Dallas to Houston. The company has been running this route out of its Dallas testing and operations facility for two years, and says it’s now achieved a level of maturity where the system can handle anything the highway throws at it.
“We’re doing really complex and advanced maneuvers, not just handling obvious things like merges and cut-ins and heavy traffic, but also more nuanced challenges like identifying vehicles that are pulled over on the side of the road,” said Burnette. “Our system can automatically identify that and then slow down as required by law, or nudge away from that object to give it more space. It can also consider making a lane change if a lane is available, a way to give even more clearance to the stalled vehicle on the side, and this is exactly how humans drive.”
To get to the point where Kodiak can prove its tech is actually safer than a human driver, and thus suitable for operating commercially at scale, the startup has to build up its total miles driven in simulated environments, structured testing on a private closed track, and in real world driving.
Burnette says Kodiak is the only company that doesn’t designate one type of sensor as ‘primary,’ and rather takes a comprehensive approach, meaning it’s not a lidar-first or vision-first company. Tesla’s head of AI Andrej Karpathy recently revealed the company’s new supercomputer which takes a vision-only approach, but Burnette fundamentally disagrees with that method.
“We believe that each of these different modalities have strengths and weaknesses, and our objective is to take advantage of those strengths and cover the weaknesses with other modalities, and so we’ve created a sensor fusion algorithm that allows us to consider which sensors are advantageous in the moments where they give us the most usable information,” said Burnette.
Kodiak doesn’t use HD mapping either, so its trucks see in real time on the road, which allows the Kodiak Driver to be flexible when it comes to changing road conditions or environments. The system is trained using data collected by Kodiak’s trucks, as well as on scenarios devised by its engineers, and that data is auto-labeled using Scale AI, which is one of the ways Kodiak is able to keep down costs, says Burnette.
Kodiak’s team hails from Google’s original self-driving team, Uber, Lyft and other notable tech companies. Burnette says BMW i Ventures’ investment in the company came after a thorough vetting process in which the firm sent over their autonomous driving experts and dug into the team’s expertise and tech.
Five-year old self-driving truck startup Embark Trucks Inc. said Wednesday it would merge with special purpose acquisition company Northern Genesis Acquisition Corp. II in a deal valued at $5.2 billion.
Embark takes a different approach to autonomous trucking: As opposed to manufacturing and operating a fleet of trucks themselves, which is the route rival TuSimple is taking, Embark offers its AV software as a service. Carriers and fleets can pay a per-mile subscription fee to access it. The company includes carriers Mesilla Valley Transportation and Bison Transport, and companies Anheuser-Busch InBev and HP Inc., amongst its partners.
Carriers purchase trucks with compatible hardware directly from OEMs, so Embark says it has designed its system to be “platform agnostic” across multiple components and manufacturers. The company says its software can simulate up to 1,200 60-second scenarios per second, and make adaptive predictions using those scenarios for the behaviour of other vehicles on the road.
Embark said in an investor presentation for the SPAC deal that it was targeting “driver-out,” or operating on roads without a safety driver, by 2023 and launching at a commercial scale across the American sunbelt the following year. However, Embark still has technical milestones yet to achieve, noting in the presentation that the software still needs to accomplish actions such as interactions with emergency vehicles, and responding to blown tires and other mechanical failures.
Upon closing, the transaction will inject Embark with around $615 million in gross cash proceeds, including $200 million in private investment in public equity (PIPE) funding from investors including CPP Investments, Knight-Swift Transportation, Mubadala Capital, Sequoia Capital and Tiger Global Management.
Embark also said former Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was joining its board, likely a boon for a company operating in the autonomous trucking industry, which is still only authorized for commercial deployment in 24 states.
Embark was founded in 2016 by CEO Alex Rodrigues and CTO Brandon Moak, who worked together on autonomous driving while completing engineering degrees from Canada’s University of Waterloo. After launching out of Y Combinator, the company quickly went on to raise $117 million in total funding, including a $30 million Series B led by Sequoia Capital and a $70 million Series C led by Tiger Global Management.
The transaction is anticipated to close in the second half of 2021. The company joins competitor AV trucking developer Plus in going public via a SPAC merger. TuSimple opted for a traditional initial public offering in March.
The hubbub surrounding the autonomous vehicle industry often focuses on venture capital rounds, speculation about IPOs and acquisitions. But the industry’s future also hinges on the high-stakes task of proving the technology can operate safer than human drivers do today and gaining the public’s trust. In short: safety matters.
Zoox issued a safety report Tuesday that aims to give new insight into its custom electric autonomous vehicle and describes in greater detail various design details aimed at preventing crashes and protecting if they do.
“As you know, and something everybody keeps talking about, is that part of the rationale for doing AVs is because of safety, safety, safety, but they never get to the next bullet [point] right? What are you going to actually do to prevent those crashes, to save those lives?” Mark Rosekind, the company’s chief safety innovation officer and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
Rosekind says this latest report answers those questions.
Zoox is a bit different from its rivals. It isn’t just developing the self-driving software stack. The company is responsible for creating the on-demand ride-sharing app and the vehicle itself. Zoox also plans to own, manage and operate its robotaxi fleet.
Zoox unveiled in December the electric, autonomous robotaxi it built from the ground up — a cube-like vehicle loaded with sensors, no steering wheel and a moonroof that is capable of transporting four people at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. At the time, Zoox shared a few specs on the four-seat vehicle, including the face-to-face symmetrical seating configuration, similar to what a train traveler might encounter, and the 133 kilowatt-hour battery that the company said allows it to operate for up to 16 continuous hours on a single charge. But not everything was revealed, particularly details about how it would protect occupants in the vehicle as well as the pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers it will be sharing the road with.
To be clear, Zoox is not the only AV company issuing safety reports. Voluntary safety self-assessment reports, or VSSAs, have become fairly common in the industry. These voluntary safety reports, which are included in NHTSA’s Automated Driving Systems VSSA Disclosure Index, are supposed to cover 12 areas, including the vehicle’s design, crash simulation scenarios and benchmarks for testing, as well as protective measures for occupants and other road users.
Zoox’s first safety report came out in 2018, which outlined the company’s “prevent and protect” philosophy. This latest one reveals how Zoox plans to meet its safety goals, including specific details on the design of the vehicle. And more safety reports are coming — per a few hints in this latest one — including details about its collision avoidance system and the lighting system the vehicle uses for communicating with other road users.
Zoox has designed and included more than 100 safety innovations into its purpose-built vehicle. Rosekind shared details on nine of them that fall into three categories: driving control, no single point of failure and rider protection.
Zoox’s vehicle has independent braking and an active suspension system, which means that each of the brakes has its own electronic control unit, allowing for more control over traction on the road and weight distribution. All of that translates to shorter stopping distances.
The vehicle also has four-wheel steering, which Rosekind noted doesn’t exist on any AV car on the road today, and is bidirectional. Four-wheel steering allows the vehicle to simultaneously adjust where it is headed and its position within the lane.
“Once our software has determined the path for the vehicle, it’ll stay on that path down to centimeters accuracy — even at speed through a curb, Rosekind explained.
The four-wheel steering combined with the vehicle’s symmetrical design allows for it to travel bidirectionally. The bidirectional capability means no more U-turns or three-point turns, two maneuvers that are more complex, time consuming and can make occupants more vulnerable to oncoming traffic.
Rosekind said the company’s design objective was that there would be no single point of failure for its safety critical systems. For instance, the vehicle has two powertrains. The motors, drive systems and batteries work in conjunction with each other. If one component in the system fails, the other one will take over.
The vehicle also has two batteries as well as a safety diagnostics system that monitors all of the hardware, software and firmware. Sensors like lidar and radar are also placed on the four corners of the vehicle — each one provides a 270-degree field of view.
The diagnostic system goes beyond monitoring and will mitigate a failure or performance problem that it identifies. For instance, if a sensor has degraded performance from damage or debris, it will activate a cleaning system on the vehicle or turn it from bidirectional to unidirectional, placing the sensor in a position where it basically doesn’t matter if it is obscured, Rosekind explained.
“Fail-safe operational means it’s going to continue the ride, let you out, and then go take care of whatever the issue is, or pull over to a safe spot,” he said.
Zoox’s goal is for its vehicle to meet five-star crash protection for every seat in the vehicle. The vehicles are currently going through crash testing now, Rosekind said, adding that it is “going quite well and almost complete.”
The company also designed a new kind of airbag system that contains five different airbags. Curtain airbags are on each side of the vehicle, a frontal one is divided in two parts to protect the head, neck and chest. There are also rear and side seat airbags.
Within the system is an airbag control unit that can monitor where a collision is coming as well as the velocity and determine which airbags and in what order to deploy. Instead of every airbag deploying at once, they will inflate based on the collision location and the severity of the impact.
Finally, the vehicle has sensors in the seat, the buckle and even the coating on the webbing of the seatbelt to be able to tell if passengers are using the seatbelt. The vehicle will not start until everybody’s buckled up, Rosekind said.
Quanergy Systems, the Sunnyvale, California-based lidar company, said Tuesday it has agreed to merge with special purpose acquisition fund CITIC Capital Acquisition Corp., a Chinese blank-check firm affiliated with the country’s largest state-owned investment conglomerate.
The deal, which puts an implied valuation on Quanergy at $1.4 billion, is expected to close in the second half of 2021. After closing, the transaction will inject the lidar company with around $278 million in pro forma net cash, including $40 million in private investment in public equity (PIPE) funding.
Lidar is an essential component of most autonomous driving systems – the notable exception being Tesla’s stack, which is attempting to develop a pure vision-based system to support its pursuit of automated driving (Tesla vehicles are not autonomous today and have what is considered a Level 2 advanced driver assistance system). Quanergy is a developer of solid state silicon lidar units, which pulses a low-power laser through an optical phased array to measure the distance and shape of objects. Historically, lidar sensors involved moving parts – generally some mechanism to rotate the laser so it can scan the surrounding area. The company also develops perception software that interprets the sensor data.
Quanergy has had a bumpy road to the NYSE. The company generated a lot of hype after it announced in 2016 that it had developed a lidar that cost $250 or less (for reference, around the same time Velodyne was selling a lidar sensor for $75,000). The news shot the company to unicorn status and incited talks of a potential initial public offering, Bloomberg reported. But excitement was tempered after Quanergy hit technical roadblocks.
Then the company announced in January 2020 that CEO and co-founder Louay Eldada would be leaving the company. Kevin Kennedy took over as interim CEO, then became the permanent leader in April. Quanergy says it has more than 350 customers and 40 partnerships globally, across both the automotive and internet of things sectors. Its investors include automakers Daimler and Geely, as well as Samsung and Enterprise.
Quanergy says the proceeds from the SPAC transaction will be used to accelerate research and development, pay down debt and fund working capital. Upon closing, Quanergy will be listed on the NYSE under the ticker symbol “QNGY.”
The SPAC, CITIC Capital Acquisition Corp., is sponsored by CITIC Capital Holdings Limited, an investment firm backed by Chinese conglomerate CITIC Group. Quanergy must file for clearance with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The company anticipates CFIUS greenlighting the deal because CITIC would keep its stake in the company below 10%, and Quanergy does not record any personal driver data, Reuters reported.
Quanergy is not the first lidar company to go public via a SPAC merger. Others include AEye, which will merge with CF Finance Acquisition Corp. III at a $2 billion deal, and Volvo-partnered Luminar at a $3.4 billion valuation.
General Motors Co. has yet again upped the amount it says it will spend on electric and autonomous vehicle investments, saying Wednesday that it would spend $35 billion through 2025 — an $8 billion increase from its previous plan announced in November 2020.
The company has set a target to bring 30 new EVs to the global market by 2025 and to transition to all-zero-emission by 2035. With the new investment, GM said it will add new electric commercial trucks to its North American plan, as well as build additional U.S. assembly capacity for electric SUVs.
Beyond building out a large portfolio of new electric models, the automaker has taken a multipronged approach in its quest to lead the EV revolution: it is also investing in two new battery cell plants under its joint venture with LG Chem, dubbed Ultium Cells LLC; and it’s poured funding into Cruise, its autonomous driving arm that it purchased for majority ownership in 2016.
The news was announced one day after Cruise said it had tapped a $5 billion line of credit from the OEM’s financial arm as it prepares for commercialization of its Origin electric and autonomous vehicle. Commercial production of the Origin is anticipated to begin in 2023.
GM also manufactures hydrogen fuel cells under its HYDROTEC joint initiative with Honda. It confirmed Wednesday that it will launch the third-generation HYDROTEC cells by mid-decade. The automaker has partnership agreements with heavy truck developer Navistar and Liebherr-Aerospace, which is developing hydrogen fuel cell power systems for aircraft.
The company also said yesterday it would supply fuel cells and EV batteries to Wabtec Corporation, a Pittsburgh-based company developing the world’s first battery locomotive.
“GM is targeting annual global EV sales of more than 1 million by 2025, and we are increasing our investment to scale faster because we see momentum building in the United States for electrification, along with customer demand for our product portfolio,” CEO Mary Barra said in a statement Wednesday.
Ford announced a similar increase in EV investment last month, when it said it would invest $30 billion by 2025, up from $22 billion by 2023.
Tire-making giant Bridgestone has taken a minority stake in Kodiak Robotics, the Silicon Valley-based startup developing autonomous trucks, as part of a broader partnership to test and develop smart tire technology.
While the terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Kodiak Robotics co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told TechCrunch that this is a direct financial investment. Bridgestone CTO Nizar Trigui has also joined the Kodiak board as an observer.
The deal involves more than capital. The two companies have also formed a strategic partnership focused on advancing Bridgestone’s tire tech and fleet management system. Kodiak will use Bridgestone’s sensor-laden tires and fleet management system on its self-driving trucks, which are used to carry freight between Dallas and Houston as part of its testing program. The company recently said it is expanding its freight carrying pilots to San Antonio. Kodiak also tests its self-driving trucks — always with a safety operator behind the wheel — in and around Mountain View, California.
Semi-trucks travel 100,000 to 150,000 miles a year, Burnette said, adding that tire integrity and tire monitoring are integral to the safety of trucking, whether they’re driven by a human or computer.
“Safety of an autonomy system ultimately comes down to our ability to manipulate the tires that touch the road when you are accelerating or braking or steering,” Burnette said. “You need to be able to rely on your tires to actually perform the way they are expected to perform otherwise your safety envelope is not necessarily guaranteed.”
Kodiak will use these smart tires to monitor pressure, temperature and even measure the loads on the wheels, which plays a role in vehicle dynamics and maneuverability. Kodiak will share the data it collects with Bridgestone, which the company can use to improve the chemistry of its tires.
Tire companies like Bridgestone already collect basic information from telematics providers that helps determine where trucks are driven, what types of roads they use as well as tire pressure and temperature. Predictive models are then developed based on that data. Autonomous vehicle companies bring an added value to tire companies, Burnette noted. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks are loaded with sensors of their own, which allows the company to collect massive amounts of driving data that can help Bridgestone understand exactly how its tires are being used.
“Autonomy providers like Kodiak have all of the raw data specifically on how the trucks are being driven,” he said. “We know what the forces are, we know what the steering is, we know what the braking pressures that were being commanded in real time. And so we can gather a wealth of data that has never been previously possible to collect for companies like Bridgestone.”
This allows Bridgestone to build predictive models that will more accurately be able to predict the eventual lifetime and also possibly give warnings to when tires may fail out of field. “And that’s ultimately what Kodiak is really interested in,” Burnette added.
The news follows Kodiak’s announcement in May that it was partnering with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its autonomous vehicle technology in Asia. The ultimate aim of the SK partnership is to sell and distribute Kodiak’s self-driving technology in the region. Kodiak will examine how it can use SK’s products, components and technology for its autonomous system, including artificial intelligence microprocessors and advanced emergency braking systems. Both companies have also agreed to work together to provide fleet management services for customers in Asia.
Waymo, Google’s former self-driving project that is now a business unit under Alphabet, said Wednesday it raised $2.5 billion in its second outside funding round. The company said in a blog post it will use the funds to continue growing Waymo Driver, its autonomous driving platform, and growing its team.
The round saw participation from existing investors Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz, AutoNation, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Fidelity Management & Research Company, Magna International, Mubadala Investment Company, Perry Creek Capital, Silver Lake, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., Temasek, and additional investor Tiger Global.
The news comes only a few months after former CEO John Krafcik announced in April that he was stepping down from leading the company after five years in the position. The CEO position is now being held jointly by Tekedra Mawakana, former COO, and Dmitri Dolgov, who joined the original self-driving project at Google and was CTO.
Krafcik led the company through its first external $2.25 billion investment round in March 2020. That round was later expanded by $700 million a few months later. But Krafcik could be a polarizing figure in the company, as TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec noted.
In addition to its Waymo One commercial ride-hailing service, which operates in the Metro Phoenix, Arizona area, the company has continued to build out its Waymo Via trucking and cargo transportation service. Earlier this month Waymo announced it was entering a “test run” with J.B. Hunt for transportation services between Houston and Fort Worth.
Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 this week to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding. Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.
Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why:
If you think about a traditional software system, the thing that will separate a good software system from a bad software system is the code, the quality of the code. For an AI system, which all of these self-driving vehicles or autonomous vehicles are, it’s the data that really separates an amazing algorithm from a bad algorithm. And so one thing we saw was that being one of the stewards and shepherds of high-quality data was going to be incredibly important for the industry, and that’s what’s played out. We work with many of the great companies in the space, from Aurora to Nuro to Toyota to General Motors, and our work with all of them is ensuring that they have really a solid data foundation, so they can build the rest of their stacks on top of it. (Time stamp: 06:24)
Pony.ai, the robotaxi startup that operates in China and the United States, has started testing driverless vehicles on public roads in California ahead of plans to launch a commercial service there in 2022.
The company said the driverless vehicle testing, which means the autonomous vehicles operate without human safety drivers behind the wheel, is happening daily on public roads in Fremont and Milpitas, California. Pony.ai is also testing its driverless vehicles in Guangzhou, China.
Pony.ai said it also plans to resume a rideshare service to the public in Irvine this summer using AVs with a human safety driver. Its goal is to roll out the fully driverless service to the public in 2022.
“Going completely driverless is key to achieving full autonomy and an indispensable catalyst to realizing our ambitious vision,” said James Peng, CEO and co-founder of Pony.ai.
Pony.ai still has some regulatory hurdles to clear before it can operate commercially. Autonomous vehicle companies that want to charge the public for driverless rides need both the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission to issue deployment permits. In early June, Cruise became the first company to receive a driverless autonomous service permit from the California PUC that allows it to test transporting passengers. The final step with the DMV, which only Nuro has achieved, is a deployment permit.
Pony’s driverless testing milestone in California comes a month after the state issued the company a permit to test a fleet of six driverless vehicles in a geographic area that spans about 39 square miles. While dozens of companies — 55 in all — have active permits to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver, it is less common to receive permission for driverless vehicles. Pony was the eighth company to be issued a driverless testing permit in the state, a list that includes Chinese companies AutoX, Baidu and WeRide, as well as U.S. businesses Cruise, Nuro, Waymo and Zoox. Only Nuro has been granted a so-called deployment permit, which allows it to operate commercially.
Pony.ai, which was founded in 2016 by former Baidu developers Peng and Lou Tiancheng, has been allowed to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers since 2017. The driverless permit issued in May by the California DMV expanded upon Pony’s existing activity in the state.
Pony has tested ridesharing in Fremont and Irvine, California. In 2019, a fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers equipped with a self-driving system from Pony.ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform began shuttling customers on public roads. The robotaxi service, called BotRide, wasn’t a driverless service, as there was a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. The BotRide pilot concluded in January 2020.
The company then started operating a public robotaxi service called PonyPilot in the Irvine area. Pony shifted that robotaxi service from shuttling people to packages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pony.ai also partnered with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine. The delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said at the time.
As the pandemic eases and California returns to normal operations, Pony is preparing to launch a commercial robotaxi service. It has already amassed a number of partners and more than $1 billion in funding, including $400 million from Toyota, to help it achieve that goal. Last November, the company said its valuation had reached $5.3 billion following a fresh injection of $267 million in funding. Pony has several partnerships or collaborations with automakers and suppliers, including Bosch, Hyundai and Toyota.
Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.
Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.
Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.
ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao. “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”
The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.
“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.
The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.
Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.
Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.
The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”
To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.
It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.
“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.
“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”
Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.
So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.
One of the lingering mysteries from Uber’s sale of its Uber ATG self-driving unit to Aurora has been solved.
Raquel Urtasun, the AI pioneer who was the chief scientist at Uber ATG, has launched a new startup called Waabi that is taking what she describes as an “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, starting with long-haul trucks. Urtasun, who is the sole founder and CEO, already has a long list of high-profile backers, including separate investments from Uber and Aurora. Waabi has raised $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures with additional participation from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC, Aurora Innovation as well as leading AI researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others.
Urtasun described Waabi, which currently employs 40 people and operates in Toronto and California, as the culmination of her life’s work to bring commercially viable self-driving technology to society. The name of the company — Waabi means “she has vision” in Ojibwe and “simple” in Japanese — hints at her approach and ambitions.
Autonomous vehicle startups that exist today use a combination of artificial intelligence algorithms and sensors to handle the tasks of driving that humans do such as detecting and understanding objects and making decisions based on that information to safely navigate a lonely road or a crowded highway. Beyond those basics are a variety of approaches, including within AI.
Most self-driving vehicle developers use a traditional form of AI. However, the traditional approach limits the power of AI, Urtasun said, adding that developers must manually tune the software stack, a complex and time-consuming task. The upshot, Urtasun says: Autonomous vehicle development has slowed and the limited commercial deployments that do exist operate in small and simple operational domains because scaling is so costly and technically challenging.
“Working in this field for so many years and, in particular, the industry for the past four years, it became more and more clear along the way that there is a need for a new approach that is different from the traditional approach that most companies are taking today,” said Urtasun, who is also a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.
Some developers do use deep neural nets, a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allows a computer to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data. However, developers typically wall off the deep nets to handle a specific problem and use a machine learning and rules-based algorithms to tie into the broader system.
Deep nets have their own set of problems. A long-standing argument is that can’t be used with any reliability in autonomous vehicles in part because of the “black box” effect, in which the how and the why the AI solved a particular task is not clear. That is a problem for any self-driving startup that wants to be able verify and validate its system. It is also difficult to incorporate any prior knowledge about the task that the developer is trying to solve, like say driving. Finally, deep nets require an immense amount of data to learn.
Urtasun says she solved these lingering problems around deep nets by combining them with probabilistic inference and complex optimization, which she describes as a family of algorithms. When combined, the developer can trace back the decision process of the AI system and incorporate prior knowledge so they don’t have to teach the AI system everything from scratch. The final piece is a closed loop simulator that will allow the Waabi team to test at scale common driving scenarios and safety-critical edge cases.
Waabi will still have a physical fleet of vehicles to test on public roads. However, the simulator will allow the company to rely less on this form of testing. “We can even prepare for new geographies before we even drive there,” Urtasun said. “That’s a huge benefit in terms of the scaling curve.”
Urtasun’s vision and intent isn’t to take this approach and disrupt the ecosystem of OEMs, hardware and compute suppliers, but to be a player within it. That might explain the backing of Aurora, a startup that is developing its own self-driving stack that it hopes to first deploy in logistics such as long-haul trucking.
“This was the moment to really do something different,” Urtasun said. “The field is in need of a diverse set of approaches to solve this and it became very clear that this was the way to go.”