Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress toward those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.
In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.
Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.
We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.
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After everything was wrapped up at a very weird Oscars ceremony, original films released by Netflix had won seven statuettes.
The streaming service’s awards include for two for “Mank” (production design and cinematography), two for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (hair/makeup and costume), documentary feature (“My Octopus Teacher”), animated short (“If Anything Happens I Love You”) and live action short (“Two Distant Strangers”).
Meanwhile, Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” won the awards for sound and editing, while Facebook’s Oculus, EA and Respawn won their first Oscar for “Colette,” which won in the documentary short category.
This comes after a pandemic year in which theaters closing or operating at reduced capacity, forcing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay the ceremony and change its awards eligibility rules. It also essentially erased the distinction between theatrical and streaming films — for example, Searchlight Pictures released Best Picture-winner “Nomadland” in theaters and on Hulu at the same time.
Going into the evening, “Nomadland” was seen as the front runner for Best Picture, but Netflix executives still had reason to be surprised and disappointed: In a nearly unprecedented move, Best Picture wasn’t the final award of the night — instead, it was Best Actor, which was widely expected to go to the late Chadwick Boseman for his performance in “Ma Rainey.” So when Anthony Hopkins (who wasn’t in attendance) won for “The Father,” it made for a pretty deflating end to the evening.
Does the science, technology — and yes, art — of creating new ways to transport people and parcels get your EV motor running? Then join us on June 9 at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021.
We’ll pack the day with interactive presentations and breakout sessions. Explore new tech, find emerging trends, discover what’s catching investor interest — and learn about evolving regulatory issues that affect the way mobility startups engage with cities and towns around the globe.
Buy your pass and take advantage of this extra perk — one free month of access to Extra Crunch, our members-only program featuring exclusive daily articles for founders and startup teams. Can you say value add? Yes, yes you can.
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TechCrunch always delivers the top experts in their field, and this event is no exception. You’ll connect and engage with the mobility movers, shakers, influencers and makers. It’s an opportunity to expand your network, find funding, forge new partnerships and yes, scope out your competition, too.
Here’s a peek at just some of the super speakers who will grace TC Mobility 2021’s virtual stage.
Can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? We tapped three heavy hitters to tackle this hot topic: Tamika L. Butler, a community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer; Remix co-founder and CEO, Tiffany Chu; and Frank Reig, Revel co-founder and CEO.
Joby Aviation founder JoeBen Bevirt and Reid Hoffman, a LinkedIn co-founder and an investor who knows a thing or two about SPACs, will share their expertise on building a startup, keeping it secret while raising funds, the future of flight and, of course, SPACs.
What do people say about their Mobility experience? Rachael Wilcox, a creative producer at Volvo Cars — and a serial TC Sessions: Mobility attendee — told us why she makes it a point to attend every year.
“I go to TC Sessions: Mobility to find new and interesting companies, make new business connections and look for startups with investment potential. It’s an opportunity to expand my knowledge and inform my work.”
TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place on June 9. Early-bird savings remain in effect until May 5, at 11:59 pm (PT). Buy your pass now, save money and enjoy one month of free access to Extra Crunch. Yay!
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A number of startups have promised to bring a drive-and-fly vehicle to market over the past few years, but none have yet managed to follow through. NFT Inc. is betting it will succeed where its rivals have failed, with preorders opening Thursday for ASKA, company’s first electric flying car.
The SUV-sized ASKA ( which means ‘flying bird’ in Japanese) may be better described as a plane that drives, rather than a car that flies. Even when its six rotors are folded closed, the vehicle has the unmistakable look of a flying craft, with a helicopter-esque bubble front windows and a distinct tail that would be familiar to anyone who has flown on an airplane.
ASKA isn’t anticipated to be delivered until 2026, which is the point by which the company estimates regulations on safety and traffic control will have developed enough to support consumer use of new aerial mobility vehicles. A company person confirmed that NFT has already started receiving preorders for the vehicle, which comes with a $789,000 price tag that includes pilot training.
Being the first company to bring a consumer flying car to market is an ambitious goal. NFT declined to disclose its backers, but it did say that the preorders – which require a $5,000 deposit – are fully refundable.
Company co-founders Guy Kaplinsky and Maki Kaplinsky told TechCrunch that aerial mobility vehicles – the ASKA chief amongst them – will fundamentally change urban and suburban life.
“It’s going to change the dynamic of the cities,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “Urban air mobility is going to redefine the suburb and rural areas,” Maki Kaplinsky added. “It’s going to transition wealth into outlying areas [. . .] and I’m sure it’s going to be of great interest for those surrounding suburbs.”
It’s easy to imagine how this might be the case: freed from the shackles of urban living and its attendant traffic patterns, the ultra-wealthy would be able to relocate to areas even beyond the suburbs, given ASKA’s 250-mile range, and travel into cities only when they needed or wanted to.
What sets ASKA apart from its competitors, the cofounders say, is that customers won’t need to go to an airport to use the craft. Likewise, regulators would not need to worry about a large influx of urban air mobility users in airports. Instead, they’ve designed ASKA for door-to-door transportation – all the driver needs is enough space for the vehicle to unfold its wings and rotor blades. While ASKA can take off on a runway, like a conventional airplane, it’s also capable of vertical lifting, like a helicopter. Guy Kaplinsky explained that conventional takeoff is less energy intensive, and that customers may choose this form of takeoff in a rural area, where there’s lots of space, and vertically land in the city.
Each rotor will be equipped with an independent battery pack, but the company also decided to install two range extenders for redundancy, which will supply power by gasoline. The two middle rotors of the plane can also act as wings and can support gliding in case of emergencies.
“Most of our users are going to be new pilots and for us safety is the number one,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “The problem right now is the [battery] cell. There is no chemistry cell developer in the world that would tell you that his cell would not fail in the air, and we cannot take that risk.” ASKA could become all-electric at some point in the future however, depending on developments in battery technology, Kaplinsky said.
The ASKA will be small enough to be kept in a conventional garage or driveway, and will be able to recharge using existing charging stations that already exist for electric vehicles. Also matching some EV companies, ASKA will be equipped with third-party semi-autonomous technology. “Since we are targeting consumers that include non-professional pilots, we believe that semi-autonomous technology will help them feel comfortable having a certain degree of control, rather than sitting in a fully autonomous ‘robot’,” the company spokesperson told TechCrunch. Even if regulations allow full autonomy at some point in the future, “we believe that still many customers would appreciate having semi-autonomous/some degree of control,” the spokesperson added.
NFT also wants to reimagine the buying experience with its ASKA showroom opening in Los Altos, California on Thursday. There, customers will be able to speak to experts in aerodynamics and flight control. If a person is among the first 1,500 preorders, they will be given one share of the company and be inaugurated into what the company is calling the Founder’s Club. Members will be able to meet every three to six months with company executives.
Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.
Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.
“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”
Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.
The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.
“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.
By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.
“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”
Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.
“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.
“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.
The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.
Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.
Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.
In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.
While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.
Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.
Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”
Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.
“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.
“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.
“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”
Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.
“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”
5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.
Honda and Verizon are researching how 5G and mobile edge computing might improve safety for today’s connected vehicles and the future’s autonomous ones.
The two companies, which announced the partnership Thursday, are piloting different safety scenarios at the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a test bed for connected and autonomous vehicles. The aim of the venture is to study how 5G connectivity coupled with edge computing could allow for faster communication between cars, pedestrians and infrastructure. The upshot: faster communication could allow cars to avoid collisions and hazards and find safer routes. [TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, which is itself owned by Verizon]
The 5G testing is in its preliminary research phase and Honda doesn’t intend to implement this new technology as a product feature just yet. The companies do have plans to test 5G-enabled vehicles on public roads in at least four cities this year, according to Brian Peebles, Verizon’s senior manager of technology development and one of the leads on the project.
This partnership builds off of Honda’s onboard SAFE SWARM AI technology, which the automaker began developing in 2017. That technology uses Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything, or C-V2X communication, which does what the name implies and lets vehicles communicate with other road users.
“Traditionally, with V2X, the cars talk to each other,” Dr. Ehsan Moradi Pari, research group lead at Honda’s advanced technology research division told TechCrunch. “They provide their information, like their location, speed and other sensor information, and the car does a threat assessment, like whether I’m going to collide with another car. What this [5G and MEC] technology offers is that we all provide our information to the network, and the network tells me if there is a potential for an accident or not.”
Honda and Verizon’s premise is that the technology can handle communication far faster than a car’s computer. Instead of relying on a car’s less capable computer to do the work, information generated from connected cars, people and infrastructure is sent up into the 5G network. The computations are then done at the edge of network (meaning not in the cloud) in real time.
The payoff: a car relying on sensors and software might be able to understand a driver is about to hit something and hit the breaks, but the MEC can almost see into the future by checking out and communicating what’s happening farther down the road.
One of the safety scenarios that Verizon and Honda tested was a red light runner. Using data from smart cameras, MEC and V2X software they were able to detect the vehicle running a red light and send a visual warning message to other vehicles approaching the intersection. They tested similar scenarios to warn drivers or vehicles about a pedestrian obscured by a building and an oncoming emergency vehicle whose sirens are drowned out by the car’s loud music.
“Ensuring real-time communication among all road users will play a critical role in an automated driving environment,” said Pari. “Through these connected safety technologies, we can develop vehicle systems that detect potential dangerous situations in real time to warn the driver or automated system.”
While this initial research stage involves making human-driven vehicles safer, the Honda-Verizon partnership might eventually lay the groundwork for the use of 5G in future autonomous vehicles. If testing proves out, connected vehicles would be safer and could lead to a more efficient network that smooths out traffic congestion and reduces air pollution.
“We’re primarily doing this to promote vehicle safety and human safety,” Peebles told TechCrunch. “There are over 42,000 people a year in the United States alone that are killed in automobile accidents, and another two million are injured. Technology is becoming more crucial as we undergo an evolution of human drivers, so as that transition happens, we need to do it in a safe and orchestrated manner, such that everything is working together.”
Autonomous vehicles being tested on public roads today don’t require 5G or edge computing. While autonomous vehicle companies are eyeing what might be possible with 5G, the vehicles they’re developing are based on present-day technology.
There are headwinds to this 5G-MEC combination. This level of interconnectivity only works if there are sensors on every highway and every intersection. Many 5G-enabled vehicles and devices will be able to communicate with one another, but they can only communicate with pedestrians or infrastructure if smart cameras are clocking them and sharing that info with the network. And sensors are not perfect.
That would require a huge infrastructure investment as well as public acceptance and cooperation with states, cities and localities to install all of the necessary sensors. However, one might look to China as a use case. The country has a national policy to move rapidly over to a 5G network, and many Chinese autonomous driving companies are finding this type of connectivity and computational power essential to development.
Kavak, the Mexican startup that’s disrupted the used car market in Mexico and Argentina, today announced its Series D of $485 million, which now values the company at $4 billion. This round more than triples their previous valuation of $1.15 billion, which established them as a unicorn just a couple of months ago in October of 2020. Kavak is now one of the top five highest-valued startups in Latin America.
The round was led by D1 Capital Partners, Founders Fund, Ribbit and BOND, and brings Kavak’s total capital raised to date to more than $900 million. Kavak recently soft-launched in Brazil, and this new round of funding will be used to build out the Brazilian market and beyond, said Carlos García Ottati, Kavak’s CEO and co-founder. The company plans to do a full launch in Brazil in the next 60 days, García said, and we can expect to see Kavak in markets outside Latin America in the next 24 months, he added.
“We were built to solve emerging market problems,” García said.
Kavak, which was founded in 2016, is an online marketplace that aims to bring transparency, security and access to financing to the used car market. The company also offers its own financing through its fintech arm, Kavak Capital, and counts more than 2,500 employees and 20 logistics and reconditioning hubs in Mexico and Argentina.
“In Latin America, 90% of the [used car] transactions are informal, which leads to a 40% fraud rate,” said García, who experienced these challenges firsthand when he moved to Mexico from Colombia a couple of years ago and bought a used car.
“My budget allowed me to buy a used car, but there was no infrastructure around it. It took me six months to buy the car, and then the car had legal and mechanical issues and I lost most of my money,” he said. Kavak buys cars from individuals, refurbishes them and offers warranties to buyers.
“Instead of buying a new car, they can buy a better car that still has all the warranties. It’s a really aspirational process,” said García. The company, which really amounts to four companies in one given its areas of focus, was built to be comprehensive by design in order to meet the various gaps in the market, García said.
“When you’re building a business here [Latin America], you need to build several businesses because so many things are broken,” he said. That’s why the financing option, for example, has been a key to their success, according to García.
Financing has traditionally been hard to come by in Brazil, and as García said, the used car market lacks infrastructure there, too. That being said, Brazil is Latin America’s fintech hub, and the space has made leaps and bounds over the last 7-10 years with companies such as Nubank, PagSeguro, Creditas, PicPay, and others leading the way. As a result, credit cards and loans are more widely available today in the region, offering competition for Kavak Capital. While Kavak has localized some of its product for the Brazilian market — namely building out a Portuguese language version of the app and website — García said the markets are very similar.
“In Brazil, you still have the same problems that you have in Mexico, but Brazil is a little more developed, especially in fintech, which is light years ahead of Mexico,” he said.
With the Brazilian product heading to the races, García said they already have plans for other regions, though he declined to name them.
“80% of people in emerging markets don’t have access to a car,” García said of the global market size. “We want to go into big markets where customers are facing similar problems and where Kavak can really change their lives,” he added.
Polestar, the Swedish electric vehicle brand spun out of Volvo Car Group, set on Wednesday a “moonshot goal” of creating the first climate neutral car by 2030. But instead of getting there through more widely-practiced offsetting measures, such as planting trees, the company said it’s going to fundamentally change the way the new EV is made.
That means rethinking every piece of the supply chain, from materials sourcing through to manufacturing, and even by making the vehicle more energy efficient.
“We’re going to do it by reducing emissions, eliminating emissions, rather than offsetting, like many are relying on today, because we see that offsetting is a worrying strategy,” Fredrika Klarén, Polestar’s Head of Sustainability, said in an interview with TechCrunch. “The science is not actually backing it up in terms of its capability of offsetting emissions from producing products.”
While the direct outcome will be a new car – what the company is calling Polestar 0 – it will require a total overhaul of the manufacturing process that could eventually extend to Polestar’s other models. Klarén said that although Polestar’s entire fleet will not be climate neutral by 2030, the company and its parent Volvo have already set targets of being climate neutral across their operations, including Polestar, by 2040.
Both of Polestar’s current models, Polestar 1 and 2, are manufactured in China. Klarén said while much about the Polestar 0 has yet to be determined, the company hopes that it, too will be Chinese-made. Although the country still has a strong reliance on coal, there’s massive development in sustainable technology and manufacturing, she pointed out.
“If I get to vote, we will continue producing in China, but that being said, the Polestar 0, the solutions we will use are not identified yet and we’re going to need to think in new ways we didn’t think was possible prior – where it will be produced, what materials will go in [it],” said Klarén.
Nor are any of the internal systems settled. Geely AG, the parent company of Volvo Cars and Polestar, has been developing its own internal computer-and-battery platform, but it hasn’t been decided whether the new Polestar model will use this system.
She said the most challenging parts of the EV manufacturing process to transition to climate neutral are the materials, specifically aluminum, steel, and battery components.
“We need to tackle the production-related emissions,” she explained. The environmental impact of producing steel, aluminum and the basic materials found in lithium-based batteries is still significant.
Along with the new vehicle, Polestar also launched a product sustainability declaration that clearly lists the carbon footprint of Polestar 2 and all coming models.
“Offsetting is a cop-out,” Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said in a statement. “By pushing ourselves to create a completely climate-neutral car, we are forced to reach beyond what is possible today. We will have to question everything, innovate and look to exponential technologies as we design towards zero.”
UPDATE: Per the Wall Street Journal, this is actually not happening and was instead an April Fool’s joke gone wrong. VW USA still has not responded to requests for comment, but VW Europe told the publication that it was in fact a joke. The release announcing the news remains live on VW’s official U.S. media site with no indication that it’s not in fact true. Reuters is now reporting the same, citing three unnamed sources.]
Automaker Volkswagen wants you to know it’s serious about electric vehicles — so serious, in fact, that it’s officially rebranding around a pun in the U.S. The company revealed in a press release that it’s changing its name from “Volkswagen of America” to “Voltswagen of America” in a press release today. News this could happen leaked late Monday, but many speculated it might be an April Fool’s joke that got out a bit early, but the automaker seems serious about switching the official brand from May 2021 onward given the official release on its newsroom.
Voltswagen (neé Volkswagen) says that the reason behind the change is to firmly demonstrate its commitment to “future-forward investment in e-mobility,” which said more simply, implies that it’s super serious about its electric drivetrain plans. In a more literal sense, ‘Volkswagen’ is actually from the German for “the people’s car,” which suggests that Voltswagen is a car for … volts?
Sort of, but not really, says VW (hey that still works!):
“We have said, from the beginning of our shift to an electric future, that we will build EVs for the millions, not just millionaires,” explained VW CEO and President Scott Keogh in the release announcing the swap. “This name change signifies a nod to our past as the peoples’ car and our firm belief that our future is in being the peoples’ electric car.”
This announcement comes just as Volkswagen has begun shipping its all-electric SUV, the ID.4, in the U.S. It ha a price tag of $33,995, before either federal and tax incentives, so that is indeed on the more affordable side of the existing U.S. electric vehicle market, with even more options set to come for cost-conscious consumers in the future as the company spurs its commitments of lowering emissions by achieving one million global EV sales by 2025, and playing host to a lineup of over 70 models across VW and its sub-brands worldwide by 2029.
Voltswagen branding will include use of a higher blue tone on the VW logo for all-electric vehicles, while gas cars will retain the more traditional dark blue look. The actual word “Voltswagen” will be used on EVs in addition to the initials logo, with the icon graphic itself will be the sole branding on gas cars in the U.S. going forward.
Motional will integrate its driverless technology into Hyundai’s new all-electric SUV to create the company’s first robotaxi. At the start of 2023, customers in certain markets will be able to book the fully electric, fully autonomous taxi through the Lyft app.
The Hyundai IONIQ 5, which was revealed in February with a consumer release date expected later this year, will be fully integrated with Motional’s driverless system. The vehicles will be equipped with the hardware and software needed for Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities, including LiDAR, radar and cameras to provide the vehicle’s sensing system with 360 degrees of vision, and the ability to see up to 300 meters away. This level of driverless technology means a human will not be required to take over driving.
The interior living space will be similar to the consumer model, but additionally equipped with features needed for robotaxi operation, according to a Motional spokesperson. Motional did not reveal whether or not the vehicle would still have a steering wheel, and images of the robotaxi aren’t yet available.
Motional’s IONIQ 5 robotaxis have already begun testing on public roads and closed courses, and they’ll be put through more months of testing and real-world experience before being deployed on Lyft’s platform. The company says it’ll complete testing only once it’s confident that the taxis are safer than a human driver.
Motional, the Aptiv-Hyundai $4 billion joint venture aimed at commercializing driverless cars, announced its partnership with Lyft in December, signaling the ride-hailing company’s primary involvement in Motional’s plans. The company recently announced that it began testing its driverless tech on public roads in Las Vegas. Hyundai’s IONIQ 5 is Motional’s second platform to go driverless on public roads.
Cazoo is picking up significant capital today by teaming up with a SPAC in the U.S. at a $7 billion valuation, but another big used-car play is consolidating operations. TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Berlin-based Frontier Car Group, which builds used-car marketplaces with a focus on emerging markets, is shutting down its operations in the city. The move will see 100 jobs transferred from Berlin to India, the company said.
Its majority owner OLX Group, a division of Prosus (the tech holdings of Naspers that is now listed as a separate entity), said that it wants to refocus on more local operations in Latin America and Asia under its OLX Autos brand, into which it will fold in the remaining FCG operations. OLX Autos’ CEO Gautam Thakar, who was appointed in February, is based out of Gurgaon, India.
The company currently has operations in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Peru. OLX Autos independently also had three other brands: CarFirst brand in Pakistan, Cars45 in Nigeria, and webuyanycar.com in the US.
OLX took a controlling stake in Frontier as a result of an investment of about $400 million in late 2019, valuing Frontier at around $700 million at the time. There was no official announcement of the move, but we saw the news in passing on Twitter, and a Prosus spokesperson confirmed the details to TechCrunch in a statement.
“OLX Group can confirm the closure of the FCG Germany GmbH entity based in Berlin over the coming months,” said the spokesperson. “This entity represents a subset of the OLX Group workforce in Berlin – other OLX Group employees in Berlin were not impacted by this entity closure, and those operations are ongoing. This decision to close FCG Germany GmbH was not taken lightly. The decision reflects the evolution of the OLX Autos strategy to focus more strongly on the LatAm and Asia markets. In order to have our development teams closer to our customers, we will shift core product development operations to India, a key market for OLX Autos. OLX Group is committed to taking care of our people in such a difficult situation and has offered a financial runway beyond what is compulsory, to allow time and flexibility to find new roles. Effected employees are being encouraged to apply for open roles within our other entities.”
About 100 people are being impacted by the news — jobs that were based in Berlin that are being relocated to India. No other operations were active in other markets in Europe. If you navigate to FCG’s site, it automatically redirects to OLX.
Although it was founded and headquartered in Berlin, Frontier Car Group had always focused on emerging markets and taking the used-car marketplace model to those countries.
Inspired by Cazoo rival Auto1 — another Berlin-based used-car marketplace that went public via a listing in Germany in February and is now valued at $12.6 billion (likely an encouraging comparison for Cazoo investors) — Frontier founders Sujay Tyle, Peter Lindholm and André Kussmann thought they could take that model to less developed markets for a bigger opportunity.
“I fell in love with the Auto1 model,” Tyle told TechCrunch back in 2018. “I could see how it could be applied to emerging markets. Emerging markets represent nascency.” Tyle himself is a whizz-kid who hails from the U.S. and was in his early 20s when he co-founded Frontier. He left it in August 2020 and now lives in Mexico City, building a new e-commerce investor there called Merama.
Frontier, in part because of the success of Auto1 (which took hundreds of millions of dollars in investment from the likes of Sequoia, SoftBank and others), became a part of the guard of exciting new tech startups building businesses out of Berlin.
That focus on emerging markets linked up Naspers’ global expansion strategy, and so OLX, a classifieds operation that had an interest in automotive marketplaces, became a strategic investor in Frontier, first with a smaller stake, and eventually taking majority ownership and control of the operation.
It’s not clear why OLX decided to wind down the Frontier brand and to double down OLX Autos but notably, over the last year it looks like OLX was restructuring in other markets, including with the layoff of 250 people in its operations in India after shutting down marketplaces focused on real estate and used goods.
While some companies like Cazoo have apparently seen a strong surge of business in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the health crisis has hit a number of economies, economic sectors and specific companies harder than others, leading to tightening costs. Overall, we’ve seen big slumps in new car sales in different markets around the world.
A Prosus spokesperson said that both OLX and OLX Autos were impacted at the start of Covid-19 but have since recovered. Prosus has remained profitable in what has been a turbulent year, but some have pointed out that those profits have declined. (It will next update its financials in June.)
Updated to make clear that OLX is folding FCG’s remaining operations into its OLX Autos business, not shutting it down altogether.
Electric vehicle manufacturers are pushing back against a decision to delay penalty increases for automakers who fail to meet fuel efficiency standards.
A lobbying group representing legacy automakers – many of whom are now making substantial investments in zero-emissions vehicles – said the increase would have a significant economic impact during a time when the industry is facing mass disruption from the COVID pandemic. But new EV entrants say the penalty mechanism is a powerful performance incentive to decrease tailpipe emissions and encourage investment in lower- or zero-emissions technology.
The decision, issued in January by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), postpones imposing a penalty increase from the beginning of model year 2019 to model year 2022. Tesla is petitioning the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to review the ruling, saying that the delay “inflicts ongoing, irreparable injury” on the company and creates an “uneven playing field” by reducing the consequences of non-adherence.
The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) penalty has been increased just once – from $5 to $5.50 for every 0.1 mile per gallon that doesn’t meet the standard – since its instatement in 1975. Congress acted to rectify the effects of inflation on the penalty by raising it to $14 in 2015, but NHTSA and the courts have ping-ponged about the increase ever since. A decision from the Second Circuit last August seemed to settle the issue in favor of instating the higher penalty starting with model year 2019, but automakers last October successfully petitioned that the increase be delayed.
The CAFE penalty can be a huge boon for zero emissions automakers, who receive credits that they can then sell to other OEMs who fail to meet the fuel efficiency target. In a recent report to regulators, Tesla said it earned $1.58 billion from selling regulatory credits to other automakers in 2020, up from $594 million in 2019. Delaying the increase harms companies that have made economic decisions on the basis of an increase to the credit, Tesla said.
EV start-ups Rivian and Lucid Motors told TechCrunch they also oppose any delay to increasing the CAFE penalty.
“The credit market is very beneficial for the entire EV industry, so every company that is looking to start building EVs, either as a startup or the existing manufacturers, when they build EVs it’s to their benefit to have robust credits,” Kevin Vincent, Lucid Motor’s Associate General Counsel, told TechCrunch. “A lot of existing manufacturers end up selling credits themselves, so it benefits the forward-thinking companies that are improving fuel economy.”
James Chen, Rivian’s VP of Public Policy and Chief Regulatory Counsel, said in a statement to TechCrunch that any rollback of the CAFE or other emission standard “only sets the U.S. backwards in terms of emission reductions ([greenhouse gas] and criteria pollutants), increased fuel efficiency, reduction of dependence on foreign oil, technology leadership and EV proliferation.” He added that the company “strongly supports efforts to bolster EV adoption that includes more stringent emission standards and higher penalties for failure to meet those standards.”
NHTSA postponed the increase on the grounds that the penalty should not be retroactively applied to model years that had already been manufactured. As manufacturers have no way to increase the fuel economy level in these vehicles, “it would be inappropriate to apply the adjustment to model years that could have no deterrence effect and promote no additional compliance with the law,” NHTSA said.
Automakers, in a petition filed by the lobbying group Alliance for Automotive Innovation and in supplemental comments, also cited economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mercedes-Benz told NHTSA that the pandemic caused disruptions to its supply chain, workforce and production.
“We believe that retroactively applying an increased penalty rate in such a tenuous financial climate is unconscionable and inconsistent with this Administration’s efforts to promote regulatory relief in light of the economic consequences of COVID-19,” the automaker said.
Tesla maintained in its court filing that relying on the COVID pandemic “falls flat” in the absence of specific evidence as to why it warrants the delay.
Attorney generals from 16 states, including California and New York, as well as environmental groups Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have also objected to the delay.
The NHTSA decision was issued in docket no. NHTSA-2021-0001. Tesla filed with the second circuit under case no. 21-593.
Chinese automaker Geely Automobile Holdings is launching a new brand of premium electric vehicles as it aims to capture a share of the luxury EV market that has been dominated by Tesla and other homegrown companies.
The new brand of vehicles, called Zeekr, will be manufactured by parent company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. The first Zeekr vehicles are expected to be delivered in the third quarter of 2021.
The launch of Zeekr, which was first reported by Reuters and confirmed today by Geely, has been couched as a bid to take on Tesla in China. Tesla has had success in the country, reporting in a recent regulatory filing that sales in China more than doubled last year, from $2.9 billion in 2019 to $6.6 billion in 2020. But Tesla is hardly the only competition in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles.
Zeekr will have to jostle with domestic start-ups Li Auto and NIO that also offer luxury car models. While Geely remained the highest-selling Chinese auto brand by units sold in 2020 – its fourth consecutive year in the top spot – net profits dropped 32% last year, according to financial results posted Tuesday.
The Zeekr marque will be manufactured by Geely Holding using its Sustainable Experience Architecture, an open-source EV technology that the company said offers driving ranges of up to 435 miles (700 km) as well as smart connectivity options. Geely has plans to deploy the architecture across its nine automotive brands (the company is a minority shareholder of Daimler AG and owner of Volvo Cars) – and sell to other manufacturers.
Eric Li, founder of Geely Holding, said in a statement that the company intends to make the architecture accessible to other car makers.
The SEA platform is just one piece of Geely’s plans to position itself as a leading source of electric vehicle manufacturing and technology. Last month, Geely and Volvo Cars announced they had axed plans to merge but will instead set up a standalone company that will develop next-gen hardware and software for electric vehicles across its brands and with other manufacturers. The two companies will also jointly source batteries and electric motors under the new collaboration.
Geely Holding is also setting the stage to take on a larger role in manufacturing for other car companies, with plans for a joint venture with Chinese company Foxconn Technology Group – Apple’s main supplier – aimed at contract manufacturing for automakers. Geely said it would partner with Chinese tech giant Baidu in a separate venture to build EVs, also with its SEA platform. Baidu has been developing intelligent driving technologies, including autonomous driving, which it said it would contribute to the new company.
Zeekr will be jointly owned by the subsidiary and its parent with a 51% and 49% share structure, with a joint investment of 2 billion yuan ($307 million).
For modern cars, the standalone, photo frame-like display in the center of the dashboard has become something of a default. But with its next-generation iDrive 8 system, BMW is moving away from this design language by introducing what it calls the “BMW Curved Display,” which takes this idea to the next level by expanding that center display all the way through the cockpit. It’s actually still two screens, the 12.3-inch information display and 14.9-inch control display, but it looks like a single curved display that BMW describes as giving an “appearance of almost floating.”
The new curved display with the new iDrive 8 system will debut in the upcoming all-electric iX and i4, which should arrive later this year.
While the company isn’t sharing any details about the underlying technology stack just yet, BMW is willing to say that its new stack is able to process 20 to 30 times more data than the previous system. The company plans to share more details about the stack after July, Frank Weber, BMW’s head of development, told me during a press roundtable earlier today.
The company provided a first glimpse of the new layout when it announced the iX last November, but at the time, it didn’t provide any details about the new iDrive system. At the core of it is, unsurprisingly, a wholesale redesign of the user interface. Drivers will be able to choose between different layouts, for example. There’s a standard “Drive” layout for example, which will feature “a dynamically changing area in the center of the information display to show individually selectable information.” There’s also a “focus” mode for “dynamic driving situations,” a “gallery” layout that minimizes driving info in favor of other widgets from apps like your media source and, for when you just want to drive and be left in peace, a “calm” mode that only shows your vehicle speed in the center of the information display, and virtually nothing else.
There also are three different driving modes: efficient, sport and personal, which allows you to change some of the core driving experience settings like engine throttle, steering characteristics and chassis settings, as well as the audio characteristics of the car.
For maps, which are probably still the most-often used app in any car, there are also three different modes (adaptive, reduced and expanded), all going back to the central idea that the drivers should be able to decide how much information they want to see.
That’s a lot of personalization options and Weber acknowledged as much, but he also argues that the company has made them easy to use so that they don’t overwhelm the driver — and that a lot of drivers really want this functionality.
“When you test our system in China, you cannot do enough for personalization, they almost want to personalize everything,” Weber explained. “And then there are other people who say: I just want to drive my vehicle, I don’t want to see any of that. Therefore, what we did is, we have included a ‘My Mode’ function — a very simple surface in the vehicle. When you push My Mode, you find Sport and you find Efficiency and you find Personal here. And there, it is very easy to almost say ‘Do I want something that is very reduced? Or do I want something that has all the possibilities of personalization?’ There are very artful things that we have included in here. And there are very simple choices.”
And talking about personalization, with the BMW ID, the company now offers a new system for saving those personalized settings on your smartphone and the new My BMW app.
With this update, BMW is also launching the next generation of its BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, which made its debut at TechCrunch Disrupt a few years ago. Built on top of Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive Services, the improved in-car assistant will get better at interacting with drivers through a more natural dialog, but in addition to voice interactions, BMW is now also adding more visual components and integrating the assistant with its gesture recognition capabilities. We’ll have to see this in action to see how this works in practice. So far, BMW hasn’t shared a lot of details about these features.
“In communication between people, a great deal of information is conveyed non-verbally,” the company explains. “The BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant has thus been upgraded with a greater focus on how it is presented visually. This new visualization approach features spheres of light in differing sizes and brightness levels, giving the assistant more space and new ways of expressing itself. This visual image also gives it a “face” with a clearly visible point of focus and identifiable states of activity.”
Like with the iDrive 7 system, this new operation system will also support remote software upgrades, either over the air thanks to the car’s built-in SIM card and cell connectivity (up to 5G for the iX) or through the My BMW app.
As for current cars with the iDrive 7, Weber noted that those cars will get some of the features from iDrive 8 that can be ported back to it — and iDrive 7 will continue to get updates as well.
“It’s a little bit like in the smartphone world,” Weber said. “All the things — and the good and interesting new things from iD8 that can be transferred to iD7, iD7 we’ll get those upgrades. But like a particular function on a phone, not all of them can be transferred back to the previous generation. So most of it can be transferred, but not all of them. But certainly, we will continue to work on updating the previous generation. We won’t stop that.”
As a side note, Weber also addressed the current chip shortage that has led some car manufacturers to slow down production. He noted that since about Christmas, BMW is “fighting for every single production day” but hasn’t lost a single production day yet. He wasn’t willing to make any forecasts, but noted that the company has started to develop alternative solutions on the engineering side. “So far, we are really able and capable of adjusting our pipeline, so that we didn’t have to stop any production at this point,” he said.
Netflix’s original films received 35 Oscar nominations this year, once again putting the streaming service ahead of ahead of any other Hollywood studios.
“Mank” led the pack with 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gary Oldman) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Amanda Seyfried). That doesn’t necessarily make it a shoo-in to be Netflix’s first Best Picture winner, however — it’s worth remembering that in 2019, the streamer’s film “Roma” received 10 nominations as well, ultimately winning three awards but not Best Picture. And last year, “The Irishman” went empty-handed despite its 10 noms.
Besides “Mank,” Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” received six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sacha Baron Cohen). And “Crip Camp,” a film from the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground, is nominated for Best Documentary Feature, as is “My Octopus Teacher.”
Amazon, meanwhile, received 12 nominations, with six for “Sound of Metal” (including Best Picture). “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” “One Night in Miami” and “Time” were nominated as well. And Apple received its first two nominations ever, for “Wolfwalkers” (Best Animated Feature) and “Greyhound” (Best Sound).
Of course, this is a streaming-centric year for movies overall. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing theaters to close across the world, the Oscars temporarily abandoned their requirement that films screen commercially in theaters in order to qualify for wards.
And it’s probably safe to assume that most viewers (Academy members and otherwise) watched these movies via streaming. For example, Best Picture nominee and Golden Globe winner for Best Drama Film winner “Nomadland” was released by Fox Searchlight simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu.
The Academy Awards will air on April 25 at 5pm Pacific on ABC.
BMW has joined the cohort of investors that are backing Boston Metal’s carbon dioxide-free production technology for steel.
The Boston-based startup had targeted a $50 million raise earlier in the year, as TechCrunch reported, and BMW’s addition closes out that round, according to a person familiar with the company.
Through a commitment from BMW iVentures, the automaker’s investment arm, Boston Metal will have an in to a company with massive demands for more sustainably manufactured metal. For instance, BMW Group press plants in Europe process more than half a million tonnes of steel per year, the company said.
“We systematically identify the raw materials and components in our supplier network with the highest CO2 emissions from production,” said Dr Andreas Wendt, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for Purchasing and Supplier Network, in a statement. “Steel is one of them, but it is vital to car production. For this reason, we have set ourselves the goal of continuously reducing CO2 emissions in the steel supply chain. By 2030, CO2 emissions should be about two million tonnes lower than today’s figure.”
Conventional steel production requires blast furnaces that generate carbon dioxide emissions, but using Boston Metal’s process, an electrolysis cell produces the pig iron that gets processed into steel, the company said.
The addition of BMW to its investor group, which already includes Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other strategic and financial investors, caps the fundraising process with another corporate partner wielding incredible industry influence.
“Our investors span across the steel value chain, from the upstream mining and iron ore companies to the downstream end customer, and validate Boston Metal’s innovative process to produce high-quality steel, cost-competitively, and at scale,” said chief executive officer and founder, Tadeu Carneiro.
Luminar Technologies has deepened ties with Volvo Cars to develop and eventually sell an automated driving system for highways to other automakers. The partnership, announced Thursday, is between Luminar and Volvo’s self-driving software subsidiary Zenseact.
The two companies are combining their tech to create what Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell described as a “holistic autonomous vehicle stack” made for production vehicles. Volvo will be the first customer. Russell and Zenseact CEO Ödgärd Andersson said Thursday they plan to also offer this system to other automakers.
It’s worth noting how Luminar and Zenseact define highway autonomy. The system they’re developing would allow hands-free, eyes free autonomous driving on highways. That means the driver would be out of the loop, and not expected to take over the vehicle. The transition between this level of autonomy and manual driving is a tricky one that has stumped automakers in the past.
“This is something that’s being solved for just in the next couple of years, this going to be available on vehicles that you can buy starting with Volvo and then expanding outwards — that’s the distinction,” Russell said in a webinar discussing the announcement.
The stack that will be offered to other automakers is called Sentinel, which will integrate Zenseact’s OnePilot autonomous driving software solution alongside Luminar’s Iris lidar, perception software, and other components as a foundation. The system is designed to handle highway autonomy and a number of safety measures to proactively avoid collisions with evasive maneuvers, reducing accident rates by up to seven times, according to Zenseact. The Sentinel product also has the capability of updating wirelessly, or over-the-air, to expand the operating domain of autonomy and further improve safety of vehicles over time, the companies said.
Zenseact might not sound familiar, but its 550-person team has been working on ADAS and software for years. Volvo created Zenseact after ending its joint venture with Veoneer.
Luminar and Zenseact noted that while the wider autonomous industry largely focuses on robotaxi applications, they are focused on delivering systems into series production vehicles. Lidar sensors are considered by many automakers and tech companies an essential piece of technology to safely roll out autonomous vehicles. As the timeline to deploy commercial robotaxi fleets has expanded, automakers have turned back to developing nearer term tech for production vehicles.
“The whole point of autonomous driving technology is to reduce accidents and save lives. This alliance enables us together to make that technology more broadly accessible and thus even more impactful,” Andersson said in a statement.
The announcement comes about 10 months since Volvo announced it would start producing vehicles in 2022 equipped with Luminar’s lidar and a perception stack to deploy an automated driving system for highways. Volvo has said it will take full liability for the automated driving system.