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Self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski files motion to force Uber into arbitration

By Kirsten Korosec

Anthony Levandowski, the star self-driving car engineer who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit, has filed a motion to compel Uber into arbitration in the hopes that his former employee will have to shoulder the cost of at least $179 million judgment against him.

The motion to compel arbitration filed this week is part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s the latest chapter in a long and winding legal saga that has entangled Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

The motion represents the first legal step to force Uber to stand by an indemnity agreement with Levandowski. Uber signed an indemnity agreement in 2016 when it acquired Levandowski’s self-driving truck startup Otto . Under the agreement, Uber said it would indemnify — or compensate — Levandowski against claims brought by his former employer Google.

In Uber’s view the stakes are at least $64 million, according to the ride-hailing company’s annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission . Although Levandowski, who was ordered in March 2020 to pay Google $179 million, is clearly shooting for more.

“For much of the past three years, Anthony ceded control of his personal defense to Uber because Uber insisted on controlling his defense as part of its duty to indemnify him. Then, when Uber didn’t like the outcome, it suddenly changed its mind and said it would not indemnify him. What Uber did is wrong, and Anthony has to protect his rights as a result,” Levandowksi’s lawyer Neel Chatterjee of Goodwin Procter said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

The backstory

Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. The Google self-driving project later spun out to become Waymo, a business under Alphabet. Levandowski was paid about $127 million by Google for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court document filed this week.

Levandowski left Google in January 2016 and started Otto, a self-driving trucking company, with three other Google veterans Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.

Before the acquisition closed, Uber conducted due diligence including hiring outside forensic investigation firm Stroz Friedberg to review the electronic devices of Levandowski and other Otto employees, according to the recent court filing. The investigation discovered that Levandowski had files belonging to Google on his devices, as well as indications that evidence may have been destroyed.

Uber agreed to a broad indemnification agreement in spite of the forensic evidence, which would protect Levandowski against claims brought by Google relating to his previous employment. Levandowski was worried that Google would attempt to get back any or all of the $127 million in compensation he had received.

That forecast didn’t take long to come true. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, it was on the hook under the indemnification agreement, to defend Levandowski.

Uber accepted those obligations and defended Levandowski. While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit in February 2017 against Uber, for trade secret theft. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial and ended in a settlement, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber. Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

Meanwhile, the arbitration panel issued an interim award in March 2019 against each of Google’s former employees, including a $127 million judgment against Levandowski. The judgment also included another $1 million that Levandowski and Ron were jointly liable for. Google submitted a request for interest, attorney fees and other costs. A final award was issued in December.

Ron settled in February with Google for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition in March, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.

As the legal wrangling between Google and Levandowski and Uber played out, the engineer faced criminal charges. In August 2019, he was indicted by a federal grand jury with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Last month, Levandowski reached a plea agreement with the U.S. District Attorney and pleaded guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets.

What’s next

Levandowski’s lawyers argue that when the final judgment was entered against him, Uber reneged on its indemnification agreement. Levandowski said he was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because Uber has refused to pay.

“While Uber and Levandowski are parties to an indemnification agreement, whether Uber is ultimately responsible for such indemnification is subject to a dispute between the Company and Levandowski,” Uber said, using similar language found in its annual report filed with the SEC.

Even if Levandowski’s legal team is able to convince a judge to compel Uber into arbitration, that doesn’t mean the outcome will be positive. Arbitration could take months to play out. In the end, Levandowski could still lose. But the filing allows Levandowski to speak out — albeit using legalese — and share details of his employment at Google and Uber. Among those are details about what Uber knew (and when) about Levandowski’s activities in recruiting Google employees as well as information he had downloaded onto his laptop, and discovered during the forensic investigation.

The first cracks between Uber and Levandowski appeared in April 2018, based on a timeline in the court document. It was then that Uber told Levandowski it intended to seek reimbursement for expenses used to defend him in the arbitration, according to claims laid out in the motion. Uber told Levandowski at the time, that one reason it was seeking reimbursement is because Levandowski “refused to testify at his deposition through an unjustifiably broad invocation of the Fifth Amendment.” Levandowski had used the Fifth Amendment in the deposition during the arbitration with Google.

Uber never requested Levandowski waive his Fifth Amendment rights and testify during the arbitration, according to the court document. Levandowski said that he immediately alerted Google and the arbitration panel that he was willing to testify and offered to make himself available for deposition before the arbitration hearing.

Levandowski-Uber Motion to Compel by TechCrunch on Scribd

New Rules Could Finally Clear the Way for Self-Driving Cars

By Aarian Marshall
For the first time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is weighing in on autonomous vehicles with no driver behind the wheel—or no wheel at all.

Tesla to reduce on-site staff at Nevada gigafactory by 75%

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla is reducing the number of on-site workers at its Nevada gigafactory by 75% in response to the growing spread of COVID-19, according to an update from Storey County, where the massive plant is located.

The information, which was first reported by Bloomberg, was part of a larger update on the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center and its response to COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus. The privately owned privately owned 107,000-acre industrial park, known as TRIC, is home to the Tesla gigafactory, Google and Switch as well as a Walmart distribution center and Petsmart.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Companies in TRIC are taking COVID-19 serious and are regularly report measures being taken to adhere to the established guidelines while maintaining essential operations, Storey County Manager Austin Osborne said in the letter posted on the county’ website. Those measures include checking employee temperatures, creating central access, allowing remote work and creating distance between work stations.

Tesla’s decision to reduce staff follows a move by its gigafactory partner Panasonic to pull all 3,500 of its employees from the site over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Panasonic said March 20 that it would ramp down operations this week and then close for 14 days. That move only affected Panasonic employees. Tesla also employs thousands of workers at the so-called Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, Nevada.

Gigafactory 1, which broke ground in June 2014, is a critical ingredient in Tesla’s goal to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy by expanding global battery capacity and reducing the cost of electric vehicles. And Panasonic has been its most important partner as a supplier and partner in that project.

The factory produces Model 3 electric motors and battery packs, in addition to Tesla’s energy storage products, Powerwall and Powerpack. Panasonic makes the cells, which Tesla then uses to make battery packs for its electric vehicles.

Tesla has several two factories in the U.S., including in Fremont, Calif., where it produces the Model X, Model S, Model 3 and now the Model Y. Tesla has reduced staff at the Fremont plant from more than 10,000 workers to about 2,500.

Earlier this week, the company sent out an email informing workers that two Tesla employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The internal email, which was viewed by TechCrunch, didn’t indicate where these employees worked.

Tesla employs more than 48,000 people at locations throughout the U.S. These two employees had been working at home for nearly two weeks, according to the email. The employees were not symptomatic in the office, and both are quarantined at home and recovering well, according to the email from Tesla’s EHS department head Laurie Shelby.

TuSimple partners with supplier ZF to mass produce self-driving truck tech

By Kirsten Korosec

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale.

The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.

TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.

The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.

Tesla email reveals two employees have tested positive for COVID-19

By Kirsten Korosec

Two Tesla employees, who had been working at home for nearly two weeks, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an internal email sent Thursday morning by the company’s head of environmental, health, and safety department and viewed by TechCrunch .

The employees were not symptomatic in the office, and both are quarantined at home and recovering well, according to the email from Tesla’s EHS department head Laurie Shelby. Their co-workers, who were already working from home for nearly two weeks as well, were notified so they can quarantine, the email read. The email did not disclose what locations the employees were working at.

“In both cases, interactions with the individuals had a low likelihood of transmission based on the minimal staff onsite and social distancing measures we took earlier this month,” Shelby wrote in the email.

Tesla could not be reached for comment. Business Insider previously reported on the same internal email.

The email has heightened concern among several Tesla employees that TechCrunch has spoken to, as they weigh the risk of coming into work or using paid-time off or unpaid leave to stay at home. Tesla employs more than 48,000 people at its headquarters, factories, sales and service centers and delivery hubs throughout the U.S. While some employees are able to work from home, the company still has workers at its delivery and service centers as well as an estimated 2,500 people at its Fremont, Calif. factory.

Tesla suspended production at its Fremont factory beginning March 23, days after a shelter-in-place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” have continued at the factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people.

The decision to suspend production at Fremont came after a multi-day public tussle between the automaker and local officials in Alameda County over what was considered an “essential” business.

Tesla has also suspended operations at its factory in Buffalo, N.Y., except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains,” the company said in a statement. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Wednesday that he plans to reopen the Buffalo factory to produce ventilators, a critical piece of medical equipment used in severe cases of COVID-19.

The email comes just two days after reports of at least two positive COVID-19 cases at SpaceX, another company headed up Musk. The positive cases at SpaceX sent some employees into quarantine, CNBC reported. The company is making hand sanitizer in house and taking other steps to protect nervous workers, according to CNBC. TechCrunch could not reach SpaceX for comment.

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has rippled through corporate and industrial America. Manufacturers have suspended production of vehicles, tech companies have ordered employees to work from home and city, county and state governments have issued a variety of orders to try and slow the spread of COVID-19.

For instance, California Gv. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home directive that ordered all nonessential businesses to close and for residents to only leave their homes for essential needs like groceries or to visit the pharmacy. Other states where Tesla has operations such as New York are also under a stay-at-home order.

Musk’s actions during the pandemic have caused a variety of reactions among employees, critics and his millions of Twitter followers. He has appeared dismissive of COVID-19 in emails to employees and on Twitter, where he has spread a misinformation on the disease, including that children are “essentially immune,” a statement that contradicts with information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In one internal email sent to SpaceX employees, Musk noted that they were more likely to die in a car crash than from the disease. 

Even as Musk seemed to downplay the disease, he has also stepped up to donate medical supplies needed by hospitals and has directed employees to not come to work if they feel ill or are uncomfortable. Tesla employees have received emails from human resources head Valerie Workman that if they could not or were reluctant to come to work they could use PTO or take unpaid time off after they exhaust their PTO. The email told one employee (who spoke to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity) that they would be not be penalized for their decision or face disciplinary action for attendance based on health or impossibility to come to work.

Musk has also donated essential personal protective equipment to hospitals that are facing a shortage of these supplies and has committed to trying to help ramp up production of ventilators.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Giga New York will reopen for ventilator production as soon as humanly possible. We will do anything in our power to help the citizens of New York.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2020

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

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

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

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

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

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

Tesla gets OK to produce long-range Model 3 at China factory

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has received government approval to produce the long-range rear-wheel-drive version of its Model 3 vehicle at its Chinese factory, according to documents posted Friday on the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology website.

Reuters was the first to report the story.

Tesla started producing a standard-range-plus rear-whee-drive version of the Model 3 at its Shanghai factory late last year. The first deliveries began in early January. This approval allows Tesla to add another variant to its Chinese portfolio. Eventually, Tesla plans to manufacture the Model Y electric vehicle at the China factory.

The move is notable because Tesla discontinued production of the long-range RWD Model 3 in the U.S. and now only offers that variant as a dual-motor all-wheel drive. It also appears to be a shift from Tesla’s initial plan to sell a more basic version of the Model 3 in China.

The standard-range-plus Model 3 can travel 276 miles on a single charge, according to Tesla’s China website. The company hasn’t posted a range on its Chinese website for the longer-range variant.

Tesla struck a deal with the Chinese government in July 2018 to build a factory in Shanghai. It was a milestone for Tesla and CEO Elon Musk, who has long viewed China as a crucial market. And it was particularly notable because China agreed for this to be a wholly owned Tesla factory, not a traditional joint venture with the government. Foreign companies have historically had to form a 50-50 joint venture with a local partner to build a factory in China.

Inside the next-gen tech on Waymo’s self-driving Jaguar I-Pace

By Kirsten Korosec

A little more than two and half years ago, Waymo engineers began working on a hardware sensor suite that would improve upon previous generations and have the capability to work on a variety of vehicles, from self-driving passenger cars to autonomous semi-trucks.

The autonomous vehicle technology company is now showing off the fruits of its labor, starting with its fleet of all-electric Jaguar I-Pace vehicles.

Waymo has integrated the next-gen hardware system into the Jaguar I-Pace vehicles and is using them for data collection to train machine-learning models. Waymo will then begin testing the I-Pace vehicles in autonomous mode with a human safety driver behind the wheel. Once Waymo hits that milestone, it will turn to its big-rig trucks. The I-Pace testing on public roads will continue and eventually Waymo employees will be able to hail the vehicles and try them out. The final step will be to roll the I-Pace vehicles into its Waymo One service, which operates in the Phoenix area.

This is Waymo’s fifth-generation hardware suite and, with more than a decade of research and development, one would expect it to be better and more capable than its predecessors. And it is, according to Waymo.

Of course, creating the most capable and robust hardware suite for a commercially deployed autonomous vehicle business doesn’t matter if it costs too much. Waymo says its new hardware suite is half the cost of its previous generation, reductions it achieved through a simplified design and manufacturing process.

This next-gen hardware suite is being manufactured on a line, not in a lab — although Waymo wouldn’t say where. The integration of these hardware suites occur at Waymo’s facility in Detroit.

All of these improvements take money. Developing, testing, validating and eventually deploying commercially viable autonomous vehicles is a capitally intensive undertaking. The constant need for cash has already squeezed several AV startups out of existence.

As a business under Alphabet, Waymo is in a different and more comfortable position. But that didn’t stop the company from raising $2.25 billion. Waymo announced last week the fundraising round, which was led by Silver Lake, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Mubadala Investment Company. This was the company’s first external investment, which also included Magna, Andreessen Horowitz and AutoNation and its parent company Alphabet.

What’s inside

The hardware suite has a new vision system that includes 29 cameras, which Waymo says provides different perspectives of the road with overlapping fields of view, as well as the ability to see a stop sign 500 meters away.

Waymo has also redesigned the architecture, outputs and signal processing capabilities of its radar to make it better suited for the requirements of a self-driving car.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, has been a key piece of hardware for Waymo. The company has dedicated significant resources — time, people and money — toward the development of lidar in an effort to improve their capability and lower the cost. It’s a fundamental piece of the business, and in 2017 prompted the company to file a lawsuit against Uber alleging theft of trade secrets by a former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski — and the alleged use of those secrets by Uber.

And it’s no different with the fifth-generation system. Lidar, which at the most basic level is a form of digital imaging that provides a 3D picture of the environment, is still center stage. But there have been some important changes.

Waymo has combined its long-range and mid-range lidar into a single rooftop unit to provide a 360-degree view. The company has also developed new perimeter lidar sensors that are located at the four points of the vehicle. These short-range lidars are designed to enhance spatial resolution and accuracy and are most useful for low-speed applications when near-object detection and avoidance is necessary.

The upgrade to these short-range lidars will affect more than Waymo’s self-driving vehicle ambitions. Waymo announced in March 2019 plans to sell its short-range sensor (known as Laser Bear Honeycomb) to industries outside of autonomous vehicles. At the time, Waymo said it would initially target robotics, security and agricultural technology. The sales will help the company scale its autonomous technology faster, making each sensor more affordable through economies of scale, Simon Verghese, head of Waymo’s Lidar team, wrote in a Medium post last year.

Waymo said there have been sales of the laser bear units, but didn’t provide specific figures on how many or to which companies.

Anthony Levandowski ordered to pay $179 million to Google

By Kirsten Korosec

Anthony Levandowski, the engineer and autonomous vehicle startup founder who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, has been ordered to pay $179 million to end a contract dispute over his departure from Google.

Reuters was the first to report the court order.

An arbitration panel ruled in December that Levandowski and Lior Ron had engaged in unfair competition and breached their contract with Google when they left the company to start a rival autonomous vehicle company focused on trucking called Otto. Uber acquired Otto in 2017. A San Francisco County court confirmed Wednesday the panel’s decision.

Ron settled last month with Google for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, had disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition today, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.

Levandowski himself may not have to pay the money personally; Uber, like other large companies, indemnifies its employees against certain types of fines and damages. But this may also be disputed. For now, however, it does seem as though the $179M will eventually find its way out of somebody’s pockets into Google’s.

This story is developing pending comment from Levandowski and Google, and the release of further documentation from the court.

Devin Coldewey contributed to this story.

GM reveals ‘Ultium,’ the heart of its EV strategy

By Kirsten Korosec
Ed Niedermeyer Contributor
Ed Niedermeyer is an author, columnist and co-host of The Autonocast. His book, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, was released in August 2019.

GM revealed Wednesday a new electric architecture that will be the foundation of the automaker’s future EV plans and support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs, performance vehicles and a new Bolt EUV crossover that will come to market next summer.

This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front, rear and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM’s focus on making this EV architecture modular underlines the automaker’s desire to electrify a wide variety of its business lines, from the Cruise Origin autonomous taxi and compact Chevrolet Bolt EUV to the GMC HUMMER electric truck and SUV and the newly announced Cadillac Lyriq SUV. GM also on Wednesday showed a variety of electric vehicles that had not yet been announced or revealed in public, to show how this modularity will be exploited further out in their product plan, including a massive Cadillac flagship sedan called Celestiq.

The Celestiq will be hand-built in the Detroit area, GM President Mark Reuss said, joining a large electric SUV in Cadillac’s future lineup. A pair of future Buick crossovers showed that brand’s styling moving in a decidedly Tesla-inspired direction, while a mid-sized Chevrolet crossover hinted at a more affordable option in GM’s otherwise premium-focused future EV lineup.

Using a single architecture for such a wide variety of vehicles provides much-needed scale and capital-efficiency to what has been a small-volume and profitability-challenged EV market. GM sees this scale driving reductions in the cost and complexity of its battery packs, eliminating 80% of the pack wiring compared to the current Chevrolet Bolt and enabling it to drive battery cell costs below the $100/kWh level.

At the heart of the new modular architecture will be large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint manufacturing venture between LG Chem and GM. The companies announced in December plans to mass produce battery cells for GM’s electric vehicles at a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

While the automaker has used LG Chem as a lithium-ion and electronics supplier for at least a decade, the joint venture marks a shift that aims to accelerate the automaker’s ability to win in the electric vehicle space.

GM’s relationship with LG Chem has produced a new Nickel Cobalt Manganese Aluminium (NCMA) battery cell, which the automaker says will have the lowest cobalt content of any large-format pouch cell. The flat, rectangular pouch cells allow GM to stack batteries vertically, enabling more packaging flexibility and interior space than the cylindrical cells favored by Tesla, Rivian and others.

GM and LG Chem will break ground on the new $2.3 billion joint venture plant this spring, where they will have annual production capacity of 30 gigawatt hours of these cells, with room to expand. The two firms said they will work together to eventually drive all cobalt and nickel out of its cell chemistries, develop electrolyte additives that heal cell degradation and explore solid-state cell options.

The initial wave of electric vehicles from GM will be led by an updated version of the Chevrolet Bolt later this year, followed by a Bolt EUV crossover next summer that will be the first vehicle outside of the Cadillac brand to feature the hands-free SuperCruise driver assistance system. GM will reveal two new premium electric SUVs later this year, the GMC HUMMER EV that will begin production in 2021 and the Cadillac Lyriq, which will follow it to market in 2022.

GM’s new EV architecture enables Level 2 and DC fast charging, with up to 100 miles of range available in the first 10 minutes of charging. But rather than launching its own in-house fast-charging network, GM is aggregating public charger networks like ChargePoint and EVgo into its myChevrolet mobile app and enabling in-app payment at EVgo chargers. GM is also partnering with Qmerit to provide accredited home charger installation, because 80% of EV customers charge at home, the company said.

The BMW Concept i4 gets us closer to what’s coming in 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

BMW unveiled Tuesday a concept version of its upcoming i4, an all-electric four-door Gran Coupe with an estimated EPA range of 270 miles and the ability to produce 530 horsepower, pushing it past its high-performance M3 combustion vehicle.

The i4 concept vehicle, which was unveiled online because the Geneva International Motor Show was cancelled due to the coronavirus, is slated to enter production in 2021. BMW has been talking about and teasing what would follow its i3 electric vehicle for awhile now. BMW released some specs on the upcoming i4 at the LA Auto Show back in November. This latest unveiling shows off more of what we can expect the i4 to look like, plus a bit more information on the interior and expected range.

The concept has a long wheelbase, fastback roofline and short overhangs, suggesting that the production version will have a similar profile — a far cry from the wedge-shaped i3.

The front end shows a closed-off grille. BMW says it has given the grille of the concept a purpose beyond just a reminder of its combustion engine past. The grille will be used to house various sensors, according to BMW.

Perhaps the most noticeable features, besides the mammoth kidney-shaped grille, is the glass roof and a curved digital display in the interior.

bmw i14 inside

While it is not clear if the production version will integrate these same features, we can expect that the interior will be more touch-based and have fewer buttons and knobs. It will be interesting to see if BMW sticks to the single-screen design. In the photo below, you’ll notice at least one knob located in the console area.

bmw i4 inside screenClose followers of BMW’s EV plans might remember that the i4 was going to have a range of 600 kilometers, or about 400 miles. But it wasn’t clear if that figure, which would push it ahead of the competition, was based on the EPA or European WLTP.  EPA estimates tend to be more conservative. BMW is now clarifying the range and has said the EPA estimate will be 270 miles.

The i4 will have the fifth-generation BMW eDrive, a platform that features a brand new electric motor, power electronics, charging unit and high-voltage battery. This fifth-gen platform will also show up in the iNEXT SUV and the iX3, which is headed for the Chinese market. The 80-kilowatt battery pack in the i4 is flat, according to BMW, and weighs 550 kilograms. For comparison, the battery pack in the Tesla Model 3 weighs 480 kg.

The unveiling of the i4 concept builds upon earlier announcements from BMW to push deeper into electrification. In November, BMW announced it would spend more than €10 billion euros ($11.07 billion) on battery cells from Chinese battery cell manufacturer Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. and Samsung SDI. BMW’s original deal with CATL, which was announced in mid-2018, was for €4 billion worth of battery cells. This new contract is from 2020 to 2031, the German automaker said at the time.

BMW Group will be the first customer of CATL’s battery cell factory that is under construction in Erfurt, Germany. BMW played an active part in establishing CATL in Germany, according to Andreas Wendt, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for purchasing and supplier network.

Waymo brings in $2.25 billion from outside investors, Alphabet

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo, the former Google self-driving car project that is now a business under Alphabet, said Monday it raised $2.25 billion in a fundraising round led by Silver Lake, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and Mubadala Investment Company.

This is the company’s first external investment, which also included Magna, Andreessen Horowitz, and AutoNation and its parent company Alphabet.

“We’ve always approached our mission as a team sport, collaborating with our OEM and supplier partners, our operations partners, and the communities we serve to build and deploy the world’s most experienced driver,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in blog the company posted Monday. “Today, we’re expanding that team, adding financial investors and important strategic partners who bring decades of experience investing in and supporting successful technology companies building transformative products. With this injection of capital and business acumen, alongside Alphabet, we’ll deepen our investment in our people, our technology, and our operations, all in support of the deployment of the Waymo Driver around the world.”

The round follows a flurry of activity in the past year that illustrated Waymo efforts to ramp up into a commercial enterprise. Much of the activity has focused on mapping and testing its autonomous vehicle technology in new locales such as Florida while continuing to expand its core fleet in Mountain View, Calif., and the Phoenix area.

Waymo has long focused on testing and eventually launching an on-demand ride-hailing service called Waymo One using its autonomous vehicles in the suburbs surrounding Phoenix. In October, Waymo began pulling safety drivers out of some of the vehicles on its Waymo One service.

But here have been other expansions, including a focus on finding new business applications for its autonomous vehicle technology such as delivery and trucking and even a plan to start selling its custom lidar sensors, to companies outside of self-driving cars such as robotics, security and agricultural technology.

In January, Waymo announced that it would begin mapping and eventually testing its autonomous long-haul trucks in Texas and parts of New Mexico.

Waymo has also expanded through acquisitions and partnerships. Waymo acquired in December a U.K. company called Latent Logic that spun out of Oxford University’s computer science department. The company uses a form of machine learning called imitation learning that could beef up Waymo’s simulation efforts. The acquisition marked the launch of Waymo’s first European engineering hub, which will be in Oxford, U.K.

Last spring, Waymo hired more than a dozen engineers from Anki, the robotics startup that shut down in April. The 13 robotics experts includes Anki’s  co-founder and former CEO Boris Sofman, who is leading engineering in the autonomous trucking division.

Waymo also locked in an exclusive partnership with Renault and Nissan to research how commercial autonomous vehicles might work for passengers and packages in France and Japan.

Announcing the agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

TC Sessions: Mobility is back in San Jose on May 14, and we’re excited to give the first peek of what and who is coming to the main stage. We’re not revealing everything just yet, but already this agenda highlights some of the best and brightest minds in autonomous vehicles, electrification and shared mobility.

We’ve selected the most innovative startups and top leaders from established tech companies working in mobility. This past year saw huge leaps forward, and we’re thrilled to bring the latest and greatest to our stage.

This year, we’re holding a pitch-off competition for early stage mobility companies. More details to come.

Don’t forget that early-bird tickets (including $100 savings) are currently available for a limited time; grab your tickets here before prices increase.

Some speakers have already been announced, and more will be added to the agenda in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out this early look at the agenda:

AGENDA

9:35 AM – 10:05 AM

Investing in Mobility: with Reilly Brennan (Trucks VC), Olaf Sakkers (Maniv Mobility) and speakers to be announced.

Reilly Brennan, Olaf Sakkers and two yet-to-be announced venture capitalists will come together to debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Coming soon!

10:25 AM – 10:50

The next opportunities in micromobility with Danielle Harris (Elemental Excelerator), Dor Levi (Lyft), and Dmitry Shevelenko (Tortoise)

Worldwide, numerous companies are operating shared micromobility services — so many that the industry is well into a consolidation phase. Despite the over-saturation of the market, there are still opportunities for new players. Dor Levi, head of bikes and scooters at Lyft, Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator and Dmitry Shevelenko, founder at Tortoise will discuss.

10:50 AM – 11:10 AM

Waymo Grows Up with Tekedra Mawakana (Waymo)

Waymo Chief Operating Officer Tekedra Mawakana is at the center of Waymo’s future from scaling the autonomous vehicle company’s commercial deployment and directing fleet operations to developing the company’s business path. Tekedra will speak about what lies ahead as Waymo drives forward with its plan to become a grownup business.

11:10 AM – 11:30 AM
Innovation Break

11:30 AM – 11:40 AM

Live Demo. Coming soon!

11:40 AM – 12:00 PM

Setting the Record Straight with Bryan Salesky (Argo AI)

Argo AI has gone from unknown startup to a company providing the autonomous vehicle technology to Ford and VW — not to mention billions in investment from the two global automakers. Co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky will talk about the company’s journey, what’s next and what it really takes to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-Off

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have 5 minutes to present their companies.

1:25 PM – 1:45 PM

Building an AV Startup with  Nancy Sun (Ike)

Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun will share her experiences in the world of automation and robotics, a ride that has taken her from Apple to Otto and Uber before she set off to start a self-driving truck company. Sun will discuss what the future holds for trucking and the challenges and the secrets behind building a successful mobility startup.

1:45 PM – 2:10 PM

Working with Cities, Not Against Them with Euwyn Poon (Spin) and Shin-pei Tsay (Uber)

Many micromobility services got off to a rough start with cities in the early days of the industry. Now, operators are making a point to work more closely with regulators from the very beginning. Hear from Spin co-founder Euwyn Poon and Uber Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation Shin-pei Tsay on what it takes to make a copacetic relationship between operators and cities.

2:10 PM – 2:30 PM

Innovation Break

2:30 PM – 2:50 PM

The electrification of Porsche with Klaus Zellmer (Porsche)

Porsche has undergone a major transformation in the past several years, investing billions into an electric vehicle program and launching the Taycan, its first all-electric vehicle. Now, Porsche is ramping up for more. North America CEO Klaus Zellmer will talk about Porsche’s path, competition and where it’s headed next.

2:50 PM – 3:15 PM

Navigating Self-Driving Car Regulations with Melissa Froelich (Aurora) and Jody Kelman (Lyft)

Autonomous vehicle developers face a patchwork of local, state and federal regulations. Government policy experts Jody Kelman, who leads the self-driving platform team at Lyft, and Melissa Froelich Senior Manager, Government Affairs at Aurora, discuss how to get your startup back on the road safely.

3:15 PM – 3:35 PM

Coming Soon!

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Future of Trucking with Xiaodi Hou (TuSimple) and Boris Sofman (Waymo)

TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou and Boris Sofman, former Anki Robotics founder and CEO who now leads Waymo’s trucking unit, will discuss the business and the technical challenges of autonomous trucking.

4:00 PM – 4:20 PM

Innovation Break

4:20 PM – 4:30 PM

Live Demo. Coming soon!

4:30 PM – 4:55 PM

Coming soon!

Don’t forget to grab your tickets and join us this May.

The Feds Ban a Self-Driving Shuttle Fleet From Carrying People

By Aarian Marshall
Regulators have been hands-off on autonomous vehicles, even after deaths and injuries. But they acted quickly after a woman was hurt in Columbus this week. 

Lyft ramps up self-driving program

By Kirsten Korosec

A year ago, Lyft submitted a report to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that summed up its 2018 autonomous vehicle testing activity in a single, short paragraph.

“Lyft Inc. did not operate any vehicles in autonomous mode on California public roads during the reporting period,” the letter read. “As such, Lyft Inc. has no autonomous mode disengagements to report.”

The 2019 data tells a different story. Lyft had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California in 2019, according to data released earlier this week by the CA DMV. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode.

The report is the latest sign that Lyft is trying to ramp up its self-driving vehicle program known as Level 5. 

The CA DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state, requires companies to submit an annual report that includes data such as total AV miles driven and number of vehicles. It also requires companies to report “disengagements,” a term that describes each time a self-driving vehicle disengages out of autonomous mode either because its technology failed or a human safety driver took manual control for safety reasons.

That’s still far below established AV developers such as Cruise and Waymo, which accumulated 831,000 and 1.45 million autonomous miles, respectively. And it makes up just a tiny sliver of the total autonomous miles racked up by the 36 companies that tested on public roads in 2019.

The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.

Other companies scaled back public testing in California. Some moved public testing outside of California, others retracted due to the high cost. Others said they were opting to place greater emphasis on simulation.

Still, the report shows Lyft is doing more than partnering with autonomous vehicle companies like Aptiv . Lyft and Aptiv launched a robotaxi pilot in January 2018 in Las Vegas. The program, which puts Aptiv vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network, surpassed 100,000 rides this month. Human safety drivers are always behind the wheel and the vehicles do not drive autonomously in parking lots and hotel lobby areas.

Lyft’s Level 5 program — a nod to the SAE automated driving level that means the vehicle handles all driving in all conditions — was launched in July 2017. Today, Level 5 employs more than 400 people in the U.S., Munich and London.

Testing on public roads in California began in November 2018 with a pilot program in Palo Alto that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto. The pilot provided on-demand rides set on fixed routes, such as traveling between the Lyft office and Caltrain.

Since then, the company has expanded the scope and geography of the pilot. By late 2019, Lyft was driving four times more autonomous miles per quarter than it was six months prior.

Lyft is also testing on a dedicated closed-course track in East Palo Alto that it opened in November 2019. The company told TechCrunch it uses this facility, which can be changed to include intersections, traffic lights and merges, to test software prior to putting its vehicles on public roads.

California’s self-driving car reports are public. Here’s what they don’t mean.

By Kirsten Korosec

The California Department of Motor Vehicles released its annual cache of autonomous vehicle testing and disengagements data that, depending how one chooses to interpret the data, shows either stunning progress or stagnation.

The data, which every company testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California must submit, tells a winding and sometimes contradictory tale of growth, consolidation and priorities. The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox, as well as newcomer Lyft.

And yet, the rise in total autonomous miles and permitted companies don’t tell the whole story. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.

Some companies scaled back public testing in California, either to move operations out of state or prioritize simulation. Aurora, for instance, saw its total on-road autonomous testing drop 59%, to 13,429 miles. Meanwhile, Aurora ramped up its simulation efforts, conducting more than 735,000 tests per day, an increase of over 100 times from 2018.

“While on-road testing is useful for collecting targeted data and performing late stage validation of self driving systems, we find that large-scale, on-road autonomous testing is a slow, and inefficient approach to development relative to more sophisticated, virtual techniques,” Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson wrote to the DMV.

Others, like Drive.ai, no longer exist. Two companies, Roadstar.ai and Ximotors.ai, failed to submit a disengagement report and have had their testing permits revoked.

The upshot: It’s not the who-is-winning-the-race narrative that many might expect or try to tell. Those kinds of rankings and comparisons are nearly impossible, for a number of reasons, including the fact that testing on public roads is conducted in areas with varying degrees of complexity. Additionally, companies aren’t required to report testing on private roads or tracks, out of state or in simulation, all of which provides a better assessment of an AV developer’s technology.

A Cobalt Crisis Could Put the Brakes on Electric Car Sales

By Nicole Kobie, WIRED UK
First it was lithium, now it's cobalt. Factories are churning out only so many batteries, and it's creating a bottleneck. 

Hot Wheels made two remote-controlled Tesla Cybertruck toys

By Darrell Etherington

Hot Wheels will ship you a Cybertruck long before Tesla is likely to make any deliveries on their electric retro-future wheeled trapezoid: The toy maker just unveiled two different RC Cybertruck models, including a 1:64 scale model at just $20, and a much larger 1:10 scale version for $400.

These are available to pre-order now, but like most of Tesla’s cars, just because they’re introduced doesn’t mean you can go out and buy one immediately. They’re set to ship in time for the holidays, however, with a December 15, 2020 estimated availability date, according to the Hot Wheels website.

These look like very faithful representations of the Cybertruck that Tesla unveiled at a special event back in November, and the large version includes a “reusable cracked window vinyl sticker” that you can use to recreate the onstage flub that happened at the actual reveal. You’ll have to supply your own large metal medicine ball.

[gallery ids="1949609,1949608,1949607,1949606,1949605,1949604,1949602"]

Other features of the 1:10 scale Cybertruck include functioning headlights and taillights, all-wheel drive, true to form “Chill” and “Sport” modes, a removable tonneau cover, a working telescopic tailgate and more.

The smaller and much more affordable version is just three inches long, which is basically what you’d expect from a traditional Hot Wheels mini model, and it can achieve an “up to 500mph scale speed,” which someone who is better than me at math can figure out what that translates to.

These are available to people in the U.S. and Canada, but I expect them to be pretty hot sellers based on the general fervor and interest around all things Cybertruck to date.

Tortoise co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko is bringing autonomous scooters to TC Sessions: Mobility

By Megan Rose Dickey

TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 is gearing up to be a lit event. The one-day event, taking place May 14 in San Jose, has just added Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder and president of an automatic repositioning startup for micromobility vehicles. Yes, that means we’ll be having autonomous scooters rolling around onstage. #2020

Tortoise, which recently received approval to deploy its tech in San Jose, is looking to become an operating system of sorts for micromobility vehicles. Just how Android is the operating system for a number of mobile phones, Tortoise wants to be the operating system for micromobility vehicles.

Given the volume of micromobility operators in the space today, Tortoise aims to make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed. Using autonomous technology in tandem with remote human intervention, Tortoise’s software enables operators to remotely relocate their scooters and bikes to places where riders need them, or, where operators need them to be recharged. On an empty sidewalk, Tortoise may employ autonomous technologies, while it may rely on humans to remotely control the vehicle on a highly trafficked city block.

Before co-founding Tortoise, Shevelenko served as Uber’s director of business development. While at Uber, Shevelenko helped the company expand into new mobility and led the acquisition of JUMP Bikes . Needless to say, Shevelenko is well-versed to talk about the next opportunities in micromobility.

Other speakers at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 include Waymo COO Tekedra Mawakana; Uber’s director of Policy, Cities & Transportation, Shin-pei Tsay; and Argo AI co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky.

Tickets are on sale now for $250 (early-bird status). After April 9, tickets go up, so be sure to get yours before that deadline. If you’re a student, tickets cost just $50.

Early-stage startups in the mobility space can book an exhibitor package for $2,000 and get four tickets and a demo table. Packages allow you to get in front of some of the biggest names in the industry and meet new customers. Book your tickets here.

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