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The Station: Aurora gets closer to a SPAC deal, Spin’s new strategy and Waymo One app numbers

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

We are days away from TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a one-day virtual event scheduled for June 9 that is bringing together some of the best and brightest minds in transportation. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

If you want to check things out but are short on cash, register and type in “station” for a free pass to the expo and breakout sessions. If you want access to the main stage — where folks like Mate Rimac, Chris Urmson and GM’s Pam Fletcher will be interviewed — then type in “Station50” to buy a full access pass for a 50% discount. Tickets can be accessed here.

Buying a ticket will also give you a months-free subscription to Extra Crunch and access to all the videos of the conference. We have a star-studded group of folks coming from Aurora, AutoX, Gatik, GM, Hyundai, Joby Aviation, Motional, Nuro, Rimac Automobili, Scale AI, Starship Technologies, Toyota Research Institute, WeRide, and Zoox. (to name a handful).

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

The big micromobility news of the week revolves around Spin, and it’s not about whether or not Ford is spinning out the company; they kept a pretty tight lip on that, but clearly big changes are happening. Co-founder Derrick Ko is stepping down as CEO and moving into an advisory role, along with his other two co-founders Zaizhuang Cheng and Euwyn Poon. In Ko’s place is Ben Bear, who previously served as CBO of Spin.

Along with this news came a flurry of other announcements, but it makes sense to start with Spin’s latest public strategy for winning the e-scooter business. Spin is actively seeking out limited vendor permits with cities. In other words, the company doesn’t want to see its cities messing around with other operators. Spin is seeking exclusive partnerships and is prepared to better itself to get them. It’s positioning itself as the most desirable for cities as it shares even more news…

If Spin wants to have a kind of deal that Lyft-owned CitiBike has with NYC, then it needs to bring more to the table. It’s starting with e-bikes. 5,000 of them, to be specific, in the coming months, starting with Providence, RI in June and spreading outward into a few other mid-tier cities over the summer.

Spin is also flexing its tech that will help make its scooters safe and reliable — just what a city wants in a long-term commitment. This week, it brought its Drover AI-equipped scooters to Milwaukee (with plans to launch in Miami, Seattle and Santa Monica, as well) that are equipped to detect sidewalk and bike lane riding and validate parking. Seattle, Santa Monica and Boise, Idaho will soon be graced by Spin’s new S-200, a three-wheeled adaptive scooter built with Tortoise’s repositioning software that allows a remote operator to move scooters out of gutters or into more dense urban areas.

Tier gets some more money

Berlin-based Tier Mobility, which recently won a London permit, has raised $60 million so it can expand its fleet of vehicles and battery charging networks. Technically, it’s a loan. The asset-backed financing comes from Goldman Sachs.

Let’s talk about bikes

Lyft has got a new e-bike piloting this month, starting in San Francisco, then Chicago and New York. It’ll be dropping the sleek, white bikes with soft purple LEDs at random around the city for people to test out. TechCrunch’s Brian Heater gave it a spin, and his general consensus was, Yeah, it’s a good bike. Can’t complain.

While Lyft may have anti-theft protection on its e-bikes, the rest of us are not so lucky. According to market research company NPD Group, we saw a 63% YOY growth for bike sales in June. Bike Index, a national bike registry group, tells us that the number of bikes stolen has seen similar increases. The number of bikes reported stolen to the service was a little over 10,000 between April and September, compared to nearly 6,000 during the same period in the previous year. That’s an uptick of nearly 68%. So, when are apartment complexes going to be forced to build bike storage rather than car parks?

Best cities for biking

If you are going to risk theft and bike around, you’ll want to do it in one of the cities PeopleForBikes just announced are the best for biking.

“Topping this year’s ratings in the United States are Brooklyn, NY; Berkeley, CA and Provincetown, MA (each ranking first in the large, medium and small U.S. city categories, respectively). Top international performers include Canberra and Alice Springs in Australia; Utrecht and Groningen in the Netherlands and Gatineau, Longueuil and Montreal in Canada, all located in the province of Quebec.”

Biking is not all about fun and commuting. For some of us, it’s work. URB-E, the compact container delivery network that wants to replace trucks with small electric bikes, has announced PackItFresh as its final-mile refrigeration provider. PackItFresh’s totes can keep food at safe temperatures for up to 24 hours, yet another reason supermarkets need to be nixing the delivery trucks in favor of these more sustainable alternatives.

 — Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

money the station

I hesitate to put this one under deal of the week, because, well, the deal ain’t done. But it is interesting, and this is my show, so here we are. I’m talking about Aurora, the autonomous vehicle company, and a potential merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Here’s the tl;dr for those who didn’t catch my Friday story. Several sources within the financial sector told me that Aurora is close to finalizing a deal to merge with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the newest special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson. It appears the valuation is going to be somewhere in the $12 billion neighborhood. The deal is expected to be announced as early as next week. I should add that both Aurora and Reinivent declined to comment.

The Hoffman, Pincus, Thompson trio, who are bullish on a concept that they call “venture capital at scale,” have formed three SPACs, or blank-check companies. Two of those SPACs have announced mergers with private companies. Reinvent Technology Partners announced a deal in February to merge with the electric vertical take off and landing company Joby Aviation, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. Reinvent Technology Partners Z merged with home insurance startup Hippo.

Is it possible that the deal could fall apart? Sure. But my sources tell me that it has progressed far enough that it would take a significant issue to derail the agreement. One more note: there is the tricky issue of Hoffman and Reinvent’s existing relationship with Aurora. Hoffman is a board member of Aurora and Reinvent is an investor. While Hoffman and Reinvent showing up on two sides of a SPAC deal would be unusual, it is not unprecedented. Connie Loizos’s accompanying article digs into the increasing cases of conflicts of interest popping up in SPAC deals.

Other deals that got my attention …

Getir, the Istanbul-based grocery delivery app, raised $550m in new funding. This latest injection of capital, which tripled its valuation to $7.5 billion, came just three months after its last financing, the Financial Times reported. The company, which just started to expand outside of Turkey in early 2021, is now planning a U.S. launch this year.

Faction Technology, the Silicon Valley-based startup building three-wheeled electric vehicles for autonomous delivery or human driven jaunts around town, raised $4.3 million in seed funding led by Trucks VC and Fifty Years.

Flink, a Berlin-based on-demand “instant” grocery delivery service built around self-operated dark stores and a smaller assortment (2,400 items) that it says it will deliver in 10 minutes or less, has raised $240 million to expand its business into more cities, and more countries.

FlixMobility, the parent company of the FlixBus coach network and the FlixTrain rail service, has closed more than $650 million in a Series G round of funding that values the Munich-based company at over $3 billion. Jochen Engert, who co-founded and co-leads the company with André Schwämmlein, described the round in a press call that TechCrunch participated in as a “balanced” mix of equity and debt, and said that the plan will be to use the funds to both expand its network in the U.S. market as well as across Europe.

Locus, a startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, raised $50 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its presence. The new round, a Series C, was led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC. Qualcomm Ventures and existing investors Tiger Global Management and Falcon Edge also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to $79 million. The new round valued the startup, which was founded in India, at about $300 million, said a person familiar with the matter.

Realtime Robotics announced a $31.4 million round. The funding is part of the $11.7 million Series A the company announced all the way back in late 2019. Investors include HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.

Roadster, the Palo Alto-based digital platform that gives dealers tools to sell new and used vehicles online has been acquired for $360 million by retail automotive technology company CDK Global Inc. As part of the all-cash deal, Roadster is now a wholly owned subsidiary.

Sennder, a digital freight forwarder that focuses on moving cargo around Europe (and specifically focusing on trucks and “full truck load”, FTL, freight forwarding), has raised $80 million in funding, at a valuation the company confirms is now over $1 billion.

Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s standalone venture capital fund, dropped the “AI” and has been reborn as, simply, Toyota Ventures. The firm is commemorating its new identity with a new $300 million fund that will focus on emerging technologies and carbon neutrality. The capital is split into two early-stage funds: the Toyota Ventures Frontier Fund and the Toyota Ventures Climate Fund. The introduction of these two new funds brings Toyota Ventures’ total assets under management to over $500 million.

Trellis Technologies, the insurance technology platform, raised $10 million in Series A funding led by QED Investors with participation from existing investors NYCA Partners and General Catalyst.

VTB, Russia’s second-largest lender, has bought a $75 million minority stake in car-sharing provider Delimobil, Reuters reported.

Waymo: by the numbers

the station autonomous vehicles1

Waymo has been on my mind lately — and not because of the executive departures that I wrote about last month. No, I’ve been thinking about Waymo and how, or if, it’s been scaling up its Waymo One driverless ride-hailing service, which operates in several Phoenix suburbs. The latest example is that Waymo One can now be accessed and booked through Google Maps.

But what about ridership? The folks at Sensor Tower, the mobile app market intelligence firm, recently shared some numbers that give the tiniest of glimpses into who is at least interested in trying the service.

First, a bit of history. Waymo started an early rider program in April 2017, which allowed vetted members of the public, all of whom signed NDAs, to hail an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan. All of these Waymo-branded vans had human safety operators behind the wheel.

In December 2018, the company launched Waymo One, the self-driving car service and accompanying app. Waymo-trained test drivers were still behind the wheel when the ride-hailing service began. Early rider program members were the first to be invited to the service. As these folks were shifted over to the Waymo One service, the NDA was lifted.

The first meaningful signs that Waymo was ready to put people in vehicles without human safety operators popped up in fall 2019. TechCrunch contributor Ed Niedermeyer was among the first (media) to hail a driverless ride. These driverless rides were limited and free. And importantly, still fell under the early rider program, which had that extra NDA protection. Waymo slowly scaled until about 5 to 10% of its total rides in 2020 were fully driverless for its exclusive group of early riders under NDA. Then COVID-19 hit.

In October 2020, the company announced that members of Waymo One — remember this is the sans NDA service — would be able to take family and friends along on their fully driverless rides in the Phoenix area. Existing Waymo One members were given first access to the driverless rides. The company started to welcome more people directly into the service through its app, which is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Waymo said that 100% of its rides would be fully driverless, which it has maintained. Today, anyone can download the app and hail a driverless ride.

OK, back to the numbers. Sensor Tower shared monthly estimates for Waymo’s installs from the U.S. App Store and Google Play. The company said that most of the installs are on iOS, as it looks like the Waymo app only became available on Android in April 2021. This isn’t a ridership number. It does show how interest has grown, and picked up since February 2021.

Waymo one app data

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hi folks, welcome back to Policy Corner.

Another infrastructure bill was proposed in Washington this week. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure introduced a new bill that would invest $547 billion over the next five years on surface transport. While much of those funds would go toward improving America’s roads, bridges, and passenger rail, the INVEST in America Act would dedicate around $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and around $4 billion to invest in zero-emission transit vehicles.


And that’s in addition to major infrastructure bills already proposed by President Joe Biden and House Democrats. It’s likely that this bill, should it pass, would be significantly scaled back — just as Congressional Republicans are attempting to do with Biden’s infrastructure plan. You can read more about the bill here.

President Biden has set his sights on battery manufacturing as a way to recover and reuse critical minerals in the EV supply chain. This is after it was reported that he walked back earlier signals that he might support domestic mining for these minerals, like lithium. Instead, it looks like his plan is to push for continued importing of the metals from foreign countries and then to recycle and reuse them at the end of a battery’s life.

This news is a blow to America’s mining industry but sure to be a boost for metal recyclers, like Redwood Materials in Nevada and Canadian company Li-Cycle, which is expanding its operations in the States.

Some of the biggest pushback against mining has come from environmental and conservation groups. A good example is the situation currently unfolding out in Nevada, where a proposed lithium mine may be halted due to the presence of a rare wildflower. Conservation groups want to get protected status for the flower. If they succeed? No more mine.

The final piece of news this week is a recent survey from Pew Research Center which found that 51% of Americans oppose phasing out the production of gas-powered cars and trucks. The report also found that those reported hearing “a lot” about EVs were more likely to seriously consider one for their next vehicle purchase. Also, while Americans are roughly in agreement that EVs are better for the environment, they’re equally in agreement that they’re more costly.

The upshot is that more and more Americans are coming around to the idea of EVs and the question of their benefits (on the environment, for example) is pretty well understood. But policymakers and OEMs clearly still have a ways to go in convincing a huge swathe of Americans to get on board.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

A few more notes

 

I won’t be providing the looooonnnnggggg roundup of news this week, but here are a few little bits including some hires and other tidbits.

7-Eleven said it plans to install 500 direct-current fast charging ports at 250 locations across North America by the end of 2022. These charging ports will be owned and operated by 7-Eleven, as opposed to fuel at its filling stations, which must be purchased from suppliers.

Baraja, the lidar startup, appointed former Magna and DaimlerChrysler veterans to its executive team, including Paul Eichenberg as chief strategy officer and Jim Kane as vp of automotive engineering.

Brian Heater, hardware editor here at TechCrunch, covered a recent gathering of ride-hailing drivers in Long Island City, Queens. The group protested outside of Uber’s offices ahead of a proposed state bill. The drivers support the proposed bill that would make it easy for gig economy workers in the state to unionize.

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has secured a permit that will allow the company to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The permit, issued by the California Public Utilities Commission as part of its driverless pilot program, is one of several regulatory requirements autonomous vehicle companies must meet before they can deploy commercially. This permit is important — and Cruise is the first to land this particular one — but it does not allow the company to charge passengers for any rides in test AVs.

DeepMap has developed a crowdsourced mapping service called RoadMemory that lets automakers turn data collected from their own fleets of passenger vehicles and trucks into maps. The company says the tool is designed to expand geographic coverage more quickly and support hands-off autonomous driving features everywhere.

Joby Aviation is partnering with REEF Technology, one of the country’s largest parking garage operators, and a real estate acquisition company Neighborhood Property Group to build out its network of vertiports, with an initial focus on Los Angeles, Miami, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Populus, the platform that helps cities manage shared mobility services, streets and curbs, launched a new digital car-sharing parking feature in Oakland. The gist is that this feature helps cities collect data on car-sharing and deploy curbside paying payments. The company launched this particular product in 2018 and has been expanding to different cities.

Starship Technologies, the autonomous sidewalk delivery startup, has hired a new CEO. The company tapped Alastair Westgarth, the former CEO of Alphabet’s Loon, to lead the company as it looks to expand its robotics delivery service. Loon, Alphabet’s experiment to deliver broadband via high-altitude balloons, was shut down for good at the beginning of this year. Prior to working at Loon, Westgarth headed the wireless antennae company Quintel Solutions, was a vice president at telecommunications company Nortel and director of engineering at Bell Mobility.

Yuri Suzuki, a partner at design consultancy firm Pentagram, recently conducted a research project into the crucial role electric car sound has on a user’s safety, enjoyability, communication and brand recognition, out of which he developed a range of car sounds.

Cruise can now give passengers rides in driverless cars in California

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has secured a permit that will allow the company to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The permit, issued by the California Public Utilities Commission as part of its driverless pilot program, is one of several regulatory requirements autonomous vehicle companies must meet before they can deploy commercially. This permit is important — and Cruise is the first to land this particular one — but it does not allow the company to charge passengers for any rides in test AVs.

“In order to launch a commercial service for passengers here in the state of California, you need both the California DMV and the California PUC to issue deployment permits. Today we are honored to have been the first to receive a driverless autonomous service permit to test transporting passengers from the California PUC,” Prashanthi Raman, Cruise’s director of Government Affairs said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

There are two regulatory bodies, the CPUC and the California Department of Motor Vehicles, that dictate the testing and eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles. The California DMV regulates testing of autonomous vehicles with and without safety operators. About 55 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver. Driverless testing permits, in which a human operator is not behind the wheel, have become the new milestone and a required step for companies that want to launch a commercial robotaxi or delivery service in the state. AutoX, Baidu, Cruise, Nuro, Pony.ai, Waymo, WeRide and Zoox have driverless permits with the DMV.

The final step with the DMV, which only Nuro has achieved, is a deployment permit. This permit allows Nuro to deploy at a commercial scale. Nuro’s vehicles can’t hold passengers, just cargo, which allows the company to bypass the CPUC permitting process.

Over at the CPUC, there are “drivered” and “driverless” permits, which allow companies to give rides in their autonomous vehicles. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Deeproute.ai, Pony, Voyage (which was acquired by Cruise) Waymo and Zoox all have “drivered” permits. Cruise is the first to snag the driverless permit.

Any company that wants to eventually shuttle and charge passengers for rides in their robotaxis have to secure all of these permits from the DMV and CPUC.

“Issuance of this first driverless permit for the CPUC’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot Programs is a significant milestone. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform our transportation system and communities by solving individual mobility needs, improving roadway safety, and moving goods throughout the state sustainably and efficiently,” Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma said in statement. “The effective deployment of autonomous vehicles can also transform vehicle manufacturing, maintenance, and service business models to create new jobs and industries for the California workforce.”

Last year, the CPUC approved two new programs to allow permitted companies to provide and charge for shared rides in autonomous vehicles as long as they can navigate the lengthy regulatory process. The decision came after months of lobbying by the AV industry pushing the CPUC to consider a rule change that would allow for operators to charge a fare and offer shared rides in driverless vehicles.

The CPUC said Cruise, along with any other company that eventually participates in the pilot, must submit quarterly reports about the operation of their vehicles providing driverless AV passenger service. Companies must also submit a passenger safety plan that outlines their plans for protecting passenger safety for driverless operations.

Walmart helps push Cruise’s latest investment round to $2.75B

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company aiming to deploy robotaxis in San Francisco and Dubai, has added Walmart as an investor in an extended fundraising round that has grown to $2.75 billion.

The company said it has a post-money valuation of more than $30 billion. Walmart and several unnamed institutional investors added capital to a $2 billion equity round announced back in January that was led by Microsoft. The companies didn’t disclose Walmart’s exact investment. Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM, is also backed by Honda, Softbank Vision Fund and funds managed by T. Rowe Price.

Cruise has long been viewed — and described itself — as a company solely focused on launching a commercial scale robotaxi service. However, comments from Walmart CEO John Furner in a blog post published Thursday suggest that laser focus continues to widened beyond robotaxis and San Francisco.

“The investment will aid our work towards developing a last-mile delivery ecosystem that’s fast, low-cost and scalable,” Furner wrote in a blog post published Thursday morning. He later wrote “this investment is a marker for us.”

Cruise has experimented with delivery over the past several years even as its efforts around robotaxis took most of its attention and resources. For instance, Cruise and DoorDash completed in 2019 a delivery pilot in San Francisco. And when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into North America, prompting government lockdowns, Cruise paused its testing in San Francisco and started delivering prepared meals for two food banks.

Walmart and Cruise also already have a relationship. The companies announced in November 2020 plans to test grocery delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Under the pilot program, the companies said that customers will be able to place an order from their local Walmart store and have it delivered via one of Cruise’s autonomous, electric Chevy Bolt cars. While the vehicles will operate autonomously, a human safety operator will always be behind the wheel.

Cruise is not Walmart’s only autonomous dancing partner. The retail giant has partnered with a handful of autonomous vehicle developers, including Waymo, to test out how the technology might eventually be used at a commercial scale. The retailer signed a deal in 2019 with startup Udelv to test the use of autonomous vans to deliver online grocery orders to customers in Surprise, Arizona. Autonomous delivery startup Nuro launched a pilot program with Walmart in Houston in 2020.

The retail giant participated in a pilot with Postmates and Ford in the Miami-Dade area and last year the retailer tapped AV startup Gatik to deliver customer online grocery orders from Walmart’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Cruise strikes deal to launch robotaxi service in Dubai

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise has expanded its robotaxi ambitions beyond San Francisco. The autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has struck a deal to launch a robotaxi service in Dubai in 2023.

The robotaxi service in Dubai will use the Cruise Origin, the all-electric shuttle-like vehicle that has no steering wheel or pedals and is designed to travel at highway speeds. The Origin, which was unveiled in January 2020 will be manufactured by GM.

Cruise will establish a new local Dubai-based company which will be responsible for the deployment, operation and maintenance of the fleet.

The service will start with a limited number of vehicles with plans to scale up to 4,000 vehicles by 2030 as part of Dubai’s self-driving transport strategy,  according to Mattar Mohammed Al Tayer, the director-general and chairman of the board of the RTA. The robotaxis — and eventually the service — will be introduced gradually and limited to specific areas before expanding to other parts of the city.

Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed said the agreement with Cruise is a “major step towards realizing Dubai’s Self-Driving Transport Strategy aimed at converting 25% of total trips in Dubai into self-driving transport trips across different modes of transport by 2030.”

Importantly, Cruise has a lock on Dubai for at least a few years. Under the agreement, Cruise is the “exclusive provider” for self-driving taxis and ride-hailing services in Dubai until 2029. Al Tayer said the selection of Cruise was not taken lightly and involved a comprehensive, multi-year process.

The Station: Uber’s new battles in the UK, Lucid Motors’ second life plans and Cruise acquires Voyage

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hi friends and new readers, welcome to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B. Before I forget, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the newsletter, if you’re interested in attending our upcoming early-stage conference. I have a gift for you.

Um, there is a #$@% ton of mobility news to get to, including a few scoops, some investment news, and a new “market map” that takes a deep look into the business of Mobility-as-a-service apps. Buckle up.

First up, here’s the market maps story (I just mentioned) from writer Jason Plautz. The upshot: As transit agencies seek to win back riders, a flurry of platforms — some backed by giants like Uber, Intel and BMW — are offering new technology partnerships. Whether it’s bundling bookings, payments or just trip planning, startups are selling these mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings as a lifeline to make transit agencies the backbone of urban mobility. Third-party platforms have become more appealing to transit agencies as they scramble to keep buses, trains and rail full of customers.

And yep, this is an Extra Crunch story, which requires a subscription. As I’ve shared in here before, we’re bringing more transportation analysis to Extra Crunch. Last month, we had Mark Harris’ market analysis on solid state batteries. Next week, Extra Crunch will feature stories on the state of holographic tech in vehicles, the second-life battery marketplace and software plays in the micromobility industry.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

Bird peeped up this week (they’ve been sorta quiet lately) and announced it is investing $150 million into a European expansion plan that will include launching in more than 50 cities this year, a move that it says will double its footprint in the region.

According to Bird, this growth plan is already underway, with the shared micromobility company recently bringing its scooters to Bergen, Norway; Tarragona, Spain; and Palermo, Italy.

Bird emphasized that its European expansion will be more than just a geographic one. The company said it is adding more scooters to its existing fleets and made several other promises as part of its announcement, including plans to launch new mobility products and safety initiatives, “the next generation of recycling and second-life applications for vehicles,” investing in equity programs and “securing partnerships across the region.”

I might have raised an eyebrow or two when I first read this announcement. Why? Welp, for one it isn’t clear what these new mobility products or initiatives around safety or recycling will be. A Bird spokesperson told me these will be new vehicles and “transport modes” in the region. Bird didn’t provide details about what it means by “securing partnerships,” a phrase that could mean an extension of its franchise program called the Bird Platform or some other kind of arrangement with local governments or operators.

And then there’s the bit about that $150 million. A Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch it’s using “existing resources” to fund these various initiatives. However, the pandemic, its acquisition of Circ and its effort to launch operations in new cities while maintaining existing fleets have depleted its funds. (Last June, Bird shut down scooter sharing in several cities in the Middle East, an operation that was managed by Circ.) The company’s last public fundraising announcements were more than a year ago. The company raised $275 million in a Series D round back in September 2019. That round was later extended to $350 million.

Now, this could be the $100 million in convertible debt that Bird reportedly was close to finalizing (per The Information’s reporting back in January). But something tells me there is more to this. Stay tuned.

A few other interesting micromobbin’ nugs for you … 

Lime and Lyft appear to have secured a license that will allow the companies to exclusively operate scooter and bike share services in Denver. The city’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure said it is moving two licensing agreements through the Denver City Council approval process. On March 23, he DOTI will present the licensing agreements to Denver City Council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee  for approval before heading to full council for consideration.

The “license” term is important here and marks a shift in how Denver is thinking about dockless shared scooters and bikes. A license would replace how dockless electric scooter and bike companies currently operate in Denver, which is through a permit. If the licenses are approved by Council, Lyft and Lime would be the only two companies operating vehicles in Denver under the new bike and scooter share program. The license would be valid for 5 years.

Superpedestrian, the startup that makes e-scooters equipped with self-diagnostic software, is upgrading its product as it prepares for a major expansion into 10 new cities within the next two weeks, TechCrunch’s Rebecca Bellan reported. Superpedestrian might not be a household name, but it is an up-and-coming player in the micromobility world. The company has developed AI — which is integrated into the vehicle — that monitors and corrects scooter safety issues in real time.

The next-generation operating system that will provide those upgrades, codenamed “Briggs,” will be uploaded to its global fleet of LINK e-scooters. It includes improvements to geofencing capabilities and battery life, making Superpedestrian more attractive to cities looking for partners who can provide assurances around safety and reliability.

SMART, a startup founded in 2020, revealed its first product: An airless bicycle tire based on technology NASA engineers created to make future lunar and Martian rovers even more resilient. This nifty tech that shows how NASA investments towards space exploration can end up improving life on Earth. SMART has a partnership with NASA through the Space Act Agreement and is part of the agency’s formal Startup Program that aims to commercialize some of its innovations.

SMART's METL tire close up

Image Credits: SMART Tire Company

The company’s “METL tire” came out of its work with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where NASA engineers Dr. Santo Padula and Colin Creager first developed their so-called “shape memory alloy” (SMA) technology. SMA allows for a tire constructed entirely of interconnected springs, which requires no inflation and is therefore immune to punctures, but which can still provide equivalent or better traction when compared to inflatable rubber tires, and even some built-in shock-absorbing capabilities, TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington reports.

SMART’s  co-founders, Survivor: Fiji” champion Earl Cole and engineer Brian Yennie, are targeting the cycling market first with their METL tire, which is set to become available to the general public by early next year. SMART intends to bring SMA tires to the automotive and commercial vehicle industries.

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, my “deal of the week” has a financial figure tied to it. This time, I don’t have those terms. (Feel free to share,  if you do.) This deal made it to the top of the list because of its importance in the autonomous vehicle industry.

I am, of course, talking about Cruise acquiring Voyage, a four-year-old autonomous vehicle startup that is well-known in the industry despite its size relative to other major players. Voyage had 60 employees and raised about $52 million compared to giants like Cruise that has a nearly 2,000-person workforce and is valued at $30 billion. But Voyage made an indelible mark on the industry, in large part because of its co-founder and CEO Oliver Cameron. The company, which spun out of Udacity in 2017, is best known for its operations in two senior living communities. Voyage tested and gave rides to people within a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, California, as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida.

I’ve been told the majority of Voyage’s team will move over to Cruise and Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product. Basically, Cameron will be in charge of anything that touches the customer.

Importantly, Voyage’s ride-hailing service (which always included a human safety driver behind the wheel) at the two senior communities, one in California and the other in Florida, will be ending before summer. The Villages community in Florida is massive and its where Voyage scaled up and at one point had “hundreds” of riders. The shuttering of this service would seem to open up the opportunity to other AV companies; my guess is that Cameron has already fielded a few inquiries.

Voyage’s partnership with FCA, now called Stellantis, will also end once the acquisition with Cruise closes.

Other deals that stood out …

Aerovel, the manufacturer of uncrewed vertical take-off and landing aircraft designed for surveillance, has raised $2.5 million in Series B capital. The investment is from undisclosed leaders in aviation, according to the company.

Arbe Robotics, a company that sells long-range 4D imaging radar, has agreed to merge with special purpose acquisition company Industrial Tech Acquisitions Inc. The transaction is expect4ed to deliver about $177 million in gross cash  proceeds that includes Industrial Tech’s $77 million cash-in-trust as well as $100 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, M&G Investment Management, Varana Capital, Texas Ventures and Eyal Waldman, the founder and CEO of Mellanox Technologies. You can check out their investor presentation here.

For a little insight into Arbe, check out this Autonocast podcast episode from 2018, when I — along with my co-hosts Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer — interviewed Arbe CEO Kobi Marenko about his company’s high-resolution radar technology.

Charge Amps, the Swedish maker of smart charging stations, cables, and cloud software, raised 130 million crowns ($15.3 million) in a funding round led by Swedbank Robur. The company raised the funds ahead of a planned IPO next year, Reuters reported.

Fort Robotics raised $13 million in a round led by Prime Movers Lab, the round also features Prologis Ventures, Quiet Capital, Lemnos Labs, Creative Ventures, Ahoy Capital, Compound, FundersClub and Mark Cuban. The Philadelphia-based company was founded in 2018 by Samuel Reeves, who previous headed up Humanistic Robotics. That fellow Pennsylvania startup is focused on landmine and IED-clearing remote operating robotic systems.

Momenta, the five-year-old Chinese autonomous driving startup, closed another massive round of nearly $500 million. The funding lifts its total funding to more than $700 million and in its short life has attracted a dazzling list of investors, including Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, the government of Suzhou and Daimler.

Momenta’s chief of business development Sun Huan told TechCrunch’s Rita Liao that the investment marks an important step toward the firm’s international expansion. In a few months’ time, Sun will head to Stuttgart, the German hometown of Mercedes-Benz, and open Momenta’s first European office.

Unagi, the startup behind the portable, design-centric electric scooters, raised $10.5 million in a Series A round led by led by the Ecosystem Integrity Fund with participation from Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels and Gaingels, among others. Unagi, which was launched in late 2018 by former Beats Music CEO and MOG co-founder David Hyman, plans to use the money to fund its expansion and bring  its subscription service to six more U.S. cities, including Austin, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Unagi will also be expanding its existing service in the New York and LA metropolitan regions, including all five NYC boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and Northern New Jersey, as well as the Westside and Southeast LA, the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery

Lots. of. news. Let’s get to it.

Autonomous vehicles and robotics

Ford Motor announced plans to embed 100 of its researchers and engineers in a new $75 million robotics and mobility facility on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. The arrangement will give Ford space to conduct robotics research and access to students — and vice versa — from the top floor of the four-floor, 134,000 square-foot building. In addition to its fourth-floor lab, Ford will have access to a high-bay garage space to test autonomous vehicles.

Shortly after the event wrapped up, TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater hopped on the phone with Ford’s Technical Expert Mario Santillo, who will help head up the expanded robotics efforts. Here’s what Santillo had to say.

Electric

Amazon is expanding customer deliveries via electric cargo vehicle to San Francisco, making the Bay Area the second of 16 total cities the company expects to bring its Rivian-sourced EVs to in 2021. San Francisco’s unique terrain and climate were a couple of the reasons Amazon said it chose the city for its second round of testing. Its EVs, which were designed and built in partnership with Rivian, can last up to 150 miles on a single charge.

BMW takes the wraps off of the all-electric i4 sedan. The German automaker also announced version 8 of its iDrive operating system, which will feature a new dashboard layout and visual design, with two curved screens. It will make its debut in the i4 and iX.

Chanje, EV startup that emerged from stealth in 2017 and is owned by Chanje is owned by Chinese automotive company  FDG, is being sued by truck rental company Ryder for alleged failing to deliver 100 of the 125 vans it was promised, The Verge reported. Ryder says it’s owed nearly $4 million. Chanje was on The Autonocast waayyyyy back in 2018. At the time, I was impressed by the idea and the van, which I drove with co-host Alex Roy around downtown Los Angeles. But it seems that Chanje is riddled with problems — and lawsuits. The Verge reported that Chanje has been sued more than once in Los Angeles Superior Court by former employees who say they’re owed tens of thousands in back pay and bonuses. The company has also been hit with liens from the California Secretary of State for not paying taxes.

Lucid Motors, which is already experimenting with energy storage systems for commercial and residential customers, is also eyeing ways to repurpose batteries from its electric vehicles, according to this scoop by TechCrunch’s Aria Alamalhodaei. While Lucid CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson has previously discussed plans to eventually build energy storage systems like Tesla that uses new batteries, this is the first time the company has talked about second-life applications for the product.

This is interesting because Lucid is still years from having to contend with a large number of used batteries. After all, its first EV, the luxury Lucid Air sedan, isn’t coming to market until the second half of 2021.

Hyundai is offering owners of the 2021 Kona Electric and Ioniq Electric access to 250 kWh of complimentary charging (approximately 1,000 miles of EPA estimated driving range) on the  Electrify America fast-charging network.

Rivian plans to install more than 10,000 chargers by the end of 2023. The network will have a dual purpose: quickly power its electric vehicle models with fast chargers installed along highways and provide Level 2 chargers at further afield locations next to parks, trailheads and other adventurous destinations. The company said that its so-called Rivian Adventure Network will include more than 3,500 DC fast chargers at over 600 sites, which will only be accessible to owners of its electric vehicles. Each site will have multiple chargers and located on highways and main roads, often by cafes and shops.

Rivian is also installing thousands of “waypoint” Level 2 AC chargers throughout the United States and Canada. These waypoint chargers will have a 11.5 kW charging speed, which should be able add up to 25 miles of range every hour for its R1T pickup truck and R1S SUV. The waypoint chargers will be strategically located along and near routes that Rivian customers are likely to take. They will be found at shopping centers restaurants, hotels, campsites and parks.

Volkswagen AG revealed how it aims to seize the top spot as the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, outlining plans to have six 40 gigawatt hour (GWh) battery cell production plants in operation in Europe by 2030. To get there, the automaker put in a 10-year, $14 billion order with Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt — and that’s only one of the six planned factories. A second plant in Germany will commence production in 2025.

Volkswagen Power Day 2021

Thomas Schmall, VW Group board member and CEO of Volkswagen Group Components. Image credits: Volkswagen

Ride-hailing

Uber says that drivers in the U.K. who use its ride-hailing app will be treated as workers, a designation that will give them some benefits such as holiday pay. However, even as Uber seemingly concedes to a Supreme Court ruling last month, a new fight could already be brewing over the company’s decision to calculate working time from the point a trip commences — rather than when drivers log on to the app.

All drivers in the U.K. will be paid holiday time based on 12.07% of their earnings, which will be paid out every two weeks. Drivers will also be paid at least the minimum wage after accepting a trip request and after expenses. Eligible drivers in the U.K. will automatically be enrolled into a pension plan with contributions from Uber. These contributions will represent approximately 3% of a driver’s earnings.

However … Uber will only guarantee that drivers’ working time and other benefits will accrue once they accept a trip and not based on when they have signed into the app to begin working. That already has labor activists fuming.

Meanwhile, Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for a driver identity system is being challenged in the U.K., where the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE) have called for Microsoft to suspend the ride-hailing giant’s use of B2B facial recognition after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London (TfL).

The union said it has identified seven cases of “failed facial recognition and other identity checks” leading to drivers losing their jobs and licence revocation action by TfL, TechCrunch reporter Natasha Lomas writes.

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Cruise acquires self-driving startup Voyage

By Kirsten Korosec

Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that spun out of Udacity, has been acquired by Cruise, a deal that points to the continued consolidation within the nascent industry.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed; the majority of Voyage’s 60-person team will move over to Cruise and the company’s co-founder and CEO Oliver Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product. Voyage’s partnership with FCA, now called Stellantis, will also end once the acquisition with Cruise closes.

Voyage, which was founded in 2017, was a tiny startup compared to well-funded operations like Cruise, Argo AI, Waymo and Aurora. But despite its size and only raising $52 million, Cameron helped Voyage stand out. The company is best known for its operations in two senior living communities. Voyage tested and gave rides to people within a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, California, as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida.

“Voyage’s approach has always been to leverage our limited resources to deliver a product that restores mobility to those who need it most: senior citizens. We’ve made tremendous progress toward this goal, moving countless senior citizens (some as old as 92!) around their communities,” Cameron wrote in a blog post announcing the deal. “Now at Cruise, we are thrilled to have the substantial resources to eventually serve not just senior citizens, but every possible demographic who stands to benefit from self-driving services.”

Voyage won’t be shutting down operations at the two senior communities immediately. However, Cruise reiterated to TechCrunch that its focus is commercial operations in San Francisco. Inevitably, any testing or operations at the senior communities will come to an end, although Cruise did not provide a timeline.

Cameron’s role as VP of product is another signal that Cruise is inching forward with plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco. Cruise has hired hundreds of engineers, both hardware and software, but it will need to win over customers if it hopes to build a loyal base of robotaxi users. In his new role, Cameron will be the one who will be thinking through every customer touchpoint for Cruise’s self-driving service.

Cameron described the union of Cruise and Voyage as a “wonderful marriage,” in a tweet Monday morning. He noted that Cruise has the “most advanced self-driving technology, unique auto partners and the first purpose-built self-driving vehicle. With Voyage and our customer-service obsessed team, we’ll together deliver a game-changing self-driving product.”

1️⃣ @cruise + @voyage is a wonderful marriage.@cruise has the most advanced self-driving technology, unique auto partners, and the first purpose-built self-driving vehicle.

With @voyage and our customer-obsessed team, we’ll together deliver a game-changing self-driving product.

— Oliver Cameron (@olivercameron) March 15, 2021

Cruise has the funds to put toward this component of the business. Earlier this year, Cruise said it raised $2 billion in a new equity round that has pushed its valuation up to $30 billion and delivered Microsoft as an investor and partner. GM, Honda and other institutional investors also put more capital into Cruise as the autonomous vehicle company inches closer to commercializing its technology.

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