Archer Aviation is seeking $1 billion in damages from Wisk Aero, according to court filings Tuesday, significantly escalating the ongoing legal battle between the two air taxi rivals.
Wisk “deployed a knowingly false extra-judicial smear campaign that projected stand-alone defamatory statements about Archer to the world,” the filing says. On this basis, Archer claims that this “smear campaign” has negatively impacted its ability to access capital and has impaired business relationships, resulting in damages “likely to exceed $1 billion.”
The two companies have been locked in a heated legal battle for much of this year. The dispute started in April, when Wisk filed a suit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claiming that Archer had misappropriated its trade secrets related to Wisk’s debut eVTOL aircraft, Cora. Wisk further alleged that a former employee, Jing Xue, downloaded thousands of proprietary files from his work computer prior to joining Archer.
This is not the first time that Archer has hit back against the accusations in court. First it filed a motion to dismiss the suit in early June, and later that month alleged in a separate court document that Archer’s design was well-established prior to Wisk’s having filed any patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Archer unveiled a prototype of its Maker aircraft in February, the same month that it announced (to much fanfare) it was going public via a merger with blank-check firm Atlas Crest Investment Corp. for a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.7 billion. Late last month Archer slashed its valuation by $1 billion in a “strategic reset” of the transaction terms with the SPAC. While this is the same amount Archer is seeking in damages, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch that is just coincidental.
In addition, the spokesperson added that the planned merger remains on track. Speaking to the suit, they said, “We have no plans to drop our counter-claim regardless of any moves Wisk may make.”
A Wisk spokesperson said “Archer’s counterclaim is ludicrous and its troubles are purely self-inflicted,” and characterized the filing as “full of distortions and distractions from the serious patent and trade secret misappropriation claims it faces.” The spokesperson added that Wisk intends to continue its case against Archer.
Joby Aviation is now public, 12 years after JoeBen Bevirt founded the company at his ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains. The air taxi developer began trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday under the ticker symbol “JOBY,” after completing a merger with special purpose acquisition company Reinvent Technology Partners.
As of 10:00 AM ET, the price per share was at $11.01, up 9.8% from its prior-day closing amount.
Joby’s post-transaction valuation now stands at $4.5 billion, the largest in the industry. It also now has the highest cash balance. All told, Joby has around $1.6 billion in total capital to take its air taxi operations to commercialization in 2024. That includes $835 million of private-investment-in-public-equity, as well as more than $500 million of capital on the balance sheet.
RTP reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission that around 63% of the 69 million ordinary shares were redeemed prior to the public trading debut, giving Joby access to $255 million out of the $690 million of cash held in trust from the blank-check firm.
We have been working for over a decade to get our technology ready for market and are excited to take this moment to celebrate our achievements so far. #nyse #experiencesquare #eVTOL @NYSE pic.twitter.com/XlpxXiA1Pa
— Joby Aviation (@jobyaviation) August 11, 2021
It’s a sizable amount, but creating an entirely new form of transportation is a capital-intensive business. Joby’s executive chairman Paul Sciarra told TechCrunch he thinks $1.6 billion will be enough to prepare the company for launch.
“We think that’s enough to execute on the things that matter over the next few years, and those are […] one, ensuring that we execute on the certification program; two, showing we can demonstrate our ability to repeatedly manufacturing these aircraft in a certifiable way; and then third and finally, the opportunity to lay the groundwork for commercial launch,” Sciarra said.
Joby is developing a five-seat electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which it unveiled to much anticipation in February. The company, which has backing from Toyota and JetBlue, has released a slew of announcements in recent months as it geared up for the public listing.
“A lot of people talk about us as a secretive company,” Bevirt said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We’re not actually a secretive company, we just choose to do the work and then show our work, rather than talking about it and then doing it.”
Joby’s merger with blank-check firm Reinvent, headed by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, was announced in February. The transaction includes a few provisions to ensure longer-term collaboration, including a lock-up on founder shares for up to five years, as well as vesting provision with earnout not realized until the price per share reaches $50 – a $30 billion market cap.
SPACs are not a new instrument for going public, but they have gained a widespread presence in the transportation space, particularly amongst eVTOL startups looking to secure amounts of capital. Archer Aviation was the first developer to announce it would merge with a blank-check firm, followed by Joby, Lilium and Vertical Aerospace. But there are signs that the investment bubble may be starting to deflate: late last month, Archer cut its valuation by $1 billion in a “strategic reset” of the transaction terms with Atlas Crest Investment Corp.
Such turbulence is not uncommon in markets populated by pre-revenue companies. But despite now being a public company — and having shareholders to answer to — Sciarra said Joby’s task remains unchanged. “We can’t control the markets,” he said. “[Joby] is a company that’s been executing quietly for a very long time on things that matter. I think it’s going to be incumbent upon us to do the same as we make this transition to a public company: tell folks what we’re going to do, and then go out and do them. That, quarter by quarter, is what builds credibility, what combats skepticism, and what gives investors and frankly, the broader public, confidence that this is a company that means what it says.”
One way to frame the fate of air taxis is whether they will be more like autonomous vehicles or electric vehicles. The AV space circa five years ago was filled with companies setting ambitious expectations about when true self-driving cars would be on the roads, only to have multiple companies collapse or sell under the weight of overshot expectations.
But Sciarra suggested that a better analogy to the eVTOL industry as it currently stands is the early days of electric vehicles. He pointed out that Joby’s aircraft is designed to conform to existing safety and certification standards, with a trained pilot onboard, similar to how helicopters and planes operate today. “We didn’t want to compound the technical risk of developing a new aircraft with the technical and regulatory risk of developing full autonomy from day one.”
“We think about our approach as a little bit more Tesla versus, say, Waymo,” he added.
German electric aircraft startup Lilium is negotiating the terms for a 220-aircraft, $1 billion order with one of Brazil’s largest domestic airlines, the companies said Monday. Should the deal with Azul move forward, it would mark the largest order in Lilium’s history and its first foray into South American markets.
“A term sheet has been signed and we will move towards a final agreement in the coming months,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch.
The 220 aircraft would fly as part of a new, co-branded airline network that would operate in Brazil. Should the two companies come to an agreement, Azul would operate and maintain the fleet of the flagship 7-seater aircraft, and Lilium would provide custom spare parts, including replacement batteries, and an aircraft health monitoring platform.
Deliveries would commence in 2025, a year after Lilium has said it plans to begin commercial operations in Europe and the United States. These timelines are dependent upon Lilium receiving key certification approvals from each country’s requisite aerospace regulator. Azul said in a statement it would “support Lilium with the necessary regulatory approval processes in Brazil” as part of the agreement.
Even if a deal is reached, it would likely be subject to Lilium hitting certain performance standards and benchmarks, similar to the conditions of Archer Aviation’s $1 billion order with United Airlines. Still, orders of this value are seen as a positive signal to markets and investors that an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is more than smoke and mirrors.
Also like Archer, Lilium is planning on taking the SPAC route to going public. The company in March announced its intention to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp. and list on Nasdaq under ticker symbol “LILM.” SPACs have become a popular vehicle for public listing across the transportation sector, but they’ve become especially popular with capital-intensive eVTOL startups.
The merger may be necessary for the company’s continued operations. According to the German news website Welt, Lilium added a risk warning to its 2019 balance sheet noting that it will run out of money in December 2022 should the SPAC merger not be completed.
Electric air taxi startup Lilium has tapped German manufacturer Customcells to supply batteries for its flagship seven-seater Lilium Jet.
The battery IP is the result of “multiple players,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch, but the manufacturing will be the sole job of Customcells. While Lilium declined to specify the number of battery systems as part of the agreement, it confirmed that Customcells will be manufacturing guaranteed capacity until 2026.
Customcells specializes in high-performance lithium-ion batteries for the aerospace, automotive and maritime industries. The manufacturer recently announced a new joint venture with luxury sports car maker Porsche AG, dubbed Cellforce Group, for the low-volume production of batteries for racing cars and performance vehicles.
This is just the latest partnership Lilium has announced in recent months as it prepares to shift into component and vehicle testing. The Munich-based eVTOL company has developed an international network of partnerships with suppliers like Japanese company Toray Industries for carbon fiber composite; Spanish aerospace supplier Aciturri for the jet’s airframe; and Palantir Technologies, one of its investors, for software services. In June, Lilium added aerospace manufacturing giant Honeywell to its roster for the jet’s flight control and avionics system.
Lilium’s decision to outsource major components to established manufacturers is a departure from many of the other leading eVTOL developers, like Joby Aviation, which have chosen to keep much of the engineering and production in-house. The strategy has a few advantages. For one, Lilium doesn’t have to spend millions – possibly hundreds of millions over time – in manufacturing facilities, or production and testing equipment. But the key advantage, Lilium executives suggest, may lie with the certification process.
Like other eVTOL manufacturers, the Lilium Jet must receive regulatory approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration in order to operate commercially in the EU and U.S., respectively. Lilium, in line with other major would-be players in the industry, has set an ambitious target of 2024 for commencing commercial operations. Established aerospace suppliers may use components that have already achieved a minimum performance standard recognized by regulators, which could save time in the certification process.
“Collaborating with experts, aerospace partners, is a deliberate choice for us,” Lilium’s chief program officer, Yves Yemsi, told TechCrunch earlier this year. “It will help us to reduce our time to market and still be safe.”
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Hello and welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.
Before we jump into the deals, policy moves and micromobbin’ news, I wanted to share the latest founders interview, a new series we launched this spring over at Extra Crunch.
Here’s the opener to the interview:
Jen Young and Jeff Cavins were sitting in a beige conference room at a downtown Vancouver hotel, wasting away under fluorescent lights, an endless PowerPoint and a pair of sad Styrofoam cups of coffee between them. Young was there on a marketing contract. Cavins was a board member. They shared one of those looks that only couples can understand. It said: There’s got to be something better than this.
The “something better than this” ended up becoming Outdoorsy, peer-to-peer RV and camper rental startup.
The interview with Cavins and Young covers why they started Outdoorsy, how they have evolved and improved their business model and what is coming next. Our series has a tiny twist: We will check in with these founders a year from the date that the interview was published.
You know how those memes keep going around about why it makes total sense the Roaring 20s happened after the Spanish Flu a century ago? They bring up an important point. A very drunken, boisterous summer is already underway in places that are opening up (sorry, Melbourne), and these shenanigans are flying parallel to the rise of electric micromobility vehicles. The end result? People will — and already are — trying to ride these things drunk.
Bird announced this week it is launching Safe Start, a new in-app checkpoint designed to discourage people, but ultimately not stop them, from riding under the influence. It kicks off between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when trouble is usually afoot, asking riders attempting to unlock a Bird if they can safely handle the vehicle by correctly entering a keyword into the app. The hope is that within the time it takes a would-be rider to stop swaying, close one eye, squint with the other and punch in those letters, they’ll have realized that they’re in no position to operate machinery and call a cab or hail a ride via an app instead.
Lime has had a similar feature for the past couple of years, also activating after 10 p.m. in most markets. It asks riders to type in “Y-E-S” in response to the question, “Do you affirm you are not drunk and fit to ride?” I think it should be a simple, “Are you drunk?” but I have a thing against negative sentence structures.
A spokesperson from Lime told me the company is working on a more robust cognitive test as well as something else he can’t share yet, but if I were a betting woman, I’d say it has something to do with sensing whether someone is driving in a straight line or wobbling, an idea the company talked to The Verge about two years ago.
Spin also has a similar feature it’s working on that hasn’t yet been launched. However, it’s a bit more involved than what Bird and Lime have launched.
Spin will soon feature a quiz that will test reaction times of the rider. The logic follows that people with higher blood alcohol content have slower reaction times. A Spin spokesperson told me the company would work with the city to determine which hours are of most concern and only implement the test during those hours. Slowpokes will have to source another means of transport home, probably with a stop off at the pizza place.
Fenix, the shared e-scooter operator out of Abu Dhabi, is launching a 10-minute fresh grocery delivery service on Reem Island, some boujie, high-tech, super dense mixed-use development off the city’s coast. The company figures it’s already paying for the vehicles themselves, the space to charge batteries and the employees to swap batteries and service the scooters, why not put those to use with another business line?
It might be a logistical stroke of genius, especially if the software managing the fleets, deliveries and rides are integrated well. The company will have an undisclosed number of “dark stores” or private convenience stores (which will also house the batteries for charging) around the island so that those fresh avocados or packs of diapers are never too far from a millionaire’s penthouse. Fenix’s full-time employees will be stationed within the dark stores, accepting orders and putting together the delivery in two minutes before relaying it to a, no doubt, anxious co-worker who will have eight minutes to drop off the goods.
I have my doubts about that 10-minute success rate, many of which reside in my concern for the workers, but we’ll see how it goes, I guess. It’s a cool business model.
Irish micromobility company Zipp Mobility is making its first expansion off the island, launching its e-scooter operations in Katowice, Poland. It’s a small city in the southern part of the country, but Zipp appears to be putting a stake hold in the region, with plans to launch in the surrounding cities of Sosnowiec and Dabrowa Gornicza by the end of August.
Meanwhile, Veo is on its own expansion plans. The company raised $16 million in a Series A, which it’ll use to fund the expansion of its fleet to new cities like Santa Monica, San Diego and New York, while also focusing on developing new form factors for untapped use cases.
Speaking of New York, Revel has announced a partnership with GridRewards, an app that develops “virtual power plant” software. Essentially, Revel wants to save money while also not messing up NYC’s power grid, so it’s going to try its best to only charge its e-moped fleet when peak demand is low, and less expensive.
Revel is also doing a thing with FlixBus, an intercity bus operator. If you book with one, you get discounts with the others. FlixBus passengers travelling between DC and New York City will be eligible for a $5 one-time credit when booking electric mopeds in Revel’s app.
Finally, Santa Cruz-based electric bike startup Blix has some new updates to their rides that provide better performance, increased power and range, better brakes, fatter tires and a range of new colors.
— Rebecca Bellan
The big AV and deal news of the week is Aurora Innovation’s move to become a publicly traded company through a merger with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson.
The announcement confirmed my reporting in June that the companies were close to finalizing a deal.
Once the transaction closes, the combined company will be listed on Nasdaq with the ticker symbol AUR and have an implied valuation of $13 billion. Aurora was last valued at $10 billion following its acquisition of Uber’s self-driving unit.
Through the deal, Aurora is capturing $1 billion from private investors, including Baillie Gifford, funds and accounts managed by Counterpoint Global (Morgan Stanley), funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., PRIMECAP Management Company, Reinvent Capital, XN, Fidelity Management and Research LLC, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Index Ventures and Sequoia Capital, as well as strategic investments from Uber, PACCAR and Volvo Group.
One other note; Aurora also laid out some financial and deployment projections. Aurora plans to begin to generate revenue from trucks without vehicle operators in late 2023 and from cars without vehicle operators in late 2024, according to regulatory filings. Aurora expects to own and operate the trucks Aurora deploys through 2024, and cars that Aurora deploys through 2025 and will transition to a “Driver as a Service” (I guess, DaaS is going to be a thing?) business model.
Other deals that got my attention this week …
Bookaway, the travel tech startup, raised $46 million in funding from investors Aleph, Corner Ventures and Entrée Capital.
Carmera, an HD mapping startup based in New York, has been acquired by Woven Planet Holdings. The announcement comes less than two months since Woven Planet Holdings — an entity created by Toyota to invest in, develop and eventually bring future of transportation technologies like automated driving to market — acquired Lyft’s autonomous vehicle unit known as Level 5 for $550 million. The financial terms were not disclosed.
Under terms of the deal, Carmera will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Woven Planet. Carmera will essentially become the U.S. outpost of Woven Planet’s automated mapping platform (AMP) team, which is headquartered in Tokyo. Ro Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Carmera, will report to Mandali Khalesi, who heads up AMP.
The startup’s 50-person team will maintain its offices in New York and Seattle and will eventually be integrated into Woven Planet’s 1,000-person-and-growing enterprise, according to Woven Planet CEO James Kuffner.
Colis Privé, the French parcel delivery company, has postponed its initial public offering initially planned for early July, citing unfavorable market conditions, Reuters reported.
Delhivery gained FedEx Express, a subsidiary of delivery services giant FedEx, as a backer via $100 million investment. The investment comes less than two months after the Indian startup, which is valued at $3 billion, secured $277 million ahead of an initial public offering in the coming quarters.
Heart Aerospace, the Swedish electric aviation startup, raised a $35 million Series A funding round. Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, United Airlines’s venture arm and its regional airline partner Mesa Air Group led the round. Seed investors EQT Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital also participated. The company also received an order from United and Mesa for 200 of its inaugural ES-19 electric aircraft.
LG Chem earmarked $5.2 billion over the next four years to build out its battery materials business. The investment comes as automakers and state regulators set targets to transition away from internal combustion engine vehicles, in a shift that will likely be the most transformative to the mobility industry since the invention of the car.
Lineage Logistics, a temperature-controlled industrial REIT and logistics provider, has agreed to a strategic alliance with venture capital firm 8VC to invest in and “revolutionize” the transportation and logistics technology sector. The two companies have already co-invested in several companies over 8VC’s past three funds, including Project44, Trackonomy and Baton.
Netradyne, a startup that uses cameras and edge computing to improve commercial driver safety, raised $150 million in Series C funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Existing investors Point72 Ventures and M12 also participated in the round, bringing Netradyne’s total funding to more than $197 million.
Shopmonkey, a startup that offers a cloud-based shop management software designed for the auto repair industry, raised $75 million in a Series C round led by previous investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Index Ventures, as well as additional participation from returning investors Headline and I2BF, and new investor ICONIQ Growth. The funding comes less than a year after announcing a $25 million Series B.
NoTraffic, an Israeli-based startup that has built an AI-based traffic management platform, raised $17.5 million in a Series A that it will use to support its “rapid scale” of deployments. The company says it will be expanding into dozens of U.S. cities during the second half of this year, and hopes to move into European and Asian markets, as well.
The $17.5 million Series A was led by Nielsen Ventures, a fund founded by former Uber and Dropbox executive and Balderton Capital GP Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen and VEKTOR Partners. Leading early-stage venture capital investment firm Grove Ventures, insurance leader Menora Mivtachim Group and Meitav Dash, as well as existing investors like lool ventures, Next Gear Ventures and North First Ventures also participated. Lior Handelsman, one of the founders of Solar Edge, an energy manager system, will join the company’s board.
Taylor Hatmaker spent quite a bit of time with the VanMoof X3 and published her review this week. As she writes, “some of the best consumer tech from the last decade, I didn’t know I needed an e-bike until I was on one, breezing down the bike lane contemplating my newfound freedom.”
Hatmaker provides a deep dive into the tech, appearance, value, rideability and other features in the bike. Check it out.
(We hope and plan to be doing more bike reviews in the future; stay tuned!)
Welcome back to Policy Corner! It’s finally here: The European Commission released its ambitious plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and as everyone expected, a proposed ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035 is included.
I mentioned in last week’s Policy Corner that I was curious if it would include any mandates for EV chargers or other infrastructure to support transportation electrification, and I was pleased to see that it does. While not quite a mandate, the proposal says it wants EU countries to install public charging stations every 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) on major roads by 2025, and every 150 kilometers (93.2 miles) for hydrogen refueling stations. The ultimate goal is to build 3.5 million new EV charging stations by 2030 and 16.3 million by 2050. Measures like these will hopefully help dissipate range anxiety, a common reason people cite for not choosing an EV today.
But hold onto your hats: The proposal still needs to be approved by all 27-member states before it can take effect. And France — where automaking is a cornerstone of the economy, thanks to OEMs like Stellantis and Renault — is reportedly pushing back against the terms. It could mean a longer battle over the specific deadlines and emissions reductions targets.
It’s an interesting question, whether a technology ban is the best path forward to achieve some end goal (in this case, lowering carbon emissions). That seems like the stick. I’ll be looking out for the honey — how legislators are going to sweeten the deal for consumers and automakers alike, so there can be as few jobs lost as possible and as many new EVs purchased.
For what it’s worth, I read an interesting post from Christian Brand, associate professor in the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University, who argues that the focus on EVs is slowly down the path to zero emissions. He points out that as many as 50% of car trips are less than five kms (3.11 miles), so he suggests cities should invest in making areas more micromobility friendly to encourage more people to take up these forms of transport. Food for thought.
Speaking of carbon emissions, there’s a new partnership between eVTOL developer Joby Aviation, aircraft carrier JetBlue Airways and Signature Flight Support to help develop a new system for carbon credits in the aviation industry. Right now, there’s no current pathway for companies like JetBlue to purchase carbon credits from green aviation companies, probably because they’re just so new.
The three companies will “define the framework for the creation, validation and eventual use of these new credits on aviation carbon markets, including identifying a third party to oversee and validate transactions,” a news release said. The companies anticipate releasing more details later this year.
This could be a very profitable development for Joby. Tesla, for example, made $518 million in revenue from the first quarter of 2021 alone from selling regulatory credits to other automakers.
— Aria Alamalhodaei
Let’s get right to it. Here’s what else happened this week.
Audi, BMW, Denso and chipmaker NXP have partnered on an international working group aimed at defining a safe automated driving system architecture for self-driving vehicles. The inaugural group, which was actually created last month but that I’m just sharing with you now, is being spearheaded by The Autonomous. Companies from the industry are invited to learn more about this cross-industry collaboration at The Autonomous Main Event on September 29, 2021.
Volkswagen laid out a plan to ramp up its software, mobility as a service and battery tech to stay competitive in the coming decades. CEO Herbert Diess said the strategy will cover everything from manufacturing to revenue streams.
Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal said it will double the number of its electric vehicle fast charging stations in the United States and Canada by the end of 2025. The commitment, if successful, means 1,800 fast charging stations — or 10,000 individual chargers — will be installed and operational by that time.
GM and its new EV business unit BrightDrop are launching a fleet-charging service as the automaker aims to ramp up its bet on connected and electric commercial vehicles. The service, branded Ultium Charge 360 fleet charging service offers many of the tools that a commercial delivery, sales or motor pool business might need. It also includes an effort to add home charging for drivers.
Rivian pushed back deliveries of its long-awaited R1T electric pickup truck and R1S SUV several more months due to delays in production caused by “cascading impacts of the pandemic,” particularly the ongoing global shortage of semiconductor chips, according to a letter sent to customers from CEO RJ Scaringe. The R1T deliveries will begin in September with the R1S to follow “shortly,” Scaringe wrote in the message.
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration issued an alert recommending owners of Chevrolet Bolt Model Year 2017-2019 park their vehicles away from homes due to the risk of fire. Those are the same vehicles that were recalled in November 2020, due to the possibility of fire from the battery pack underneath the backseat’s cushion. The recall affected 50,932 2017-2019 Chevy Bolt vehicles.
Mark Moore, who was most recently director of engineering at Uber Elevate until its acquisition by Joby Aviation, launched his own company called Whisper Aero. The startup is aiming to design an electric thruster it says will blend noise emitted from delivery drones and eVTOLs alike into background levels, making them nearly imperceptible to the human ear.
Tesla launched a monthly subscription for its Full Self-Driving subscription package for $199 per month or a cheaper $99 for those who already purchased the since discontinued Enhanced Autopilot package, according to its website.
The skies are on the cusp of getting busier — and louder — as drone delivery and electric vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft startups move from moonshot to commercialization. One former NASA engineer and ex-director of Uber’s air taxi division is developing tech to ensure that more air traffic doesn’t equal more noise.
Mark Moore, who was most recently director of engineering at Uber Elevate until its acquisition by Joby Aviation, has a launched his own company called Whisper Aero. The startup, which came out of stealth this week, is aiming to designing an electric thruster it says will blend noise emitted from delivery drones and eVTOLs alike into background levels, making them nearly imperceptible to the human ear.
It’s a formidable challenge. Solving the noise problem comes down to more than simply cranking down the volume. Noise profiles are also characterized by other variables, like frequency. For example, helicopters have a main rotor and tail rotor that generate two separate frequencies, which makes them much more irritating to the human ear than if they were at a single frequency, Moore told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
Complicating the picture even further is that eVTOL companies are designing entirely new types of aircraft, ones that may generate different acoustic profiles than other rotorcraft (like helicopters). The U.S. Army recently undertook a research study confirming that eVTOL rotors generate more of a type of noise referred to as broadband, rather than tonal noise which is generated by helicopters. And as each eVTOL company is developing its own design, not all of the electric aircraft will generate the same level or kind of noise.
Whisper is designing its scalable product to be adoptable across the board.
Moore said the idea for the company had been fomenting for years. He and Whisper COO Ian Villa, who headed strategy and simulation at Elevate, realized years ago that noise (that is, less of it) was key to air taxis taking off.
“The thing that was abundantly clear was, noise matters most,” Villa said. “It is the hardest barrier to break through. And not enough of these developers were spending the time, the resources, the mindshare to really unlock that.”
Whisper CEO Mark Moore. Image Credits: Whisper Aero (opens in a new window)
Helicopters have mostly been able to get away with their terrible noise profile because they are used so infrequently. But eVTOL companies like Joby Aviation are envisioning far higher ride volumes. Moore is quick to point out that companies like Joby (which purchased Elevate at the end of 2020) are already developing aircraft that are many times quieter than helicopter, and are “a step in the right direction.”
“The question is, ‘is it enough of a step to get to significant adoption?’ And that’s what we’re focused on.”
Whisper is staying mum on the details of its thruster design. It has managed to attract around $7.5 million investment from firms like Lux Capital, Abstract Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Kindred Ventures and Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures. It’s also aiming to convert its provisional patents with the United States Patent and Trademark Office sometime next year.
From there, the startup envisions launching in the small drone market around 2023, before scaling progressively up to air taxis. Moore said the goal is to get the thrusters manufactured and in vehicles by the end of the decade. Should the first generation of eVTOL go to market in 2024 (as Archer Aviation and Joby have proposed), Whisper’s product could potentially appear in second generation eVTOL.
In the meantime, Whisper will continue testing and working out remaining technical challenges – least among which is how to manufacture the end product at a reasonable cost. Whisper is also preparing to conduct dynamic testing in a wind tunnel, in addition to the static tests it has undertaken at its Tennessee headquarters, some in partnership with the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s got to be quiet enough to blend into the background noise,” Moore said. “We know this and that’s the technology we’re developing.”
Archer Aviation is ramping up its defense against claims by rival Wisk Aero that it misappropriated trade secrets. Archer, which unveiled its Maker eVTOL earlier this month, alleged in a court filing late Wednesday that Wisk learned of Archer’s aircraft design weeks before it filed its patent design application – effectively reversing claims that it stole Wisk’s design.
Wisk claimed in its April lawsuit that its design is nearly identical to Archer’s, and that the similarities are the result of a former Wisk employee (who was later hired by Archer) stealing proprietary work files. In this new filing, Archer alleged that it shared its plans for a 12-rotor tilting design with Geoff Long, a senior engineer at Wisk, whom Archer was considering recruiting. Archer alleges that Long shared Archer’s plans with Wisk executives weeks before Wisk filed its patent application.
Still following? Archer also says that it hired a third party to conduct a forensic analysis, which found no evidence of any of the allegedly stolen documents on Archer’s systems or the devices belonging to the former Wisk-now-Archer employee.
The filing was made in response to an injunction Wisk filed in May, requesting that the court immediately prohibit its rival from using any of the 52 trade secrets it alleges were stolen. It’s a request that could have potentially catastrophic effects on Archer, as the company itself admits in the filing. Archer argues that approving the injunction would take it “offline indefinitely” and pose a “grave danger” to Archer and its network of partners and suppliers.
“Wisk’s legal and media blitz is threatening to derail Archer’s anticipated merger and its business partnerships and compelling Archer to redirect significant resources to defend this lawsuit,” Archer says in the filing. The company further requested that if an injunction should be granted, it should also require a $1.1 billion bond – which Wisk would have to pay should the court ultimately side with Archer.
Wisk, in response to the filing, sent the following statement to TechCrunch: “Archer’s latest filing is full of inaccuracies and attempts to distract from the serious and broad scope of misappropriation claims it faces. The filing changes nothing. We look forward to continuing our case in court to demonstrate Archer’s improper use of Wisk’s intellectual property.”
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under case no. 5:21-cv-2450.
GM has launched a series of new subsidiaries in the past year tackling electrification, connectivity and even insurance — all part of the automaker’s aim to find value (and profits) beyond its traditional business of making, selling and financing vehicles. These startups, including numerous ones that will never make the cut, get their start under Vice President of Innovation Pam Fletcher’s watch.
Fletcher, who joined TechCrunch on June 9 at the virtual TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, runs a group of 170 people developing and launching startups with a total addressable market of about $1.3 trillion.
Today, about 19 companies are making their way through the incubator in hopes of joining recent GM startups like OnStar Guardian, OnStar Insurance, GM Defense and BrightDrop, the commercial electric vehicle delivery business that launched in January. Not everything will make it, Fletcher told the audience, noting “we add new things all the time.”
Launching any startup presents challenges. But launching multiple startups within a 113-year-old automaker that employs 155,000 people globally is another, more complex matter. The bar, which determines whether these startups are ever publicly launched, is specific and high. A GM startup has to be a new idea that can attract new customers and grow the total addressable market for the automaker, using existing assets and IP.
The 2010 Chevrolet Volt is a noteworthy moment on the GM timeline. The vehicle marked the company’s first commercial push into electrification since the 1990s EV1 program. Fletcher, who was the chief engineer of the Chevy Volt propulsion system from 2008 to 2011, noted that the Volt was the beginning of a change within the automaker that eventually led to other commercial products including the all-electric Chevy Bolt, the hands-free driver assistance system Super Cruise and its current work on autonomous vehicle development with its subsidiary Cruise.
I don’t know that the Volt was a root exactly of what we’re seeing today. But I think it was definitely the start of a groundswell of really looking at, how do we inject technology that customers are excited about and care about quickly? How do we engage them deeply in the process? … Which we’ve always done … just, I think there was a climate there where the appetite was so strong with a certain group of customers for the technology that it allowed us to get really a front row seat with them, which was game changing for those of us on the frontlines. And obviously, there have been many programs that have had that in their own ways, but you really see that accelerating now with the advent of everything we’re doing in electrification and autonomous and a portfolio that is just emerging even to the notion of applying some of these great technologies to our new full size, truck and SUV programs. So it’s really broad, based across the company, which is exciting. (Timestamp: 4:56)
Fletcher explained how working to commercialize new technology changed how the company interacted with customers.
With new technologies, one, you get to a new customer base sometimes. So, really understanding what that customer is looking like and putting them at the center of everything. Also, different technologies have different development processes and timelines and pipelines for activity. So, it really allowed us to start to think about how to approach each step of our product development and customer engagement differently. And the Volt was an interesting time too, because that was the advent of new social media was really starting to become much more popular. And so we were very connected with those customers and a great customer base that gave us tremendous feedback very directly, you know, through at the time, what was a new channel. (Timestamp: 3:50)