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Lilium in talks with Brazilian airline for $1B order

By Aria Alamalhodaei

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.

The Lilium electric jet will use batteries manufactured by Germany’s Customcells

By Aria Alamalhodaei

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.”

Startups and investors are turning to micromobility subscriptions

By Rebecca Bellan

Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murky path to profitability for shared electric micromobility, an increasing number of companies have turned to subscriptions. It’s a business model that some founders and investors argue hits the profit center sweet spot — an approach that appeals to customers who are wary of sharing as well as paying upfront to own a scooter or e-bike, all while minimizing overhead costs and depreciation of assets.

Many investors think the subscription model will broaden the micromobility market, positioning it essentially as a software-as-a-service business, which achieves a higher multiple.

Across the United States, Europe, some of Canada and at least one Middle Eastern city, existing mobility companies are adding a subscription business line to their repertoire, and entirely new companies are being formed on the basis of the hardware-as-a-service model. But will this new playbook push the unit economics of micromobility in a positive direction? And what will determine which companies win at the subscription game?

In general, subscriptions for everything from groceries and streaming video to exercise equipment and clothing are on an upward slope. Subscription businesses are expected to grow at a rate of 30% this year, according to a 2021 study by digital services monetization company Telecoming.

Micromobility vendors keen to follow other industries into this model are focused on several factors, according to experts following the industry: the ease of scaling, return on investment and cost-per-mile to operate.

“Subscription services for a single vehicle are far more interesting and scalable than the subscription model that was trialed by the shared mobility services,” Oliver Bruce, angel investor and co-host of the Micromobility Podcast with Horace Dediu, told TechCrunch. “The cost per kilometer is just an order of magnitude smaller, and it’s not constrained by citywide caps.”

Shawn Carolan, managing director at Menlo Ventures, is also bullish on the micromobility subscription model because it makes more sense for the consumer, as most people will prefer to pay a low monthly fee rather than a higher upfront fee.

“The best customers are repeat customers, commuters or local neighborhood trips,” Carolan said. “Repeatedly paying per ride is both expensive and cognitively taxing. People want low friction in transportation. Getting from here to there shouldn’t require a lot of thought.”

The key players: E-bikes

Bird and Lime might dominate the shared micromobility space, but they’re not leading the subscription market, largely because their bikes and scooters are built to be heavier and more robust in order to handle city usage. Their operating systems are also designed to manage fleets and keep the vehicles in specific territories within a city. Bird and Spin have announced intentions to offer subscriptions, but so far there’s only been a chance to sign up for a waitlist.

Meanwhile, subscription services tend to offer lighter-weight vehicles that can be carried up flights of stairs or even folded down.

Swapfiets, the bike-sharing company with the distinctive blue front wheel, is one of the pioneers in the world of bike-sharing. In 2015, Richard Burger, Martijn Obers and Dirk de Bruijn started the Dutch company as university students in Delft when they realized that owning a bike could be somewhat of a hassle. The Netherlands is renowned for having more bicycles than people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to buy, sell and maintain them, especially with such high fees at bike shops.

“We asked how we could shift this and get only benefits from using a bike to go from A to B and not have all this hassle,” Burger told TechCrunch. “And for us, the subscription model was really the realization that would fix that.”

Superpedestrian acquires Navmatic to detect and control unsafe e-scooter rider behavior

By Rebecca Bellan

Electric scooter operator Superpedestrian has announced its acquisition of Navmatic, a startup that helps micromobility operators locate vehicles and correct their movements in real time.

The companies did not reveal the details of the buy, which was finalized last month, but those close to the deal say the number is not far off from Navmatic’s last funding round, which was $4 million raised in seed funding last June. 

The Navmatic purchase means Superpedestrian can apply the startup’s Super Fusion technology to enhance its vehicle safety systems. Pedestrian Defense, as the new system is called, can detect unsafe riding behaviors — like riding the wrong way down a one-way street, aggressively swerving, sidewalk riding or repeated hard braking — and either notify the rider or correct the rider’s behavior in real time by slowing or stopping the scooter. Riders receive a safety rating at the end of the ride that is used to deliver customized safety training, to incentivize good behavior via discounts or to blacklist chronically unsafe riders.

As more stories surface about scooter-related accidents, picking on the shiny, new tech amid the commonplace majority of car-related road collisions, Spin and Voi have also tacked on additional tech meant to keep riders in line and protect pedestrians. Rather than focus on positioning software like Navmatic’s, they’ve turned to computer vision startups Drover AI and Luna. Given an unobstructed camera, Spin and Voi vehicles can, unlike Superpedestrian’s, actually detect pedestrians with some degree of accuracy. But where they fall short is actually stopping the rider or correcting behavior in the moment.

“The current challenge is how to protect the more vulnerable people around a scooter, meaning pedestrians, people with disabilities, a man or a woman with a stroller,” Assaf Biderman, CEO of Superpedestrian, told TechCrunch. “For that you need a very precise location, you need characterization of the rider’s behaviour and you need context awareness, like is the rider blocking the right of way? You don’t need a camera if you train your data right.”

Biderman says Superpedestrian runs a microprocessor with Navmatic’s software on its LINK scooters’ operating systems, which is where all of Superpedestrian’s maps live. That software is trained on a variety of sensors, including vision for ground truth and high definition maps. During a ride, real-time computations analyzing data picked up from the scooter are done on the edge of the microprocessor, combining raw GPS data, multiple dimensions of inertial sensing and vehicle dynamics to calculate very precise location and movements of the vehicle. 

“With Navmatic’s software, location detection significantly improved, and all of a sudden you can really do this kind of analysis of the minute motions of someone on a scooter or small vehicle,” said Biderman. “Our response time is now about 0.7 seconds.”

According to Paul White, director of development and public affairs at Superpedestrian, the vehicle’s location accuracy improvement ranges from 70% to 90% depending on local conditions. 

Both companies say such precise location data, coupled with the ability to control the vehicle’s movements, is a superior solution to vision, one that is potentially cheaper but definitely more scalable. 

“You’re not gonna put a $1,000 or $2,000 lidar on a scooter, right?” said Biderman. “What you’re able to do through sensor fusion helps you to overcome the limitations of vision alone, which is bad at night, can get dirty and can fail a lot, or GPS alone, which can suffer from reflection and shadows. When you combine as many sensors as you can, you benefit from the best of all worlds, and it just keeps learning and improving.”

Superpedestrian has boasted its ability to better control its vehicles by owning the full stack, from operating system to hardware, compared to other operators that buy off-the-shelf operating systems.

“We had a lot of challenges trying to integrate our tech with other companies because every time they needed to change a line of code, they had to contact the manufacturer, which could take a week to make any changes,” Boaz Mamo, CEO and founder of Navmatic, told TechCrunch.

Superpedestrian’s software-first approach to this acquisition was also attractive to one of the company’s current investors, Dan Herscovici, partner at Edison Partners.

“Most other acquisitions by scooter companies are usually a play for market share,” he said. “It’s not as typical to see micromobility companies really leaning on IP and tech to really enhance the vehicle.”

Herscovici said Superpedestrian looked at many solutions in the marketplace to solve for the problem of pedestrian safety and city compliance, and even considered developing its own tech. Balancing time-to-market and the need to move quickly, the ever-present threat of losing city permits looming over their head, acquiring Navmatic seemed like the right decision.

“The way I generally like to think about the micromobility space is that there are three major constituencies,” said Herscovici. “The first is the rider, and that’s what most micromobility companies think about. How do you attract them and keep them riding? The next is the city or municipality, and the next and most forgotten about is the non-rider, the ones sharing the road. I think the industry has been searching for a way to modify rider behavior based on safety regulations and this acquisition unlocks that capability.”

Mamo also pointed out that Pedestrian Defense unlocks the capability for cities to get some insights into how riders are traveling and how they might be able to make better infrastructure decisions.

Biderman said Superpedestrian is building around 50,000 scooters this year, with every new vehicle the company builds containing this new technology starting in December. Next year, the company will begin deploying the upgraded vehicles in the new cities it’s moving to, as well as switching out older models in cities where Superpedestrian has an existing presence.

The Station: Aurora SPACs, a spin on the VanMoof X3 and a chat with Outdoorsy founders

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 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.

Enjoy!

As always, you can 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 station scooter1a

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.

Other cool stuff you can do with an e-scooter

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.

What else is new?

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

Deal of the week

money the station

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.

Bike review: VanMoof X3

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!)

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

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

Notable news and other tidbits

Let’s get right to it. Here’s what else happened this week.

Autonomous vehicles

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.

Electric vehicles

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.

Evtols

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.

In-car tech

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.

VanMoof X3 e-bike review: Transportation revelation

By Taylor Hatmaker

Like 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.

Before buying a Nintendo Switch, I would have never guessed how much a candy-colored gaming console that I could pop out of a dock and into my backpack for long flight would fill me with joy. An e-bike, particularly this e-bike, the VanMoof X3, feels like that.

I live in Portland, Oregon, land of ample bike lanes and naked bike rides. When I first moved here, I biked everywhere, but that habit slowly dissolved over the years. First, I bought a car for weekend camping trips, which slowly became weekday errand running.

A few years later, I got diagnosed with a chronic illness and suddenly found myself much less confident in what my body could do and where it could comfortably take me. Over time, my bike would only see a handful of rides a season on beautiful days, when I’d always sigh and think I wish I biked more — it makes me feel good!

Before testing the X3, I’d find excuses to drive short distances instead of riding my bike. What if I got tired and didn’t feel like biking home? What if it starts pouring rain? What’s if it’s too hot? What if I’m too sweaty when I get to the office? Riding an e-bike erases most of those concerns outright.

The X3 is an effortless enough ride that I can still zoom to work if it’s 95+ degrees out. It’s fast enough that I can get out of a surprise rainstorm quickly if need be. If I don’t want to be sweaty at the start of the day, I can lean on sweet, sweet electricity to whisk me away, rolling up to my office without breaking a sweat.

And it can’t go unstated that going fast on a bike — the whole time, with as much or little effort as you feel like putting in — is really, really fun. If you haven’t had a chance to try an e-bike, know that the sensation of effortlessly zipping around, electricity near-imperceptibly humming beneath you, is difficult to describe and best experienced first-hand.

VanMoof’s handsome pair of high tech bikes, the X3 and its larger cousin the S3, are far from the only options on the market, so some of their pluses would hold true for any electric bike. But that doesn’t make the VanMoof interchangeable either. The VanMoof X3 has a very specific look, feel and feature set that will perfectly suit a certain kind of rider (myself included) but other e-bike shoppers will still want to play the field. We’ll get into that — here goes!

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Matrix display shows battery life, speed and other key info.

APPEARANCE

I tested the VanMoof X3 over the S3 not by choice — its geometry is a little wacky looking in pictures — but because I’m 5’4″. The X3, which fits anybody from 5′-6’5″, is a little smaller and less traditional looking than the S3, which suits anyone taller than 5’8″. The X3 has 24″ wheels rather than the S3’s 28″ wheels and it has a little bungee-corded platform in the front where presumably you could carry something, but I still have no idea what (You can also buy an add-on front basket that slots in there and looks very cute.)

Like most e-bikes, the X3 is much, much heavier than a normal road or commuter bike. The listed weight is 45.8 lbs and you’ll feel every pound of it if you ever need to carry it very far. I live in a standalone house in Portland, Oregon and had to carry the X3 down a very short front step to ride it — totally fine!

I used to live in a fifth floor walkup in Brooklyn and carrying it up or down that would have been impossible. If you can’t store the X3 (or most any e-bike) around ground level with access to a charger, it might not be a good fit for you. (Note that in our pictures, the small platform above the chain area is where an optional external battery pack, discussed later, sits. The platform is removable.)

Though on paper I’d prefer the look of the S3, the X3 doesn’t look strange at all IRL, whether parked or with somebody riding it. It’s cute, futuristic but not conspicuous and gets plenty of compliments. My wife described its aesthetic as “Death Star chic” and while I don’t totally know what that means, she’s not wrong. On the way to my office a sanitation truck driver rolled down his window to bellow “HEY—THAT’S A REALLY COOL BIKE.” Thanks, my dude!

VanMoof X3 e-bike

The current generation of VanMoof e-bikes are coated in matte paint and you can choose between a classic, sexy matte black or a pleasantly cheery matte light blue. A previous version of the bikes used glossy coating, but apparently the matte is supposed to be more scratch resistant. The paint does seem pretty tough though it’s not totally bombproof. Somehow the handlebars picked up a little nick in the paint, though I still have no idea where it came from or what did it (owls?).

Something important to note is that neither the VanMoof X3 or S3 look like e-bikes. They don’t have an ugly bulge jutting out from the frame and the top tube and down tube are both thick but uniform — and not so thick you’d think twice about it.

The electronic components are nestled away in the frame and even the drivetrain is tucked away and enclosed. And while there’s a deeply cool LED matrix display embedded in the top tube, only the rider really sees it. For anyone looking for an e-bike that doesn’t scream e-bike!!!! the VanMoof is one of the best choices if not the best choice you could make. It’s an awesome looking bike — not just an awesome looking e-bike.

VanMoof X3 in the city of roses.

RIDING

The VanMoof X3 is a nice-looking bike — you get it. But what about, you know, the biking? I can confidently report that from the first time you hop on it to your twentieth commute to work, the X3 is an absolute joy to ride.

As an e-bike newcomer I had reservations. Would the electric assistance cheapen the magic of riding a bike? Do I really want a bike doing the shifting for me? As it turns out, quite the opposite and yes, absolutely.

The VanMoof X3 (and its sibling the S3) give you an electric boost while pedaling — you’ll still be pedaling but it feels enticingly easy and you’ll go faster with less effort. The bike also features a Turbo Boost button on the right-side handlebar that gives you a big boost on top of the smoother normal electronic assistance, up to 20 miles per hour in the U.S.

You can choose the amount of help that you want. Using the VanMoof app, which we’ll get to, or a physical button, you can select what level of power assist you’d like from zero to four. Zero is you pedaling a heavy-ass bike alone with no help (it sucks) and four makes everything feel so easy there’s almost no way to break a sweat.

In my time testing the bike, I’d use “two” when I felt like getting a bit of a workout with extra pep in my pedal, four when I was in a hurry to get to my co-working space in the mornings and three the rest of the time, like riding to brunch on a weekend. Being able to choose the level of pedal assistance is a huge perk and it makes the bike feel flexible for different uses.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

The kick lock button, back wheel and enclosed chain.

Whatever mode you’re on, the turbo boost button is a killer feature. It flattens steep hills and makes it feel way safer to zip across busy intersections where you’re not sure drivers are paying attention. It’s fun and awesome for safe, defensive city riding.

It takes a little bit to get used to the automatic electronic shifting but that’s silky smooth too. I initially assumed that, like many things that worked perfectly well before having some extraneous “smart” high-tech nonsense draped over them (fridges! lamps! vibrators!) the technology would fail just often enough to be a nuisance.

After a long period of testing, I can report that the X3 rides as smooth and seamless as ever. Every once in a while I’d crunch down on the pedal or a gear won’t catch right away but it’s super rare. You can even use the app to customize when the bike shifts up and down and it’s worth playing around with that to find something that feels just right.

What else? The X3’s maximum assisted speed is in the U.S. is 20 mph (32km/hr), but anyone in Europe will be limited to 15.5 mph (25km/hr). The U.S. speed feels great and it’s painless to get up to 20mph and maintain that speed with the X3 in a way I’d have to destroy my quads to manage otherwise, even on my zippy non-electric road bike.

Beyond that, the seat is very comfy and the ride is pleasantly upright and natural. After riding the X3 for a while I had a hard time going back to hunching over on my (adorable) little Bianchi and pined for the comfy ride I’d gotten so used to.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Tail light from the future.

VALUE

The VanMoof X3 is an excellent value, all things considered. The company has a weird habit of tinkering with its pricing, but after a redesign and a colossal price drop in 2020 ($3,398 to $1,998 at the time) the bikes feel very well priced. Now they’re retailing for $2,298 — $300 more than the previous price but still a fine deal for anyone looking for a very full-featured e-bike without spending more than around $2,000.

That’s not that much more than you’d spend on a regular new bike, sans electricity and VanMoof’s many, many cool bells and whistles. If you’re into higher end bikes, it could even be a lot less. And realistically, it’s just as likely that you’re shopping for an e-bike to rely less on a car, public transportation or whatever else you’re paying for to get around — not to replace a traditional bike. (For something in the U.S. in the sub-$2,000 range, check out Rad Power Bikes and Charge for some good options.)

VanMoof’s pricing is also substantially less than you’d pay for the high end tier of feature-rich e-bikes with high quality components, but the company still manages to compete with those on looks and features. Still, it’s kind of stressful that VanMoof is quietly messing around with the pricing with the bikes already out in the wild. It would suck to plan to buy one only to see the price shoot up before you’d pulled the trigger.

The company should be more transparent about this, giving set future dates for planned price changes. There also seem to be updates within generations of the bikes, so an X3 you buy now might differ from an X3 you could buy in 2020. That’s confusing and all of it should be made clearer somewhere obvious on the website.

vanmoof-app

The VanMoof app’s in-app ride tracking and summary stats.

RANGE

One of the biggest considerations with an e-bike (or an e-anything!) is range. VanMoof says the X3’s range is 37 miles using “full power” and up to 93 miles in economy mode. If you’re getting 93 miles out of the battery, you probably aren’t even using the pedal assistance at all, so you can just toss that number out. The low end estimate of 37 miles might be a little generous for someone who’s using the bike on the fourth power assistance level and smashing the turbo boost regularly, but 35-45 miles feels about right from my testing (usually mode 3 or 4, occasionally 2, light use of turbo button).

The range feels good. Even using the X3 most days out of the week, charging is infrequent enough to never feel annoying. In my case, that meant daily short rides (2.5-5 miles, usually) and the occasional longer ride (10-20 miles). If you’re using the X3 or S3 to commute to work somewhere that’s farther away, you’re going to find yourself plugging in more. Even so, I never got into a situation where I was concerned that I’d run out of battery far from home. And even if you do, you can still pedal the bike — it’s just really heavy. Most people will probably charge up overnight, but you can fill up the battery in four hours if you need to.

Something to note is that you’ll plug in a wall charger directly to the bike to charge it. For anyone who can’t charge and store the X3 on ground level, know you’ll have to carry the whole dang bike to an outlet. The lack of a removable battery might be a strike against the VanMoof bikes for folks who live in walk-ups or small apartments, but for people with somewhere easy to store it, this wasn’t something I thought twice about.

While the built-in range is totally adequate for a lot of use cases, VanMoof just introduced an external add-on battery pack for both the X3 and S3. The battery slots into a little platform, pictured below and mounted on our test bike, and it extends the X3’s range considerably. VanMoof sells the PowerBank accessory for $348. The thing isn’t small — it weighs six pounds — but VanMoof says it’ll give you anywhere from 28 to 62 miles of extra range. Again, almost nobody is going to hit the high end of this, but even at the low end it almost doubles the bike’s existing range.

External PowerBank via VanMoof

The PowerBank is big and pretty clunky. It doesn’t look awful, but it definitely makes the X3 look like an e-bike. It’s not elegant like the removable battery on the Cowboy, another extremely handsome e-bike, but it’s ok. If everything else about a VanMoof suits you perfectly but you need more range, it’s great to have the option, even if you’ll be shelling out for it.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

TECH FEATURES

The tech bells and whistles are something that really makes the VanMoof X3 and S3 stand out from the crowd. The X3’s price feels reasonable for a reliable, great-looking e-bike, but on top of that you’ll be getting an electric steed with some pretty sweet tricks:

  • Matrix display: On the bike’s top tube an array of LED lights built into the metal displays your speed, battery life and other useful info. This is a killer feature, it’s extremely cool!
  • Alarm. You can activate an alarm that will *literally growl* at anyone who jostles your bike. It’s intense and really loud.
  • Kick lock. You can kick a small physical button to alarm the bike and lock the back wheel. If you live in a city with bike theft, someone could still toss the bike in a truck easily so this isn’t a single security solution (I used a normal mini Kryptonite lock and that worked great.)
  • Find My on iOS. If you’re an iOS user you can track your bike’s whereabouts easily. It’s a nice feature, though ideally if your bike is well-locked you aren’t going to be messing with this much.

Vanmoof Find My iOS

VanMoof support for “Find My” app in iOS

  • Lights. The VanMoof X3 has great built-in lights, front and back.
  • App: Surprisingly, the app is actually pretty good. You can customize lots of small things (bell noise, alarm on or off, shifting preferences), use it to track your rides and more. You also don’t have to be connected to the bike with the app to do the most essential stuff, liking riding it, unlocking it and changing your level of electric assistance. I had an occasional connectivity problem with the app (usually on Android) but this was easily resolved and never kept me from biking anywhere, though it did mean some rides weren’t automatically tracked. Importantly, you can also track your bike’s whereabouts through the app and VanMoof touts this feature combined with its alarm system and recovery team for helping people get their bikes back.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Overall, something great about the X3 is that the tech features aren’t just fancy tricks — they really enhance the experience. And even so, they’re optional. You can ride the bike and benefit from the power assistance without using the app. You can use a regular lock and skip the alarm system if you choose to, or use a physical button code to disable it manually. You can change the power assistance mode with the same button. This is all huge and lets you use the e-bike how you want to. Personally, I’d never buy an e-bike that required connectivity, a phone or an app to operate it; that’s just asking for trouble.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Shipping and Assembly: The VanMoof X3 and S3 come in the mail in a big box. The assembly process was almost painless — except for this one really fiddly bit you have to slide into another fiddly bit which took me the better part of an hour and some searching on the VanMoof subreddit (not the only one with this problem!)

Extra Support: VanMoof offers three paid plans to keep your bike in working order and in your possession. You can buy a three-year maintenance plan for $348, a three-year theft recovery plan for $398 or a combined plan for $690 (broken down via VanMoof below).

VanMoof support plans

Maintenance: Where you live should be a major consideration when thinking about buying a VanMoof. In my time testing it for reliability over an extended period, I was surprised by how few problems came up. I had to mess around with re-centering the front wheel at some point because a brake pad was rubbing, but aside from occasional app connectivity issues, that was pretty much it. Of course, significant wear and tear means any bike could benefit from a pro tune up from someone who knows the model.

VanMoof has full-fledged stores in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Tokyo. Beyond its flagship stores, the company relies on an expanding network of service centers and “certified workshops” to maintain its bikes, so be sure to check what’s near you. Personally, I’d want to be near enough to a VanMoof store or at least a service center to guarantee my $2,000+ investment and its many, many technological bits could be maintained in perfect health. Nobody wants to ship a bike back for repairs, especially a heavy, technologically complex one.

Prior to testing out the X3, e-bikes aren’t something I’d thought a lot about and I wasn’t really sure who they were for. I first heard of VanMoof a couple of years ago when a close friend and much more serious biker than me bought one for towing her dog (the goodest girl) on a long work commute. We rode to the farmer’s market together and I admired her VanMoof, but I was skeptical that something with so much technology under the hood could prove reliable over time.

Bikes are mechanical and simple — that’s something wonderful about them! Could an e-bike really translate the joyful simplicity of biking into something much more high tech? As it turns out, yes. After test riding the VanMoof X3 to get a sense of its reliability and how its features hold up in normal day-to-day use, I regret my early skepticism.

I don’t know if I can overstate how much riding an e-bike, specifically this e-bike, enhanced my life in small ways for the better while I tried it out. Biking more — and e-bikes do get people biking more — makes me happier and healthier. Biking more has helped me ease out of an intensely sedentary pandemic period into new habits that make me feel more connected to the world around me. I’m seeing my city with fresh eyes, biking to new neighborhoods I’ve never explored and appreciating all of the little things I took for granted. My only e-bike regret is not hopping on one sooner.

Whisper Aero emerges from stealth to quiet drones and air taxis

By Aria Alamalhodaei

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.”

Why is Didi worth so much less than Uber?

By Alex Wilhelm

Years ago, U.S. ride-hailing giant Uber and its Chinese rival Didi were locked in an expensive rivalry in the Asian nation. After a financially bruising competition, Uber sold its China-based business to Didi, focusing instead on other markets.

The two companies are coming head-to-head again, however, as Didi looks to list in the United States. The company’s IPO filing was big news for the SoftBank Vision Fund, Tencent and Uber, thanks to its stake in Didi from its earlier transaction.

Uber is more diversified both geographically and in terms of its revenue mix. Didi is larger, more profitable and more concentrated.

But Didi appears set to be valued at a discount to Uber. By several tens of billions of dollars, it turns out. And we can’t quite figure out why.

This week, Didi indicated that it will target a $13 to $14 per-share IPO price, with each share on the U.S. markets worth one-fourth of a Class A share in the company. In more technical language, each ADR is 25% of a Class A ordinary share in Didi, if you prefer it put like that.

With 288 million shares to be sold in its U.S. IPO, Didi could raise as much as $4.03 billion, a huge sum.

What’s Didi worth at $13 to $14 per ADR? Using a nondiluted share count, Didi is valued between $62.3 billion and $67.1 billion. Inclusive of shares that may be issued thanks to vested options and the like, Didi could be worth as much as $70 billion; Renaissance Capital calculates the company’s midpoint valuation using a fully diluted share count at $67.5 billion.

Regardless of which number you prefer, Didi is not set to challenge Uber’s own valuation. Yahoo Finance pegged Uber at $95.2 billion as of this morning.

Why is the Chinese company worth less than its erstwhile rival? Let’s dig around in their numbers and find out.

Didi versus Uber

As a reminder, Uber’s Q1 2021 included adjusted revenues of $3.5 billion, a gain of 8% compared to the year-ago quarter. Uber’s adjusted EBITDA came in for the period at -$359 million.

Veo CEO Candice Xie has a plan for building a sustainable scooter company, and it’s working

By Rebecca Bellan

Startups are the embodiment of frenetic action. The rush to grow, outrun, and disrupt runs in the lifeblood of today’s entrepreneurs, driving their fervor and enabling them to capture markets from giants of industries too big to maneuver in a quickly changing landscape.

That has been truer for the mobility landscape than most other industries. Companies like electric scooter providers Lime and Bird have raised tons of capital to change how the urban population gets around, but that growth has come at the cost of a bottom line still in the red.

So it’s striking to see electric scooter company Veo take a different approach to the business. Rather than raising venture capital and scaling quickly, the company does business the old-fashioned way: Proving the model works in one market before moving to the next. This slower, more methodical approach has worked in Veo’s favor — it might be the only company in its industry that has been consistently profitable.

Veo’s approach reflects its co-founder and CEO Candice Xie’s belief that transportation is not an industry that allows companies to scale rapidly and turn a big profit within a year, and especially not if it’s going to make sense for a city. Electric scooters aren’t just a business to Xie — they’re a utility, a tool that can be best implemented through patient collaboration between public and private partners. The CEO has taken this ethos and executed Veo’s business model with the expectation that it will make the company the most impactful in the industry.

A former financial planner for automation solutions company, Schneider Electric, in Chicago, Xie launched Vue in 2017, partly inspired by the bike-share boom in Asia. She was decidedly against the poor quality bikes many operators were deploying at the time, and was also frustrated by the lack of affordable, safe and convenient transportation in Chicago. After some market research, Xie and her co-founder, Yanke (Edwin) Tan, a bike engineer, discovered the gap in last-mile transportation in the United States.

The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity. 

In your Medium post titled “Sorry, Boys. The First Profitable Micromobility Company Was Veo, Not Lime,” you fired some shots at Lime and the tech bro-ey micromobility industry at large. That was pretty bold. 

Thank you! I think because of the VC money and also the hype in the industry, a lot of people just forget how easy and simple the business should be. That’s why I put out the post. It was just time to say something in the industry and help people to understand.

What made you write it?

That was actually the time when Lime announced they were the first ones to achieve profitability, and that’s through EBITDA, and a lot of people were clapping for them. I was compelled to write because many people who follow the industry asked me, “Hey, it seems their approach is working? Should we follow suit? Why are you taking a different approach?”

I felt like that statement from Lime was quite misleading for a lot of people, and I don’t think that was a responsible statement, either. So that made me feel like I should use my insight and just explain things a bit more openly with our information.

Archer Aviation hits back against rival Wisk Aero’s request for injunction in trade secret suit

By Aria Alamalhodaei

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.

Ford micromobility subsidiary Spin launches first in-house-built e-scooter

By Rebecca Bellan

Spin, Ford’s micromobility subsidiary, has launched its first custom designed and built electric scooter. The company says the S-100T scooters are its safest and longest-lasting, two qualities that it hopes will attract the attention of cities as it aims its strategy at exclusive partnerships. 

When the company launches its service in Sacramento in July, it’ll deploy 25 of the new S-100T scooters along with its existing fleet. Spin hopes to scale to 350 S-100Ts by August and have more than a few thousand in the market by the end of the year, according to a spokesperson for the company. 

The S-100T joins Spin’s other vehicles, the original S-100, the three-wheeler S-200 and a new e-bike, which are manufactured in partnership with Segway-Ninebot and Okai. Spin will continue these partnerships in order to maintain a diverse fleet.

Spin has been working on its own scooter since 2019, when many of the scooters on the road came off-the-shelf and fell apart fast. A Los Angeles Times report found LA-area Bird scooters lasted only 126 days.

“At that time, the founders decided to really set a new standard not only for Spin itself, but also for the industry on what e-scooter durability should be,” Maxime Veron, VP of product at Spin, told TechCrunch. “So we really set out to create the toughest scooter out there, and that has been the north star for the design, build and testing of the S-100T.”

The ‘T’ stands for ‘tough,’ Veron added. 

“And we really tested it — tortured it, I should say — way beyond the expectation of the industry, and that’s why we expect it to last twice as long as other e-scooters,” he said.

Spin expects the S-100T to last over three years, compared to about 18 months for its S-100. The company reached this estimated lifespan after performing 400 different safety and durability tests, many of which involved pulverizing the vehicle and making it withstand temperatures from -4 degrees Fahrenheit to 149 degrees Fahrenheit.

Low life expectancy of scooters is one of the main reasons why it’s been so hard for companies to achieve profitability, which is why Spin is focusing its scooter design around durability. 

“Durability is the biggest lever we have in terms of profitability,” said Veron. “It’s gonna help both our bottom line in terms of making sure that the scooters last longer, and our top line of attracting customers who will love the ride.”

Veron says the S-100T is designed to be modular, with a single frame design that’s durable and allows for easy repairs and parts replacements, which should help with lifespan and sustainability of the vehicle. Perhaps one day, both the design and Spin’s ownership of the vehicles will also help the company come up with a good end-of-life strategy and design for recyclability. 

“Durability has been the number one, but we will be able over time to improve on all the key checkpoints including end-of-life because we control it all,” said Veron.

 

Micromobility software provider Joyride raises $3.7 million seed round

By Rebecca Bellan

Joyride, a Toronto-based company that provides white label apps, back-end analytics and multi-modal fleet management for shared micromobility startups, has raised $3.7 million — seed money that it says will help it reach a greater number of small, local operators. 

The company, which operates in more than 160 markets in every continent besides Antarctica, has primarily been able to generate enough revenue to support its business since its founding in 2014. With the fresh capital, Joyride will double down on its ability to help local operators find and finance the right vehicles, access insurance programs from trusted partners and learn how to deploy a profitable fleet. Joyride has already offered these services to an extent alongside its SaaS business model, but wants to feature them more prominently as its business grows.

“Really early on in the pandemic, we saw companies like Bird and Lime pull out of almost every market they were in, and then almost right away we started to get a lot of local entrepreneurs from those cities contacting us and saying, ‘Hey, Bird and Lime just left. I see a real opportunity here for me to run a micromobility business for myself,’” Joyride’s founder and CEO Vince Cifani told TechCrunch.

Since last year, Joyride has seen interest from entrepreneurs looking to start small scooter and e-bike share businesses increase four-fold compared to pre-pandemic numbers, Cifani said. That looks like about 150 requests per week. Joyride’s stats point to an emerging trend of local operators beginning to spring up in the parts of the world perhaps deemed too small fry for the big operators. 

Over the last couple of years, the industry seems to have been on the consolidation path, especially when we look at acquisitions like Lime buying Jump and Boosted and Bird buying Circ and Scoot. But we haven’t really seen consolidation among the hundreds of smaller businesses operating locally, said Cifani. And while they may be small individually, they’re mighty in numbers, quietly cropping up in towns and cities across the globe and privately at hotels and on campuses. In some cases, like with The Hague in the Netherlands, fleets are being operated by public transit. 

As local operators proliferate, the opportunity for companies like Joyride grows. In Germany, a similar software provider Wunder Mobility recently launched a lending division to help micromobility startups finance fleets.

“We’ve identified that there are over 10,000 different markets for these types of local operators to run this type of business,” said Cifani. “So if it’s taken Bird, say, half a billion dollars to get into 100 plus markets, are they actually going to raise $100 billion to try and get into every single market opportunity in the world? The inflection point for us is that there’s a huge opportunity for this long tail market, and we’ve seen Bird try to pivot into that space as well with its fleet manager model.”

Under Bird’s fleet manager model, which made up 94% of the company’s “sharing” revenue in the second half of 2020, the vehicles and software are supplied to local operators. Bird always maintains ownership and branding of the scooters. The fleet managers are responsible for fleet deployment and rebalancing, sanitization, and general care and maintenance of the Bird vehicles. In exchange, the operators receive a portion of the fee that users pay to rent the scooters.

Joyride is different. The company helps customers buy fleets outright from manufacturing partners and in some cases helps them finance their vehicles.

Where the big players like Bird and Lime have chased scale in the push to become profitable, Cifani says many of Joyride’s operators running smaller operations tell him they’ve paid back the money for all their vehicles within a few months. 

Joyride’s seed round was led by Proeza Ventures, Urban Innovation Fund and Craig Miller, former CPO of Shopify, a platform that has similarly helped democratize the e-commerce space. Cifani says Joyride will be doing a Series A in the near future.

Inside GM’s startup incubator strategy

By Kirsten Korosec

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 Volt effect

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)

Extra Crunch roundup: influencer marketing 101, spotting future unicorns, Apple AirTags teardown

By Walter Thompson

With the right message, even a small startup can connect with established and emerging stars on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube who will promote your products and services — as long as your marketing team understands the influencer marketplace.

Creators have a wide variety of brands and revenue channels to choose from, but marketers who understand how to court these influencers can make inroads no matter the size of their budget. Although brand partnerships are still the top source of revenue for creators, many are starting to diversify.

If you’re in charge of marketing at an early-stage startup, this post explains how to connect with an influencer who authentically resonates with your brand and covers the basics of setting up a revenue-share structure that works for everyone.


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Our upcoming TC Early Stage event is devoted to marketing and fundraising, so expect to see more articles than usual about growth marketing in the near future.

We also ran a post this week with tips for making the first marketing hire, and Managing Editor Eric Eldon spoke to growth leader Susan Su to get her thoughts about building remote marketing teams.

We’re off today to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday in the United States. I hope you have a safe and relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

As the economy reopens, startups are uniquely positioned to recruit talent

Little Fish in Form of Big Fish meeting a fish.

Image Credits: ballyscanlon (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The pandemic forced a reckoning about the way we work — and whether we want to keep working in the same way, with the same people, for the same company — and many are looking for something different on the other side.

Art Zeile, the CEO of DHI Group, notes this means it’s a great time for startups to recruit talent.

“While all startups are certainly not focused on being disruptive, they often rely on cutting-edge technology and processes to give their customers something truly new,” Zeile writes. “Many are trying to change the pattern in their particular industry. So, by definition, they generally have a really interesting mission or purpose that may be more appealing to tech professionals.”

Here are four considerations for high-growth company founders building their post-pandemic team.

Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson-Roberson on finding the middle path to robotic delivery

Matthew Johnson-roberson

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

“Refraction AI calls itself the Goldilocks of robotic delivery,” Rebecca Bellan writes. “The Ann Arbor-based company … was founded by two University of Michigan professors who think delivery via full-size autonomous vehicles (AV) is not nearly as close as many promise, and sidewalk delivery comes with too many hassles and not enough payoff.

“Their ‘just right’ solution? Find a middle path, or rather, a bike path.”

Rebecca sat down with the company’s CEO to discuss his motivation to make “something that is useful to the general public.”

How to identify unicorn founders when they’re still early-stage

Image Credits: RichVintage (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

What are investors looking for?

Founders often tie themselves in knots as they try to project qualities they hope investors are seeking. In reality, few entrepreneurs have the acting skills required to convince someone that they’re patient, dedicated or hard working.

Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, was an early backer of Klarna, Spotify and several other European startups. Over the last two decades, he’s identified five key traits shared by people who create billion-dollar companies.

“A true unicorn founder doesn’t need to have all of those capabilities on day one,” Brenner, writes “but they should already be thinking big while executing small and demonstrating that they understand how to scale a company.”

Founders Ben Schippers and Evette Ellis are riding the EV sales wave

disrupt mobility roundup

Image Credits: TechCrunch

EV sales are driving demand for services and startups that fulfill the new needs of drivers, charging station operators and others.
Evette Ellis and Ben Schippers took to the main stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to share how their companies capitalized on the new opportunities presented by the electric transportation revolution.

Scale AI CEO Alex Wang weighs in on software bugs and what will make AV tech good enough

Image Credits: Alexandr Wang

Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding.

Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.

Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why.

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

Image Credits: Getty Images / Vertigo3d

The prevailing post-pandemic edtech narrative, which predicted higher ed would be DOA as soon as everyone got their vaccine and took off for a gap year, might not be quite true.

Natasha Mascarenhas explores a new crop of edtech SaaS startups that function like guidance counselors, helping students with everything from study-abroad opportunities to swiping right on a captivating college (really!).

“Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases,” she writes.

Dear Sophie: Is it possible to expand our startup in the US?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

My co-founders and I launched a software startup in Iran a few years ago, and I’m happy to say it’s now thriving. We’d like to expand our company in California.

Now that President Joe Biden has eliminated the Muslim ban, is it possible to do that? Is the pandemic still standing in the way? Do you have any suggestions?

— Talented in Tehran

Companies should utilize real-time compensation data to ensure equal pay

Two women observing data to represent collecting data to ensure pay equity.

Image Credits: Rudzhan Nagiev (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Chris Jackson, the vice president of client development at CompTrak, writes in a guest column that having a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and “agreeing on the need for equality doesn’t mean it will be achieved on an organizational scale.”

He lays out a data-driven proposal that brings in everyone from directors to HR to the talent acquisition team to get companies closer to actual equity — not just talking about it.

Investors Clara Brenner, Quin Garcia and Rachel Holt on SPACs, micromobility and how COVID-19 shaped VC

tc sessions mobility speaker_investorpanel-1

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Few people are more closely tapped into the innovations in the transportation space than investors.

They’re paying close attention to what startups and tech companies are doing to develop and commercialize autonomous vehicle technology, electrification, micromobility, robotics and so much more.

For TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we talked to three VCs about everything from the pandemic to the most overlooked opportunities within the transportation space.

Experts from Ford, Toyota and Hyundai outline why automakers are pouring money into robotics

disrupt mobility roundup

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Automakers’ interest in robotics is not a new phenomenon, of course: Robots and automation have long played a role in manufacturing and are both clearly central to their push into AVs.

But recently, many companies are going even deeper into the field, with plans to be involved in the wide spectrum of categories that robotics touch.

At TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we spoke to a trio of experts at three major automakers about their companies’ unique approaches to robotics.

Apple AirTags UX teardown: The trade-off between privacy and user experience

Image Credits: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Apple’s location devices — called AirTags — have been out for more than a month now. The initial impressions were good, but as we concluded back in April: “It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild.”

That’s exactly what our resident UX analyst, Peter Ramsey, has been doing for the last month — intentionally losing AirTags to test their user experience at the limits.

This Extra Crunch exclusive helps bridge the gap between Apple’s mistakes and how you can make meaningful changes to your product’s UX.

 

How to launch a successful RPA initiative

3D illustration of robot humanoid reading book in concept of future artificial intelligence and 4th fourth industrial revolution . (3D illustration of robot humanoid reading book in concept of future artificial intelligence and 4th fourth industrial r

Image Credits: NanoStockk (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Robotic process automation (RPA) is no longer in the early-adopter phase.

Though it requires buy-in from across the organization, contributor Kevin Buckley writes, it’s time to gather everyone around and get to work.

“Automating just basic workflow processes has resulted in such tremendous efficiency improvements and cost savings that businesses are adapting automation at scale and across the enterprise,” he writes.

Long story short: “Adapting business automation for the enterprise should be approached as a business solution that happens to require some technical support.”

Mobility startups can be equitable, accessible and profitable

tc sessions

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Mobility should be a right, but too often it’s a privilege. Can startups provide the technology and the systems necessary to help correct this injustice?

At  our TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, we sat down with Revel CEO and co-founder Frank Reig, Remix CEO and co-founder Tiffany Chu, and community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler to discuss how mobility companies should think about equity, why incorporating it from the get-go will save money in the long run, and how they can partner with cities to expand accessible and sustainable mobility.

CEO Shishir Mehrotra and investor S. Somasegar reveal what sings in Coda’s pitch doc

Image Credits: Carlin Ma / Madrona Venture Group/Brian Smale

Coda CEO Shishir Mehrotra and Madrona partner S. Somasegar joined Extra Crunch Live to go through Coda’s pitch doc (not deck. Doc) and stuck around for the ECL Pitch-off, where founders in the audience come “onstage” to pitch their products to our guests.

Extra Crunch Live takes place every Wednesday at 3 p.m. EDT/noon PDT. Anyone can hang out during the episode (which includes networking with other attendees), but access to past episodes is reserved exclusively for Extra Crunch members. Join here.

Mobility startups can be equitable, accessible and profitable

By Rebecca Bellan

Mobility should be a right, but too often it’s a privilege. Can startups provide the technology and the systems necessary to help correct this injustice? Shared micromobility, in particular, offers an opportunity for more equitable and accessible mobility within cities, but only if done intentionally. Building equity and accessibility into the business model is not always top of mind for startups looking to pay back investors and make money, and it’s a time-consuming task. Is it still possible to achieve those goals while remaining profitable?

At our TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, I sat down with Revel CEO and co-founder Frank Reig, Remix CEO and co-founder Tiffany Chu, and community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler to discuss how mobility companies should think about equity, why incorporating it from the get-go will save money in the long run, and how they can partner with cities to expand accessible and sustainable mobility.

What does equity mean?

Shared mobility services have often directly appealed to the young, able-bodied and affluent, especially when they first dropped into cities around the world. Older populations and communities of color have been less likely to either have access to or to use shared mobility services, but that’s beginning to change. As mobility startups consider how to weigh providing equitable service while maintaining a profit, Butler outlined the importance of thinking about those who are most vulnerable.

Who isn’t this helping? And it doesn’t matter if that’s a small amount of people, right? So you might say something like, people with disabilities might be proportionally a smaller number of people, Black people might be proportionally a smaller number of people. But if you make things better for folks with a disability, say, by adding curb cuts into sidewalks, that actually makes things better for a ton of people. And so you may be thinking of it … only helping a small group of people. And I think we really have to shift the way we think about equity. It’s not just numbers, who is this going to help the most, it’s … who is often intentionally neglected or pushed aside because their numbers aren’t big enough? (Timestamp: 19:10)

Build equity into the business model from the start

Many startups are just trying to keep their idea alive and start a business at the beginning. They want to solve an essential problem, like lack of socially distanced mobility options, and prove their unit economics so they don’t come back to their investors empty handed. Some companies might even be of the mindset that building equity and accessibility into their business model isn’t their concern. But delivering on those core values will just be the price of doing business in the future, so it certainly should be their concern, Butler said.

I think for companies, I would say that people like to say it takes too much time or costs too much money to do things equitably. But whether or not you’re retrofitting a house or whether or not you’re retrofitting your company, whenever you retrofit something, it costs more money. And so if you think about equity as something you just build in from the beginning, it will actually save you money and take less time than if you try to do it later because someone tells you to do it or you’ve had some controversy or you all of a sudden feel bad. (Timestamp: 4:50)

Reig chimed in to talk about Revel’s access program, which gives 50% off to riders who are on any form of public assistance.

So the access program, for instance, was something from day one. That wasn’t something we added in a year or two later after venture funding … that was still when we were bootstraped, you know, a company in North Brooklyn with 70 mopeds. From day one, I’ve never used the gig economy, customer service agent mechanic battery swapper, from day one, every single person on the team is a regular employee. And I think that’s just a cultural ethos I’ve always wanted in the company. (Timestamp: 6:04)

Micromobility’s potential to alleviate transit deserts

Experts from Ford, Toyota and Hyundai outline why automakers are pouring money into robotics

By Brian Heater

Automakers’ interest in robotics is not a new phenomenon, of course: Robots and automation have long played a role in manufacturing and are both clearly central to their push into AVs. But recently, many companies are going even deeper into the field, with plans to be involved in the wide spectrum of categories that robotics touch.

At TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we spoke to a trio of experts at three major automakers. Max Bajracharya of Toyota Research Institute, Mario Santillo of Ford and Ernestine Fu of Hyundai Motor Group joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to robotics.

Why are automakers so interested in robotics?

Let’s get the simple question out of the way first, shall we? Moving beyond existing investments in manufacturing and autonomous vehicles, why do so many carmakers seem so bullish about companies like Boston Dynamics and Agility Robotics?

Bajracharya: I think all automakers are recognizing that there won’t be the automotive business in the future as it is today. A lot of automakers, Toyota included, are looking for what’s next. Automakers are very well positioned to leverage what they already know about robotics and manufacturing to take on the robotics market. (Timestamp: 1:01)

The role of concept vehicles

Concept cars are nothing new in the industry, but even still, Hyundai’s recently announced Ultimate Mobility Vehicle (UMV) was pretty wild, with large, extending legs that help it walk off-road.

Investors Clara Brenner, Quin Garcia and Rachel Holt on SPACs, micromobility and how COVID-19 shaped VC

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Few people are more closely tapped into the innovations in the transportation space than investors. They’re paying close attention to what startups and tech companies are doing to develop and commercialize autonomous vehicle technology, electrification, micromobility, robotics and so much more.

Clara Brenner, co-founder and managing partner of Urban Innovation Fund; Quin Garcia, the managing director of AutoTech Ventures; and Rachel Holt, co-founder and general partner of Construct Capital talked (and debated) about how the pandemic affected the venture world and deal flow; why AutoTech Ventures was hesitant to invest in micromobility; on how to incentivize micromobility; and, of course, their take on the rise of mergers with special purpose acquisition companies as a route to going public. They also shared their thoughts on the most overlooked opportunities they are interested in within the transportation space.

How the COVID-19 pandemic shaped VC

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, and VC was no exception. Holt and Garcia explained some of the effects they saw on startups — both new and existing — over the past year.

Holt: There was enough dislocation in transportation, and in some other areas, that happened through COVID, that it’s just the time when, whether it’s buyers or cities or others are just evaluating what the new world order should look like. And I think that just creates a lot of opportunity. … When you have a shock to the system like COVID, it creates just an opportunity for everyone, whether it’s inside companies, whether it’s founders, or whether it’s cities and governments and other entities to take a step back and say, OK, what do we want the next five years to look like? (Timestamp: 4:18, 4:55)

Scale AI CEO Alex Wang weighs in on software bugs and what will make AV tech good enough

By Darrell Etherington

Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 this week to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding. Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.

Good data is the “good bones” of autonomous driving systems

Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why:

If you think about a traditional software system, the thing that will separate a good software system from a bad software system is the code, the quality of the code. For an AI system, which all of these self-driving vehicles or autonomous vehicles are, it’s the data that really separates an amazing algorithm from a bad algorithm. And so one thing we saw was that being one of the stewards and shepherds of high-quality data was going to be incredibly important for the industry, and that’s what’s played out. We work with many of the great companies in the space, from Aurora to Nuro to Toyota to General Motors, and our work with all of them is ensuring that they have really a solid data foundation, so they can build the rest of their stacks on top of it. (Time stamp: 06:24)

Extra Crunch roundup: TC Mobility recaps, Nubank EC-1, farewell to browser cookies

By Annie Siebert

What, exactly, are investors looking for?

Early-stage founders, usually first-timers, often tie themselves in knots as they try to project the qualities they hope investors are seeking. In reality, few entrepreneurs have the acting skills required to convince someone that they’re patient, dedicated or hard working.

Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, was an early backer of Klarna, Spotify and several other European startups. Over the last two decades, he’s identified five key traits shared by people who create billion-dollar companies.


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Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


“A true unicorn founder doesn’t need to have all of those capabilities on day one,” says Brenner, “but they should already be thinking big while executing small and demonstrating that they understand how to scale a company.”

Drawing from observations gleaned from working with founders like Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, and iZettle’s Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson, Brenner explains where “VC FOMO” comes from and how it drives deal-making.

We’re running a series of posts that recap conversations from last week’s virtual TC Mobility conference, including an interview with Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson, a look at how autonomous delivery startups are navigating the regulatory and competitive landscape, and much more. There are many more recaps to come; click here to find them all.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Founded in 2013 and based in São Paulo, Brazil, Nubank serves more than 34 million customers, making it Latin America’s largest neobank.

Reporter Marcella McCarthy spoke to CEO David Velez to learn about his efforts to connect with consumers and overcome entrenched opposition from established players who were friendly with regulators.

In the first of a series of stories for Nubank’s EC-1, she interviewed Velez about his early fundraising efforts. For a balanced perspective, she also spoke to early Nubank investors at Sequoia and Kaszek Ventures, Latin America’s largest venture fund, to find out why they funded the startup while it was still pre-product.

“There are people you come across in life that within the first hour of meeting with them, you know you want to work with them,” said Doug Leone, a global managing partner at Sequoia who’d recruited Velez after he graduated from grad school at Stanford.

Marcella also interviewed members of Nubank’s founding team to better understand why they decided to take a chance on a startup that faced such long odds of success.

“I left banking to make a fifth of my salary, and back then, about $5,000 in equity,” said Vitor Olivier, Nubank’s VP of operations and platforms.

“Financially, it didn’t really make sense, so I really had to believe that it was really going to work, and that it would be big.”

Despite flat growth, ride-hailing colossus Didi’s US IPO could reach $70B

Image Credits: Didi

In his last dispatch before a week’s vacation, Alex Wilhelm waded through the numbers in Didi’s SEC filing. The big takeaways?

“While Didi managed an impressive GTV recovery in China, its aggregate numbers are flatter, and recent quarterly trends are not incredibly attractive,” he writes.

However, “Didi is not as unprofitable as we might have anticipated. That’s a nice surprise. But the company’s regular business has never made money, and it’s losing more lately than historically, which is also pretty rough.”

What’s driving the rise of robotaxis in China with AutoX, Momenta and WeRide

AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.

The air taxi market prepares to take flight

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

“As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors,” Aria Alamalhodaei writes. “A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead.”

But while some electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — valuations are skyrocketing.

“Electric air mobility is gaining elevation,” she writes. “But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead.”

The demise of browser cookies could create a Golden Age of digital marketing

Though some may say the doomsday clock is ticking toward catastrophe for digital marketing, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update, which does away with automatic opt-ins for data collection, and Google’s plan to phase out third-party cookies do not signal a death knell for digital advertisers.

“With a few changes to short-term strategy — and a longer-term plan that takes into account the fact that people are awakening to the value of their online data — advertisers can form a new type of relationship with consumers,” Permission.io CTO Hunter Jensen writes in a guest column. “It can be built upon trust and open exchange of value.”

If offered the right incentives, Jensen predicts, “consumers will happily consent to data collection because advertisers will be offering them something they value in return.”

How autonomous delivery startups are navigating policy, partnerships and post-pandemic operations

Nuro second gen R2 delivery vehicle

Image Credits: Nuro

We kicked off this year’s TC Sessions: Mobility with a talk featuring three leading players in the field of autonomous delivery. Gatik co-founder and chief engineer Apeksha Kumavat, Nuro head of operations Amy Jones Satrom, and Starship Technologies co-founder and CTO Ahti Heinla joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to the category.

The trio discussed government regulation on autonomous driving, partnerships with big corporations like Walmart and Domino’s, and the ongoing impact the pandemic has had on interest in the space.

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun explains why it was the right time to launch an AV technology startup

Image Credits: Waabi via Natalia Dola

Raquel Urtasun, the former chief scientist at Uber ATG, is the founder and CEO of Waabi, an autonomous vehicle startup that came out of stealth mode last week. The Toronto-based company, which will focus on trucking, raised an impressive $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures.

Urtasun joined Mobility 2021 to talk about her new venture, the challenges facing the self-driving vehicle industry and how her approach to AI can be used to advance the commercialization of AVs.

Founders Ben Schippers and Evette Ellis are riding the EV sales wave

By Aria Alamalhodaei

EV sales are driving demand for services and startups that fulfill the new needs of drivers, charging station operators and others. Evette Ellis and Ben Schippers took to the main stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to share how their companies capitalize off the new opportunities presented by the electric transportation revolution.

Ellis is the co-founder and chief workforce officer of ChargerHelp, an on-demand EV charging station repair company. She spoke about how the company approaches hiring and training, why it engages with workforce development centers, and how training in cohorts makes economic sense. Farther down, we’ll hear from Schippers, the founder of TezLab.

Why the company works with workforce development centers

Workforce development is a government-run and -funded system to connect job seekers with employers, training and career development. There are thousands of job centers across the country, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Labor, that serve millions of Americans. Evette described why she and co-founder Kameale Terry wanted to engage with workforce development from the beginning.

Image Credits: ChargerHelp

We really, really wanted to pioneer this idea that you can work with a workforce development center, who our federal government pays lots of money to train and do all the things that you need to get a great talent source, to create that pipeline, to use those pipelines for industries outside of construction or entry-level medical, but also for tech. Tech is the biggest industry in our country and it’s really running the show right now. We wanted to make sure that underrepresented communities didn’t get left out of this shift that is clearly happening. (Timestamp: 13:54)

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