Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.
Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.
Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.
ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao. “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”
The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.
“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.
The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.
Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.
Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.
The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”
To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.
It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.
“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.
“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”
Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.
So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.
One of the lingering mysteries from Uber’s sale of its Uber ATG self-driving unit to Aurora has been solved.
Raquel Urtasun, the AI pioneer who was the chief scientist at Uber ATG, has launched a new startup called Waabi that is taking what she describes as an “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, starting with long-haul trucks. Urtasun, who is the sole founder and CEO, already has a long list of high-profile backers, including separate investments from Uber and Aurora. Waabi has raised $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures with additional participation from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC, Aurora Innovation as well as leading AI researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others.
Urtasun described Waabi, which currently employs 40 people and operates in Toronto and California, as the culmination of her life’s work to bring commercially viable self-driving technology to society. The name of the company — Waabi means “she has vision” in Ojibwe and “simple” in Japanese — hints at her approach and ambitions.
Autonomous vehicle startups that exist today use a combination of artificial intelligence algorithms and sensors to handle the tasks of driving that humans do such as detecting and understanding objects and making decisions based on that information to safely navigate a lonely road or a crowded highway. Beyond those basics are a variety of approaches, including within AI.
Most self-driving vehicle developers use a traditional form of AI. However, the traditional approach limits the power of AI, Urtasun said, adding that developers must manually tune the software stack, a complex and time-consuming task. The upshot, Urtasun says: Autonomous vehicle development has slowed and the limited commercial deployments that do exist operate in small and simple operational domains because scaling is so costly and technically challenging.
“Working in this field for so many years and, in particular, the industry for the past four years, it became more and more clear along the way that there is a need for a new approach that is different from the traditional approach that most companies are taking today,” said Urtasun, who is also a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.
Some developers do use deep neural nets, a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allows a computer to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data. However, developers typically wall off the deep nets to handle a specific problem and use a machine learning and rules-based algorithms to tie into the broader system.
Deep nets have their own set of problems. A long-standing argument is that can’t be used with any reliability in autonomous vehicles in part because of the “black box” effect, in which the how and the why the AI solved a particular task is not clear. That is a problem for any self-driving startup that wants to be able verify and validate its system. It is also difficult to incorporate any prior knowledge about the task that the developer is trying to solve, like say driving. Finally, deep nets require an immense amount of data to learn.
Urtasun says she solved these lingering problems around deep nets by combining them with probabilistic inference and complex optimization, which she describes as a family of algorithms. When combined, the developer can trace back the decision process of the AI system and incorporate prior knowledge so they don’t have to teach the AI system everything from scratch. The final piece is a closed loop simulator that will allow the Waabi team to test at scale common driving scenarios and safety-critical edge cases.
Waabi will still have a physical fleet of vehicles to test on public roads. However, the simulator will allow the company to rely less on this form of testing. “We can even prepare for new geographies before we even drive there,” Urtasun said. “That’s a huge benefit in terms of the scaling curve.”
Urtasun’s vision and intent isn’t to take this approach and disrupt the ecosystem of OEMs, hardware and compute suppliers, but to be a player within it. That might explain the backing of Aurora, a startup that is developing its own self-driving stack that it hopes to first deploy in logistics such as long-haul trucking.
“This was the moment to really do something different,” Urtasun said. “The field is in need of a diverse set of approaches to solve this and it became very clear that this was the way to go.”
As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.
TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.
Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of TezLab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.
HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.
Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up TezLab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.
The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.
We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.
Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.
And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.
Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.
Aurora, the autonomous vehicle company that acquired Uber ATG last year, has assembled a team of outside experts, shared new details about its operations in a self-assessment safety report and launched a website as part of a broader effort to win over consumers wary of the technology that they may someday share the road with, or even use.
Aurora said Thursday it has tapped experts in aviation safety, insurance, medicine and automotive safety — all people from outside of the niche AV industry — to provide an outside perspective on the company’s overall approach to safety, to look for gaps in its system and advise on the best ways to share its progress and record with regulators and the public. The advisory group is designed to augment Aurora’s existing safety efforts, which includes on-road testing and development.
“I think for a while we’ve almost done the ‘Field of Dreams’ analysis where it’s like, ‘well if we build it they will come, just look at iPhones,'” Nat Beuse, Aurora’s head of safety said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “We are always comparing it to these other consumer products, and I’m not so sure that is actually how we win over the hearts and minds of consumers in every single community in the United States.”
Beuse, who previously led the safety team at Uber ATG and once oversaw automated-vehicle developments at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the goal is for driverless vehicles — whether that’s robotaxis shuttling people or trucks hauling freight — to be adopted broadly. That can’t happen, he said, without being able to measure and show the public that the technology is safe. He noted that public trust is one of the two biggest threats he sees to the AV industry.
“If all we worry about is a small number of people who get exposed to [AVs] we will never see the benefits of this technology and the broad scale, sweeping changes and the impact that it can have on our lives in a beneficial way,” he said. “We have to do a lot more there [gaining public trust]. Beuse added that gaining public trust should be done in concert with the government.
“I think for too long it’s been, ‘You, industry, you solve it. You’re building this stuff,'” he said. “And I really think it’s a partnership. Of course, we’re building the tech, we have a huge responsibility, but also the government has a huge, huge role to play and helping us kind of get the public on board.”
The members of the safety advisory board include Intelligent Transportation Society of America President and CEO Shailen Bhatt, Dave Carbaugh, the former chief pilot for flight-operations safety at Boeing and Victoria Chibuogu Nneji, the lead engineer and innovation strategist at Edge Case Research. Other members include Biologue President Jeff Runge, who is also a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Adrian Lund, managing member of HITCH42, LLC and former president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and GHS Aviation Group CEO George Snyder.
The committee, which has already been meeting, is comprised of people who “don’t live and breathe the tech,” Beuse said.
Most importantly, for Aurora and the rest of the industry, is addressing the looming question of ‘how safe is safe enough?’ when it comes to driverless vehicles. One metric that has been adopted, and increasingly criticized, is comparing vehicle miles traveled and vehicle miles per “disengagement,” an industry jargon term that means a human safety operator has taken over from the computer driving the vehicle.
“We’ve been pretty adamant that that’s not a real metric because you can drive around in a parking lot and generate some interactions and that’s a whole lot different than if you’re driving in a city — and oh by the way, that’s a whole lot different if you’re driving on the highway,” Beuse explained.
Aurora is part of the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium (AVSC), which includes Daimler, Ford, GM, Honda, Lyft, Motional, SAE and Toyota, that is working to come up with better safety metrics. The new Aurora safety advisory board isn’t working directly on the AVSC project, however it is providing general guidance that could help in this effort.
While there is still more work to be done to validate these new metrics, the group does have a handful that it thinks are pretty promising, Beuse said.
Get ready to spend a full day rubbing virtual elbows with the global mobility community’s best and brightest minds and makers. TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place June 9, and we’ve packed the agenda with experts, interviews, demos, panel discussions, breakout sessions and a metric ton of opportunity.
Pro tip: It’s not too late to book a ticket. Grab yours here and save with groups of 4+.
If you’re still on the fence, here are five excellent reasons you should attend TC Sessions: Mobility 2020.
TC Sessions: Mobility represents a broad range of companies and topics within the mobility space.
Want to know what’s happening in self-driving delivery? We’ve got Ahti Heinla (CTO @ Starship), Apeksha Kumavat (Co-Founder @ Gatik), & Amy Jones Satrom (Head of Ops. @ Nuro).
Want to get the low-down on Commuter Cars? We’re talking with Jesse Levinson (Co-Founder & CTO @ Zoox).
Want to see what’s in the future for passenger aircraft? Then you’ll definitely want to watch the session with JoeBen Bevirt (Founder @ Joby Aviation) and Reid Hoffman (Co-Director @ Reinvent Technology Partners)
Mobility is a fast-moving target, and success depends on a company’s or individual’s ability to spot possibilities before they become mainstream. At TC Sessions: Mobility you’ll meet with exhibitors, founders, and leaders to figure out what’s coming next. Here’s what our attendees are saying:
“Attending TC Sessions: Mobility helps us keep an eye on what’s coming around the corner. It uncovers crucial trends so we can identify what we should be thinking about before anyone else.”
— Jeff Johnson, vice president of enterprise sales and solutions at FlashParking.
1 on 1 Global Networking
At TC Sessions: Mobility you can take advantage of CrunchMatch, our free, AI-powered networking platform (think speed dating for techies) makes connecting with like-minded attendees quick and painless — no matter where they’re located. A virtual conference means global participation, and you might just find your next customer, partner, investor or engineer living on a different continent. It takes only one connection to move your business forward.
Early Stage Expo & Pitch
30 early-stage startups will showcase their mobility tech in our virtual expo. Peruse the exhibitors, peek at their pitch decks, schedule a demo, start a conversation and see where it leads. During the show, you can also check out the pitch sessions where startups will present their company to a panel of TechCrunch editors.
TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9 is sure to be a blast and a great opportunity for you to expand your knowledge and network within the mobility industry. Book your tickets today as prices go up at the door.
We’re in the final run-up to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 on June 9, and the great stuff just keeps on coming. We’ve stacked the one-day agenda with plenty of programming to keep you engaged, informed and on track to build a stronger business. You’ll always find amazing speakers — some of the most innovative minds out there — on the main stage and in breakout sessions.
Dramatic pause for a pro tip: Don’t have a pass yet? Buy one here now for $125, before prices go up at the door.
“I enjoyed the big marquee speakers from companies like Uber, but it was the individual presentations where you really started to get into the meat of the conversation and see how these mobile partnerships come to life.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.
We have another exciting bit of news. We’re hosting pitch session for early-stage startup founders who exhibit in the expo at TC Sessions: Mobility. Each startup gets 1 minute to pitch to attendees in a breakout session. Remember, this conference has a global reach — talk about visibility! Want to pitch? Buy an Early Stage Startup Exhibitor Package as we only have 2 packages left.
Alrighty then…let’s look at some of the breakout & main stage sessions waiting for you at TC Sessions: Mobility 20201.
Learn how the CMC’s model of bringing their Clients’ new technologies to market is new and innovative, going beyond a typical demonstration or pilot program, to the point of product launch and sustaining market viability. Hear from an expert panel about how the CMC’s programming is unique, innovative, and game-changing.
The future of mobility starts with the next generation of transportation solutions. Attendees will hear from some of the most innovative names on opportunities that await when public and private entities team up to revolutionize the way we think about technology. Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer, will be joined by Nina Grooms Lee, Chief Product Officer of May Mobility.
Plus is applying autonomous driving technology to launch supervised autonomous trucks today in order to dramatically improve safety, efficiency and driver comfort, while addressing critical challenges in long-haul trucking — driver shortage and high turnover, rising fuel costs, and reaching sustainability goals. Mass production of our supervised autonomous driving solution, PlusDrive, starts this summer. In the next few years, tens of thousands of heavy trucks powered by PlusDrive will be on the road. Plus’s COO and Co-Founder Shawn Kerrigan will introduce PlusDrive and our progress of deploying this driver-in solution globally. He will also share our learnings from working together with world-leading OEMs and fleet partners to develop and deploy autonomous trucks at scale.
Data will play a vital role in solving the critical edge cases required to gain city approval and deploy autonomous transportation at scale. Pilot projects are underway across the U.S. and cities such as Las Vegas are leading the way for progressive policies, testing and adoption. But, how do these projects involving a limited number of vehicles gain city approval, expand to larger geographic areas, include more use cases and service more people? Join our expert panel discussion as we examine the progress, challenges and road ahead in harnessing data to enable multiple modes of autonomous transportation in major cities across the U.S.
Wejo provides accurate and unbiased unique journey data, curated from millions of connected cars, to help local, state, province and federal government agencies visualize traffic and congestion conditions. Unlock a deeper understanding of mobility trends, to make better decisions, support policy development and solve problems more effectively for your towns and cities.
With remote work becoming the new normal and the mass movement from the city to the Japanese countryside, the trend of private car ownership is growing day by day. During this session, we’ll be hearing from Sae Hyung Jung, serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of oVice. oVice is an agile communication tool that facilitates hybrid remote and virtual meetups. Most notably, a hope that can trigger a sudden expansion in the Japanese mobility and vehicle infrastructure.
On the heels of a $600 million fundraise earlier this year, payments giant Stripe has been on an acquisition march to continue building out its business. In the latest development, the company has acquired Bouncer, a startup based in Oakland that has built a platform to automatically run card authentications and detect fraud in card-based online transactions. Its technology is tailored for mobile transactions and includes a flow to help users authenticate themselves if they are mistakenly flagged, to come back into an app legitimately (hence the name).
Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Stripe is acquiring both Bouncer’s technology and the team, which will be integrated into Stripe Radar. Started in 2018, Radar is Stripe’s AI-based anti-fraud technology toolset, and most of the tech — which is focused around preventing fraudulent transactions on the Stripe platform — has been built in-house up to now. Stripe says that Radar already prevents “hundreds of millions of dollars of fraud for businesses” each year.
“Bouncer is a great tool for modern internet businesses. It allows them to quickly identify stolen cards, while also ensuring legitimate customers can transact without being blocked,” said Simon Arscott, business lead for Stripe Radar, in a statement. “We’re thrilled to welcome the Bouncer team, and their years of experience building payment authentication software for businesses, to Stripe and to enable their technology for Radar users. With the addition of advanced card scanning capabilities, Stripe Radar will be able block more fraud and further increase revenue for millions of businesses around the world who rely on Stripe.”
The deal comes a couple of weeks after Stripe announced the acquisition of TaxJar to bring cloud-based sales tax calculating tools into its payments platform.
Like Stripe itself, Bouncer was incubated at Y Combinator, in its case as part of its Summer 2019 cohort. In addition to YC, it had raised funding from Commerce Ventures and the Pioneer Fund, but had never disclosed how much it had raised in total.
Not to be confused with the Polish marketing technology startup Bouncer, which provides bulk email verification, Oakland Bouncer was co-founded by Will Megson (CEO) and Sam King (chief scientist), who between them have an interesting pedigree when it comes to identity verification, from academia to working at fast-scaling companies in categories that have been some of the biggest adopters of verification technology.
Both previously worked for years at on-demand transportation service Lyft in fraud, identity and payment management. Before that, Megson was at Groupon; and King, in addition to holding a position as an associate professor of computer science at UC Davis, worked at Twitter on account security, founding the fake accounts team.
Groupon is among the customers that Bouncer currently works with, alongside OfferUp, ibotta and Dealerware. Bouncer will keep its current service and customers up post-deal.
Radar is currently sold in a number of tiers ranging from free to 6p per screened transaction, depending on how it is being used (there is a more basic machine learning tier, and an enhanced tier for fraud teams, and the price varies also depending on whether customers are using Stripe’s standard pricing fees or something else). Stripe also offers a chargeback protection service priced at 0.4% per transaction, as well as analytics tools for Radar customers to get an overview of what is going on.
Stripe says that Radar has blocked more than $1 billion in fraudulent transactions since it was launched.
Bouncer is also currently priced at different tiers, ranging from free to $.15/scan for its basic solution, or a custom price for its more tailored services.
Integrating Bouncer’s card scanning and risk technology into the Radar stack will both sweeten the deal for people to buy those services from Stripe, but also make the tools more effective.
As Stripe describes it, when Radar flags a transaction, Bouncer’s card screening and verification technology will kick in as a “dynamic intervention” to confirm whether or not a customer had a legitimate card at the time of the transaction. This is done to help reduce false positives, which are more frequent in high risk transactions (such as those for big-ticket items, or if a person has been making several transactions in quick succession, or other payment activity that just comes up as unusual in systems).
We’ve been in a wave of new authentication technology that includes things like biometrics and other innovations, but Bouncer takes an approach that is less high-tech at the point of ingestion — needing only a phone’s camera and the card that the customer is using. When a transaction is flagged up and sent to Bouncer for verification, Bouncer works by requesting a picture of the payment card (which can be based on any payment card type and can be a low-light picture).
It then runs that through its PCI- and GDPR-compliant system to see if it’s stolen or real. If it’s real, the transaction continues; stolen and the transaction is cancelled. The whole process can take less than a second (not including the time it takes you to take a picture, of course).
For Bouncer, the idea is that Stripe’s machine learning engine will in turn help Bouncer become more effective.
“I’m excited that we’ll be able to scale our advanced card-verification technology across the Stripe network to help businesses grow their revenue while further reducing fraud behind the scenes,” said Will Megson, CEO of Bouncer, in a statement. “The same signals that Radar learns from will make Bouncer more effective, and Bouncer will, in turn, make Radar more effective. We couldn’t be more excited to join the Radar team.”
Stripe has made a number of acquisitions over the years to bring in key pieces of technology, and in one case — when it acquired PayStack in Lagos (another YC alum) — to help Stripe enter and serve merchants in Africa and more emerging markets overall.
At least two of these have been made in aid of bringing on technologists and technology to build out its compliance and authentication tools. In 2016 Stripe quietly acquired Teapot, a Silicon Valley startup that had been working on APIs for identity verification, trust, credit and other tools needed in financial transactions. Its co-founders spent some years at the company before moving on to other things.
In 2019, Stripe acquired a startup out of Ireland called Touchtech to bring in technology to prepare for Strong Customer Authentication regulations in Europe.
The need for better, more sophisticated tools to ensure online transactions are legit is not going anywhere fast. Malicious hacking — and the consequences that has for obtaining personal data that can be used in consumer fraud — continues to be a persistent threat. And in the meantime, e-commerce continues to become an ever-more mainstream activity, widening the pool of consumers and the chances of things going wrong.
As the autonomous vehicle industry in the United States marches toward consolidation, a funding spree continues to exhilarate China’s robotaxi industry. Momenta, Pony.ai, WeRide and Didi’s autonomous vehicle arm have all raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year. And 21-year-old search engine giant Baidu competes alongside the startups with a $1.5 billion fund launched in 2017 to help cars go driverless.
Their strategies are similar in some regards and diverge elsewhere. The biggest players have deployed small fleets of robotaxis, manned with safety drivers, onto certain urban roads and are diligently testing driverless vehicles inside pilot zones. Some companies embrace lidar to detect the cars’ surroundings, while others agree with Elon Musk on a vision-only future.
The industry is still years from being truly driverless and operational at scale, so some contestants are seeking easier cases to tackle and monetize first, putting self-driving software inside buses, trucks and tractors that roam inside industrial parks.
Will investors continue to back the lofty dreams and skyrocketing valuations of China’s robotaxi leaders? And how is China’s autonomous driving race playing out differently from that in the U.S.?
We hope to find out at the upcoming TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, where we speak to three female leaders from Chinese autonomous vehicle startups that have an overseas footprint: Jewel Li from AutoX, which is backed by Chinese state-owned automakers Dongfeng Motor and SAIC Motor; Huan Sun from Momenta, which attracted Bosch, Daimler and Toyota in its $500 million round closed in March; and Jennifer Li from WeRide, whose valuation jumped to $3 billion after a financing round in May.
We can’t wait to hear from this panel! Among the growing list of speakers at this year’s event are GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.
Stay tuned for more announcements in these final weeks. Book your general admission pass for $125 today and join this year’s deep dive into the world of all things transportation at TC Sessions: Mobility.
Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress toward those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.
In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.
Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.
We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.
Book your early-bird pass today and save $100 before prices increase next week and join today’s leading mobility-startup event.
Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next chapter of how that business will grow: it is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.
Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — most likely in closed environments like warehouses rather the less structured prospect of open streets — to be online in two years.
“We are not constraining ourselves to work in any one use case,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in an interview. But to roll out auotonomous systems everwhere, he added, “we realize there are areas where we will need regulatory compliance,” among other factors. The deal is non-exclusive, and both can work with other partners if they choose, the companies confirmed.
The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million. Oxbotica has not disclosed valuation but Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, confirmed in an interview that the valuation went up with this latest investment.
The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round.
Walmart, until February, owned one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado has made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s online grocery business, which went live this week, too. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.
More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year. Earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the UK (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the US have seen record demand, but they have also been joined by a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants also keen to seize that opportunity, and bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products) to do so.
In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, other big names looking to extend outside of their home turfs include Oda (formerly Kolonial); Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.
A lot of these companies will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic and how it drove many people to stay at home, and stay away from places where they might catch and spread the Covid-19 virus.
But now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.
As we pointed out earlier this week, Ocado has already laid out how demand is lower, although still higher than pre-pandemic times. And indeed, the new-new normal (if we can call it that) may well see the competitive landscape tighten some more.
That could also be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services: one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.
The rationale of forking out big for autonomous tech, which is still largely untested and very, very expensive technology, to save money is a long-term play. Logistics today accounts for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.
My guess is also that with all of the subsidized services that are flying about right now, where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost.
So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work, even if it’s just a promise of discounts in years, not weeks. Of course investors might see it otherwise if that doesn’t go to plan.
In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado said it will be looking to make more investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities. While this is the company’s first investment into Oxbotica, it has made a number of investments into other startups, and collaborated to work on the next stage of technology. This has included research to build a robotic arm — which robotic pickers is something it will be introducing soon — as well as the recent acquisition of two robotics companies, Kindred and Haddington, for $262 million; and investments in robotics startups Karakuri and Myrmex, and more,
Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:
“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Newman, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”
But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.
“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”
Newman noted that while on-street self-driving might still be some years away, it’s less of a moonshot concept today than it used to be, and that Oxbotica is on the road to it already. “You can get to the moon in stages,” he said.
Updated with interviews with both companies, and to correct that Walmart closed its deal to sell ASDA in February.
Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.
Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.
“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”
Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.
The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.
“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.
By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.
“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”
Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.
“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.
“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.
The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.
Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.
Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.
In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.
While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.
Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.
Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”
Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.
“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.
“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.
“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”
Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.
“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”
5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.
Honda and Verizon are researching how 5G and mobile edge computing might improve safety for today’s connected vehicles and the future’s autonomous ones.
The two companies, which announced the partnership Thursday, are piloting different safety scenarios at the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a test bed for connected and autonomous vehicles. The aim of the venture is to study how 5G connectivity coupled with edge computing could allow for faster communication between cars, pedestrians and infrastructure. The upshot: faster communication could allow cars to avoid collisions and hazards and find safer routes. [TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, which is itself owned by Verizon]
The 5G testing is in its preliminary research phase and Honda doesn’t intend to implement this new technology as a product feature just yet. The companies do have plans to test 5G-enabled vehicles on public roads in at least four cities this year, according to Brian Peebles, Verizon’s senior manager of technology development and one of the leads on the project.
This partnership builds off of Honda’s onboard SAFE SWARM AI technology, which the automaker began developing in 2017. That technology uses Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything, or C-V2X communication, which does what the name implies and lets vehicles communicate with other road users.
“Traditionally, with V2X, the cars talk to each other,” Dr. Ehsan Moradi Pari, research group lead at Honda’s advanced technology research division told TechCrunch. “They provide their information, like their location, speed and other sensor information, and the car does a threat assessment, like whether I’m going to collide with another car. What this [5G and MEC] technology offers is that we all provide our information to the network, and the network tells me if there is a potential for an accident or not.”
Honda and Verizon’s premise is that the technology can handle communication far faster than a car’s computer. Instead of relying on a car’s less capable computer to do the work, information generated from connected cars, people and infrastructure is sent up into the 5G network. The computations are then done at the edge of network (meaning not in the cloud) in real time.
The payoff: a car relying on sensors and software might be able to understand a driver is about to hit something and hit the breaks, but the MEC can almost see into the future by checking out and communicating what’s happening farther down the road.
One of the safety scenarios that Verizon and Honda tested was a red light runner. Using data from smart cameras, MEC and V2X software they were able to detect the vehicle running a red light and send a visual warning message to other vehicles approaching the intersection. They tested similar scenarios to warn drivers or vehicles about a pedestrian obscured by a building and an oncoming emergency vehicle whose sirens are drowned out by the car’s loud music.
“Ensuring real-time communication among all road users will play a critical role in an automated driving environment,” said Pari. “Through these connected safety technologies, we can develop vehicle systems that detect potential dangerous situations in real time to warn the driver or automated system.”
While this initial research stage involves making human-driven vehicles safer, the Honda-Verizon partnership might eventually lay the groundwork for the use of 5G in future autonomous vehicles. If testing proves out, connected vehicles would be safer and could lead to a more efficient network that smooths out traffic congestion and reduces air pollution.
“We’re primarily doing this to promote vehicle safety and human safety,” Peebles told TechCrunch. “There are over 42,000 people a year in the United States alone that are killed in automobile accidents, and another two million are injured. Technology is becoming more crucial as we undergo an evolution of human drivers, so as that transition happens, we need to do it in a safe and orchestrated manner, such that everything is working together.”
Autonomous vehicles being tested on public roads today don’t require 5G or edge computing. While autonomous vehicle companies are eyeing what might be possible with 5G, the vehicles they’re developing are based on present-day technology.
There are headwinds to this 5G-MEC combination. This level of interconnectivity only works if there are sensors on every highway and every intersection. Many 5G-enabled vehicles and devices will be able to communicate with one another, but they can only communicate with pedestrians or infrastructure if smart cameras are clocking them and sharing that info with the network. And sensors are not perfect.
That would require a huge infrastructure investment as well as public acceptance and cooperation with states, cities and localities to install all of the necessary sensors. However, one might look to China as a use case. The country has a national policy to move rapidly over to a 5G network, and many Chinese autonomous driving companies are finding this type of connectivity and computational power essential to development.
Self-driving and robotics startup Cartken has partnered with REEF Technology, a startup that operates parking lots and neighborhood hubs, to bring self-driving delivery robots to the streets of downtown Miami.
With this announcement, Cartken officially comes out of stealth mode. The company, founded by ex-Google engineers and colleagues behind the unrequited Bookbot, was formed to develop market-ready tech in self-driving, AI-powered robotics and delivery operations in 2019, but the team has kept operations under wraps until now. This is Cartken’s first large deployment of self-driving robots on sidewalks.
After a few test months, the REEF-branded electric-powered robots are now delivering dinner orders from REEF’s network of delivery-only kitchens to people located within a 3/4-mile radius in downtown Miami. The robots, which are insulated and thus can preserve the heat of a plate of spaghetti or other hot food, are pre-stationed at designated logistics hubs and dispatched with orders for delivery as the food is prepared.
“We want to show how future-forward Miami can be,” Matt Lindenberger, REEF’s chief technology officer, told TechCrunch. “This is a great chance to show off the capabilities of the tech. The combination of us having a big presence in Miami, the fact that there are a lot of challenges around congestion as Covid subsides, still shows a really good environment where we can show how this tech can work.”
Lindenberg said Miami is a great place to start, but it’s just the beginning, with potential for the Cartken robots to be used for REEF’s other last-mile delivery businesses. Currently, only two restaurant delivery robots are operating in Miami, but Lindenberger said the company is planning to expand further into the city and outward into Fort Lauderdale, as well as other large metros the company operates in, such as Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and eventually New York.
Lindenberger is hoping the presence of robots in the streets can act as a “force multiplier” allowing them to scale while maintaining quality of service in a cost-effective way.
“We’re seeing an explosion in deliveries right now in a post-pandemic world and we foresee that to continue, so these types of no-contact, zero-emission automation techniques are really critical,” he said.
Cartken’s robots are powered by a combination of machine learning and rules-based programming to react to every situation that could occur, even if that just means safely stopping and asking for help, Christian Bersch, CEO of Cartken, told TechCrunch. REEF would have supervisors on site to remotely control the robot if needed, a caveat that was included in the 2017 legislation that allowed for the operation of self-driving delivery robots in Florida.
“The technology at the end of the day is very similar to that of a self-driving car,” said Bersch. “The robot is seeing the environment, planning around obstacles like pedestrians or lampposts. If there’s an unknown situation, someone can help the robot out safely because it can stop on a dime. But it’s important to also have that level of autonomy on the robot because it can react in a split second, faster than anybody remotely could, if something happens like someone jumps in front of it.”
REEF marks specific operating areas on the map for the robots and Cartken tweaks the configuration for the city, accounting for specific situations a robot might need to deal with, so that when the robots are given a delivery address, they can make moves and operate like any other delivery driver. Only this driver has an LTE connection and is constantly updating its location so REEF can integrate it into its fleet management capabilities.
Eventually, Lindenberger said, they’re hoping to be able to offer the option for customers to choose robot delivery on the major food delivery platforms REEF works with like Postmates, UberEats, DoorDash or GrubHub. Customers would receive a text when the robot arrives so they could go outside and meet it. However, the tech is not quite there yet.
Currently the robots only make it street-level, and then the food is passed off to a human who delivers it directly to the door, which is a service that most customers prefer. Navigating into an apartment complex and to a customer’s unit is difficult for a robot to manage just yet, and many customers aren’t quite ready to interact directly with a robot.
“It’s an interim step, but this was a path for us to move forward quickly with the technology without having any other boundaries,” said Lindenberger. “Like with any new tech, you want to take it in steps. So a super important step which we’ve now taken and works very well is the ability to dispatch robots within a certain radius and know that they’re going to arrive there. That in and of itself is a huge step and it allows us to learn what kind of challenges you have in terms of that very last step. Then we can begin to work with Cartken to solve that last piece. It’s a big step just being able to do this automation.”
Motional will integrate its driverless technology into Hyundai’s new all-electric SUV to create the company’s first robotaxi. At the start of 2023, customers in certain markets will be able to book the fully electric, fully autonomous taxi through the Lyft app.
The Hyundai IONIQ 5, which was revealed in February with a consumer release date expected later this year, will be fully integrated with Motional’s driverless system. The vehicles will be equipped with the hardware and software needed for Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities, including LiDAR, radar and cameras to provide the vehicle’s sensing system with 360 degrees of vision, and the ability to see up to 300 meters away. This level of driverless technology means a human will not be required to take over driving.
The interior living space will be similar to the consumer model, but additionally equipped with features needed for robotaxi operation, according to a Motional spokesperson. Motional did not reveal whether or not the vehicle would still have a steering wheel, and images of the robotaxi aren’t yet available.
Motional’s IONIQ 5 robotaxis have already begun testing on public roads and closed courses, and they’ll be put through more months of testing and real-world experience before being deployed on Lyft’s platform. The company says it’ll complete testing only once it’s confident that the taxis are safer than a human driver.
Motional, the Aptiv-Hyundai $4 billion joint venture aimed at commercializing driverless cars, announced its partnership with Lyft in December, signaling the ride-hailing company’s primary involvement in Motional’s plans. The company recently announced that it began testing its driverless tech on public roads in Las Vegas. Hyundai’s IONIQ 5 is Motional’s second platform to go driverless on public roads.
While the governments of the United States and China are pushing policies for technological decoupling, private tech firms continue to tap resources from both sides. In the field of autonomous vehicles, it’s common to see Chinese startups — or startups with a strong Chinese link — keep operations and seek investments in both countries.
But as these companies mature and expand globally, their ties to China also come under increasing scrutiny.
When TuSimple, a self-driving truck company headquartered in San Diego, filed for an initial public offering on Nasdaq this week, its prospectus flagged a regulatory risk due to its Chinese funding source.
On March 1, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) requested a written notice from TuSimple regarding an investment by Sun Dream, an affiliate of Sina Corporation, which runs China’s biggest microblogging platform Sina Weibo. Sun Dream is TuSimple’s largest shareholder with 20% Class A shares. Charles Chao and Bonnie Yi Zhang, respectively the CEO and CFO of Weibo, are both members of TuSimple’s board.
If the U.S. government concludes that Sun Dream’s investment poses a threat to the national security of the country, the investor may be told to divest from TuSimple, the filing notes.
Several China-based autonomous driving upstarts, including WeRide.ai, Pony.ai and AutoX, keep research labs in California and have secured regulatory permits to test in the U.S., but most don’t seem to have apparent commercial plans in the country.
TuSimple, on the other hand, is focused on the U.S. for now, with 50 of its Level 4 semi-trucks hauling in the U.S. and 20 operating in China.
“Their strong Chinese background could hobble their U.S.-focused strategy,” an executive from a Chinese autonomous vehicle startup told TechCrunch, asking not to be named.
This kind of roadblock is hardly new to China-related tech firms coveting the U.S. market (or its allies). In a more famous instance, CFIUS opened a national security probe into ByteDance’s $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly, which was folded into TikTok. As of last December, the agency was “engaging with ByteDance” to complete a divestment, Reuters reported.
While self-driving ventures can divest to shed their Chinese association, it may be more complicated to achieve short-term supply chain independence in an industry with tight global ties, as an executive from Momenta pointed out.