Anthony Levandowski, the star self-driving car engineer who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit, has filed a motion to compel Uber into arbitration in the hopes that his former employee will have to shoulder the cost of at least $179 million judgment against him.
The motion to compel arbitration filed this week is part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s the latest chapter in a long and winding legal saga that has entangled Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.
The motion represents the first legal step to force Uber to stand by an indemnity agreement with Levandowski. Uber signed an indemnity agreement in 2016 when it acquired Levandowski’s self-driving truck startup Otto . Under the agreement, Uber said it would indemnify — or compensate — Levandowski against claims brought by his former employer Google.
In Uber’s view the stakes are at least $64 million, according to the ride-hailing company’s annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission . Although Levandowski, who was ordered in March 2020 to pay Google $179 million, is clearly shooting for more.
“For much of the past three years, Anthony ceded control of his personal defense to Uber because Uber insisted on controlling his defense as part of its duty to indemnify him. Then, when Uber didn’t like the outcome, it suddenly changed its mind and said it would not indemnify him. What Uber did is wrong, and Anthony has to protect his rights as a result,” Levandowksi’s lawyer Neel Chatterjee of Goodwin Procter said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.
Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. The Google self-driving project later spun out to become Waymo, a business under Alphabet. Levandowski was paid about $127 million by Google for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court document filed this week.
Levandowski left Google in January 2016 and started Otto, a self-driving trucking company, with three other Google veterans Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.
Before the acquisition closed, Uber conducted due diligence including hiring outside forensic investigation firm Stroz Friedberg to review the electronic devices of Levandowski and other Otto employees, according to the recent court filing. The investigation discovered that Levandowski had files belonging to Google on his devices, as well as indications that evidence may have been destroyed.
Uber agreed to a broad indemnification agreement in spite of the forensic evidence, which would protect Levandowski against claims brought by Google relating to his previous employment. Levandowski was worried that Google would attempt to get back any or all of the $127 million in compensation he had received.
That forecast didn’t take long to come true. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, it was on the hook under the indemnification agreement, to defend Levandowski.
Uber accepted those obligations and defended Levandowski. While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit in February 2017 against Uber, for trade secret theft. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial and ended in a settlement, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber. Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.
Meanwhile, the arbitration panel issued an interim award in March 2019 against each of Google’s former employees, including a $127 million judgment against Levandowski. The judgment also included another $1 million that Levandowski and Ron were jointly liable for. Google submitted a request for interest, attorney fees and other costs. A final award was issued in December.
Ron settled in February with Google for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition in March, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.
As the legal wrangling between Google and Levandowski and Uber played out, the engineer faced criminal charges. In August 2019, he was indicted by a federal grand jury with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Last month, Levandowski reached a plea agreement with the U.S. District Attorney and pleaded guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets.
Levandowski’s lawyers argue that when the final judgment was entered against him, Uber reneged on its indemnification agreement. Levandowski said he was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because Uber has refused to pay.
“While Uber and Levandowski are parties to an indemnification agreement, whether Uber is ultimately responsible for such indemnification is subject to a dispute between the Company and Levandowski,” Uber said, using similar language found in its annual report filed with the SEC.
Even if Levandowski’s legal team is able to convince a judge to compel Uber into arbitration, that doesn’t mean the outcome will be positive. Arbitration could take months to play out. In the end, Levandowski could still lose. But the filing allows Levandowski to speak out — albeit using legalese — and share details of his employment at Google and Uber. Among those are details about what Uber knew (and when) about Levandowski’s activities in recruiting Google employees as well as information he had downloaded onto his laptop, and discovered during the forensic investigation.
The first cracks between Uber and Levandowski appeared in April 2018, based on a timeline in the court document. It was then that Uber told Levandowski it intended to seek reimbursement for expenses used to defend him in the arbitration, according to claims laid out in the motion. Uber told Levandowski at the time, that one reason it was seeking reimbursement is because Levandowski “refused to testify at his deposition through an unjustifiably broad invocation of the Fifth Amendment.” Levandowski had used the Fifth Amendment in the deposition during the arbitration with Google.
Uber never requested Levandowski waive his Fifth Amendment rights and testify during the arbitration, according to the court document. Levandowski said that he immediately alerted Google and the arbitration panel that he was willing to testify and offered to make himself available for deposition before the arbitration hearing.
Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale.
The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.
TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.
TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.
The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.
The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.
Four years ago, mathematician Vlad Voroninski saw an opportunity to remove some of the bottlenecks in the development of autonomous vehicle technology thanks to breakthroughs in deep learning.
Now, Helm.ai, the startup he co-founded in 2016 with Tudor Achim, is coming out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. More than a dozen angel investors also participated, including Berggruen Holdings founder Nicolas Berggruen, Quora co-founders Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo, professional NBA player Kevin Durant, Gen. David Petraeus, Matician co-founder and CEO Navneet Dalal, Quiet Capital managing partner Lee Linden and Robinhood co-founder Vladimir Tenev, among others.
Helm.ai will put the $13 million in seed funding toward advanced engineering and R&D and hiring more employees, as well as locking in and fulfilling deals with customers.
Helm.ai is focused solely on the software. It isn’t building the compute platform or sensors that are also required in a self-driving vehicle. Instead, it is agnostic to those variables. In the most basic terms, Helm.ai is creating software that tries to understand sensor data as well as a human would, in order to be able to drive, Voroninski said.
That aim doesn’t sound different from other companies. It’s Helm.ai’s approach to software that is noteworthy. Autonomous vehicle developers often rely on a combination of simulation and on-road testing, along with reams of data sets that have been annotated by humans, to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
Helm.ai says it has developed software that can skip those steps, which expedites the timeline and reduces costs. The startup uses an unsupervised learning approach to develop software that can train neural networks without the need for large-scale fleet data, simulation or annotation.
“There’s this very long tail end and an endless sea of corner cases to go through when developing AI software for autonomous vehicles, Voroninski explained. “What really matters is the unit of efficiency of how much does it cost to solve any given corner case, and how quickly can you do it? And so that’s the part that we really innovated on.”
Voroninski first became interested in autonomous driving at UCLA, where he learned about the technology from his undergrad adviser who had participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless car competition in the U.S. funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And while Voroninski turned his attention to applied mathematics for the next decade — earning a PhD in math at UC Berkeley and then joining the faculty in the MIT mathematics department — he knew he’d eventually come back to autonomous vehicles.
By 2016, Voroninski said breakthroughs in deep learning created opportunities to jump in. Voroninski left MIT and Sift Security, a cybersecurity startup later acquired by Netskope, to start Helm.ai with Achim in November 2016.
“We identified some key challenges that we felt like weren’t being addressed with the traditional approaches,” Voroninski said. “We built some prototypes early on that made us believe that we can actually take this all the way.”
Helm.ai is still a small team of about 15 people. Its business aim is to license its software for two use cases — Level 2 (and a newer term called Level 2+) advanced driver assistance systems found in passenger vehicles and Level 4 autonomous vehicle fleets.
Helm.ai does have customers, some of which have gone beyond the pilot phase, Voroninski said, adding that he couldn’t name them.
A little more than two and half years ago, Waymo engineers began working on a hardware sensor suite that would improve upon previous generations and have the capability to work on a variety of vehicles, from self-driving passenger cars to autonomous semi-trucks.
The autonomous vehicle technology company is now showing off the fruits of its labor, starting with its fleet of all-electric Jaguar I-Pace vehicles.
Waymo has integrated the next-gen hardware system into the Jaguar I-Pace vehicles and is using them for data collection to train machine-learning models. Waymo will then begin testing the I-Pace vehicles in autonomous mode with a human safety driver behind the wheel. Once Waymo hits that milestone, it will turn to its big-rig trucks. The I-Pace testing on public roads will continue and eventually Waymo employees will be able to hail the vehicles and try them out. The final step will be to roll the I-Pace vehicles into its Waymo One service, which operates in the Phoenix area.
This is Waymo’s fifth-generation hardware suite and, with more than a decade of research and development, one would expect it to be better and more capable than its predecessors. And it is, according to Waymo.
Of course, creating the most capable and robust hardware suite for a commercially deployed autonomous vehicle business doesn’t matter if it costs too much. Waymo says its new hardware suite is half the cost of its previous generation, reductions it achieved through a simplified design and manufacturing process.
This next-gen hardware suite is being manufactured on a line, not in a lab — although Waymo wouldn’t say where. The integration of these hardware suites occur at Waymo’s facility in Detroit.
All of these improvements take money. Developing, testing, validating and eventually deploying commercially viable autonomous vehicles is a capitally intensive undertaking. The constant need for cash has already squeezed several AV startups out of existence.
As a business under Alphabet, Waymo is in a different and more comfortable position. But that didn’t stop the company from raising $2.25 billion. Waymo announced last week the fundraising round, which was led by Silver Lake, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Mubadala Investment Company. This was the company’s first external investment, which also included Magna, Andreessen Horowitz and AutoNation and its parent company Alphabet.
The hardware suite has a new vision system that includes 29 cameras, which Waymo says provides different perspectives of the road with overlapping fields of view, as well as the ability to see a stop sign 500 meters away.
Waymo has also redesigned the architecture, outputs and signal processing capabilities of its radar to make it better suited for the requirements of a self-driving car.
Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, has been a key piece of hardware for Waymo. The company has dedicated significant resources — time, people and money — toward the development of lidar in an effort to improve their capability and lower the cost. It’s a fundamental piece of the business, and in 2017 prompted the company to file a lawsuit against Uber alleging theft of trade secrets by a former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski — and the alleged use of those secrets by Uber.
And it’s no different with the fifth-generation system. Lidar, which at the most basic level is a form of digital imaging that provides a 3D picture of the environment, is still center stage. But there have been some important changes.
Waymo has combined its long-range and mid-range lidar into a single rooftop unit to provide a 360-degree view. The company has also developed new perimeter lidar sensors that are located at the four points of the vehicle. These short-range lidars are designed to enhance spatial resolution and accuracy and are most useful for low-speed applications when near-object detection and avoidance is necessary.
The upgrade to these short-range lidars will affect more than Waymo’s self-driving vehicle ambitions. Waymo announced in March 2019 plans to sell its short-range sensor (known as Laser Bear Honeycomb) to industries outside of autonomous vehicles. At the time, Waymo said it would initially target robotics, security and agricultural technology. The sales will help the company scale its autonomous technology faster, making each sensor more affordable through economies of scale, Simon Verghese, head of Waymo’s Lidar team, wrote in a Medium post last year.
Waymo said there have been sales of the laser bear units, but didn’t provide specific figures on how many or to which companies.
Anthony Levandowski, the engineer and autonomous vehicle startup founder who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, has been ordered to pay $179 million to end a contract dispute over his departure from Google.
Reuters was the first to report the court order.
An arbitration panel ruled in December that Levandowski and Lior Ron had engaged in unfair competition and breached their contract with Google when they left the company to start a rival autonomous vehicle company focused on trucking called Otto. Uber acquired Otto in 2017. A San Francisco County court confirmed Wednesday the panel’s decision.
Ron settled last month with Google for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, had disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition today, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.
Levandowski himself may not have to pay the money personally; Uber, like other large companies, indemnifies its employees against certain types of fines and damages. But this may also be disputed. For now, however, it does seem as though the $179M will eventually find its way out of somebody’s pockets into Google’s.
This story is developing pending comment from Levandowski and Google, and the release of further documentation from the court.
Devin Coldewey contributed to this story.
We are still years away from a time when fully-autonomous cars will be able to drive us from A to B, and the complexity of getting to that point is likely going to need hundreds of billions of dollars of investment before it becomes a reality.
That hard truth is now leading to some shifts in the self-driving startup landscape. England’s Five (formerly known as FiveAI), one of the more ambitious companies in the space, is moving away from its original plan, of designing its own fully self-driving cars, and then running fleets of them in its own transportation service. Instead, it plans to license technology — starting with software to help test and measure the accuracy of a vehicle’s driving systems –that it has created to others building autonomous cars as well as the wider service ecosystem that will exist around that. As part of that pivot, today it’s also announcing a fresh $41 million in funding.
“A year and a bit ago we thought we would probably build the entire thing and take it to market as a whole system,” said co-founder and CEO Stan Boland in an interview. “But we gradually realised just how deep and complex that would be. It was probably through 2019 that we realised that the right thing to do is to focus in on the key pieces.”
The funding, a Series B, includes backing from Trustbridge Partners, insurance giant Direct Line Group and Sistema VC, as well as previous investors Lakestar, Amadeus Capital Partners, Kindred Capital and Notion Capital. The company has now raised $77 million and while it’s not disclosing its valuation, Boland said that it was definitely up on its last round. (Its Series A, in 2017, was for $35 million.)
Five’s change in course is a significant development: the high-profile startup, founded by a team that had previously built and sold several chip companies to the likes of Broadcom, Nvidia and Huawei, had been the leading partner for a big government-backed pilot project, StreetWise, to test and work on autonomous driving systems across boroughs in London. The most recent phase of that project, running driver-assisted rides along a 19-km route across south London, got off the ground only last October after initially getting announced in 2018.
Five might continue to work on research projects like these, Boland said, but the primary business aim for the company will no longer be ultimately to build cars for themselves, but to work on tech that will be sold either to other carmakers, or those building services catering to the autonomous industry.
For example, Direct Line, one of Five’s new investors and also a participant in the StreetWise project, could use testing and measurement to determine risk and pricing for insurance packages for different vehicles.
“Autonomous and assisted driving technology is going to play a huge role in the future of cars,” said Gus Park, MD of Motor Insurance at Direct Line Group, in a statement. “We have worked closely with Five on the StreetWise project, and we share a common interest in solving the formidable challenges that will need to be addressed in bringing safe self-driving to market. Insurers will need to build the capability to measure and underwrite new types of risk. We will be collaborating with Five’s world-class team of scientists, mathematicians and engineers to gain the insight needed to build safe, insurable solutions and bring the motoring revolution ever closer.” Park is also joining Five’s board with this round.
There were already a number of big players in the self-driving space when FiveAI launched — they included the likes of Waymo, Cruise, Uber, Argo AI and many more — and you could have argued that the writing was already on the wall then for long-term consolidation in the industry. Indeed, there have been some significant casualties in the meantime, including Drive.AI (which Apple acquired after it ran out of money), Oryx Vision and Quanergy.
Five’s argument for why a UK — and indeed, European — startup was in a good place to build and operate self-driving cars, and the tech underpinning it, was because of the complexity behind building localised systems: a big US or Asian company might be able to map the streets in Europe, but it wouldn’t have as good of a feel for how people behaved on those roads.
Yet while it may have been easy to see the potential, the process of getting to that point proved to be too challenging.
“What’s happened in the last couple of years is that there has been an appreciation across the industry of just how wide and deep the challenges are for bringing self driving to market,” Boland said. “Many pieces of the jigsaw have to be assembled…. The B2C model needs billions [of investment], but others are finding their niche as great providers of technology needed to deliver the systems properly.”
As FiveAI (named after the “Level 5” that self-driving systems attain when they are truly autonomous), the company built (hacked) vehicles with dozens of sensors and through its tests managed to build a significant trove of vehicle technology.
“We could offer tech in a dozen different areas that are hard for autonomous driving companies,” Boland said. Its testing and measuring tools point to one of the toughest challenges among these: how to assure that the deep learning software a company is using is correctly identifying objects, people, weather, and other physical factors when it may have never seen them before.
“We have learned a lot about the types of errors that propagate from perception into planning… and now we can use that for providing absolute confidence” to those testing the systems, he said.
Self-driving cars are one of the biggest AI challenges of our time: not only is the requirement to essentially build from the ground up computer systems that behave as well as (or ideally better) than multitasking humans behind the wheel; but the consequence of doing that wrong is not just a strange string of words, or some other kind of non sequitur, but injury or death. No surprise that there appears still a very long way to go before we see anything like Level 5 systems in action, but in the meantime, investors are willing to continue placing their bets. Partly because of how advanced it got with its car project on relatively little funding, Five remains an interesting company to investors, and Boland hopes that this will help it with its next round down the road.
“We invest in category-leading companies that are delivering transformational change wherever they’re located,” said David Lin of Trustbridge Partners in a statement. “As Europe’s leading self-driving startup, Five is the furthest ahead in developing a clear understanding of the scientific challenges and novel solutions that move the needle for the whole industry. Five has successfully applied Europe’s outstanding science and engineering base to create a world-class team with the energy and ambition to deliver safe self-driving. We are delighted to join them for this next phase of growth.”
Waymo, the former Google self-driving car project that is now a business under Alphabet, said Monday it raised $2.25 billion in a fundraising round led by Silver Lake, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and Mubadala Investment Company.
This is the company’s first external investment, which also included Magna, Andreessen Horowitz, and AutoNation and its parent company Alphabet.
“We’ve always approached our mission as a team sport, collaborating with our OEM and supplier partners, our operations partners, and the communities we serve to build and deploy the world’s most experienced driver,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in blog the company posted Monday. “Today, we’re expanding that team, adding financial investors and important strategic partners who bring decades of experience investing in and supporting successful technology companies building transformative products. With this injection of capital and business acumen, alongside Alphabet, we’ll deepen our investment in our people, our technology, and our operations, all in support of the deployment of the Waymo Driver around the world.”
The round follows a flurry of activity in the past year that illustrated Waymo efforts to ramp up into a commercial enterprise. Much of the activity has focused on mapping and testing its autonomous vehicle technology in new locales such as Florida while continuing to expand its core fleet in Mountain View, Calif., and the Phoenix area.
Waymo has long focused on testing and eventually launching an on-demand ride-hailing service called Waymo One using its autonomous vehicles in the suburbs surrounding Phoenix. In October, Waymo began pulling safety drivers out of some of the vehicles on its Waymo One service.
But here have been other expansions, including a focus on finding new business applications for its autonomous vehicle technology such as delivery and trucking and even a plan to start selling its custom lidar sensors, to companies outside of self-driving cars such as robotics, security and agricultural technology.
In January, Waymo announced that it would begin mapping and eventually testing its autonomous long-haul trucks in Texas and parts of New Mexico.
Waymo has also expanded through acquisitions and partnerships. Waymo acquired in December a U.K. company called Latent Logic that spun out of Oxford University’s computer science department. The company uses a form of machine learning called imitation learning that could beef up Waymo’s simulation efforts. The acquisition marked the launch of Waymo’s first European engineering hub, which will be in Oxford, U.K.
Last spring, Waymo hired more than a dozen engineers from Anki, the robotics startup that shut down in April. The 13 robotics experts includes Anki’s co-founder and former CEO Boris Sofman, who is leading engineering in the autonomous trucking division.
TC Sessions: Mobility is back in San Jose on May 14, and we’re excited to give the first peek of what and who is coming to the main stage. We’re not revealing everything just yet, but already this agenda highlights some of the best and brightest minds in autonomous vehicles, electrification and shared mobility.
We’ve selected the most innovative startups and top leaders from established tech companies working in mobility. This past year saw huge leaps forward, and we’re thrilled to bring the latest and greatest to our stage.
This year, we’re holding a pitch-off competition for early stage mobility companies. More details to come.
Some speakers have already been announced, and more will be added to the agenda in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out this early look at the agenda:
9:35 AM – 10:05 AM
Reilly Brennan, Olaf Sakkers and two yet-to-be announced venture capitalists will come together to debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.
10:05 AM – 10:25 AM
10:25 AM – 10:50
Worldwide, numerous companies are operating shared micromobility services — so many that the industry is well into a consolidation phase. Despite the over-saturation of the market, there are still opportunities for new players. Dor Levi, head of bikes and scooters at Lyft, Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator and Dmitry Shevelenko, founder at Tortoise will discuss.
10:50 AM – 11:10 AM
Waymo Chief Operating Officer Tekedra Mawakana is at the center of Waymo’s future from scaling the autonomous vehicle company’s commercial deployment and directing fleet operations to developing the company’s business path. Tekedra will speak about what lies ahead as Waymo drives forward with its plan to become a grownup business.
11:10 AM – 11:30 AM
11:30 AM – 11:40 AM
Live Demo. Coming soon!
11:40 AM – 12:00 PM
Argo AI has gone from unknown startup to a company providing the autonomous vehicle technology to Ford and VW — not to mention billions in investment from the two global automakers. Co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky will talk about the company’s journey, what’s next and what it really takes to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology.
1:00 PM – 1:25 PM
Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have 5 minutes to present their companies.
1:25 PM – 1:45 PM
Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun will share her experiences in the world of automation and robotics, a ride that has taken her from Apple to Otto and Uber before she set off to start a self-driving truck company. Sun will discuss what the future holds for trucking and the challenges and the secrets behind building a successful mobility startup.
1:45 PM – 2:10 PM
Many micromobility services got off to a rough start with cities in the early days of the industry. Now, operators are making a point to work more closely with regulators from the very beginning. Hear from Spin co-founder Euwyn Poon and Uber Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation Shin-pei Tsay on what it takes to make a copacetic relationship between operators and cities.
2:10 PM – 2:30 PM
2:30 PM – 2:50 PM
Porsche has undergone a major transformation in the past several years, investing billions into an electric vehicle program and launching the Taycan, its first all-electric vehicle. Now, Porsche is ramping up for more. North America CEO Klaus Zellmer will talk about Porsche’s path, competition and where it’s headed next.
2:50 PM – 3:15 PM
Autonomous vehicle developers face a patchwork of local, state and federal regulations. Government policy experts Jody Kelman, who leads the self-driving platform team at Lyft, and Melissa Froelich Senior Manager, Government Affairs at Aurora, discuss how to get your startup back on the road safely.
3:15 PM – 3:35 PM
3:35 PM – 4:00 PM
TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou and Boris Sofman, former Anki Robotics founder and CEO who now leads Waymo’s trucking unit, will discuss the business and the technical challenges of autonomous trucking.
4:00 PM – 4:20 PM
4:20 PM – 4:30 PM
Live Demo. Coming soon!
4:30 PM – 4:55 PM
Don’t forget to grab your tickets and join us this May.
A year ago, Lyft submitted a report to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that summed up its 2018 autonomous vehicle testing activity in a single, short paragraph.
“Lyft Inc. did not operate any vehicles in autonomous mode on California public roads during the reporting period,” the letter read. “As such, Lyft Inc. has no autonomous mode disengagements to report.”
The 2019 data tells a different story. Lyft had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California in 2019, according to data released earlier this week by the CA DMV. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode.
The report is the latest sign that Lyft is trying to ramp up its self-driving vehicle program known as Level 5.
The CA DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state, requires companies to submit an annual report that includes data such as total AV miles driven and number of vehicles. It also requires companies to report “disengagements,” a term that describes each time a self-driving vehicle disengages out of autonomous mode either because its technology failed or a human safety driver took manual control for safety reasons.
That’s still far below established AV developers such as Cruise and Waymo, which accumulated 831,000 and 1.45 million autonomous miles, respectively. And it makes up just a tiny sliver of the total autonomous miles racked up by the 36 companies that tested on public roads in 2019.
The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.
Still, the report shows Lyft is doing more than partnering with autonomous vehicle companies like Aptiv . Lyft and Aptiv launched a robotaxi pilot in January 2018 in Las Vegas. The program, which puts Aptiv vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network, surpassed 100,000 rides this month. Human safety drivers are always behind the wheel and the vehicles do not drive autonomously in parking lots and hotel lobby areas.
Lyft’s Level 5 program — a nod to the SAE automated driving level that means the vehicle handles all driving in all conditions — was launched in July 2017. Today, Level 5 employs more than 400 people in the U.S., Munich and London.
Testing on public roads in California began in November 2018 with a pilot program in Palo Alto that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto. The pilot provided on-demand rides set on fixed routes, such as traveling between the Lyft office and Caltrain.
Since then, the company has expanded the scope and geography of the pilot. By late 2019, Lyft was driving four times more autonomous miles per quarter than it was six months prior.
Lyft is also testing on a dedicated closed-course track in East Palo Alto that it opened in November 2019. The company told TechCrunch it uses this facility, which can be changed to include intersections, traffic lights and merges, to test software prior to putting its vehicles on public roads.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles released its annual cache of autonomous vehicle testing and disengagements data that, depending how one chooses to interpret the data, shows either stunning progress or stagnation.
The data, which every company testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California must submit, tells a winding and sometimes contradictory tale of growth, consolidation and priorities. The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox, as well as newcomer Lyft.
And yet, the rise in total autonomous miles and permitted companies don’t tell the whole story. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.
Some companies scaled back public testing in California, either to move operations out of state or prioritize simulation. Aurora, for instance, saw its total on-road autonomous testing drop 59%, to 13,429 miles. Meanwhile, Aurora ramped up its simulation efforts, conducting more than 735,000 tests per day, an increase of over 100 times from 2018.
“While on-road testing is useful for collecting targeted data and performing late stage validation of self driving systems, we find that large-scale, on-road autonomous testing is a slow, and inefficient approach to development relative to more sophisticated, virtual techniques,” Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson wrote to the DMV.
Others, like Drive.ai, no longer exist. Two companies, Roadstar.ai and Ximotors.ai, failed to submit a disengagement report and have had their testing permits revoked.
The upshot: It’s not the who-is-winning-the-race narrative that many might expect or try to tell. Those kinds of rankings and comparisons are nearly impossible, for a number of reasons, including the fact that testing on public roads is conducted in areas with varying degrees of complexity. Additionally, companies aren’t required to report testing on private roads or tracks, out of state or in simulation, all of which provides a better assessment of an AV developer’s technology.
Got your sights set on attending TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on May 14 in San Jose? Spend the day with 1,000 or more like-minded founders, makers and leaders across the startup ecosystem. It’s a day-long deep dive dedicated to current and evolving mobility and transportation tech. Think autonomous vehicles, micromobility, AI-based mobility applications, battery tech and so much more.
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TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 is gearing up to be a lit event. The one-day event, taking place May 14 in San Jose, has just added Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder and president of an automatic repositioning startup for micromobility vehicles. Yes, that means we’ll be having autonomous scooters rolling around onstage. #2020
Tortoise, which recently received approval to deploy its tech in San Jose, is looking to become an operating system of sorts for micromobility vehicles. Just how Android is the operating system for a number of mobile phones, Tortoise wants to be the operating system for micromobility vehicles.
Given the volume of micromobility operators in the space today, Tortoise aims to make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed. Using autonomous technology in tandem with remote human intervention, Tortoise’s software enables operators to remotely relocate their scooters and bikes to places where riders need them, or, where operators need them to be recharged. On an empty sidewalk, Tortoise may employ autonomous technologies, while it may rely on humans to remotely control the vehicle on a highly trafficked city block.
Before co-founding Tortoise, Shevelenko served as Uber’s director of business development. While at Uber, Shevelenko helped the company expand into new mobility and led the acquisition of JUMP Bikes . Needless to say, Shevelenko is well-versed to talk about the next opportunities in micromobility.
Other speakers at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 include Waymo COO Tekedra Mawakana; Uber’s director of Policy, Cities & Transportation, Shin-pei Tsay; and Argo AI co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky.
Tickets are on sale now for $250 (early-bird status). After April 9, tickets go up, so be sure to get yours before that deadline. If you’re a student, tickets cost just $50.
Early-stage startups in the mobility space can book an exhibitor package for $2,000 and get four tickets and a demo table. Packages allow you to get in front of some of the biggest names in the industry and meet new customers. Book your tickets here.
The 400,000 distribution yards located in the U.S. are critical hubs for the supply chain. Now one startup is aiming to make the yard truck — the centerpiece of the distribution yard — more efficient, safer and cleaner, with an autonomous system.
Outrider, a Golden, Colo. startup previously known as Azevtec, came out of stealth Wednesday to announce that it has raised $53 million in seed and Series A funding rounds led by NEA and 8VC. Outrider is also backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Fraser McCombs Capital, warehousing giant Prologis, Schematic Ventures, Loup Ventures and Goose Society of Texas.
Outrider CEO Andrew Smith said distribution yards are ideal environments to deploy autonomous technology because they’re well-defined areas that are also complex, often chaotic and with many manual tasks.
“This is why a systems approach is necessary to automate every major task in the yard,” Smith said.
Outrider has developed a system that includes an electric yard truck equipped with a full stack self-driving system with overlapping suite of sensor technology such as radar, lidar and cameras. The system automates the manual aspect of yard operations, including moving trailers around the yard as well as to and from loading docks. The system can also hitch and unhitch trailers, connect and disconnect trailer brake lines, and monitor trailer locations.
The company has two pilot programs with Georgia-Pacific and four Fortune 200 companies in designated sections of their distribution yards. Over time, Outrider will move from operating in specific areas of these yards to taking over the entire yards for these enterprise customers, according to Smith.
“Because we’re getting people out of these yard environments, where there’s 80,000 pound vehicles, we’re delivering increased efficiency,” Smith told TechCrunch in a recent interview. That efficiency is not just in moving the trailers around the yard, Smith added. It also helps move the Class 8 semi trailers used for hauling freight long distances through the system and back on the road quickly.
“We can actually reduce the amount of time the over-the-road guys are stuck sitting at a yard trying to do a pickup or drop-off,” Smith said.
Smith sees a big opportunity to demonstrate the responsible deployment of autonomy as well as clean up yards filled with diesel-powered yard trucks.
“If there was ever a location for near-term automation and electrification of the supply chain, it’s here,” he said. “Our customers and suppliers understand there’s a big opportunity for these autonomy systems to accelerate the deployment of 50,000 plus electric trucks in the market because they are a superior platform for automation.”
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Hello again — or perhaps for the first time. This is Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch and your host here at The Station. This weekly newsletter will also be posted as an article after the weekend — that’s what you’re reading now. To get it first, subscribe for free. Please note that there will not be a newsletter February 22.
It was a drama-filled week with a hearing on the hill in D.C. about autonomous vehicle legislation that got a bit tense at times. Meanwhile, Uber tipped its hat to the past, EV startup Lucid started to lift the veil on its Air vehicle (scroll down for a spy shot!) and micromobility prepared for headwinds in Germany.
Before I ride off into the sunset for my vacation, one reminder for y’all. Don’t forget to reach out and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.
Welcome back to micromobbin’, a regular feature in The Station by reporter Megan Rose Dickey. Before we get into her micromobility insights, a quick note that shared scooters are facing a fight in Germany that has prompted companies to unite over their “shared” cause. (Get it?)
Micromobility vehicles, first legalized in Germany last June, have flooded the marketplace and caused a backlash in cities like Berlin, where at least six apps, including Bird, Circ (now owned by Bird), Lime, Tier, Uber Jump and Voi operate. As the Financial Times first reported, amendments to the country’s Road Traffic Act would give individual cities the power to heavily restrict the areas in which e-scooters can be parked or ban them altogether.
Now back to Dickey’s micromobbin’.
Swiftmile, the startup that wants to become the gas station for electric micromobility vehicles, announced its move into advertising this week. Swiftmile already supplies cities and private operators with docks equipped to park and charge both scooters and e-bikes. Now, the company is starting to integrate digital displays that attach to its charging stations to provide public transit info, traffic alerts and, of course, ads.
“It adds tremendous value because it’s a massive market,” Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche told TechCrunch. “Tons of these corporations want to market to that group but you cannot do that on a scooter, nor should you. So there’s a massive audience that wants to market to that group but also cities like us because we’re bringing order to the chaos.”
Meanwhile, Bird unveiled more details about its loyalty program, called Frequent Flyer. It’s currently in the pilot phase, which means it’s only available in select markets. But the benefits for riding five times in 28 days include no start fees for rides between 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday and the ability to reserve your Bird in advance for up to 30 minutes at no cost.
— Megan Rose Dickey
We don’t just hear things. We see things too. This week in a little bird — the place where we share insider news, not gossip — I’m going to share two spy shots of a production version of Lucid Motors’ upcoming Air electric vehicle. See below.
The photos of the production version of the Lucid Air were taken during an event hosted for some of the vehicle’s first reservation holders. (I wasn’t there, but luckily some readers of The Station were.) By the way, we also hear that reservations are in the “low four figures.”
You’ll notice that the production version of the Air is nearly identical to the beta version. Unfortunately, we don’t see the interior. But reports suggest it falls in the understated luxury category and without giant screens.
Lucid is preparing for one of the more important moments in its history as a company. The production version of Air will be unveiled in April at the New York Auto Show. In the run-up to the auto show, Lucid is revealing more information about the vehicle, including a recent video that suggested the vehicle had a real-world range of more than 400 miles. Lucid has hit that 400-mile range in simulated testing, but how it operates on the roads is what really matters.
What’s impressive, if those numbers bear out, is that it was accomplished with a 110-kWh battery pack. That’s an improvement from back in 2016 when Lucid said it would need a 130-kWh battery pack to achieve that range. In my past conversations with CEO Peter Rawlinson — and one wild ride with him behind the wheel of an early Air prototype in Vegas — it’s clear he is obsessed with battery efficiency. That apparently hasn’t waned.
Car and Driver, which was at this special event, noted in its report that Rawlinson has a goal to get to five miles per kilowatt-hour. Right now, Tesla can lay claim to the most efficient electric vehicle with the upcoming Model Y at a claimed 4.1 miles per kilowatt-hour.
It got a little prickly on Capitol Hill during a House panel hearing this week that aimed to tackle how best to regulate autonomous vehicles. Watch the hearing to see it all unfold. Here’s a handy link to it.
A quick history lesson: The SELF DRIVE ACT was unanimously passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. AV START, a complementary bill introduced in the Senate, failed to pass because Democrats said it didn’t go far enough to address safety and liability issues.
A bipartisan group revived efforts to come up with legislation that would address Democrat concerns and give auto manufacturers and AV developers greater freedom to deploy vehicles that lack controls like a steering wheel or pedals, which are currently required by federal law.
There was some level of public agreement between the traditional auto manufacturers and AAJ over the issue of accountability. But there is still a huge divide between organizations like the Consumer Technology Association and safety advocates and trial lawyers over the issue of forced arbitration.
Groups like the American Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers, want to ban forced arbitration in any autonomous vehicle bill.
Meanwhile, CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro submitted testimony that was clearly opposed to limiting the use of arbitration. The CTA argues that arbitration reduces the cost of litigation and provides more timely remedies.
People who were in the room told me they were surprised by how unwavering Shapiro’s comments were, and suggested that it wasn’t in step with how some auto manufacturers view the issue.
Following the hearing, the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committees circulated seven sections to industry groups covering issues such as crash-data sharing and cybersecurity, according to reporting by Bloomberg Government. There was one missing provision. Any guesses? Yup, the provision dealing with forced arbitration. That has caused some Democrats to abandon the bill.
There are two ways for this bill to survive in this congressional session — by unanimous consent, meaning everyone agrees to it, or by being attached to another bill. The first option is highly unlikely. And the second is just as slim, as there are limited opportunities in the Senate to attach self-driving legislation to another bill.
Two items to mention that illustrate how the world of ride hailing continues to evolve.
First up is Uber. The company is piloting a new feature aimed at older adults that will let customers dial a 1-800 number and speak to an actual human being to hail a ride. The pilot is launching in Arizona, followed by other yet unnamed states. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s not quite like calling a taxi dispatcher, though. You’ll still need a phone that can receive SMS or text messages to get information on the driver and their ETA.
Now let’s jump over to Nigeria where new regulations in the country’s commercial center of Lagos are creating some chaos.
Lagos has started to restrict where shared motorcycles, called okadas, can operate. That is affecting motorcycle-taxi businesses like ORide, Max .ng and Gokada.
In a statement via email, ORide’s senior director of Operations, Olalere Ridwan, said the rules entail “a ban on commercial motorcycles…in the city’s core commercial and residential areas, including Victoria Island and Lagos Island.”
The motorcycle taxi limitations have also thrown off Lagos’s disorderly transit grid — overloading other mobility modes (such as mini-buses) and forcing more people to pound pavement and red-dirt to get to work, according to reporter Jake Bright.
I wanted to highlight one of our ONMs, otherwise known as original news manufacturers. Ba dum bump.
Freelancer Mark Harris is back with a scoop on Google’s short-lived Bookbot program and how its death sparked a new and still-in-stealth startup called Cartken.
Bookbot was a robot created within Google’s Area 120 incubator for experimental products. The plan was to pilot an autonomous robot in Mountain View that would pick up library books from users and bring them back to the library. Apparently, it was well received. But it was killed off far before its nine-month pilot was slated to end. Bookbot’s demise followed Google’s decision to scale back efforts to compete with Amazon in shopping.
But Bookbot appears to be back, albeit in a slicker form and with a broader use case than a library book shuttle. Engineers working on Bookbot as well as a logistics expert who was once in charge of operations at Google Express left the company to form Cartken in fall 2019.
Check out Harris’ deep dive into Bookbot, Google’s shift away from shopping and Cartken.
You might have heard or read here in this newsletter that TC Sessions: Mobility is returning for a second year on May 14 in San Jose — a day-long event brimming with the best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.
Now here’s my discount deal for you. To get 10% off tickets, including early-bird, use code AUTO. The early-bird sale ends April 9. Early-bird tickets are available now for $250 — that’s $100 savings before prices go up. Students can book a ticket for just $50. Book your tickets today.
So far, we’ve announced:
Expect more announcements each week leading up to the May 14th event.
Uber Advanced Technologies Group has been issued a permit that would allow the company to put its autonomous vehicles back on public roads in California nearly two years after the company scaled back its testing program following a fatal crash in Arizona that killed a pedestrian.
Uber doesn’t have immediate plans to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads in San Francisco, where it was previously testing. The company says it will notify key local, state and federal stakeholders before it returns to the city.
“San Francisco is a great city to gather key learnings for self-driving technology given its complex and ever-changing environment. While we do not have an update as to exactly when we’ll resume autonomous testing, receiving our testing permit through the California DMV is a critical step towards that end in Uber’s home city,” an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The permit, which is issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, is the latest step by Uber’s self-driving unit to ramp up a program that appeared destined to end just 18 months ago.
Uber ATG ended all testing on public roads after one of its vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Uber ATG was testing its self-driving vehicles in the Phoenix area, Toronto, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. At the time, the company let go all 100 of its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco and rumors circulated that the company wanted to sell its self-driving unit.
Uber ATG resumed in December 2018 on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Uber has also started mapping Washington, D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year. Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data also will be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.
Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. before the end of 2020.
Uber Advanced Technologies Group will start mapping Washington, D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year.
Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data will also be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.
Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. before the end of 2020.
At least one other company is already testing self-driving cars in Washington, D.C. Ford announced in October 2018 plans to test its autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.
Argo, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen, started mapping the city in 2018. Testing was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.
Uber ATG has kept a low profile ever since one of its human-supervised test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018. The company halted its entire autonomous vehicle operation immediately following the incident.
Nine months later, Uber ATG resumed on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company hasn’t resumed testing in other markets such as San Francisco.
Uber is collecting data and mapping in three other cities in Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto. In those cities, just like in Washington, D.C., Uber manually drives its test vehicles.
Uber spun out the self-driving car business in April 2019 after closing $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The deal valued Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, at the time of the announcement. Under the deal, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.
Waymo said Thursday it will begin mapping and eventually testing its autonomous long-haul trucks in Texas and parts of New Mexico, the latest sign that the Alphabet company is expanding beyond its core focus of launching a robotaxi business.
Waymo said in a tweet posted early Thursday it had picked these areas because they are “interesting and promising commercial routes.” Waymo also said it would “explore how the Waymo Driver” — the company’s branded self-driving system — could be used to “create new transportation solutions.”
Waymo plans to mostly focus on interstates because Texas has a particularly high freight volume, the company said. The program will begin with mapping conducted by Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
The mapping and eventual testing will occur on highways around Dallas, Houston and El Paso. In New Mexico, Waymo will focus on the southern most part of the state.
Interstate 10 will be a critical stretch of highway in both states — and one that is already a testbed for TuSimple, a self-driving trucking startup that has operations in Tucson and San Diego. TuSimple tests and carries freight along the Tucson to Phoenix corridor on I-10. The company also tests on I-10 in New Mexico and Texas.
This week, we’ll start driving our Chrysler Pacificas and long-haul trucks in Texas and New Mexico. These are interesting and promising commercial routes, and we’ll be using our vehicles to explore how the Waymo Driver might be able to create new transportation solutions. pic.twitter.com/uDqKDrGR9b
— Waymo (@Waymo) January 23, 2020
Waymo, which is best known for its pursuit of a robotaxi service, integrated its self-driving system into Class 8 trucks and began testing them in Arizona in August 2017. The company stopped testing its trucks on Arizona roads sometime later that year. The company brought back its truck testing to Arizona in May 2019.
Those early Arizona tests were aimed at gathering initial information about driving trucks in the region, while the new round of truck testing in Arizona marks a more advanced stage in the program’s development, Waymo said at the time.
Waymo has been testing its self-driving trucks in a handful of locations in the U.S., including Arizona, the San Francisco area and Atlanta. In 2018, the company announced plans to use its self-driving trucks to deliver freight bound for Google’s data centers in Atlanta.
Ten months ago, Cruise declared it would hire at least 1,000 engineers by the end of the year, an aggressive target — even for a company with a $7.25 billion war chest — in the cutthroat autonomous vehicle industry, where startups, automakers and tech giants are battling over talent.
What Cruise didn’t talk about then — or since — was who it planned to hire. The assumption was that Cruise was aiming for software engineers, the perception, planning and controls, simulation and mapping experts who would help build the “brain” of its self-driving cars. And that has certainly been one objective.
Cruise, a subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, automaker Honda and T. Rowe Price & Associates, now employs more than 1,700 people, a considerable chunk of whom are software engineers.
Cruise has embarked on another initiative over the past 18 months that isn’t as well known. The company is building out a team of hardware engineers so large that, if successful, it will get its own building. Today, the first fruits of that mission are toiling away in an ever-expanding lab located in the basement of Cruise’s Bryant Street building in San Francisco.
The basement won’t hold them for long — if Cruise gets its way. The company plans to dedicate the Bryant Street location, a 140,000-square-foot building that once served as its headquarters, to the hardware team, according to sources familiar with Cruise’s plans.
Some software engineers will remain at Bryant Street. But the bulk of Cruise’s software team and other employees will move to 333 Brannan Street, the former Dropbox headquarters that the company took over in 2019.
Cruise wouldn’t provide specific employment numbers for its hardware or software teams. A glimpse at its current job openings, as well as other resources such as LinkedIn, suggests that it has amassed more than 300 employees dedicated to hardware. At least 10% of those people were hired in the past 90 days, according to a review of LinkedIn’s database.
And it’s not done hiring. There are more than 160 open positions posted on Cruise’s website. About 106 are for software-related jobs and 35 are for hardware engineers. The remaining 24 positions are for other departments, including government, communications, office and security.
Below the airy, sunlit dining hall and the garage that houses Cruise’s self-driving test vehicles, hundreds of hardware engineers are developing everything from sensors and network systems to the compute and infotainment system for its present and future vehicles.
The upshot: Cruise is developing hardware as aggressively as its software with an eye toward future vehicles. The world will likely get the first glimpse of that future-looking hardware handiwork at Cruise’s “Beyond the Car” event that will be held late Tuesday in San Francisco.
Cruise’s value has largely been wrapped up in its software. Even six years ago, when the company was founded with a plan to develop an aftermarket kit that could be retrofitted to existing cars to give them automated highway driving capabilities, Cruise was a software company.
GM’s venture team had been tracking Cruise since early 2014, according to sources familiar with the company’s early history. But it wouldn’t be until Cruise abandoned its aftermarket kit to focus on developing an autonomous vehicle capable of city driving that the relationship would bloom.
It was then that Cruise realized it needed deeper expertise in integrating hardware and software. By late 2015, talks with GM had progressed beyond fact-finding. GM announced it acquired Cruise in March 2016.
With GM as its parent, Cruise suddenly had access to a manufacturing giant. GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV would become the platform Cruise would use for its self-driving test vehicles. Today, Cruise has about 180 test vehicles, most of which can be seen on public roads in San Francisco.
Cruise has always employed hardware engineers. But a more focused effort on hardware development and systems integration began in early 2018 after Cruise hired Carl Jenkins as vice president of hardware and Brendan Hermalyn as director of autonomous hardware systems.
Around the same time, GM announced it would build production versions of the Cruise AV — a vehicle that would be built from the ground up to operate on its own with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls — at its Orion Township assembly plant in Michigan. Roof modules for the self-driving vehicles would be assembled at its Brownstown plant. The automaker said it would invest $100 million in the two Michigan plants to prepare for production. GM’s Orion factory already produces the Chevy Bolt EV and the third-generation test versions of Cruise’s autonomous vehicle.
Six months later, the companies announced that Honda would commit $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle.
Systems integration would become more important than ever. Hermalyn, who previously worked as the camera lead at Waymo, is one of the primary drivers of this pursuit.
To say Hermalyn is passionate about systems integration might be an understatement. In an hour-long interview last year, he frequently leaned on the term, exclaiming at one point, while standing amongst a row of test vehicles, that the “most exciting thing is the integration.” He has also published a blog post that describes Cruise’s philosophy and approach to building a system that can conduct real-time, safety-critical sensing and perception tasks at scale.
The ability to integrate hardware and software is critical for the safe operation of autonomous vehicles, and it is a common pursuit among AV developers. But the scale of Cruise’s effort, along with the fact that the team is developing much of these hardware components in house, illustrates how important this area has become for the company.
Cruise hardware development is focused on the entire AV topology, which includes the sensors, compute, network systems, connectivity, infotainment and UX.
A Cruise autonomous vehicle Saturday, January 12, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear for Cruise)
While Cruise does some early-stage manufacturing in house, Hermalyn stressed that Cruise isn’t trying to go it alone.
“We’re lucky to have General Motors and Honda as partners,” he said during TechCrunch’s interview with him in October. “We’re able to leverage their expertise in vehicle engineering, and collaborate with them throughout the development process to seamlessly integrate that AV topology into the completed vehicles assembled on the factory production line.”
The baffle on the camera system on Cruise’s vehicle is just one tiny example of this partnership developed with GM. It’s here that a self-cleaning system has been developed and installed. Other hardware development included a bumper that better integrates sensors, mounts and lidar. Cruise acquired lidar startup Strobe in 2017.
“Our goal is to make it the fastest, not to make everything,” Hermalyn later added. “We obviously use a supplier to manufacture them, we don’t want to have the Geppetto problem where we’re stuck making one by one.”
Back in October when TechCrunch visited Cruise’s office, the basement lab was in flux. Certain areas were jammed and preparations to expand had clearly begun.
That lab build-out has continued. The hardware team is particularly focused on sensor development and is conducting some “low volume manufacturing capabilities for rapid maturation of hardware,” he said in a followup email.
“It’s not that different from what the aerospace industry has done,” Hermalyn said of the systems approach. But how you solve that I think is the unique part. With our partners, we’re able to go after these systems problems and be able to address that in the marketplace.”