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All-electric 2022 Audi e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT provide a pop of tech in understated packaging

By Abigail Bassett

Luxury, technology and a whole lot of flash often go hand in hand. In the age of space-faring billionaires, we all expect the latest wiz-bang gadget to look like something from the future, right?

Not in Audi’s view. The 2022 Audi e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT are a pair of all-electric grand touring halo cars that don’t look like something from 2060. They look just like sleek gasoline-powered GTs, but beneath the skin, there’s a whole lot more power, technological pop and panache than the design implies at first glance.

The 2022 Audi e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT get a low-slung roofline, wide track and long wheelbase like those grand tourers of the past, with the addition of a few design flourishes to bring it in line with Audi’s subtle, yet luxurious aesthetic. While the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT were both produced alongside the Audi R8 (its roofline is lower than the R8) and borrow a few things from that iconic design, these electric grand tourers are a pair of beasts all their own.

Nuts and bolts

Based on the same 800-volt architecture as the Porsche Taycan, the e-tron GT makes 469 combined horsepower (up to 522 hp with overboost) from a pair of dual, permanent-magnet motors powering the front and rear wheels. The RS e-tron GT makes 590 (637 hp with overboost) horsepower from those same motors and Audi says it can do 0-60 in 3.1 seconds.

Both vehicles are capable, confident and quick and don’t tarry on mountain roads or long highway stretches. Acceleration is almost seamless, as it is in most electric vehicles.

Thanks to Audi’s electric quattro all-wheel drive with torque vectoring system, both vehicles are sure-footed and well sorted, even when the wheels start to squeal. This system allows a variable amount of power to be sent to wheels that slip when cornering hard, making a sudden lane change, or driving in slippery conditions.

The vehicles I drove were outfitted with summer tires, and I got to test a bit of this out on a closed slalom course with a sudden lane change at the end at the Agua Dulce Airpark about 50 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. I ran the RS e-tron GT through the cones three consecutive times to get a feel for the system and each time the car felt secure, planted and under control.

Steering, speed and range

Audi RS e-tron GT Tango Red_03

2022 Audi RS e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

Both the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT also get optional rear-wheel steering. Under 30 mph, the rear wheels can turn up to 2.8 degrees in the opposite direction to the front wheels to help make the turning radius of the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT smaller. Above 30 mph the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front. This system is similar (with fewer degrees of rotation) to that in the Porsche Taycan.

While I did not get to try out overboost in either vehicle on the smooth tarmac at the airpark, I did run a series of back-to-back 0 to 100 mph accelerations using launch control in the RS e-tron GT. Amongst the cohort of journalists there, I came in second, doing 0-60 in 3.24 seconds and 0-100 in 7.29 seconds. In 102-degree heat, on cold tires, those numbers are plenty impressive. By the end of the runway, I saw speeds approaching 120 mph, 32 mph short of the electronically limited 155 mph, (152 mph in the e-tron GT) before hitting the brakes. After three back-to-back runs, the fully charged RS e-tron GT had only lost 20 miles of range.

The EPA-estimated range for the RS e-tron GT is 232 miles while the e-tron GT is estimated to get 239 miles of range.

Charging up

2022 Audi e-tron GT Ascari Blue_54

2022 Audi e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

Those estimated EPA ranges are a result of the low-slung 93 kWh battery pack (the same in both vehicles) that Audi says can charge up to 80% in 23 minutes on 270-volt chargers (DC fast charging).

The e-tron GT starts at $99,900 and the RS e-tron GT pops to a higher $139,900 (both excluding the $1,045 destination charge). That price tag does come with one-time limited benefit.

Audi paired up with Electrify America to offer free, unlimited public charging for three years (without time restrictions). They also offer at-home charging stations set up through Qmerit. Both the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT come with standard dual charging ports and a 9.6 kW charging system with 240-volt capability so that owners can charge anywhere. Electrify America was launched by the Volkswagen Group, which owns Audi, following the Dieselgate scandal.

Finding any charger is available through the infotainment system, known as the MMI, and the 10.1-inch touchscreen in the center console. Head to navigation and then hit the icon marked with a plug and a list of chargers near you will populate.

While I didn’t get the opportunity to try to find chargers on the one-day drive, Audi says that finding EA chargers and their status and availability is easy through both Audi’s MyAudi app (available via smartphone and desktop), and through the MMI.  Audi says that drivers can sort by their preferred charging level (Level 1 through DC fast chargers) and navigate to the charger all without leaving Audi’s in-vehicle interface.

Drivers can also perform the search on their phone through EA’s app or through the MyAudi app and send directions to the car either via wireless CarPlay, which is currently available or wireless Android Auto, which is coming on production models, though it wasn’t available in the e-tron GT or the RS e-tron GT that I drove. Drivers can also connect their smartphone through a USB-C port located in the center armrest.

I didn’t get to try the MyAudi app since I am not an owner (it requires tying the vehicle’s VIN to the app to ensure that privacy is maintained), but Audi says that drivers can plan a route on their MyAudi app, and the system will automatically include charge stops along the way to ensure that they arrive with plenty of battery in reserve.

For those luxury buyers who want a bit more support to make a seamless transition to an all-electric luxury car, Audi is launching what they call Audi Care for EVs with the e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT. At participating dealers, owners can pay an additional $999 plus tax to get vehicle servicing for four years that includes high-wear items like wipers and brake pads, available valet pick-up and drop-off for service appointments, mobile service (tire changes, basic maintenance) and, if an owner needs it, up to 10 free tows to an Audi center per year. Audi is also offering seven free days of rentals from Audi by Silvercar with the purchase of an e-tron GT or a RS e-tron.

That virtual cockpit, though

Audi-e-tron GT Ascari Blue

2022 Audi e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

The e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT blend features from both the e-tron (the SUV) and the Audi R8, and both GTs get dual screens that offer tons of features for drivers and passengers. The 12.3-inch virtual cockpit in front of the driver is highly customizable, like it is on most modern Audis today, offering everything from map views to battery status access with few simple inputs on the steering wheel.

The system makes navigating a breeze and drivers or passengers can use voice control to set destinations by simply pressing the button on the steering wheel and giving the car an address, point of interest or city.

The voice system is surprisingly robust and while it was a bit laggy when I used it, it recognizes natural language inputs and verbally prompts the speaker to use specific terms when choosing between two options — say canceling a route and putting in a new destination versus making a stopover. Never once did I have to try multiple times to get the system to recognize what I wanted to do.

The 10.1-inch infotainment system in the center console offers everything from drive mode selection to specific Audi apps, navigation options, optional massage, heat and cooled seats, and much more.

The Audi MMI center screen is touch capacitive and users can drag and drop icons around, allowing owners and their passengers to customize the home screen in any way. The seat heater, cooler and the massage can all be run at the same time, should someone so desire (and have the right equipment), all from the MMI.

Maybe just a little flash?

2022 Audi RS e-tron GT Tango Red_23

2022 Audi RS e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

Both GTs are pushing $100,000, and for that, some buyers may want just a little bit more razzle dazzle.

For the launch year, Audi is offering one pricey, but special option on the RS e-tron GT: the Year One package. For $20,350, owners get the “carbon performance” package with features like carbon-fiber trim, illuminated door sills, black badges and rear-wheel steering, along with special 21-inch wheels, red ceramic brake calipers, red seatbelts and red stitching inside.

For those who want the prestige, power and advanced technology of a luxury brand, in an electric halo grand tourer that doesn’t (necessarily) come with all the flash, the 2022 Audi e-tron GT and Audi RS e-tron GT fit the bill. Both are on sale now.

The Station: The script for Elon Musk’s Loop drivers, Redwood snags $700M and a chat with Kodiak Robotics’ co-founder

By Kirsten Korosec

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

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.

In case you missed it, our scoop machine Mark Harris was at it again. This time, he found some interesting and entertaining documents related to Elon Musk’s underground Loop system in Las Vegas received via a Freedom of Information Act. Among the treasure is a “ride script” that instructs drivers for the Loop system to bypass passengers’ questions about how long they have been driving for the company, declare ignorance about crashes, and shut down conversations about Musk himself.

The takeaway: the script shows just how serious The Boring Company, which built and operates the system, is about controlling the public image of the new system, its technology and especially Musk.

Importantly, the documents confirm that Autopilot, the advanced driver assistance system in the Tesla vehicles used in the Loop system, must be disabled.

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

Micromobbin’

This is a step outside the norm of what I usually think of when I think of micromobility (you’ll see what I did there in a second), but this week I wrote about a new in-shoe navigation system that helps the visually impaired walk around town.

Ashirase, as both the system and the name of the company is called, involves attaching a three-dimensional vibration device, including a motion sensor, inside a pair of shoes. This bit of hardware is connected to a smartphone app that someone with low vision can use to enter their destination. Vibrations in the front part of the shoe give the cue to walk straight, and vibrations on the left and right cue the user to make a left or right turn. The aim is to free up the hands while walking to use a cane and allow the walker to put more of their full attention on audio signals in the environment, thus making their commutes a bit more intuitive and their lives more independent.

It’s a really interesting bit of tech because it uses a similar stack to what we’re seeing in autonomous driving and advanced driver assistance systems. Which makes sense because that’s the founder’s background. Wataru Chino worked in Honda’s EV motor control and automated driving systems departments since 2009. His startup is a product of Honda’s incubator, Ignition, that features original technology, ideas, and designs of Honda associates with the goal of solving social issues and going beyond the existing Honda business.

Accessibility: We love to see it

Cabify recently announced a new feature that makes its rideshare service more accessible to the elderly, people with partial visual impairment and people with cognitive disabilities. The feature provides voice notifications to alert the user when a driver is on their way or has just arrived, when the ride starts, when a stop has been reached, when a message has come into the app’s chat, etc.

The notification makes use of a text-to-speech functionality that Android and iOS phones have.

“Apple and Google operating systems allow us to pronounce sentences with the system’s voice but we have developed the text and established the situations where we inform and draw the user’s attention,” a Cabify spokesperson told me.

Lime’s push for world domination

And we’re back with the latest on Lime’s plans to take over the world, one electric scooter at a time. The micromobility goliath has announced an integration with the Moovit transit planning app. From Monday onwards, Moovit users in 117 cities across 20 countries will see Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds show up as an option for travel, either as the whole journey or as part of a multi-modal journey. This news follows a trend we’re seeing as cities start to see micromobility companies as less of a public nuisance and more of a public solution, particularly for first- and last-mile travel. Integrating with Moovit, an app that’s solely focused on public transportation, is a move that helps in the long run creating a broader transportation ecosystem.

New whips

Espin released its limited edition fixie style e-bike called the Aero. It’s just the thing for Seattle hipsters, particularly ones with a stick-and-poke bike tattoo. The bike frame is just as sleek as you’d expect from a single gear bike, all clean lines and comes in either a forest green or a smoke gray. The Aero can reach top speeds of 20 mph and can hit 30 miles on a single charge. Best of all, it doesn’t break the bank at $1,399.

Splach, which normally makes e-scooters and e-bikes, has come out with something it’s calling the Transformer. I truly don’t know how to categorize it but it looks like a lot of fun to ride. The company is calling the light-duty e-vehicle a “mini-moto Robust scooter specialized for rugged terrains.” It looks like a dirt bike has been sized way down and given a long neck so you can stand on it and still steer it. It also looks like it would indeed do well on rugged terrains, based on videos of people shredding down dirt paths. Splach used Indiegogo to fund the thing, and said it reached its goal within an hour.

Deal of the week

money the station

Get ready to hear a lot more about supply chain constraints around batteries with virtually every automaker shouting out pledges to shift their entire portfolio away from internal combustion engines and towards electric powertrains.

Cell producers need access to the raw materials like nickel that are needed to make batteries. Mining those materials is the most common means, but that isn’t sustainable (and I’m not just talking about the environmental toll). JB Straubel, who is best known as the former Tesla co-founder and longtime CTO, is tackling the supply chain issue through his startup Redwood Materials. The battery recycling company is aiming to create a circular supply chain. This closed-loop system, Straubel says, will be essential if the world’s battery cell producers hope to have the supply needed for consumer electronics and the coming wave of electric vehicles.

High-profile investors like Amazon, funds managed by T. Rowe and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Ventures fund recognize the opportunity and have injected $700M in fresh capital into Redwood Materials. This is comically large compared to the startup’s last raise of $40 million. And sources tell me that this pushes Redwood Material’s valuation to $3.7 billion.

I interviewed Straubel about the raise and what struck me was how aggressively he wants to scale; he is treating this issue as if there is no time to lose — and he’s not wrong.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Clarios, the maker of low-voltage vehicle batteries, postponed its IPO, citing market volatility, Bloomberg reported. the Milwaukee area-based company backed by Brookfield Asset Management had filed to raise $1.7 billion by offering 88.1 million shares at a price range of $17 to $21.

Fisker, the electric vehicle startup turned publicly traded company via a SPAC, has turned investor to support EV charging company Allego. Fisker said it is investing $10 million in private-investment-in-public equity (PIPE) funding for the merger of Allego and special purpose acquisition company Spartan Acquisition Corp III. The merger puts Allego at a pro forma equity value of $3.14 billion.

Flock, which went from providing drone insurance to commercial vehicle insurance, raised $17 million in a Series A funding led by Social Capital, the investment vehicle run by Chamath Palihapitiya, best known as a SPAC investor and chairman of Virgin Galactic. Flock’s existing investors Anthemis and Dig Ventures also participated. This round brings Flock’s total funding to $22 million. Justin Saslaw (Social Capital’s fintech partner) joins Flock’s board of directors, as does Ross Mason (founder of Dig Ventures and MuleSoft).

HappyFresh, the on-demand grocery app based in Indonesia, raised $65 million in a Series D round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V., with participation from STIC, LB and Mirae Asset Indonesia and Singapore. It also included returning investors Mirae-Asset Naver Asia Growth Fund and Z Venture Capital. The company’s previous round of funding was a $20 million Series C announced in April 2019.

Lordstown Motors got a lifeline from a hedge fund managed by investment firm Yorkville Advisors about five weeks after the automaker issued a warning that it might not have enough funds to bring its electric pickup truck to market. The hedge fund agreed to buy $400 million worth of shares over a three-year period, according to a regulatory filing.

Merqueo, the on-demand delivery service that operates in Latin America, raised $50 million in a Series C round of funding co-led by IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest. MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders also participated. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Niron Magnetics, a company developing permanent magnets free of rare earths, raised $21.3 million in new financing from the Volvo Cars Tech Fund and Volta Energy Technologies, which joined existing investors Anzu Partners and the University of Minnesota. Niron will use the funding to build its pilot production facility in Minnesota.

Onto, the EV car subscription company raised $175 million in a combined equity and debt Series B round. The equity piece was led by Swedish VC Alfvén & Didrikson. British investment company Pollen Street Capital provided the senior-secured asset-backed debt facility. The company, which has raised a total of $245 million, says it plans to double its fleet size every three to six months and that any new vehicles will be used as collateral. Onto did not disclose how much of the round came from equity versus debt.

Zūm, a student transportation startup, was awarded a five-year $150 million contract to modernize San Francisco Unified School District transport service throughout the district. Zūm, which already operates its rideshare-meets-bus service in Oakland, much of Southern California, Seattle, Chicago and Dallas, will be responsible for handling day-to-day operations, transporting 3,500 students across 150 school campuses starting this fall semester.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

I hear things. But I’m not selfish. Let me share!

You might have missed my article late Friday about Argo AI landing a permit in California that will allow the company to give people free rides in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads.

Tl;dr: The California Public Utilities Commission issued Argo the so-called Drivered AV pilot permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. This puts Argo in a small and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing — a signal that the industry, or at least some companies, are preparing for commercial operations.

Regulatory hurdles remain and don’t expect Argo to be offering and charging for “driverless” rides anytime soon. But progress is being made and I would expect the company to secure the next permit — in a long line of them — later this year.

Argo has never officially indicated what city it is targeting for a robotaxi service in California. The company has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Ford vehicles around Palo Alto since 2019. Today, the company’s test fleet in California is about one dozen self-driving test vehicles. It also has autonomous test vehicles in Miami, Austin, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Detroit. (In July, Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years, starting with Miami and Austin.)

I’m hearing from some sources familiar with Argo’s strategy for California that we should look south of the Bay Area. Way south.

The city that jumps to mind is San Diego. Some AV companies are already playing around the Irvine area and Los Angeles seems too unwieldy. Plus, Ford already has a footprint in San Diego. The automaker partnered way back in 2017 with AT&T, Nokia and Qualcomm Technologies to test Cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) at the San Diego Regional Proving Ground with the support of the San Diego Association of Governments, Caltrans, the city of Chula Vista, and intelligent transportation solutions provider McCain. The upshot of these trials? To improve traffic efficiency, vehicle safety and “support a path towards autonomous vehicles.”

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hi everyone. Let’s dive into two key pieces of proposed legislation this week: the infrastructure bill and the tailpipe emissions standards.

After months of negotiations, U.S. senators have finally settled on a $550 billion infrastructure package that includes investments in roads, bridges, broadband and more. The bill would provide $7.5 billion to electrify buses and ferries, including school buses, and $7.5 billion to build out a national network of public EV charging stations. Subsequent statements on the bill from the White House say directly that the EV investments are intended to keep the U.S. competitive on the world stage: “U.S. market share of plug-in electric vehicle (EV) sales is only one-third the size of the Chinese EV market. The President believes that must change.”

The budget is just a fraction of the $2.25 trillion bill President Joe Biden originally introduced in March. That version of the bill earmarked billions more for transportation electrification, especially in rebates and incentives to get consumers buying more EVs. The bill is still with the Senate for final approval. Then it will head to the House before finally ending up on Biden’s desk.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have proposed rules that would beef up tailpipe emissions standards, which had been rolled back under President Donald Trump. The rules would be identical to the agreement the state of California reached with Ford, VW, Honda, BMW and Volvo in 2019, the AP reported. If approved, the rules would apply starting with model year 2023 vehicles.

The aim is to cut carbon emissions from transportation and encourage more people to buy hybrid and electric. But many environmental groups like the Sierra Club — plus some EV automakers — don’t think they go far enough.

“This draft proposal would drive us in the right direction after several years in reverse–but slowly getting back on track is not enough,” Chris Nevers, senior director of environmental policy at Rivian, told TechCrunch. EPA and NHTSA must maximize the stringency of the program beyond the voluntary deal and account for current and future developments in vehicle electrification.

One more thing that caught my eye this week…The Washington Post reported that Biden and a group of automakers are negotiating for the latter group to make a “formal pledge” to have at least 40% of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. The article doesn’t specify which OEMs are part of the talks. However, it’s hard to imagine automakers signing onto anything — even a “voluntary pledge” — without some hefty federal spending to go along with it. We’ll have to see if the provisions in the infrastructure bill are enough.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable reads and other tidbits

As per ushe, there was a ton of transportation news this week. Let’s dig in.

ADAS

Yep, ADAS gets its own section now in an effort to make it abundantly clear that advanced driver assistance systems are not self-driving cars. Never. Never ever.

New York Times’ Greg Bensinger weighs in on beta testing and Tesla in this opinion column.

Autonomous vehicles

Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson put out a blog and a bunch of tweets to layout a blueprint for an autonomous ride-hailing business that will launch in late 2024 with partners Toyota and Uber. Aurora has spent the past year or so pushing its messaging on self-driving trucks, which the company says is its best and most viable first commercial product. Aurora never entirely ditched the robotaxi idea, but it was pretty quiet on the topic. Until now.

The blog comes about a week after competitor Argo AI and Ford announced a partnership with Lyft. While the timing might not be related, it does show that competition is heating up in both areas — robotaxis and self-driving trucks — with every AV company keen to show progress and deep partnerships.

TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations. Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network.

Electric vehicles

Ford released Wednesday its second quarter earnings for 2021, which besides containing a surprise profit despite the ongoing chip shortage, revealed that its F-150 Lightning electric pickup has generated 120,000 preorders since its unveiling in May. Ford reported revenue of $26.8 billion, slightly below expectations, and net income of $561 million in the second quarter.

Lucid Group (formerly Lucid Motors) will be expanding its factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, by 2.7 million square feet, CEO Pete Rawlinson said just hours after the company officially went public with a $4.5 billion injection of capital. The company also said it has 11,000 paid reservations for its flagship luxury electric sedan, the Lucid Air.

Polestar said it plans to launch in nine more markets this year, doubling its global presence as it seeks to sell more of its electric sedans. The company, which is the electric performance vehicle brand under Volvo Car Group, also wants to double the number of retail stores to 100 locations and add more service centers by the end of the year. The Swedish automaker has more than 650 so-called “service points” in Polestar markets and wants to exceed 780 by the end of 2021.

REE Automotive has picked Austin for its U.S. headquarters. The company said the headquarters will help it address the growing U.S. market demand for mission-specific EVs from delivery and logistics companies, Mobility-as-a-Service and new technology players.

Tesla reported its second-quarter earnings and it was packed with news, including that the company generated $1.14 billion in net income, marking the first time the company’s quarterly profit (on a GAAP basis) has passed the three-comma threshold. And they hit that profitability metric without completely relying on the sale of zero-emissions credits to other automakers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk weighed in on the company’s battery strategy and disclosed that the company is pushing the launch of its electric Semi truck program to 2022 due to supply chain challenges and the limited availability of battery cells. And everything is pointing to the Cybertruck also being delayed until next year.

And finally, Tesla’s latest quarterly earnings report showed growth in its energy storage and solar business. The company reported $801 million in revenue from its energy generation and storage business — which includes three main products: solar, its Powerwall storage device for homes and businesses, and its utility storage unit Megapack. More importantly, the cost of revenue for its solar and energy storage business was $781 million, meaning that for the first time the total cost of producing and distributing these energy storage products was lower than the revenue it generated. That’s good news.

eVTOLs and other flying things

Joby Aviation completed the longest test flight of an eVTOL to date: Its unnamed full-sized prototype aircraft concluded a trip of over 150 miles on a single charge. The test was completed at Joby’s Electric Flight Base in Big Sur, California, earlier this month. It’s the latest in a succession of secretive tests the company’s been conducting, all part of its goal to achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and start commercial operations.

Lilium, the electric air taxi startup, has tapped German manufacturer Customcells to supply batteries for its flagship seven-seater Lilium Jet.

People stuff

AEye, a lidar company, has been adding to its executive team in the past few months. The most recent is the hiring of automotive veteran and former Valeo executive Bernd Reichert as senior vice president of ADAS. the company has also hired Velodyne’s former COO Rick Tewell, Bob Brown from Cepton and Hod Finkelstein as chief research and design officer from Sense Photonics.

Cruise is also on a bit of an executive and engineering hiring spree. The company sent me a list of recent folks who have joined including former Southwest Airlines employee Anthony Gregory as VP of market development, Phil Maher, the former Virgin Atlantic COO, as VP of central operations and Bhavini Soneji as VP of product engineering. Soneji was most recently VP of engineering at Headspace, and was at Microsoft and Snapchat before that.

Cruise also hired Vinoj Kumar, who oversaw Google’s cloud infrastructure and software systems, as VP of Infrastructure and Yuning Chai, former lead perception researcher at Waymo, as head of AI Research. In all, Cruise now employs more than 1,900 people.

Don Burnette, the co-founder and CEO of self-driving trucks company Kodiak Robotics, sat down with TechCrunch as part of our ongoing Q&A series with the founders of transportation startups. The interview covers a lot of ground, including Burnette’s views on the company’s strategy, current funding conditions in the industry and what he learned at Otto. the self-driving trucks startup he co-founded and that was acquired by Uber.

Trevor Milton, the fast-talking showman founder of Nikola and the electric truck startup’s former CEO and executive chairman, was charged with three counts of fraud. He is free on $100 million bail.

Milton “engaged in a fraudulent scheme to deceive retail investors” for his own personal benefit, according to the federal indictment unsealed by U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Milton was charged with two counts of securities fraud and wire fraud by a federal grand jury.

 

TuSimple’s self-driving truck network takes shape with Ryder partnership

By Kirsten Korosec

TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations.

Under the deal announced this week, Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s freight network. TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network, is a collection of shipping routes and terminals designed for autonomous trucking operations that will extend across the United States by 2024. UPS, which took a minority stake in TuSimple before it went public, carrier U.S. Xpress, Penske Truck Leasing and Berkshire Hathaway’s grocery and food service supply chain company McLane Inc. were the inaugural partners in the network.

TuSimple’s AFN involves four pieces that includes its self-driving trucks, digital mapped routes, freight terminals and a system that will let customers monitor autonomous trucking operations and track their shipments in real-time.

Ryder’s facilities will primarily serve as strategic terminals where TuSimple trucks can receive maintenance and have sensors used in the self-driving system calibrated, if needed. In some cases, the terminals might be used as a transfer hub for smaller operator that might want to pick up cargo. But this is not meant to be a hub-to-hub system where its customers would come and pick up freight, according to TuSimple President and CEO Cheng Lu.

“These trucks needs to be serviceable and maintainable and they need to have higher uptime, which is what every carrier cares about regardless of whether it is autonomous or not,” Lu said.

Small shippers and carriers might use these terminals to pick up and drop off freight. However, Lu stressed that in most cases, especially large-scale operators UPS, TuSimple will take the freight directly to the customer’s distribution centers. The Ryder facilities work as nodes, or stops, on its network to allow TuSimple to reach more customers over a larger geographic area, Lu added.

The partnership will start gradually. TuSimple has 50 autonomous trucks in its fleet that — along with a human safety operator behind the wheel — transport freight for customers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The partnership will initially use Ryder’s facilities in these areas and eventually expand to the company’s 500 maintenance facilities in the United States.

TuSimple said it expects to expand operations to the East Coast, carrying freight between Phoenix and Orlando later this year. TuSimple has about 25 new trucks on order, which will be added to the fleet once they become available.

Growth is not enough

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We were a smaller team this week, with Natasha and Alex together with Grace and Chris to sort through a week that brought together both this quarter’s earnings cycle, and the Q3 IPO rush. So, it was just a little busy!

Before we get to topics, however, a note that we are having a lot of fun recording these live on Twitter Spaces. We’ve found a hacky way to capture local audio and also share the chats live. So, hit us up on Twitter so you can hang out with us. It’s fun – and we may even bring you up on stage to play guest host.

Ok, now, to the Great List of Subjects:

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Nikola founder Trevor Milton indicted on three counts of fraud

By Kirsten Korosec

Trevor Milton, the fast-talking showman founder of Nikola and the electric truck startup’s former CEO and executive chairman, has been charged with three counts of fraud.

Milton “engaged in a fraudulent scheme to deceive retail investors” for his own personal benefit, according to the federal indictment unsealed by U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan on Thursday. Milton was charged with two counts of securities fraud and wire fraud by a federal grand jury.

Specifically, prosecutors detailed in the complaint how Milton used social media and frequent appearances on television in a PR blitz that flooded “the market with false and misleading information about Nikola” before the company even produced a product.

The charges reflect a fast and furious run for Nikola and Milton, who founded the company in 2015. Milton received more attention after unveiling the first prototype and boasted that the company would produce “the iPhone of trucking.” Promises around other products including an electric pickup truck called Badger would soon follow as well as plans to build a factory in Arizona.

In March 2020, the company announced it would go public via a merger with special purpose acquisition company VectoIQ Acquisition Corp. Milton frequently posted on Twitter directing his message to retail investors after the company went public that summer. Then in September and just days after GM had announced a $2 billion investment in the company, noted short-seller Hindenburg Research accused Nikola of fraud. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission opened an inquiry in the matter and within two weeks Milton had stepped down as executive chairman.

Nikola issued a statement Thursday that distances itself from Milton, who is still its largest shareholder.

Trevor Milton resigned from Nikola on September 20, 2020 and has not been involved in the company’s operations or communications since that time. Today’s government actions are against Mr. Milton individually, and not against the company.  Nikola has cooperated with the government throughout the course of its inquiry. We remain committed to our previously announced milestones and timelines and are focused on delivering Nikola Tre battery-electric trucks later this year from the company’s manufacturing facilities.

 

Rocket Lab returns to flight after failed May mission with successful launch for US Space Force

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is back in business launching rockets after an issue during its last launch in May caused a total loss of the payloads on board. The company was quick to investigate the issue and announced just over a week ago that it had completed that work, identified the problem and implemented corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The launch today, which took off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, was an important one to get right: It delivered a satellite for the U.S. Space Force to low Earth orbit. This is the second Space Force mission that Rocket Lab has provided launch services for.

On board the Electron launch vehicle for this mission was a demonstration satellite called Monolith, which is equipped with a new kind of deployable sensor that could, if it works as designed, pave the way for significantly smaller satellite buses in future spacecraft designs for things like weather and observation satellites.

This turnaround after a failed launch and loss of client payload is another benefit of Rocket Lab’s ability to quickly turn around rockets and missions. It’ll definitely be under increased scrutiny for a little while, however, considering that this latest mishap was the second anomaly to result in mission failure in just under a year.

Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup reservations surpass 120,000

By Rebecca Bellan

Ford and its F-150 pickup, the automaker’s best-selling vehicle, have consistently inspired brand loyalty from pickup truck owners. According to the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Automotive Brand Loyalty Study, Ford has a 54.3% loyalty rate. Now as the automaker moves to electrify its fleet, it seems to be bringing in fresh buyers.

Ford released Wednesday its second quarter earnings for 2021, which besides containing a surprise profit despite the ongoing chip shortage, revealed that its F-150 Lightning electric pickup has generated 120,000 preorders since its unveiling in May. Ford reported revenue of $26.8 billion, slightly below expectations, and net income of $561 million in the second quarter.

To be clear, these are not orders and don’t reflect exactly how many of these vehicles Ford will sell. Customers can reserve one of these EVs by placing a refundable $100 deposit.

However, it does provide some insight into demand.

Importantly, three-quarters of those new orders come from customers that are new to Ford, according to the earnings release. During the call on Wednesday, CEO Jim Farley also said two out of five Lightning preorders are going to trade in an ICE pickup.

Not only does this potentially affect Ford’s sales, it also validates the company’s recent forays into battery production. Automakers across the world are engaging in battery joint ventures with cell and chemistry companies, and Ford is no different. The company has a partnership with SK Innovation to manufacture battery cells on American soil and is creating a battery R&D center in Michigan, a part of its $30 billion investment into electrification.

Increased sales can also help with Ford’s expensive undertaking to invest in embedded electrical architecture upgrade that allows Ford to more easily update future EVs and enable new connected capabilities, according to Farley.

“So when we talk about upgrading our electric vehicles, it’s much more fundamental than just the investment in the tooling and the engineering of the electric vehicle and its components and propulsion,” said Farley during the call.It also includes a completely new approach to an embedded software and hardware system.”

The F-150 Lightning comes with a lot of upgrades that make it attractive to Ford newcomers willing to pay more than the $40,000 base price. It’s got the same torque and power as its gas counterpart, plus a hands-free ADAS BlueCruise system, a comprehensive infotainment unit and enough battery capacity to power your whole house in the event of an outage.

Farley also said during the call that the new Ford Maverick, a compact hybrid pickup which starts at $20,000, already has around 80,000 orders. The hybrid is marketed toward people who aren’t exactly pickup truck people, but who maybe want to dip their toes into that utility pool.

“The demand for our first round of high-volume EVs clearly has exceeded our most optimistic projections,” said Farley. “We’re now working around the clock to break constraints and increase our manufacturing capacity for these red-hot new battery electric vehicles”

According to the earnings report, the combined U.S. customer-sold retail order bank for the electric Mustang Mach-E and other Ford vehicles was seven times larger than at the same point last year. With demand increasing, Farley said the business is “spring loaded” for a rebound when semiconductor supplies stabilize.

Drivers for Elon Musk’s Loop get a script about their ‘great leader’

By Kirsten Korosec

Drivers for Elon Musk’s underground Loop system in Las Vegas have been instructed to bypass passengers’ questions about how long they have been driving for the company, declare ignorance about crashes, and shut down conversations about Musk himself.

Using public records laws, TechCrunch obtained documents that detail daily operations at the Loop, which opened in June to transport attendees around the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) using modified Tesla vehicles. Among the documents is a “Ride Script” that every new recruit must follow when curious passengers ask questions.

The script shows just how serious The Boring Company (TBC), which built and operates the system, is about controlling the public image of the new system, its technology and especially its founder, Elon Musk.

“Your goal is to provide a safe ride for the passengers, not an entertaining ride. Keep conversation to a minimum so you can focus on the road,” advises the document. “Passengers will pepper you with questions. Here are some you may be asked and the recommended responses.”

If riders ask a driver how long they have been with the company, they are instructed to respond with: “Long enough to know these tunnels pretty well!” The document goes on to note: “Passengers will not feel safe if they think you’ve only been driving for a week (even though that could mean hundreds of rides). Accordingly, do not share how long you’ve been employed here, but instead, find a way to evade the question or shift the focus,” the document advises drivers.

When asked how many crashes the system has experienced (the script uses the term “accidents”), drivers are told to respond: “It’s a very safe system, and I’m not sure. You’d have to reach out to the company.” Riders should expect similarly vague responses if they wonder how many employees or drivers TBC has, or how much the tunnels cost to dig. (About $53 million in total).

The use of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system that is branded “Autopilot” is clearly a sore point at TBC. Clark County does not currently permit the use of the various driver assistance features anywhere within the Loop system, including automatic emergency braking or technologies that make the vehicle aware of obstacles and keep the vehicle in lane.

Officials even require mechanics to check the vehicles to ensure these are not activated.

“In addition to completing the actions under the initial inspection checklist, maintenance staff will verify that the automatic features of the vehicle, such as steering and braking/acceleration/deceleration assist (commonly known as Autopilot) are disabled for manual loop operation,” the document reads. The following checks will be conducted on a daily basis by CWPM technicians, according to the Vehicle Maintenance plan viewed by TechCrunch.

If a passenger should ask whether the Loop’s Tesla vehicles use Autopilot, drivers will give a response. However, this content was marked “Public Safety Related Confidential” in the documents TechCrunch received and was redacted, as were many other technical details.

TechCrunch’s repeated requests to officials to explain this decision went unanswered.

He who shall not be named

The script also covers responses to questions about Musk himself: “This category of questions is extremely common and extremely sensitive. Public fascination with our founder is inevitable and may dominate the conversation. Be as brief as possible, and do your best to shut down such conversation. If passengers continue to force the topic, politely say, ‘I’m sorry, but I really can’t comment’ and change the subject.”

Nevertheless, the script provides a number of replies to common Musk questions. Ask what Musk is like and you should expect the answer: “He’s awesome! Inspiring / motivating / etc.”

Follow up with: “Do you like working for him?” and you’ll get a response that could have come straight from North Korea: “Yup, he’s a great leader! He motivates us to do great work.”

Should a customer wonder how involved Musk is in the business, the driver will tell them: “He’s the company founder, and has been very involved and supportive.” Questions about Musk’s erratic tweets will be brushed off: “Elon is a public figure. We’re just here to provide an awesome transportation experience!”

One question, however, seems to hint that not everyone is happy working for Musk: “Is it true what I’ve read about him in the papers that he [is a mean boss / smokes pot / doesn’t let employees take vacations / etc.]?” Your driver’s rather equivocal response will be: “I haven’t seen that article, but that hasn’t been my experience.”

On a side note: While the hundreds of pages of training documents and operational manuals that TechCrunch obtained detail strong policies against drug use and harassment at the Loop, the word “vacation” does not otherwise appear.

Tech that’s allowed

Because Clark County currently forbids the use of automated driving features in the Loop, human drivers could be part of the system for some time. But the system is home to plenty of other advanced technologies, according to design and operational documents submitted to Clark County. Each of the 62 Teslas in the underground Loop has a unique RFID chip — as used in contactless payment systems — that pinpoints its location when it passes over one of 55 antennas installed in the roadway, stations and parking stalls.

Each vehicle also streams data to 24 hotspots through the system, sharing its speed, state of charge, the number of passengers in the car, and whether they are wearing seatbelts. Riders should be aware that every car is also constantly streaming real-time video from a camera inside the passenger cabin. All this data, along with video from 81 fixed cameras throughout the Loop, is fed to an Operations Control Center (OCC) located a few blocks away from the Convention Center. Video is recorded and stored for at least two weeks.

In the OCC, an operator is monitoring the camera feeds and other sensors for security threats or other problems — such as a driver using their own cellphone or speeding. The OCC can communicate with any driver via a Bluetooth headset or an in-car iPad that displays messages, alerts and a map of the car’s location in the tunnels. Vehicles have strict speed limits, ranging from 10 mph within stations to 40 mph on straight tunnel sections, and must maintain at least 6 seconds of separation from the car in front.

During testing this spring, the documents reveal that Clark County officials found some drivers were not following all the rules. “When asked about the speed limitations, several drivers replied with wrong straightaway and/or curved tunnel speeds. None provided at station, express lane, or ramp speeds,” reads one document. “Drivers were not announcing to the passengers to buckle their seatbelts. When asked, [some were saying] that they are optional or not required.”

Several drivers were also failing to maintain the 6-second safety margin with cars in front. TBC told Clark County that it would provide refresher training in those areas.

TBC, Clark County, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which oversees the LVCC, did not reply to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The LVCVA recently signed a contract with Alphabet’s spin-out urban advertising agency, Intersection Media, to sell naming rights to the Loop system, which it hopes will net it $4.5 million.

TBC is currently building two extensions to the Loop to serve nearby hotels and ultimately wants to build a transit system covering much of the Strip and downtown Las Vegas with more than 40 stations. That system would be financed by TBC and supported by ticket sales.

Fisker invests in EV charging network Allego’s SPAC merger

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Less than a year after its own SPAC merger, electric vehicle startup Fisker has turned investor to support EV charging company Allego.

Fisker is investing $10 million in private-investment-in-public equity (PIPE) funding for the merger of Allego and special purpose acquisition company Spartan Acquisition Corp III. The merger, announced Tuesday, puts Allego at a pro forma equity value of $3.14 billion.

The transaction is expected to inject the EV charging provider with $702 million in cash, including $150 million in PIPE from Fisker, investors Landis+Gyr, as well as funds and accounts managed by London-based VC firm Hedosophia and ECP. Funds managed by Apollo Global Management affiliates and Meridiam, the majority shareholder of Allego, also participated in the PIPE. (Apollo is in the process of acquiring Verizon Media Group, which includes TechCrunch.)

Fisker, the sole EV automaker contributing to the PIPE, is interested in Allego’s infrastructure. The company operates more than 26,000 charging points throughout Europe.

Fisker has agreed to “a strategic partnership to deliver a range of charging options for its customers in Europe,” according to Allego. It includes a provision granting a free year of charging on the Allego network to drivers that purchase Fisker Ocean SUV between the beginning of 2023 to March 31, 2024.

The two companies are also working on a “seamless charging experience” for Fisker drivers using Allego chargers, the EV maker said in a separate statement.

“Allego has been a long-standing pioneer in the push to create a seamless pan-European electric vehicle charging network,” CEO Henrik Fisker said. “Our investment in the PIPE is motivated by strategic and tactical considerations, ensuring we have a stake in the future of EV charging networks while delivering tangible benefits to our customers.”

California-based Fisker is aiming to start deliveries of its all-electric Ocean SUV in November 2022, but it hasn’t always been a smooth road to pre-production. Henrik Fisker, a serial automotive entrepreneur best known for being the designer behind luxury vehicles like the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, raised nearly $1 billion in last year’s SPAC merger with Apollo Global Management Inc. That deal skyrocketed the startup’s valuation to $2.9 billion, but expectations deflated somewhat after major deals with Volkswagen fell apart.

Fisker has taken an outsourcing approach to its roster of electric vehicles. The Ocean will be produced via a long-term manufacturing agreement with Magna, Inc. The company signed an additional agreement with Taiwanese company Foxconn, the lead manufacturer of iPhones, to develop a new EV by the end of 2023 that will be sold under the Fisker brand.

Waymo to open offices in Pittsburgh, an AV tech hub

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Waymo, Google’s former self-driving car project that’s now an independent business unit under Alphabet, is expanding its presence in the eastern U.S. The company said Thursday it would be opening offices in Pittsburgh, joining a growing suite of companies developing and testing autonomous vehicle technology in the Steel City.

The company will start by hiring around a dozen engineers, a source familiar with the move told TechCrunch, and they’ll co-locate in Google’s existing offices in the Bakery Square district. As of Thursday, only around three open positions for the Pittsburgh area were listed on Waymo’s website, but the company will be adding more roles soon.

Some of the new team will come from Pittsburgh-based RobotWits, a tech startup focused on autonomous vehicle decision-making. That includes RobotWits’ founder and CEO Maxim Likhachev, and other members of its engineering and technical team. While Waymo did not technically acquire the startup, it did acquire RobotWits’ IP rights, the source said.

There are no current plans to deploy the so-called Waymo Driver, its autonomous driving platform, in Pittsburgh, the source added. Instead, the new team will work on motion planning development, real-time route planning and developing Driver. Thus far, Driver has seen deployment in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. Its Waymo Via trucking and cargo service will be deployed in a test run with trucking logistics company J.B. Hunt Transport Services in Texas.

AV tech rivals Aurora, Motional, Argo AI have already established offices in the city; combined with talent at Carnegie Melon University, the city has established itself as a bona fide hub for autonomous engineering development. Pittsburgh is also home to many smaller AV startups, including Locomation, which is working on autonomous trucks.

Waymo’s Pittsburgh location will join its network of offices in Mountain View, San Francisco, Phoenix, New York, Dallas, and Hyderabad, India.

Rivian is planning a second US factory

By Kirsten Korosec

Rivian, the Amazon-backed electric automaker that aims to be the first to bring an EV pickup truck to market, plans to open a second U.S. manufacturing factory, sources told TechCrunch, confirming an earlier report from Reuters.

Rivian wouldn’t elaborate on when it planned to build the factory, but did confirm it was in the process of identifying a site for a second plant. Reuters reported that the factory, dubbed Project Tera, would also include battery cell production, a detail that would drive up the cost and size of the factory.

“While it’s early in an evolving process, Rivian is exploring locations for a second U.S. manufacturing facility,” spokesperson Amy Mast said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to working with a supportive, technology-forward community in order to create a partnership as strong as the one we have with Normal, Illinois.”

The news comes a week after Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe sent a letter to customers that the company was pushing back deliveries of its long-awaited R1T electric pickup truck and R1S SUV several more months due to delays in production caused by “cascading impacts of the pandemic,” particularly the ongoing global shortage of semiconductor chips. The R1T deliveries will begin in September with the R1S to follow “shortly,” Scaringe wrote in the message.

Rivian plans to assemble its consumer products — the R1T, R1S — as well as the commercial delivery vans slated for Amazon at its factory in Normal, Illinois. That factory, which once produced the Mitsubishi Eclipse through a joint venture between Mitsubishi and Chrysler Corporation, has been completely updated and expanded.

The Normal factory has two separate production lines producing vehicles. One is dedicated for the R1 vehicles and other line is for its commercial vans. Amazon ordered 100,000 of these vans, with deliveries starting in 2021.

The automaker has raised more than $8 billion from a diverse set of backers that includes Ford, Cox Automotive, T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., Fidelity Management and Research Company, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Coatue and D1 Capital Partners. That capital will be needed to keep its 7,000-person workforce running and while building an assembly factory, a project that will cost at least $1 billion if it follows industry estimates.

Tesla, BHP ink supply deal for nickel ahead of demand surge

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla will secure nickel from the commodity production giant BHP, the automaker’s latest move to secure direct sources of raw materials that are projected to surge in demand before the decade is out.

BHP’s Nickel West division will supply an undisclosed amount of the mineral from its mines in Western Australia. The two companies also agreed to work together to increase battery supply chain sustainability and to identify ways to decrease carbon emissions from their respective operations using energy storage paired with renewable energy.

Nickel is a key mineral in lithium-ion batteries, and a cornerstone of Tesla’s next-gen battery chemistry. While many lithium-ion batteries have cathodes made from nickel, manganese and cobalt, Tesla is taking a different tack. At Tesla’s Battery Day 2020, Musk said the automaker would invest in a nickel-rich, cobalt-free cathode for some models, citing greater energy density.

Tesla also hasn’t been shy about its own intention to increase battery cell production in the coming decade, aiming to produce 100 gigawatt hours of batteries by 2022, to a staggering 3 terawatt hours per year by 2030.

To that end, the company is moving fast to secure purchase agreements with leading nickel producers. Earlier this year, the automaker announced a partnership with a nickel producer in the French Pacific territory New Caledonia. Just a few months later, Tesla chairperson Robyn Denhlm confirmed that the company was looking to purchase around $1 billion per year in battery minerals from Australia alone.

Musk has repeatedly urged miners to produce more nickel. On an investment call last July, he told producers, “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.” At Battery Day, he reiterated his position: “In order to scale, we really need to make sure that we’re not constrained by total nickel availability,” he said. “I actually spoke with the CEOs of the biggest mining company in the world and said, ‘Please make more nickel, it’s very important.’”

But finding an environmentally friendly nickel source is a challenge. Some of that has to do with issues endemic to present-day recovery and smelting techniques; others are more directly manageable by mining companies. For example, nickel mining operations in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of the metal, have come under fire for their reliance on coal and their waste disposal techniques.

BHP claims its operation is one of the most sustainable in the world, and Tesla’s decision to partner with it could be seen as something of a confirmation of that fact. The commodity producer in February said up to 50% of the electricity to power one of its nickel refineries would come from solar energy resources.

The vast majority of the world’s nickel supply is currently consumed by the steel industry. While nickel demand in the EV and energy storage sectors is currently relatively small, the International Energy Agency estimates that will increase more than 4,000% over the next 20 years – from 81 metric tons in 2020 to 3,352 metric tons by 2040.

Nickel West has historically been a tiny fraction of BHP’s overall business, dwarfed by its iron ore, copper and petroleum businesses. The commodity producer tried to sell Nickel West a number of times since around 2015, but it appears to have changed its tune with the forecasted groundswell of demand from the EV and energy storage sectors.

Industry analysts Benchmark Minerals estimated the deal with Tesla could be worth up to 18,000 tons of nickel annually.

US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is coming to Disrupt

By Kirsten Korosec

The myriad emerging and longer-term transportation technologies promise to change how people and packages move about the world or within their own neighborhoods. They also present myriad regulatory and policy hurdles that lawmakers, advocates and even investors and industry executives are attempting to navigate.

At the center — at least in the United States — sits Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. The small-town mayor in Indiana turned presidential candidate and now cabinet member under the Biden administration oversees public transport, highway safety and nascent technologies like autonomous vehicles. The Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and former U.S. Navy officer is in a position to bring complexity or clarity to the future of transportation.

At Disrupt 2021, Secretary Buttigieg will join us for a fireside chat where we’ll dig into some of the thorniest questions around transportation and how to ensure that moving from Point A to Point B is a universal right, not a privilege. We’ll ask Buttigieg about micromobility and public transit, President Biden’s push for the federal government to use electric vehicles, autonomous vehicle guidance and new regulatory requirements around reporting vehicle crashes when an advanced driver assistance and automated driving system is engaged — a move that could spur a new wave of startups and benefit some in-car technologies.

The upshot: If it involves technology that moves people and packages, we aim to talk about it.

Secretary Buttigieg is just one of the many high-profile speakers who will be on our Disrupt Stage and the Extra Crunch Stage. During the three-day event, writer, director, actor and Houseplant co-founder Seth Rogen will be joined by Houseplant Chief Commercial Officer Haneen Davies and co-founder and CEO Michael Mohr to talk about the business of weed, Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn will discuss gamifying education and prepping for a public offering and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong will dig into the volatile world of cryptocurrency and his company’s massive direct listing earlier this year.

Other speakers include Twitter CISO Rinki Sethi, Calendly founder and CEO Tope Awotona, Mirror co-founder and CEO Brynn Putnam, Evil Geniuses CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson and Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Katie Haun.

Disrupt 2021 wouldn’t be complete without Startup Battlefield, the competition that launched some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Cloudflare and Dropbox. Join Secretary Buttigieg and over 10,000 of the startup world’s most influential people at Disrupt 2021 online this September 21-23Get your pass to attend now for under $99 for a limited time!

Mercedes-Benz to build eight battery factories in push to become electric-only automaker by 2030

By Kirsten Korosec

Mercedes-Benz laid out Thursday a 40 billion-euro ($47B) plan to become an electric-only automaker by the end of the decade, a target that will push the company to become more vertically integrated, train its workforce and secure the batteries needed to power its products.

The company has already taken action, announcing Thursday it acquired UK-based electric motor company YASA and has determined it will need battery capacity of more than 200 gigawatt hours. To hit meet those needs, Mercedes plans to set up eight battery factories with partners to produce cells.

The new plants, one of which will be located in the United States, is on top of the company’s already planned network of nine factories that will be dedicated to building battery systems. The company said it will team up with new European partners to develop and efficiently produce future cells and modules. That “European partners” designation is strategic and one that Mercedes says will ensure the region “remains at the heart of the auto industry.”

Mercedes said it has partnered with Sila Nano, the Silicon Valley battery materials startup that raised $590 million earlier this year, to help it improve its next generation of batteries. Specifically, SilaNano is helping Mercedes  increase energy density by using silicon-carbon composite in the anode, which should boost range and allow for shorter charging times.

Mercedes is also looking into solid-state battery technology and said it is in talks with partners to develop batteries with even higher energy density and safety.

The plan unveiled Thursday piggybacks on previous goals to build and sell more EVs. Back in 2017, Mercedes said it would electrify — which means gas-hybrid, plug-in hybrid or battery electric — its entire lineup by 2022. The German automaker said Thursday that by next year it will offer battery-electric vehicles in every segment that it serves.

Its EV-only plan will accelerate from there. By 2025, the company said its three newly launched vehicle architectures will be electric-only. The company said it expects that all-electric and hybrids will make up 50% of its sales. Customers will also be to choose an all-electric alternative for every model the company makes.

Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG CEO Ola Källenius said the company’s goal marks a “profound reallocation of capital.” He stressed that the company’s profitability targets would be safeguarded and met despite this hefty investment and shift away from the internal combustion engine.

To meet this target, Mercedes is launching three electric-only architectures which will form the basis of all of its new vehicles. It’s so-called MB.EA platform will be used for its medium to large passenger cars, while AMG.EA will underpin its performance Mercedes-AMG cars and the VAN.EA will be dedicated architecture for electric passenger minivans and light commercial vehicles.

Developing. … 

Rivian plans to install EV chargers in Tennessee’s 56 state parks

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Rivian electric vehicle charging stations are coming to yet another state park system. The EV startup said it would install its so-called “waypoint” chargers at all of Tennessee’s 56 state parks, just four months after announcing a similar agreement with the state of Colorado.

It’s the next step in Rivian’s plans to build out its network of more than 10,000 Level 2 AC chargers by the end of 2023. Installing chargers at state parks and other far-flung locales is a key facet of Rivian’s brand strategy: to position itself as an eco-friendly automaker for the outdoorsy type regardless of whether they own a Rivian vehicle. The waypoint chargers will be open to the public and accessible to all electric vehicle brands with a J1772 plug.

As part of the agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Rivian will design and install the chargers at no cost, and cover all servicing, maintenance, and upgrades for 10 years. The automaker said it will also cover any needed utility upgrades associated with the charger installations – for example, improvements to electrical service panels or transformers.

Rivian could start installing chargers as early as this fall. The Level 2 chargers can provide up to 11.5 kilowatts of power. That roughly translates to adding up to 25 miles of range every hour for both the R1T pickup truck and the R1S SUV. While waiting hours for a battery refill isn’t ideal for chargers located along highways and busy thoroughfares, Rivian says these sites will allow drivers “to top up on miles while enjoying a day trip or an overnight campout.”

Charging will initially be provided at no cost, though the automaker noted that future costs could be dependent on how the state decides to recover electricity costs.

Rivian Waypoints are separate from the company’s so-called Adventure Network, its plan to build more than 3,500 DC fast chargers exclusively for Rivian customers. Those chargers will be able to provide up to 140 miles of range in around 20 minutes.

Rivian founder RJ Scaringe has been open about his desire to develop a charging network inclusive of hard-to-reach places – a notable difference from a company like Tesla, whose proprietary network of Superchargers is located in more conventional and even high-end places.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to create Rivian charging locations that aren’t on the interstate, that help draw you or enable you to go to places that normally are not the kinds of places that invite or welcome electric vehicles because of charging infrastructure,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how you can essentially create these curated drives where, depending on your point of interest, you can pick different paths. If you want to stop midway through the trip for a one-mile, two-mile or five-mile hike, you know, here’s a route that you want to take and here’s a charging location right next to it.”

Auto software company Sonatus raises $35 million from Hyundai Motor Group, SAIC Capital

By Rebecca Bellan

California-grown automotive software company Sonatus raised $35 million in a Series A round that attracted high-profile technology and automotive industry companies including Hyundai Motor Group, SAIC Capital, LG Electronics and Hyundai Mobis.

Silicon Valley VC Translink Capital led the round, with other investors including Marvell, SK hynix, United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC), Mando Corporation and Wanxiang Group Company.

Sonatus, which was founded in 2018, intends to use the new funds to establish itself as a brand through marketing efforts, new partnerships with OEMs and expanding local teams, according to Jeff Chou, Sonatus’s CEO and co-founder. The startup says its product helps to make vehicles into “data centers on wheels” by providing the underlying infrastructure that allows for big data collection, running new applications or adding new features to the car.

“Basically we have two pieces of our product – an in-vehicle portion and a cloud portion, and they kind of work together,” Chou told TechCrunch. “The in-vehicle part of our product allows the OEM to collect any data that the car generates. So whether that be on a traditional [Controller Area Network] bus, whether that be in the infotainment head unit, whether that be on traffic that’s flowing across an in-vehicle network like Ethernet. Anything that gets generated or transmitted across an in-vehicle network is data that we have access to. And depending on what the OEM wants to collect and when they want to collect it, they can inform our software in the vehicle to do the right thing.”

The cloud portion of the software connects to all the vehicles where Sonatus’s underlying architecture resides and  ingests all the data so it can store, analyze or expose it to either the OEM’s own data scientists or to their partners.

Sonatus says its first generation product is already in production with a top global automaker, which will be announced in the coming weeks.

“We actually built the company without any investment money at all, and we grew from a couple of us to now beyond 50 people,” said Chou. “And now we’re already launching and in mass production. Our software has already been incorporated into the vehicles of an OEM and in their dealer showrooms.”

Chou said the first incarnation of Sonatus’ product will be in a combustion engine vehicle, but that the product is drivetrain-agnostic. In fact, Chou thinks the electrification of vehicles has been a tailwind for the company because it’s causing OEMs to rethink in-vehicle architecture and be more open to adopting new technologies.

One of Sonatus’ investors in this round, Hyundai has been pouring money into auto-related technologies. The automaker has invested $20.5 billion (KRW 23.5 trillion) in future technologies for its vehicles, including electrification, connectivity, autonomous driving, fuel cell, UAM, AI and robotics through 2025, according Henry Chung, SVP and head of Hyundai CRADLE Silicon Valley.

“A lot of the technology in our cars is probably 50 years old in some areas, especially on the comms side of things,” Chung told TechCrunch. “There’s four or five decades worth of data center evolution that’s occurred on the IT front, and those technologies and approaches basically need to be brought into vehicles now because of the amount of data that’s being generated, the sensors, the software algorithms that are running, the compute power that’s now involved. They literally are super computers on wheels. We’re asking vehicles to do more and consumers at are asking for services at a greater clip as well, so in order to deliver those services and value added functions, all of that needs supporting infrastructure and that’s what Sonatus delivers essentially. This is long overdue.”

One of the capabilities that may soon be realized in the automotive industry is Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology, in which the vehicle communicates to other vehicles and surrounding infrastructure to provide better driver assistance systems, which could lead to autonomous driving one day. Sonatus says it provides the architecture upon which V2X can be utilized.

“That’s part of this edge cloud architecture that we’re delivering for vehicles, but in this case the edge instead of being data center, it’s really an edge on wheels,” said Chou.

Sonatus’s data center, which the company says is incredibly secure, and its architecture allow automakers to remotely add in features, manage vehicle usage data and remedy problems quicker and more efficiently because it doesn’t use over-the-air software updates that require time and a full upload. Rather, automakers can send the software specific messages to enact changes in real time.

“Imagine a scenario where on the fly somebody detects that there could be something wrong with brakes for vehicles that they shipped in North America, and they need to send out an update right away to get real time data on braking and engine of certain models when an accident occurs,” said Chou. “They might say, ‘Send me information 60 seconds before the accident and 60 seconds after and I only want this information.’ That can be done in real time, without an OTA update. It’s what we call codeless updates.”

There are many use cases where OEMs will benefit from having access to so much data, especially as they continue to innovate. For Sonatus’s part, the company wants to move in the direction wherein it can also collect and analyze the data from automakers to perhaps use records of driver behavior in the development of autonomous technology, but Chou said they’re not doing anything about it just yet.

Argo, Ford to launch self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing app

By Kirsten Korosec

Autonomous vehicle technology startup Argo AI and its backer and customer Ford plan to launch up to 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years starting with Miami and Austin.

The first Ford self-driving vehicles, which are equipped with Argo’s autonomous vehicle technology, will become available on Lyft’s app in Miami later this year. Ford and Argo have had a presence in Miami for years now and have an active fleet of test vehicles.

Austin will follow in next year with the remaining U.S. cities being added to the Lyft app in 2023 and beyond, according to Jody Kelman, who heads up Lyft’s Autonomous, the company self-driving deployment business unit. Argo currently tests in Detroit, Palo Alto, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.

“It’s the biggest deployment certainly that we’re doing and that I think anyone else is doing,” Kelman said. “One thousand cars across six markets is a  big leap forward in terms of scaled commercialization.”

This isn’t just about Argo and Ford jumping on the Lyft network. Lyft will also provide access to driving data from its entire network in exchange for a 2.5% stake in Argo AI, under terms of the agreement announced Wednesday. Lyft already captures driving data, which includes telemetry information such as hard-braking events and even collisions. Argo is most interested in two areas of data: safety information around human drivers on its app and more generally what trip movements look like across a city, Argo CEO Bryan Salesky told TechCrunch.

“This will really help us hone and figure out where the demand is and what peak demand looks like, which helps us figure out where we need to map, where we need to go, where we need to operate,” Salesky said.  “It helps us spend our test resources wisely.”

For instance, the Lyft data should help Argo spot areas where public transit is plentiful and other neighborhoods where it’s less available or entirely absent.

“We really want to take a holistic view of the demand picture using their data,” Salesky said. “That helps us really be precise about where to deploy in order to have the greater benefit.”

The Ford vehicles will be operated by Argo and include a human safety driver behind the wheel. Salesky did note that the vehicles will drive autonomously from pickup to drop-off point.

The agreement is an indication that Argo has made progress in its AV development and specifically its work with Ford. The automaker announced in February 2017 that it was investing $1 billion in Argo AI, which was not even six months old at the time. Since then, Argo has focused on developing the virtual driver system — all of the sensors, software and compute platform — as well as high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.

In July 2019, VW Group announced it was investing $2.6 billion in Argo. That deal, which was finalized last summer, gives Ford and VW equal ownership stakes, which will be roughly 40% each over time. The remaining equity sits with Argo’s co-founders as well as employees. Argo’s board is comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.

Lyft is also a beneficiary in the deal — and beyond that small equity stake. Lyft main goal is to become the go-to ride-hailing network and fleet management platform used by any and all commercial robotaxi services. Lyft already has partnerships with other AV developers, notably the $4 billion Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture known as Motional, as well as Waymo.

Motional vehicles are on the Lyft ride-hailing network in Las Vegas. All of the vehicles have human safety operators behind the wheel. The companies have an agreement deploy fully autonomous cars on the Lyft network in 2023.

Lyft’s intention was always to lock up the rest. Unclear with which companies might commercialize the tech first, Lyft also took on the expensive pursuit of developing autonomous vehicle technology internally through a division called Level 5. That self-driving division was acquired in April by Toyota’s Woven Planet Holdings subsidiary for $550 million.

As part of the acquisition agreement, Woven Planet signed commercial agreements to use the Lyft platform and fleet data.

Consumer Reports concerned Tesla uses owners to test unsafe self-driving software

By Rebecca Bellan

A Tesla in full self-driving mode makes a left turn out of the middle lane on a busy San Francisco street. It jumps in a bus lane where it’s not meant to be. It turns a corner and nearly plows into parked vehicles, causing the driver to lurch for the wheel. These scenes have been captured by car reviewer AI Addict, and other scenarios like it are cropping up on YouTube. One might say that these are all mistakes any human on a cell phone might have made. But we expect more from our AI overlords. 

Earlier this month, Tesla began sending out over-the-air software updates for its Full Self-Driving (FSD) beta version 9 software, an advanced driver assist system that relies only on cameras, rather than cameras and radar like Tesla’s previous ADAS systems.

In reaction to videos displaying unsafe driving behavior, like unprotected left turns, and other reports from Tesla owners, Consumer Reports issued a statement on Tuesday saying the software upgrade does not appear to be safe enough for public roads, and that it would independently test the software update on its Model Y SUV once it receives the necessary software updates. 

Running preproduction software is both work & fun. Beta list was in stasis, as we had many known issues to fix.

Beta 9 addresses most known issues, but there will be unknown issues, so please be paranoid.

Safety is always top priority at Tesla.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2021

The consumer organization said it’s concerned Tesla is using its existing owners and their vehicles as guinea pigs for testing new features. Making their point for them, Tesla CEO Elon Musk did urge drivers not to be complacent while driving because “there will be unknown issues, so please be paranoid.” Many Tesla owners know what they’re getting themselves into because they signed up for Tesla’s Early Access Program that delivers beta software for feedback, but other road users have not given their consent for such trials. 

Tesla’s updates are shipped out to drivers all over the country. The electric vehicle company did not respond to a request for more information about whether or not it takes into account self-driving regulations in specific states — 29 states have enacted laws related to autonomous driving, but they differ wildly depending on the state. Other self-driving technology companies like Cruise, Waymo and Argo AI told CR they either test their software on private tracks or use trained safety drivers as monitors. 

“Car technology is advancing really quickly, and automation has a lot of potential, but policymakers need to step up to get strong, sensible safety rules in place,” says William Wallace, manager of safety policy at CR in a statement. “Otherwise, some companies will just treat our public roads as if they were private proving grounds, with little holding them accountable for safety.”

In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a standing general order that requires manufacturers and operators of vehicles with SAE Level 2 ADAS or SAE levels 3, 4 or 5 automated driving systems to report crashes. 

“NHTSA’s core mission is safety. By mandating crash reporting, the agency will have access to critical data that will help quickly identify safety issues that could emerge in these automated systems,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s acting administrator, in a statement. “In fact, gathering data will help instill public confidence that the federal government is closely overseeing the safety of automated vehicles.” 

The FSD beta 9 software has added features that automates more driving tasks, like navigating intersections and city streets with the driver’s supervision. But with such excellent graphics detailing where the car is in relation to other road users, down to a woman on a scooter passing by, drivers might be more distracted by the tech that’s meant to assist them at crucial moments. 

“Tesla just asking people to pay attention isn’t enough — the system needs to make sure people are engaged when the system is operational,” said Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s Auto Test Center in a statement. “We already know that testing developing self-driving systems without adequate driver support can — and will — end in fatalities.”

Fisher said Tesla should implement an in-car driver monitoring system to ensure drivers are watching the road to avoid accidents like the one involving Uber’s self-driving test vehicle, which struck and killed a woman in 2018 in Phoenix as she crossed the street. 

Intel’s Mobileye takes its autonomous vehicle testing program to New York City

By Kirsten Korosec

Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, has expanded its autonomous vehicle testing program to New York City as part of its strategy to develop and deploy the technology.

New York City joins a number of other cities including Detroit, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo where Mobileye has either launched testing or plans to this year. Mobileye launched its first test fleet in Jerusalem in 2018 and added one in Munich in 2020.

“If we want to build something that will scale, we need to be able to drive in challenging places and almost everywhere,” Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua said during a presentation Tuesday that was streamed live. As part of the announcement, Mobileye also released a 40-minute unedited video of one of its test vehicles equipped with a self-driving system navigating New York’s city streets.

New York City has been in Shashua’s sights for more than six months. He first mentioned a desire to test on public roads in New York during the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show in January with the caveat that the company would need to receive regulatory approval. Now, with that regulatory approval in hand, Mobileye is the only company currently permitted to test AVs in the state and city. GM’s self-driving subsidiary Cruise outlined in 2017 a plan to test AVs in New York and even mapped parts of lower Manhattan. The company never scaled up the test program in NYC, deciding instead to focus on its primary target for commercial deployment: San Francisco. 

Mobileye applied for a permit through New York State’s autonomous vehicle technology demonstration and testing program. The company met the requirements outlined in the program which includes compliance with all federal standards and applicable New York State inspection standards as well as a law enforcement interaction plan, according to Mobileye.

“I don’t think there’s anything special about receiving approval you simply need to go through this process, Shashua said, who described it has lengthy and in some ways similar to the stringent requirements to test in Germany. “I think what is special is that it’s very very difficult to drive here.”

Mobileye is perhaps best known for supplying automakers with computer vision technology that powers advanced driver assistance systems. It’s a business that generated nearly $$967 million in sales for the company. Today, 88 million vehicles on the road are using Mobileye’s computer vision technology.

Mobileye has also been developing automated vehicle technology. Its full self-driving stack — which includes redundant sensing subsystems based on camera, radar and lidar technology — is combined with its REM mapping system and a rules-based Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) driving policy.

Mobileye’s REM mapping system crowdsources data by tapping into consumer and fleet vehicles equipped with its so-called EyeQ4, or fourth generation system on chip, to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems. That data is not video or images but compressed text that collects about 10 kilobits per kilometer. Mobileye has agreements with six OEMs, including BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen, to collect that data on vehicles equipped with the EyeQ4 chip, which is used to power the advanced driver assistance system. On fleet vehicles, Mobileye collects data from an after-market product it sells to commercial operators.

Mobileye’s technology is mapping nearly 8 million kilometers day globally, including in New York City.

The strategy, Shashua contends, will allow the company to efficiently launch and operate commercial robotaxi services as well as bring the technology to consumer passenger vehicles by 2025. Shashua explained this dual approach in an interview with TechCrunch in 2020. 

“There was realization that dawned on us awhile ago,” he said at the time. “The Holy Grail of this business is passenger car autonomy: where you buy a passenger car and you pay an option price and with a press of button it can take you autonomously to wherever you want to go. The realization is that you can’t reach that Holy Grail if you don’t go through the robotaxi business.”

On Tuesday, Shashua said Mobileye was the only company that has its foot in both camps. (Although it should be noted that Toyota’s Woven Planet does have some strategic overlap.)

“We’re building our technology in a way that supports scale, especially geographic scale, using our crowdsourced mapping technology and building new sensors such that the entire package — the entire system — will be under $5,000 cost to allow consumer AVs, and on the other hand, we have a division building a mobility-as-a-service or robotaxi service,” Shashua said Tuesday. “This is one of the reasons why we purchased Moovit last year, to enable the customer facing of all the layers above the self-driving system to enable mobility-as-a-service business.”

ChargePoint to buy European charging software startup for $295M

By Kirsten Korosec

ChargePoint struck a deal to buy European charging software company has·to·be for €250 million ($295 million) in cash and stock, the electric vehicle charging network’s first acquisition since it became a publicly traded company.

Through the deal, ChargePoint gains more than just 125 employees and the company’s operating software, which manages more than 40,000 networked ports in Europe. The acquisition will give ChargePoint a boost in its pursuit to gain market share beyond North America, as well as VW Group as a strategic partner.

VW Group was an early investor in has·to·be, which was founded in 2013, and will continue a relationship with ChargePoint along with other customers of the software company, such as Ionity, Audi, Porsche, BP, Total, Lidl and GP Joule. ChargePopint will also add to its operations has·to·be offices in Munich, Salzburg and Vienna. 

ChargePoint designs, develops and manufactures hardware and accompanying software, as well as a cloud subscription platform, for electric vehicles. The company might be best-known for its branded public and semi-public charging spots that consumers use to charge their personal electric cars and SUVs, as well as its home chargers. However, ChargePoint also has a commercial-focused business that provides hardware and software to help fleet operators manage their delivery vans, buses and cars.

In all, the company has more than 115,000 charging spots globally. ChargePoint also offers access to an additional 133,000 public places to charge through network roaming integrations across North America and Europe.

“Our continued investment in Europe is critical to our stated growth strategy,” ChargePoint president and CEO Pasquale Romano said in a statement, later adding that the companies’ combined assets “should position us to accelerate our leadership as electrification continues to take hold across continents.”

ChargePoint agreed in September to merge with special-purpose acquisition company Switchback Energy Acquisition Corporation, with a market valuation of $2.4 billion. ChargePoint was able to raise $225 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, led by institutional investors including Baillie Gifford and funds managed by Neuberger Berman Alternatives Advisors.

ChargePoint said at the time that it planned to use the new capital to expand in North America and Europe, improve its technology portfolio and significantly scale its commercial, fleet and residential businesses.

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