The Station is back for another week of news and analysis on all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future. As always, I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior reporter at TechCrunch.
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This week, we’re looking at factories in China, scooters in San Francisco and touchscreens in cars, among other things.
Please reach out anytime with tips and feedback. Tell us what you love and don’t love so much. Email me at email@example.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.
Uber, Lime and Spin each deployed 500 electric scooters in San Francisco as part of the city’s permitting program. This means residents in SF can now choose from Uber-owned JUMP, Lime, Spin or Scoot scooters. Unfortunately for Skip, the company did not receive a permit to continue operating in the city, which means layoffs at the local level are afoot, Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor said earlier this week.
Meanwhile, former Uber executive Dmitry Shevelenko unveiled Tortoise, an autonomous repositioning software for micromobility operators. The idea is to help make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed.
Let’s close this section with the obligatory funding round. Wheels, a pedal-less electric bike-share startup, raised a $50 million round led by DBL Partners. That brought its total funding to $87 million.
Oh, but wait, TC reporter Romain Dillet reminded us that micromobbin’ happens outside of the U.S. too. Uber also announced this past week that it has integrated its app with French startup Cityscoot, which has a fleet of free-floating moped-style scooters.
This is the latest example of Uber’s plan to become a super mobility app that goes well beyond its own network of ride-hailing vehicles.
— Megan Rose Dickey
We’ve seen a lot of different approaches when it comes to engaging with connected car services: head-up displays on the windshield, small screens perched on the dashboard, interactive voice and, of course, connections and mounts for smartphones.
But how about if your whole car becomes the touchscreen? A startup called Sentons is working on technology that could make that happen. The company uses a technique involving processors and AI that emit and read ultrasound to detect physical movement on a surface, such as touch, force or gestures, and users can create “virtual controls” on the fly that work on these surfaces.
This week, it released SurfaceWave, a software and hardware stack that works on glass, metal and plastic surfaces of smartphones.
CEO Jess Lee says the next iterations are going to be the kinds of materials that are used to make car dashboards and other interior surfaces you find inside the vehicle, including leather, thicker plastic and other materials. The company is already engaging with automotive companies, Lee told TechCrunch.
I can see a lot of possibilities for this in the human-driven vehicles of today. We’ve already seen how Tesla has changed how we think about infotainment systems in cars. And then there’s electric vehicle startup Byton, which plans to bring a vehicle to market with a touchscreen that extends along the entire dashboard.
The real opportunity for Sentons will be with autonomous vehicles, a product that will afford its passengers more leisure time.
— Ingrid Lunden
Earlier this week, Tesla was given the OK to begin producing vehicles at its $2 billion factory in Shanghai. Tesla was added to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s list of approved automotive manufacturers.
Now we’ll watch and wait to see if production starts this month. Expect the topic of China and this factory to come up during Tesla’s earnings call with analysts October 23.
In other China factory news, we hear that electric vehicle startup Byton plans to host a splashy opening ceremony in early November for its new plant. The event will include lots of Chinese officials, company executives and maybe a preview of a near-final production version of its M-Byte vehicle.
Byton’s factory in Nanjing covers some 800,000 square meters (8.6 million square feet) funded with a total investment of more than $1.5 billion. Over the summer, the walls and roof went up, equipment was installed and commissioning began in five major workshops: stamping, welding, paint, battery and assembly.
The plant will begin trial production in late 2019.
This all sounds great, but there have been challenges, and the constant requirement for capital is one of them. Byton has delayed the launch of the production version of the M-Byte by two quarters. It’s now looking like commercial production will begin by the end of the second quarter of 2020.
Here are a couple of interesting tidbits for those manufacturing geeks out there:
We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. A little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip.
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I recently spoke to Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at self-driving trucks startup Ike Robotics, about the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis. STPA is the foundation for Ike’s product development.
The company also released a wickedly long safety report (it’s halfway down that landing page in the link provided).
The complete interview was included in the emailed newsletter. Yet another reason to subscribe to this free newsletter. Here’s one quote from the interview with Aikin:
We asked the question, what do we have to prove to ourselves and demonstrate in order to be on a public road safely? It’s the same question that we’re going to have to answer for the product as well, which is, what do we need to prove to assure that we’re safe to operate without a human in the cab?
It’s one of the huge unproven hypotheses. Anybody in this space that doesn’t consider that to be a huge technical challenges is ignoring a really thorny and important question.
Our mobility coverage extends to Extra Crunch. Check out my latest article on who will own the future of transportation based on insights from Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The idea here is to explore some of the nuances of this loaded question.
Extra Crunch requires a paid subscription and you can sign up here.
Alphabet -owned drone delivery spin-out Wing is starting to service U.S. customers, after becoming the first drone delivery company to get the federal go-ahead to do so earlier this year. Wing is working with FedEx Express and Walgreens on this pilot, and their first customers are Michael and Kelly Collver, who will get a “cough and cold pack,” which includes Tylenol, cough drops, facial tissues, Emergen-C and bottled water (do people who have colds need bottled water?).
The Collvers are receiving their package in Christianburg, Va., which is where Wing and Walgreens will run this inaugural pilot of the drone delivery service. Walgreens gets a noteworthy credit in the bargain, becoming the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone, while FedEx will be the first logistics provider to deliver an e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.
Wing is also working with Virginia’s Sugar Magnolia, a retailer local to the state, and that part of the equation is focused on proving out how Wing and drone delivery can service last-mile e-commerce customers at their homes. Sugar Magnolia customers can get small items, including chocolates and paper goods, delivered directly to them via drone through the new pilot.
Wing was able to do this with a new Air Carrier Certificate from the FAA that clears it for expanded service, specifically allowing Wing’s pilots to manage multiple aircraft flying without any human pilot on board at the same time, while providing service to the public.
It’s a big milestone when it comes to U.S.-based drone delivery, and another sign that people should get ready for these services to start to be a more regular fixture. Earlier this month, UPS also secured FAA approval to operate a commercial drone delivery service, so the trials will probably come fast and furious at this point — though widespread service is probably still quite a ways off as both regulators and operators look to learn from their first limited deployments.
China’s industry ministry has added Tesla to a government list of approved automotive manufacturers, a designation that allows the electric automaker to begin producing vehicles in the country.
Tesla’s inclusion on the list published by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was reported by Reuters. A Chinese tech site also reported the news and provided a screenshot of MIIT’s approved automakers. Tesla is the first automaker listed.
TechCrunch has reached out to Tesla and will update when the company responds.
Tesla is building a $2 billion factory in Shanghai, its first manufacturing facility outside the United States.
In July, Tesla wrote in its quarterly earnings letter to shareholders that Model 3 production was on track to begin at its Shanghai factory by the end of the year. Starting production by November would be a critical milestone for the automaker if it hopes to continue to increase sales and avoid the high cost of shipping and tariffs.
Tesla wrote at the time that machinery was moved into the factory during the second quarter in preparation for the first phase of production.
The company also said in July that “depending on the timing of the Gigafactory Shanghai ramp, we continue to target production of over 500,000 vehicles globally in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2020.”
Tesla has said the production line at the factory in China will have a capacity of 150,000 units annually and will be a simplified, more cost-effective version of the Model 3 line at its Fremont, Calif. factory. Tesla has also said this second-generation Model 3 line will be at least 50% cheaper per unit of capacity than its Model 3-related lines in Fremont and at its Gigafactory in Sparks, Nev.
Volvo Cars used the unveiling of the XC40 Recharge, its first electric vehicle, to lay out an ambitious business strategy that includes introducing a new EV every year through 2025 and slashing by 40% the carbon footprint of the lifecycle of every car and SUV it builds.
All of the changes are aimed at Volvo Cars’ target to become a climate-neutral company by 2040.
The goals laid out by Volvo Car Group President and CEO Håkan Samuelsson during a press conference Wednesday to launch the XC40 Recharge will change the structure of the company and affect its supply chain.
“We made safety a part of our brand and part of our company, we should do exactly the same with sustainability,” Samuelsson said Wednesday during the press conference.
Volvo plans to reach its goal by producing and selling electric and plug-in electric vehicles, cutting the carbon footprint of the lifecycle of its vehicles by 40% between 2018 and 2025 and spinning out its combustion engine unit.
A critical piece to hitting its target will be making more EVs available. The automaker plans to launch an all-electric car every year over the next five years. By 2025, it wants all-electric vehicles to represent 50% of global sales with the rest composed of hybrids.
As of this year, every new Volvo launched will be electrified, which means it could be a hybrid, plug-in electric (PHEV) or all-electric (BEV) vehicle.
To hit this target, every Volvo model will include a Recharge option. This means a plug-in hybrid or all-electric version will be available, according to the company. To further encourage electric driving, every Volvo Recharge plug-in hybrid model will come with free electricity for a year, provided through a refund for the average electricity cost during that period.
Volvo also plans to triple its manufacturing capacity and is now quickly ramping up its production globally, Björn Annwall, head of global commercial operations at Volvo, said during the press conference. Volvo is aiming for plug-in hybrid cars to make up 20% of total sales in 2020.
The company’s bid to reduce the carbon footprint of the lifecycle of its cars 40% between 2018 and 2025 will affect every aspect of how these vehicles are made, as well as its suppliers.
Today, the supply chain makes up one-third of the total carbon footprint throughout the lifecycle of a new vehicle, according to CTO Henrik Green. But switching to electrified vehicles to reduce tailpipe emissions increases the total lifecycle footprint of vehicles by two-thirds, primarily due to battery cell manufacturing.
“This is an industry challenge,” Green said, adding that lawmakers, utilities, automakers and battery cell manufacturers need to collaborate.
Volvo is targeting its supply chain to help it hit its goal as well as moving more toward renewable energy for its power. Reducing waste and standardizing materials to support recycling are also key to making the company more sustainable, according to Green.
Volvo isn’t ditching combustion engines completely. But it’s distancing itself from them.
Volvo Cars and its Chinese parent company Geely Holdings will merge their existing combustion engine operations into a standalone business. The move will “clear the way for Volvo Cars to focus on the development of its all-electric range of premium cars,” Samuelsson said.
“So we believe we will bring sustainability into our company, not as something to add on, because it’s good or something that is expected for us,” Samuelsson said. “We bring it into the company because we think it’s really good for our business. It will make our company grow faster, it will make our company stronger, exactly as safety made Volvo stronger.”
Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company under Alphabet, has started creating 3D maps in some heavily trafficked sections of Los Angeles to better understand congestion there and determine if its self-driving vehicles would be a good fit in the city.
For now, Waymo is bringing just three of its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to Los Angeles to map downtown and a section of Wilshire Boulevard known as Miracle Mile.
Waymo employees will initially drive the vehicles to create 3D maps of the city. These maps are unlike Google Maps or Waze. Instead, they include topographical features such as lane merges, shared turn lanes and curb heights, as well as road types and the distance and dimensions of the road itself, according to Waymo. That data is combined with traffic control information like signs, the lengths of crosswalks and the locations of traffic lights.
Starting this week, Angelenos might catch a glimpse of Waymo’s cars on the streets of LA! Our cars will be in town exploring how Waymo's tech might fit into LA’s dynamic transportation environment and complement the City’s innovative approach to transportation. pic.twitter.com/REHfxrxqdL
— Waymo (@Waymo) October 7, 2019
Waymo does have a permit to test autonomous vehicles in California and could theoretically deploy its fleet in Los Angeles. But for now, the company is in mapping and assessment mode. Waymo’s foray into Los Angeles is designed to give the company insight into driving conditions there and how its AV technology might someday be used.
The company said it doesn’t plan to launch a rider program like its Waymo One currently operating in the suburbs of Phoenix. Waymo One allows individuals to hail a ride in one of the self-driving cars, which have a human safety driver behind the wheel.
The self-driving car company began testing its autonomous vehicles in and around Mountain View, Calif., before branching out to other cities — and climates — including Novi, Mich., Kirkland, Wash., San Francisco and, more recently, in Florida. But the bulk of the company’s activities have been in the suburbs of Phoenix and around Mountain View — two places with lots of sun, and even blowing dust, in the case of Phoenix.
Once you get up high enough, you don’t have to worry about a lot of the obstacles like pedestrians and traffic jams that plague autonomous cars. That’s why Sebastian Thrun, Google’s self-driving team founder turned CEO of flying vehicle startup Kitty Hawk, said on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF today that we should expect true autonomy to succeed in the air before the road.
“I believe we’re going to be done with self-flying vehicles before we’re done with self-driving cars” Thrun told TechCrunch reporter Kirsten Korosec.
Why? “If you go a bit higher in the air then all the difficulties with not hitting stuff like children and bicycles and cars and so on just vanishes . . . Go above the buildings, go above the trees, like go where the helicopters are!” Thrun explained, but noted personal helicopters are so noisy they’re being banned in some places like Napa, California.
That proclamation has wide reaching implications for how cities are planned and real estate is bought. We may need more vertical takeoff helipads sooner than we needed autonomous car-only road lanes. More remote homes in the forest that have only a single winding road that reaches them like those in Big Sur, California might suddenly become more accessible and thereby appealing to the affluent since they could just take a self-flying car to the city or office.
The concept could also have wide-reaching implications for the startup industry. Obviously Thrun’s own company Kitty Hawk would benefit from not being too early to market. Kitty Hawk announced its Heaviside vehicle today that’s designed to be ultra quiet. If the prophecy comes true, Uber which is investing in vertical take-off vehicles could also be in a better position than Lyft and other ride-hailing player focused on cars.
To make sure its vehicles don’t get banned and potentially pave the way for more aerial autonomy, Kitty Hawk recently recruited former FAA Administrator Mike Huerta as an advisor.
Eventually, Thrun says that because cars have to navigate indirect streets but in the air “we can go in a straight line, we believe we will be roughly a third of the energy cost per mile is Tesla.” And with shared UberPool style flights, he sees the cost of energy getting down to just “$0.30 per mile”.
But in the meantime, Thrun is trying to get people, including me, to stop saying flying cars. “I personally don’t like the word ‘flying car’, but it’s very catchy. The technical term is called eVTOL. These are typically electrically propelled vehicles, they can take off and land vertically, eVTOLs, vertical takeoff landing, so that you don’t need an airport. And then they fly very much like a regular plane.” We’ll see if that mouthful catches on, and if the skies get more congested before the roads thin out.
The demand for orbital launches is increasing steadily, and the industry is nowhere near keeping up. Leo Aerospace thinks it can help with a launch technique that’s more efficient and requires far less infrastructure than an ordinary rocket: a hot air balloon. With a rocket attached to it, of course. It sounds wacky at first, but it could prove to be an economical and flexible way of getting to orbit.
Leo is originally out of Purdue, one of two such teams on stage this week at Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield. Co-founder and CEO Dane Rudy said they were looking into new and better ways to achieve orbit besides the traditional surface-based rocket approach.
Perhaps used to countering narrowed eyes and barely disguised incredulity at this point, he hastened to follow up.
“It actually worked really well for what it was designed for. The issue they ran into was that the U.S. shifted toward sending people to the Moon — so there just wasn’t a need for that technology in the Apollo program. But the rise in small satellites has created a huge demand tailored to these capabilities,” he said.
It turns out using a balloon has big benefits. A large amount of a rocket’s fuel and engineering is dedicated to pushing it from the ground, where the atmosphere is heaviest, to the thinner upper atmosphere, where drag and other issues are much less of a worry. By going the first few miles straight up in a balloon, much less rocket is needed to get into orbit, since you’re skipping one of the hardest parts.
The technique is more or less exactly what you’d imagine: A large balloon inflates and lifts the payload, a small rocket, to a designated altitude. Once there it aligns itself and… well, lifts off is perhaps the wrong term. But it ignites and exits the atmosphere at a planned trajectory and inserts the payload into orbit.
There are already air-launch systems out there that use planes rather than balloons, presenting their own challenges and advantages. Leo Aerospace’s main draws are flexibility and cost.
“Our system is fully mobile — it doesn’t require any ground infrastructure,” said Rudy. “The whole thing fits into a regular shipping container.”
That means it can take off wherever and, perhaps more importantly, whenever the client chooses.
Right now the launch industry is expanding like crazy, both because of an increase in total launches and the rise of “ride-sharing,” where dozens of payloads share the cost of a single rocket. The cost goes down, but there are serious inconveniences.
“They don’t have much choice in when they launch or what orbit they’re going to. There’s also the complexity of having to ride with a bunch of other payloads on board — you have to compromise on timing and so on,” Rudy said.
While ride-sharing means many payloads will get to space that might not have a few years ago, it also means they might wait for years while the rest of the seats fill up and get ready to roll. With Leo it’s practically Domino’s for orbit.
That’s all great in theory, but the fact is no one has made a balloon-based commercial launch system. When the Air Force did it, it was pretty crude: The rocket was carried in a vertical position and shot right through the balloon when it went up. That kind of rules out reusing the balloon, but Leo’s entire business is founded on reusability, since that brings costs down immensely.
“That was one of the big problems we had to solve — the expense of the balloon itself; helium is expensive, and the envelope [i.e. the balloon material] is expensive and fragile,” said Rudy. “How do we make that zero stage, as we call it, reusable?”
Amazingly, they determined that tough, ripstop nylon and hot air were actually the best solution. It’s remarkably close in principle to an ordinary recreational hot-air balloon, but with the slight difference that it has to fly up to 18 kilometers of altitude and carry a rocket with it.
“The difference is how do you control and command this sort of vehicle, integrate it into airspace, suspend the rocket beneath it and all that,” Rudy said. “All the stuff you have at Vandenberg Air Base for a launch — we have to make all that mobile.”
A bit like going from an ordinary car to a self-driving one, Leo’s balloon may be similar to the recreational type in its basic form, but the technical advances are in how it is controlled and tracked. They can adjust for wind, control the yaw and rotation, rise to a very precise altitude, and so on — naturally, all remotely and with partial autonomy.
The rocket doesn’t shoot through its balloon as before, but fires off at a mission-determined angle. 18 km closer to space, with far less air resistance to worry about, the three-stage rocket (two solid, then one non-cryo liquid) can be much smaller and have far less mass — requiring less than half the fuel to lift a given mass to orbit. To be specific, the system is specced to send 33 gross kilograms, 25 kg of payload, to a 550 kilometer orbit — or about twice that to 300 kilometers.
December saw the company performing reduced-scale tests at altitude, an important stepping stone to regulatory approval. The plan is to make their first full-scale suborbital launch next year with their first customer’s payload on board. Orbital launches are planned for 2022.
Leo has gotten through December’s tests on a quite barebones budget for a space startup of about $520,000, through TechStars and a grant from the National Science Foundation. That’s great for a foundation, Rudy said, but full-scale tests and an eventual transition to commercial operations will take more than six figures.
An Air Force Small Business Innovation Research grant has opened the door to other government sources, and there’s been interest from that quarter in the non-orbital potential of the system, for instance high-altitude testing, mobile communications infrastructure, and so on. So already there are multiple eggs in multiple baskets — an attractive quality for investors.
“We’ve done all the foundational work,” said Rudy. “Now it’s just about scaling up.”
Micromobility has taken off over the last couple of years. Between electric bike-share and scooter-share, these vehicles have made their way all over the world. Meanwhile, some of these companies, like Bird and Lime, have already hit unicorn status thanks to massive funding rounds.
Horace Dediu, the well-known industry analyst who coined the term micromobility as it relates to this emerging form of transportation, took some time to chat with TechCrunch ahead of Micromobility Europe, a one-day event focused on all-things micromobility.
We chatted about the origin of the word micromobility, where big tech companies like Apple, Google and Amazon fit into the space, opportunities for developers to build tools and services on top of these vehicles, the opportunity for franchising business models, the potential for micromobility to be bigger than autonomous, and much more.
Here’s a Q&A, which I lightly edited for length and clarity, I did with Dediu ahead of his micromobility conference.
Megan Rose Dickey: Hey, Horace. Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Horace Dediu: Hey, no problem. My pleasure.
Rose Dickey: I was hoping to chat with you a bit about micromobility because I know that you have the big conference coming up in Europe, so I figured this would be a good time to touch base with you. I know you’ve been credited with coining the term micromobility as it relates to likes of shared e-bikes and scooters.
So, to kick things off, can you define micromobility?
Dediu: Yes, sure. So, the idea came to me because I actually remembered microcomputing.
UPS announced today that it is the first to receive the official nod from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate a full “drone airline,” which will allow it to expand its current small drone delivery service pilots into a country-wide network.
In its announcement of the news, UPS said that it will start by building out its drone delivery solutions specific to hospital campuses nationwide in the U.S., and then to other industries outside of healthcare.
UPS racks up a number of firsts as a result of this milestone, thanks to how closely it has been working with the FAA throughout its development and testing process for drone deliveries. As soon as it was awarded the certification, it did a delivery for WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, N.C. using a Matternet drone, and it also became the first commercial operator to perform a drone delivery for an actual paying customer outside of line of sight thanks to an exemption it received from the government.
This certification, officially titled FAA’s “Part 135 Standard certification,” offers far-reaching and broad license to companies who attain it — much more freedom than any commercial drone operation has had previously in the U.S. Here’s a good summary of just how broad UPS can operate under its new designation:
The FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations. It is the highest level of certification, one that no other company has attained. UPS Flight Forward’s certificate permits the company to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. This enables UPS to scale its operations to meet customer demand. Part 135 Standard also permits the drone and cargo to exceed 55 pounds and fly at night, previous restrictions governing earlier UPS flights.
Obviously, it’s a huge win for UPS Flight Forward, which is the dedicated UPS subsidiary the company announced it had formed back in July to focus entirely on building out the company’s drone delivery business. But there’s still a lot left to do before you can expect UPS drones to be a regular fixture, or even at all visible in the lives of the average American.
The courier outlined its next steps from here, which include expanding service to new hospitals and medial facilities, building out ground-based detection and avoidance systems for its drone fleets, building a central operation control facility and partnering with new drone makers to create different kinds of delivery drones for different payloads.
GoPro’s successor to the Hero 7 is likely coming on October 1, as the action camera maker has posted a teaser with the date to its official website. The tagline “This is Action” appears over a fast cut mash-up of variety of shots, including off-road racing, underwater diving and what looks like close-up footage of Frank Zapata (or someone else with a jetpack) flying around, along with the date.
The mostly shadowed image above is the closest we get to an official product shot, but we’ve seen leaks sourced from photo-focused rumor site Photo Rumors that suggest a redesign with added expandability options for advanced accessories including front-facing display monitors and external flash. These leaks also include some potential specs, like a new GP2 chip to help with on-board image stabilization, better lenses and image quality, and a new 12MP sensor, in addition to the new optional housing and accessories.
GoPro’s Hero 7 introduced HyperSmooth stabilization, which provides gimbal-like results without the actual gimbal thanks to advanced digital stabilization technology that GoPro developed in-house. But the company also saw the introduction of its strongest-yet competitor in the market this year with the DJI Osmo Action, a GoPro-like action camera from drone and gimbal-maker DJI, which is at least on par with the Hero 7 in terms of stabilization and quality, with added features aimed at the vlogging market like a built-in front-facing display.
The slogan “This is Action.” could actually be interpreted as a dig against its newest rival, since Action is capitalized and the DJI camera is literally named the “Osmo Action.” Hopefully GoPro does indeed get a little spicy about its competitor, since it’s a market that could definitely stand to benefit from some genuine competition in the higher end of the category.
Amazon will be stepping up its efforts to reduce its climate impact, CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday. The company will be ordering 100,000 electric delivery trucks from Michigan’s Rivian as part of this commitment, Bezos said. The commerce giant will seek to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040 – 10 years earlier than is outlined by the United Nations Paris Agreement.
Bezos said at a National Press Club event in Washington where he made the announcement that the updated timeline is due to the increase in climate change, which has been more aggressive than even some of the more serious predictions had anticipated five years ago whine the Paris agreement was reached.
Amazon’s overarching efforts to make the company carbon neutral are bundled under a plan the company is calling the “Climate Pledge,” which will be open to other companies as well. In addition to efforts like the Rivian order for emission-free delivery vehicles, Amazon will also be seeking to reduce its footprint through other means, including solar energy and carbon offsets.
Rivian noted that this was the largest order to date of any electric delivery vehicles, and that they’d begin actually deploying for Amazon starting in 2021. Amazon led a $700 million investment round in Rivian in February, and the company announced a further $350 million from auto industry giant Cox automotive earlier this month.
Khosla Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures also participated in the round. The company, which operates a ride-hailing service in retirement communities using self-driving cars supported by human safety drivers, has raised a total of $52 million since launching in 2017. The new funding includes a $3 million convertible note.
Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron has big plans for the fresh injection of capital, including hiring and expanding its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which always have a human safety driver behind the wheel.
Ultimately, the expanded G2 fleet and staff are just the means toward Cameron’s grander mission to turn Voyage into a truly driverless and profitable ride-hailing company.
“It’s not just about solving self-driving technology,” Cameron told TechCrunch in a recent interview, explaining that a cost-effective vehicle designed to be driverless is the essential piece required to make this a profitable business.
The company is in the midst of a hiring campaign that Cameron hopes will take its 55-person staff to more than 150 over the next year. Voyage has had some success attracting high-profile people to fill executive-level positions, including CTO Drew Gray, who previously worked at Uber ATG, Otto, Cruise and Tesla, as well as former NIO and Tesla employee Davide Bacchet as director of autonomy.
Funds will also be used to increase its fleet of second-generation self-driving cars (called G2) that are currently being used in a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, Calif., as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida. Voyage’s G2 fleet has 12 vehicles. Cameron didn’t provide details on how many vehicles it will add to its G2 fleet, only describing it as a “nice jump that will allow us to serve consumers.”
Voyage used the G2 vehicles to create a template of sorts for its eventual driverless vehicle. This driverless product — a term Cameron has used in a previous post on Medium — will initially be limited to 25 miles per hour, which is the driving speed within the two retirement communities in which Voyage currently tests and operates. The vehicle might operate at a low speed, but they are capable of handling complex traffic interactions, he wrote.
“It won’t be the most cost-effective vehicle ever made because the industry still is in its infancy, but it will be a huge, huge, huge improvement over our G2 vehicle in terms of being be able to scale out a commercial service and make money on each ride,” Cameron said.
Voyage initially used modified Ford Fusion vehicles to test its autonomous vehicle technology, then introduced in July 2018 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, its second generation of autonomous vehicles. But the end goal has always been a driverless product.
TechCrunch previously reported that the company has partnered with an automaker to provide this next-generation vehicle that has been designed specifically for autonomous driving. Cameron wouldn’t name the automaker. The vehicle will be electric and it won’t be a retrofit like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vehicles Voyage currently uses or its first-generation vehicle, a Ford Fusion.
Most importantly, and a detail Cameron did share with TechCrunch, is that the vehicle it uses for its driverless service will have redundancies and safety-critical applications built into it.
Voyage also has deals in place with Enterprise rental cars and Intact insurance company to help it scale.
“You can imagine leasing is much more optimal than purchasing and owning vehicles on your balance sheet,” Cameron said. “We have those deals in place that will allow us to not only get the vehicle costs down, but other aspects of the vehicle into the right place as well.”
Concept vehicles are a staple of the auto show circuit. And while most will never end up as a production vehicle, they can provide insight into an automaker and clues to where it’s headed.
Over at Audi, designers and engineers might have had a distant planet in mind. Or at least an expanse of wilderness.
The German automaker unveiled Tuesday at the Frankfurt Motor Show the Audi AI: TRAIL quattro, a concept electric vehicle designed for the “future of off roading.” The “Trail” off roader is one of four concept vehicles that Audi has presented at various auto shows since 2017. Other concepts included a sports car, luxury vehicle and one designed for megacities.
Audi argues that these concepts aren’t efforts of futility. Instead, the company says it these four vehicles show how Audi vehicles in the future will be designed for specific use cases.
“In the future, customers will be able to order any of these specialist Audi models from an Audi on-demand vehicle pool to suit their personal preferences and requirements and to lease them for a limited period,” the company said in its announcement.
Audi takes this idea of the on-demand subscription further by noting that vehicles will be configured to suit individual preferences of customers who use this still non-existent and totally conceptual on-demand product. All the essential customer information would be stored in the myAudi system and accompanying app, the company said.
In the video below, Audi’s head of design Marc Lichte explains the thinking behind these concepts.
In the case of the Audi AI: TRAIL, designers put an emphasis on exploration and seeing the surrounding environment. It even comes with five drones, which aside from replacing the headlights, can provide other tasks such as lighting up your camping area or picnic spot.
The all-electric concept, which has a range of up to 310 miles, is about 13.5 feet long and 7 feet wide and is outfitted with beefy 22-inch wheels. And because it’s a vehicle meant to off road, designers gave it ground clearance of 13.4 inches. This concept, if it really existed beyond the showroom floor, can ford through water more than half a meter deep. The range of the vehicle does drop on rough roads to about 155 miles, which would theoretically (if this vehicle actually existed) make wilderness travel more difficult.
The battery unit is integrated into the floor providing a spacious interior that sits four people. Glass surrounds the cabin to provide unrivaled views of the environment, whether it’s an earthly vista or the binary sunset over the fictional Tatooine desert.
The remaining exterior body is made of a mixture of high-tech steel, aluminum and carbon fiber, giving it a total weight of 3,858 pounds.
The concept vehicle is equipped with four electric motors, systems for assisted and automated driving and all-wheel drive. What you won’t find are any screens for streaming video. This concept was designed for viewing the outside world.
The interior, which uses recycled materials, is scant. There are pedals, a yoke for a steering wheel, a few buttons, and a smartphone attached to the steering column as a display and control center for vehicle functions and navigation.
The second row features seats that are designed to function like hammocks — and can be removed and used as mobile outdoor chairs.
Perhaps the most interesting feature is the inclusion of five rotorless electrically operated drones, which serve a variety of purposes. The drones, which have matrix LED lighting, can dock on the roof to get more power with the inductive charging elements.
Audi calls these drones Audi Light Pathfinders because of their ability to fly and illuminate the path ahead. These drones, Audi says replace headlights altogether. When the vehicle is parked, the drones can be used ti light up the surrounding area.
Occupants control the drones through their smartphones in this theoretical use case. The on-board cameras can generate a video image that can be transmitted to the display in front of the driver via Wi-Fi, turning the Pathfinders into “eyes in the sky,” Audi says.
Ford unveiled a range of hybrid vehicles Tuesday at the Frankfurt Motor Show as part of its plan to reach sales of 1 million electrified vehicles in Europe by the end of 2022.
Ford introduced hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the Mondeo wagon, Puma compact crossover, Kuga (shown below) and Explorer SUVs as well as the new Tourneo “people mover” at the show.
But more are coming. Ford said earlier this year it plans to bring eight electrified vehicles to market this year and another nine that will be produced by 2024. One of those, an all-electric Mustang-inspired SUV, will come to market in 2020. The electric SUV with Mustang styling has a targeted range of 600 km (more than 370 miles) calculated using the World Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), and fast-charging capability.
Ford expects that electrified vehicles will account for more than 50% of its car sales in Europe by 2022, surpassing combined sales of conventional petrol and diesel models.
Ford’s upcoming portfolio is part of its broader plan to make its Europe division leaner and more profitable. The company said in June it will cut 12,000 jobs and consolidate its manufacturing footprint to a proposed 18 facilities by the end of 2020. Most of the job cuts, 2,000 of which are salaried position, will occur through voluntary separation programs.
The automaker also announced Tuesday partnerships with six energy suppliers in Europe, including Centrica in the U.K. and Ireland, to install home charging wall boxes and provide green energy tariffs. A partnership with NewMotion aims to help drivers locate and pay for charging more easily at more than 118,000 charging points in 30 countries.
“With electrification fast becoming the mainstream, we are substantially increasing the number of electrified models and powertrain options for our customers to choose from to suit their needs,” Ford of Europe President Stuart Rowley said in a statement.
Electrified doesn’t mean every vehicle will be solely powered by electricity. The term means the vehicles can use hybrid, plug-in hybrid or battery-electric technology. The showcase Tuesday supports the automaker’s earlier commitment that every new Ford passenger vehicle will include an electrified option.
While some automakers have stuck to an all-electric strategy, Ford plans to produce a range of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution when it comes to electrification – every customer’s circumstances and travel needs are different,” said Joerg Beyer, executive director of engineering at Ford of Europe. “Our strategy is to pair the right electrified powertrain option to the right vehicle, helping our customers make their electrified vehicle experience easy and enjoyable.”
Ford isn’t doing this alone. The automaker announced in July a partnership with Volkswagen Group that covers collaboration on electric vehicles and development of autonomous technology via a $2.6 billion investment by VW into Argo AI.
Under the EV part of the tie-up, Ford will use VW’s MEB platform, the underlying architecture for its upcoming line of passenger electric vehicles, to develop at least one fully electric car for Europe. VW debuted Monday the ID.3, the first model with MEB platform.
Volta Charging, the San Francisco-based company that combines outdoor digital advertising with charging stations to give electric vehicle owners free power, has added another $20 million in a follow-on to its Series C round.
The company’s Series C round is now closed at $100 million. Schneider Electric Ventures, SK Innovation, Energize Ventures and a number of existing partners participated in the follow-on Series C round. Volta Charging also borrowed $44 million from Energy Impact Partners and CION.
Volta, which launched in 2010, partners with businesses and real estate owners to install EV chargers in high-traffic areas such as grocery stores, entertainment venues and shopping centers. Instead of charging EV owners, the power is provided for free. Volta makes money on the outdoor advertising that is a centerpiece of the charger design.
More than 45 million free electric miles have been given to EV drivers to date, the company said.
The company’s first charging stations popped up in Hawaii. Since then, Volta has expanded to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Silicon Valley in California as well as Chicago and its suburbs, Phoenix, and Dallas and Houston.
The funds will be used to expand the company’s network of free, advertiser sponsored charging stations. Volta is focused on adding more chargers to cities where it already has a presence as well as moving into new markets.
“As the electric vehicle industry continues to grow, Volta is well-positioned to build out an economically viable charging network needed to facilitate the shift from gas to electric,” Volta CEO and founder said Scott Mercer said in a statement. “We continue to rapidly scale our business to meet the growing demands of drivers, real estate partners and sponsors. This capital injection will accelerate our mission of mainstreaming electric vehicles.”
Volkswagen introduced Monday the ID.3, the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025.
The ID.3 debut, which is ahead of the IAA International Motor Show in Frankfurt, is an important milestone for Volkswagen. The company upended its entire business strategy in the wake of the diesel emissions cheating scandal that erupted in September 2015. Now, four years later, VW is starting to show more than just concept vehicles for its newly imagined electric, connected and carbon-neutral brand.
Information about the ID.3, which was unveiled alongside a new VW logo and brand design, has trickled out for months now. Monday’s reveal finally fills in some much-needed details on the interior, battery, infotainment and driver assistance systems.
The upshot: Everything about the ID.3, from its size and styling to its battery range and pricing, is aiming for the mass-market category.
The electric hatchback is similar in size to the VW Golf. But this is no VW Golf. The aim here, and one Volkswagen just might have achieved, was to signal the beginning of a new brand.
Numerous details in the special edition version of the ID.3, including a panorama tilting glass roof edged in black and interactive LED headlights that have “eyelids” that flutter when the driver approaches the parked vehicle, help drive the future-is-here point home.
The ID.3 will only be sold in Europe and have a starting price under €30,000 (about $33,000). North America’s first chance at an all-electric VW will be the ID Crozz, which is coming to the U.S. at the end of 2020.
The four-door, five-seater hatchback is as long as a Golf, but thanks to its shorter overhangs, its wheelbase is larger than that of any other vehicle in its category, according to the company. This gives the ID.3 a roomier interior.
The company is starting with the ID.3 1ST, a special edition version that will come with a 58 kWh-battery pack with a range of up to 420 kilometers, or about 260 miles, and come with three equipment variants. The ID.3 1ST will start under €40,000 ($44,200).
The ID.3 1ST will have fast-charging capability that will allow it (when using a DC fast charger) to add 180 miles to its battery in 30 minutes, a longer range than had previously been possible in the compact vehicle segment, VW said Monday.
Buyers of the special edition will be offered free charging for one year up to 2,000 kWh. This free-charging deal only applies to stations linked to WeCharge, which includes the Ionity network of more than 100,000 charging points throughout Europe.
Volkswagen, which owns a stake in the joint venture Ionity, aims by 2020 to install along main European routes 400 ultra-fast charging stations that use 100% renewable energy.
All 30,000 special edition ID.3 vehicles have been reserved. The first ID.3 vehicles will be delivered to customers in Germany in spring 2020.
The series production version of the ID.3 will have two additional battery options, including a 45 kWh-pack that has a range of 205 miles and a 77 kWh-pack that can travel 341 miles on a single charge, in accordance with WLTP. The WLTP, or Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure, is the European standard to measure energy consumption and emissions, and tends to be more generous than the U.S. EPA estimates.
The ID.3 will come with an advanced driver assistance system-supported multifunction camera mounted on the windshield. This camera will be able to identify road signs.
The ADAS will include an emergency braking system, pedestrian monitoring, multi-collision brake feature, lane-keeping and lane change systems, and a parking assist that uses a rearview camera. There also will be a keyless access system featuring illuminated door handles.
A park distance control feature is designed to prevent impending collisions or to reduce the severity of collisions by triggering an emergency braking maneuver at the latest possible point.
Inside the ID.3, customers will find a 10-inch touch display. A feature called ID. Light will display an LED strip during navigation that can signal drivers to take actions, such as prompting them to brake.
VW is also offering an optional augmented reality head-up display that will project relevant information directly onto the windshield. All controls are operated using touch functions featuring touch-sensitive buttons. Only the electric windows and hazard warning lights are still operated using tactile switches, the company said.
The ID.3 comes equipped with intelligent natural voice control. Drivers or front passengers can speak to the ID.3, simply by saying “hello ID.” Visually, ID. Light signals to whom the ID.3 is currently responding.
The ID.3 along with others that will join its eventual portfolio of more than 20 full-electric models are built on VW’s flexible MEB platform.
The MEB, which was introduced in 2016, is a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.
The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. (The MEB won’t be used by VW brands Audi or Porsche, which are developing their own platform for electric vehicles.)
UPS is introducing fifteen new vehicles to its fleet that offer extended driving range vs. traditional EVs, but that are also capable of operating in fully electric mode when required to do so, as in emission-free zones and dense city cores. The trucks, developed in partnership with commercial electric vehicle tech startup TEVVA, can switch between hybrid and fully electric modes for a total range of up to 400km (~250 miles), with the same cargo carrying capacity of same-sized diesel-powered trucks.
The trucks can operate at a much longer range than fully electric delivery trucks, which typically top out at around 60 miles of range and can also switch between modes to stay fair of local transportation bylaws. This is especially helpful where they’re rolling out in Birmingham and Southampton in the UK, since Birmingham will introduce a clean air zone to block non-electric commercial vehicles in its city center by sometime next year.
UPS has already made use of electric delivery vehicles, but the range of its existing trucks meant they couldn’t make the trip from central depots to in-city drop-off points in every case. Plus, this hybridized solution will also be able to carry a lot more packages than the fully electric trucks, which should lead to fewer cars on the road overall and less congestion, according to UPS.
The crucial difference between these trucks and standard hybrid vehicles is that they’re capable of fully autonomously switching between purely electric motors and their diesel hybrid powertrains – and can do so with geofencing whenever they cross into and out of a clean air or reduced emissions regulated zone.
UPS has taken delivery of 15 fo these vans already, and they’re serving customers in both Tamworth and Southampton in the UK. They’re just one part of UPS’ overall effort to decrease their emissions footprint and environmental impact.
From afar, Olli resembles many of the “future is now!” electric autonomous shuttles that have popped up in recent years.
The tall rectangular pod, with its wide-set headlights and expansive windows nestled between a rounded frame, gives the shuttle a friendly countenance that screams, ever so gently, “come along, take a ride.”
But Olli is different in almost every way, from how it’s produced to its origin story. And now, its maker, Local Motors, has given Olli an upgrade in hopes of accelerating the adoption of its autonomous shuttles.
Meet Olli 2.0, a 3D-printed connected electric autonomous shuttle that Rogers says will hasten its ubiquity.
“The future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed,” Local Motors co-founder and CEO John B. Rogers Jr. said in a recent interview. “That’s something I say a lot. Because people often ask me, ‘Hey, when will I see this vehicle? 2023? What do you think?’ My response: It’s here now, it’s just not everywhere.”
Whether individuals will adopt Rogers’ vision of the future is another matter. But he argues that Olli 1.0 has already been a persuasive ambassador.
Olli 1.0 made its debut in 2016 when it launched in National Harbor, Md., at a planned mixed-use development a few miles south of Washington, D.C. In the two years since, Olli has shown up at events such as LA Automobility, and been featured by various media outlets, including this one. Heck, even James Cordon rode in it.
Local Motors, which was founded in 2007, and its Olli 1.0 shuttle are familiar figures in the fledgling autonomous vehicle industry. But they’re often overshadowed by the likes of Argo AI, Cruise, Uber and Waymo — bigger companies that are all pursuing robotaxis designed for cities.
Olli, meanwhile, is designed for campuses, low-speed environments that include hospitals, military bases and universities.
“The public isn’t going to see New York City with autonomous vehicles running around all the time (any time soon),” Rogers said. Campuses, on the other hand, are a sweet spot for companies like Local Motors that want to deploy now. These are places where mobility is needed and people are able to get up close and personal with a “friendly robot” like Olli, Rogers said.
Olli and Olli 2.0 are clearly siblings. The low-speed vehicle has the same general shape, and a top speed of 25 miles per hour. And both have been crash tested by Local Motors and come with Level 4 autonomous capability, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.
Olli 2.0 has a lot more range — up to 100 miles on a single charge, according to its spec sheet. The manufacturing process has been improved, and Olli 2.0 is now 80% 3D-printed and has hub motors versus the axle wheel motors in its predecessor. In addition, there are two more seats in Olli 2.0 and new programmable lighting.
But where Olli 2.0 really stands out is in the improved user interface and more choices for customers looking to customize the shuttle to suit specific needs. As Rogers recently put it, “We can pretty much make anything they ask for with the right partners.”
The outside of Olli 2.0 is outfitted with a PA system and screens on the front and back to address pedestrians. The screen in the front can be shown as eyes, making Olli 2.0 more approachable and anthropomorphic.
Inside the shuttle, riders will find better speakers and microphones and touchscreens. Local Motors has an open API, which allows for an endless number of UI interfaces. For instance, LG is customizing media content for Olli based on the “5G future,” according to Rogers, who said he couldn’t provide more details just yet.
AR and VR can also be added, if a customer desires. The interior can be changed to suit different needs as well. For instance, a hospital might want fewer seats and more room to transport patients on beds. It’s this kind of customization that Rogers believes will give Local Motors an edge over autonomous shuttle competitors.
Even the way Olli 2.0 communicates has been improved.
Olli 1.0 used IBM Watson, the AI platform from IBM, for its natural language and speech to text functions. Olli 2.0 has more options. Natural language voice can use Amazon’s deep learning chatbot service Lex and IBM Watson. Customers can choose one or even combine them. Both can be altered to make the system addressable to “Olli.”
In the so-called race to deploy autonomous vehicles, Local Motors is a participant that is difficult to categorize or label largely due to how it makes its shuttles.
It’s not just that Local Motors’ two micro factories — at its Chandler, Ariz. headquarters and in Knoxville, Tenn. — are a diminutive 10,000 square feet. Or that these micro factories lack the tool and die and stamping equipment found in a traditional automaker’s factory. Or even that Olli is 3D-printed.
A striking and perhaps less obvious difference is how Olli and other creations from Local Motors, and its parent company Local Motors Industries, come to life. LMI has a co-creation and low-volume local production business model. The parent company’s Launch Forth unit manages a digital design community of tens of thousands of engineers and designers that co-creates products for customers. Some of those mobility creations go to Local Motors, which uses its low-volume 3D-printed micro factories to build Olli and Olli 2.0, as well as other products like the Rally Fighter.
This ability to tap into its community and its partnerships with research labs, combined with direct digital manufacturing and its micro factories, is what Rogers says allows it to go from design to mobile prototype in weeks, not months — or even years.
The company issues challenges to the community. The winner of a challenge gets a cash prize and is awarded royalties as the product is commercialized. In 2016, a Bogota, Colombia man named Edgar Sarmiento won the Local Motors challenge to design an urban public transportation system. His design eventually became Olli.
(Local Motors uses the challenges model to determine where Olli will be deployed, as well.)
New design challenges are constantly being launched to improve the UI and services of Olli, as well as other products. But even that doesn’t quite capture the scope of the co-creation. Local Motors partners with dozens of companies and research organizations. Its 3D-printing technology comes from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Olli itself involves a who’s who in the sensor, AV and supplier communities.
Startup Affectiva provides Olli’s cognition system, such as facial and mood tracking of its passengers and dynamic route optimization, while Velodyne, Delphi, Robotic Research and Axis Communications handle the perception stack of the self-driving shuttle, according to Local Motors. Nvidia and Sierra Wireless provide much of the Human Machine Interface. Other companies that supply the bits and pieces to Olli include Bosch, Goodyear, Protean and Eastman, to name just a few.
Today, Olli 1.0 is deployed on nine campuses, the most recent ones at the Joint Base Myer – Henderson Hall, a joint base of the U.S. military located around Arlington, Va., which is made up of Fort Myer, Fort McNair and Henderson Hall. Olli was also introduced recently in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento, Calif.
Production of Olli 2.0 began in July and deliveries will begin in the fourth quarter of this year. In the meantime, three more Olli shuttle deployments are coming up in the next six weeks or so, according to Local Motors, which didn’t provide further details.
Production of Olli 1.0 will phase out in the coming months as customer orders are completed. Olli will soon head to Europe, as well, with Local Motors planning to build its third micro factory in the region.
VW Group of America said Friday it has reached an agreement with thousands of U.S. customers over alleged inflated fuel economy information on about 98,000 gas-powered vehicles from its four brands, Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Volkswagen.
The agreement involves alleged misinformation about fuel economy on 98,000 vehicles, or about 3.5% of the model year 2013-2017 VW Group vehicles sold or leased in the United States. The fuel economy will be restated to reflect a discrepancy of one mile per gallon, when rounded according to the U.S.-specific “Monroney” label requirements, according to the EPA.
Most of the vehicles affected by the overstatement of fuel economy were from Audi, Bentley and Porsche, including the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 Audi A8L, RS7 and S8 vehicles. Other affected models include variants of the Porsche Cayenne such as the Cayenne S and Cayenne Turbo.
Volkswagen does not admit wrongdoing under the terms of the settlement.
Eligible customers will receive payments ranging from $5.40 to $24.30 for each month the vehicle is owned or leased. The total value of the settlement, which is subject to court approval, is $96.5 million, according to VW.
Volkswagen Group of America will also adjust its Greenhouse Gas credits to account for any excess credits associated with the fuel economy discrepancy.
Potential claimants will have to submit a claim to receive compensation. However, owners do not need to take any action at this time. Individual class members will receive information about their rights and options (including the option to “opt out” of the settlement agreement) if the court grants preliminary approval of the proposed agreement, according to VW.
The automotive industry has embraced — and advertised — self-driving cars as a kind of panacea that will solve numerous problems that modern society is grappling with right now, from congestion to safety to productivity (you can work while riding!).
Unfortunately, a very big question that has been almost entirely overlooked is: how long will these cars last?
The answer might surprise you. In an interview with The Telegraph in London, John Rich, who is the operations chief of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, revealed today that the “thing that worries me least in this world is decreasing demand for cars,” because “we will exhaust and crush a car every four years in this business.”
Four years! That’s not a very long lifespan, even compared with cars that undergo a lot of wear-and-tear, like New York City cabs, which were an average of 3.8 years old in 2017, meaning some were brand new and others had been in service for more than seven years.
It’s more surprising compared with the nearly 12 years that the average U.S. car owner hangs on to a vehicle. In fact, Americans are maintaining their cars longer in part because the technology used to make and operate them has advanced meaningfully. In 2002, according to the London-based research firm IHS Markit, the average age of a car in operation was 9.6 years.
So what’s the story with autonomous cars, into which many billions of investment capital is being poured? We first turned to Argo AI, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based startup that raised $1 billion investment in funding from Ford three years ago and refueled this summer with $2.6 billion in capital and assets from Volkswagen as part of a broader alliance between VW Group and Ford. Argo is developing cars for Ford that it’s testing right now in five cities.
Since Ford will be operating the cars, Argo pointed us back to Ford’s Rich, who, while on the run, answered some our questions via email.
Asked how many miles Ford anticipates that the cars will travel each year — we wondered if this number would be more or less than a taxi or full-time Uber driver might traverse — he declined to say, telling us instead that while Ford isn’t sharing miles targets, the “vehicles are being designed for maximum utilization.
“Today’s vehicles spend most of the day parked. To develop a profitable, viable business model for [autonomous vehicles], they need to be running almost the entire day.”
Indeed, Ford right now plans to use the cars in autonomous fleets that will be used as a service by other companies, including as delivery vehicles. Asked if Ford also plans to sell the cars to individuals, Rich suggests it’s not in the plans right not, saying merely that Ford sees the “initial commercialization of AVs to be fleet-centric.”
We also wondered if Rich’s prediction for the lifespan of full self-driving cars ties to his expectation that Ford’s autonomous vehicles will be powered by internal combustion engines. Most carmakers appear to be investing in new combustible engine architectures that promise greater fuel efficiency and fewer emissions but that still require more parts than electric cars. (The more parts that are being stressed, the higher the likelihood that something will break.)
Rich says the idea is to transition to battery-electric vehicles (BEV) eventually, but that Ford also needs to “find the right balance that will help develop a profitable, viable business model. This means launching with hybrids first.”
In his words, the challenges with BEVs as autonomous vehicles right now: includes a “lack of charging infrastructure where we need to operate an AV fleet. Charging stations and infrastructure needs to be built that will add to the already capital-intensive nature of developing the AV technology and operations.”
Another challenge is the “depletion of range from on-board tech. Testing shows that upwards of 50 percent of BEV range will be used up due to the computing power of an AV system, plus the A/C and entertainment systems that are likely required during a ride hailing service or passenger comfort.”
Ford also worries about utilization, writes Rich, “The whole key to running a profitable AV business is utilization – if cars are sitting on chargers, they aren’t making money.”
And it’s worried about battery degradation, given that while “fast charging is needed daily to run an AV fleet, it degrades the battery if used often,” he says.
Of course, the world would be far better off without any combustion engine exhaust emissions, full stop. On the brighter side, while Ford’s cars may not be long for this world, between 80 and 86 percent of a car’s material can be recycled and reused. According to a trade group called the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the U.S. recycles 150 million metric tons of scrap materials every year altogether.
Fully 85 million tons of that is iron and steel; the ISRI says the U.S. recycles another 5.5 million tons of aluminum, a lighter but more expensive alternative to steel that carmakers also use.