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Rivian’s Amazon electric delivery van still on track as factory reopens

By Kirsten Korosec

Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, Cox Automotive and Ford, has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction on the factory, which will eventually produce its R1T and R1S electric vehicles for consumers as well as 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon, has restarted with employees returning in phases. Despite the shutdown and gradual restart, the timeline for the Amazon delivery vans is still on track, according to a statement from Amazon released Thursday.

In September, Amazon announced it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian as part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge to become net zero carbon by 2040. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 of electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, Amazon said in a statement Thursday.

Rivian has pushed the start of production on the R1T and R1S to 2021. The company had initially planned to start production and begin deliveries of the electric pickup truck and SUV in late 2020. That timeline has been adjusted. Rivian had always planned to deliver the R1T truck first, followed by the R1S.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to adjust its timeline due to supply constraints. However, Rivian is now working on bringing the production and delivery timeline of the R1T and R1S closer together.

For now, the company is focused on work inside and outside the factory. About 335 Rivian employees were on site before COVID hit. Today, about 116 are on site with plans to gradually bring back the remaining employees. Rivian did not furlough any employees and continues to pay all workers their wages.

About 109 contractors are also back at the factory working on the interior. Another 120 to 140 contractors are working outside to expand the factory from 2.6 million to 3 million square feet.

The company has implemented new safety practices under a 4-phase plan, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. Temperature checks are carried out and workers are supplied with protective clothing and equipment.

The vehicle engineering and design teams have also developed digital methods to make sure that program timing remains on track, according to Scaringe.

6 leading mobility VCs discuss the road ahead

By Megan Rose Dickey

Millions of consumers sheltering in place to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus sent shockwaves through the global economy. Transportation-related companies were not spared in the upheaval. Mobility startups consolidated, pulled back from some markets and reduced headcount. And yet, the industry — and the VCs who invest in it — is still rolling forward.

Founders are huddled with their teams, picking over spreadsheets and go-to-market strategies in search of ways to accelerate as their runways grow ever shorter. And while the pace of investments might have slowed, venture capitalists are still seeking out innovative tech and overlooked ideas.

TechCrunch spoke with six investors about the state of mobility, which trends they’re most excited about and what they’re looking for in their next investments:

Ernestine Fu, Alsop Louie Partners

What trends are you most excited about in mobility hardware from an investing perspective?

In-car cybersecurity. Today’s vehicles are highly sophisticated smart devices, and cybersecurity is becoming an integral part of automakers’ development efforts. We’re already seeing infotainment connectivity systems and over-the-air software updates in cars being vulnerable to cyberattacks. Vehicles will serve as the nodes of vast information networks, especially as personal mobility, autonomous driving and car connectivity drive our future. In-car cybersecurity threats will remain an ongoing concern — and a rich investment opportunity.

Stonly Baptiste & Shaun Abrahamson, Urban Us

What trends are you most excited about in mobility hardware from an investing perspective?

The most interesting thing is the continued reduction in costs of electric drivetrains and autonomous stacks. These are going to have a profound impact on total costs of fleets – lower labor, fuel and maintenance costs.

Vaya Africa launches electric ride-hail taxi network

By Jake Bright

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, has launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa headquartered company has acquired a fleet of Nissan Leaf EVs and developed its own solar powered charging stations.

The program goes live in Zimbabwe this week, as Vaya finalizes partnerships to begin on-demand electric taxi and delivery services in markets that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia.

“Zimbabwe is a sandbox really. We’ve moved on to doing pilots with other countries right across Africa,” Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

Vaya is a subsidiary of Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Group, which includes one of Southern Africa’s largest mobile operators and Liquid Telecom, an internet infrastructure company.

Masiyiwa has become one of Africa’s Gates, Branson type figures, recognized globally as a business leader and philanthropist with connections and affiliations from President Obama to the Rockefeller Foundation.

Working with Zimuto on the Vaya EV product is Liquid Telecom’s innovation partnerships lead, Oswald Jumira.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors, and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital product models.

Ethiopia has local ride-hail ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber’s been active in several markets on the continent since 2015 and like competitor Bolt, got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EV’s for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around two-wheeled transit.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the Government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand.

Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto, Image Credits: Econet Group

The appeal of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets — beyond environmental benefits — is the unit economics, given the cost of fuel compared to personal income is generally high for most of the continent’s drivers.

“Africa is excited, because we are riding on the green revolution: no emissions, no noise and big savings… in terms of running costs of their vehicles,” Zimuto said.

She estimates a cost savings of 40% on the fuel and maintenance costs for drivers on the ride-hail platform.

At the moment, with fuel prices in Vaya’s first market of Zimbabwe at around $1.20 a liter, the average trip distance is 22 kilometres for a price of $19, according to Econet Group’s Oswald Jumira.

With the Nissan Leaf vehicles on Vaya’s charging network, the cost to top up will be around $5 for a range of 150 to 200 kilometres.

Image Credits: Vaya Africa

“It’s the driver who benefits. They take more money home. And that also means we can reduce the tariff for ride hailing companies to make it more affordable for people,” Jumira told TechCrunch .

The company has adapted its business to the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Vaya provides PPE to its drivers and sanitizes its cars four to five times a day, according to Zimuto.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from delivery to motorcycle and Tuk Tuk taxis.

On the question of competing with Uber in Africa, Vaya points to the reduced fares offered by its EV program as one advantage.

The CEO of Vaya Mobility, Dorothy Zimuto, also points to certain benefits of knowing local culture and preferences.

“We speak African. That’s the language we understand. We understand the people and what they want across our markets. That’s what makes the difference.” she said.

It will be something to watch if Vaya’s EV bet and local consumer knowledge translates into more passenger flow and revenue generation as it goes head to head with other ride-hail companies, such as Uber, across Africa.

The Station: Hertz files for bankruptcy, hailing “self-driving” scooters, Memorial Day travel

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 Saturday in your inbox.

Hi and welcome back to The Station. Memorial Day is this coming Monday, a holiday meant to honor military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Over the years, it has evolved for many Americans who use the three-day weekend to fire up the grill, go camping, head to the beach, local amusement park or take a road trip. It’s become the unofficial kickoff to the summer season — even though we still have more than three weeks of spring.

Every year around this time, AAA provides an estimate for travel over the weekend. For the first time in 20 years, AAA said it would not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19.

The travel forecast often reflects the state of the economy or at least certain aspects of it. For instance, Memorial Day 2009 holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers. Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend, the second-highest travel volume on record since 2000, when the organization began tracking this data.

I will put my prognosticator hat on for a moment knowing I might very well be wrong (I’m sure ya’ll will remind me later). I expect this weekend to be a low travel holiday, but I fully anticipate this summer will mark the return of the road trip. And that’s not just my forecast for the U.S. I expect Europeans will stick closer to home and opt for road and possibly train travel over long haul flights for their summer holidays. That has all kinds of implications, positive and negative. And it’s why I’m going to spend some time in the coming weeks driving a variety of new SUV models in search of road trip worthy vehicles.

This past week I drove the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL (premium trim), a more smaller and approachable version of the massive three-row Atlas. I will share a few thoughts about it next week. After that, I will be driving the 2020 Land Cruiser standard trim. Have a vehicle suggestion? Reach out and I’ll try to put it in my queue.

Reach out and 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.

Shall we get down to it? Vamos.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Micromobility had some good action this week so let’s dive on in. Here in San Francisco, Bird’s Scoot redeployed 300 electric kick scooters. By Memorial Day weekend, Scoot will have 500 electric scooters available. Additionally, Scoot expanded its scooter service area to serve more parts of San Francisco.

Over in Atlanta, GoX and Tortoise teamed up to deploy teleoperated electric scooters. In Peachtree Corners, GoX riders can hail a scooter equipped with tech from Tortoise. As Keaks, aka Kirsten Korosec, explained earlier this week, riders can request a scooter to come to them and once they’re done, the scooter will drive itself back to a parking spot.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Tier brought integrated helmets to its electric scooters. The foldable helmets fit inside a box attached to the scooter below the handlebars. This month, Tier plans to deploy 200 scooters equipped with helmets in Paris and Berlin. Over the summer, Tier will deploy an additional 5,000 helmet-equipped scooters. Additionally, given concerns about COVID-19, Tier is experimenting with an antibacterial, self-disinfecting handlebar technology from Protexus. Tier is testing these handlebars in Paris and Bordeaux.

Also, don’t miss my analysis of why micromobility may come back stronger after the pandemic.

Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Vroom, the online used car marketplace that has raised some $700 million since 2013, filed for an IPO this week. (Yes, IPOs qualify as deals in my book). It plans to trade on the Nasdaq under VRM with Goldman Sachs as lead underwriter.

Vroom is an interesting company that I’ve been writing about for years now. And there have been times that I wondered if it would fold altogether. The company managed to keep raising funds though, most recently $254 million in December 2019 in a Series H round that valued the company at around $1.5 billion.

A look at the S-1 shows modest growth, rising losses and slim gross margins. Eck!

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Vroom’s revenue grew 39.3% in 2019 compared to 2018. During that same period, its gross margin fell from 7.1% to 4.9%. The company’s net losses as a percent of revenue rose from 10% in 2018 to 12% in 2019. (That doesn’t include costs relating to “accretion of redeemable convertible preferred stock.” By counting the non-cash cost, add $13 million to Vroom’s 2018 net loss and $132.8 million to its 2019 figure.)
  • In the first quarter of 2020, Vroom generated revenue of $375.8 million, leading to gross profit of $18.4 million, or about 4.9% of revenue. It also reported a net loss of $41.1 million in the first quarter, putting it on a run-rate to lose even more money in 2020 than it did in 2019.

TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm takes a look under Vroom’s hood and digs into why the company is heading to the public markets during this volatile time. Check it out.

Other deals:

Missfresh, a Chinese grocery delivery company backed by Tencent, is closing in on $500 million in new funding.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals. The Series A funding round was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures.

Fly Now Pay Later, a London-based fintech startup focused on travel, raised £5 million in Series A equity funding and another £30 million in debt funding.

French startup Angell has signed a wide-ranging partnership with SEB, the French industrial company behind All-Clad, Krups, Moulinex, Rowenta, Tefal and others. As part of the deal, SEB will manufacture Angell’s electric bikes in a factory near Dijon, France. SEB’s investment arm, SEB Alliance, is also investing in Angell. The terms of the deal are undisclosed, but Angell says it plans to raise between $7.6 and $21.7 million with a group of investors that include SEB.

Layoffs, business disruptions and people

Signage is displayed at the Hertz Global Holdings Inc. rental counter at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Hertz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, a move we’ve been anticipating for awhile now. The bankruptcy protection stems from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s why.

Once business trips and other travel was halted, Hertz was suddenly sitting on an unused asset — lots and lots of cars. It wasn’t just that the revenue spigot was turned off. Used car prices have dropped, further devaluing its fleet.

The company said that it has more than $1 billion in cash on hand, which it will use to keep the business operating through the bankruptcy process. Hertz also said its principal international operating regions, including Europe, Australia and New Zealand are not included in the U.S. Chapter 11 proceedings, nor are franchised locations.

Other layoffs:

Indian ride-hailing firm Ola has seen revenue drop by 95% in the last two months as India enforced a stay-at-home order for its 1.3 billion citizens in late March. You can guess what has happened as a result. Ola co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal said in an internal email the company is cutting 1,400 jobs in India, or 35% of its workforce in the home market.

India’s top food delivery startup Swiggy is cutting 1,100 jobs and scaling down some adjacent businesses as it looks to reduce costs to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s something on the “new” job front

There’s been a lot of attention on autonomous delivery robots. These companies will most certainly struggle to become profitable. On-demand delivery is a tricky business. But COVID-19 might have inadvertently expanded the labor pool for these companies.

On-demand delivery startup Postmates has seen an increase in demand for its autonomous delivery robots known as Serve, which operate in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company uses teleoperators, humans who remotely monitor and guide the autonomous robots. COVID-19 prompted Postmates to set up teleoperations centers within each employee’s home. Postmates sees potential to reach a new group of workers.

Tortoise, which we mentioned earlier in Micromobbin’, sees the same potential, according to its founder and CEO Dmitry Shevelenko.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear (and see) things. But we’re not selfish. We share!

For those not familiar with “a little bird,” this is a periodic section that shares insider tips that have been vetted. This week comes out of the super-hyped world of on-demand delivery. It’s a business that might be seeing a lot of demand. But demand doesn’t always square with profitability.

Take Postmates for example. The company has raised about $900 million to date, including a $225 million round announced in October that valued the company at about $2.5 billion. But now it seems that common shares are trading at a 45% discount on the secondary market, according to our sources.

Early investors do take money off the table from time to time. But it can also indicate other troubles worth watching out for. Postmates filed confidential IPO paperwork in February 2019, but those plans have been delayed. The company is also fighting for market share against giants like Doordash. A Uber-Grubhub merger would put it even with DoorDash.

That leaves Postmates in a distant fourth. Dan Primack over at Axios noted “multiple sources” have told him the company is seeking raise around $100 million in new private-market funding.

Other notable bits

Here are a few other items that caught my eye …

Amazon is joining India’s online food delivery market just as top local players Swiggy and Zomato reduce their workforce to steer through the coronavirus pandemic and months after Uber Eats’ exit from the nation.

GM has a “big team” working on an advanced version of its hands-free driving assistance system, Super Cruise, that will expand its capability beyond highways and apply it to city streets, the automaker’s vice president of global product development Doug Parks said during a webcasted interview at Citi’s 2020 Car of the Future Symposium.

Cake, the Stockholm-based mobility startup, debuted the Kalk OR, a 150-pound, battery-powered two-wheeler engineered for agile off-road riding and available in a street-legal version.

Nauto has launched a new feature in its driver behavior learning platform that is designed to detect imminent collisions to help reduce rear-end accidents. It works by taking in driver behavior data, vehicle movement, traffic elements, and contextual data to help predict and prevent collisions.

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event in August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday. The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company is raising the price of its “Full Self-Driving” package of its Autopilot driver assistance package by around $1,000 on July 1. This has happened before and it will, I promise happen again. The Verge has a good breakdown of why. I, of course, care about the financial reasons. Right now, Tesla can only count about half of the revenue it generates from FSD. The other half is deferred revenue — money that Tesla can recognize on its balance sheet at a later date.

Wunder Mobility, the Hamburg-based startup that provides a range of mobility services, from carpooling to electric scooter rentals, announced the launch of Wunder Vehicles and a business-to-business partnership with Chinese EV manufacturer Yadea. Wunder Vehicles is a service that gives customers a toolkit of sorts to launch a fleet-sharing company. The company provides software, a marketing plan, data, financing options and the electric vehicles, which will come from Yadea.

Rad Power Bikes unveiled the newest iteration of its electric cargo bike. The RadWagon 4 has been fully redesigned from the ground up. Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan recently described this on Twitter as the possible F-150 of micromobility. We hope to test it soon.

Image Credits: Rad Power Bikes

New York Auto Show canceled for 2020, pushed to spring 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event to August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday.

The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

The New York Auto Show, which is organized by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, was scheduled to begin April 10 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. The event was rescheduled for late August after COVID-19 swept into Europe and North America.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the traditional location for the show, was set up as a field hospital for COVID-19 cases. The center doesn’t have any patients. However, it is still set up as an active hospital and is in standby mode for the foreseeable future, according to organizers.

Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, noted that “immense planning” is needed for automakers and their exhibit partners to construct a show.

“Because of the uncertainty caused by the virus, we feel it would not be prudent to continue with the 2020 Show and instead are preparing for an even greater 2021,” Schienberg said.

“As representatives of automobile retailers, we know when this crisis passes there will be enormous pent-up demand for new vehicles in this region and across the country,” he added. “We also know how important the Show is for consumers navigating the process.”

Polestar to open first US stores in the second half of 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar’s first U.S. retail stores will open in Los Angeles, New York City and two locations in San Francisco later this year — the latest milestone for the automaker as it gets closer to bringing its all-electric vehicle to market.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. The 2021 Polestar 2 is the first EV to come out of Polestar since it was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017.

The company has had plans to open physical retail showrooms called “Polestar Spaces.” Those plans have been delayed by stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stores are expected to open in the second half of 2020.

Polestars plans to expand its retail footprint in the first half of 2021 with locations in Boston, Denver, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Florida. More than 80% of Polestar 2 reservation holders reside within a 150-mile range of the stores scheduled to open by mid 2021, according to Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA.

Unlike the traditional dealership model, Polestar will sell or lease its cars online to customers in all 50 states. The physical stores, which will be in partnership with retailers such as Manhattan Motorcars, Galpin Motors and Price-Simms Automotive Group, are meant to supplement its digital strategy.

Tesla vehicles recognize and respond to traffic lights, stop signs with latest software update

By Kirsten Korosec

Properly equipped Tesla vehicles can now recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs thanks to a software update the company started pushing out to owners over the weekend.

The software update had been available to a sliver of Tesla owners, some of whom had posted videos of the new capability. Now, the automaker is pushing the software update (2020.12.6) to the broader fleet.

The feature isn’t available in every Tesla vehicle on the road today. The vehicles must be equipped with the most recent Hardware 3 package and the fully optioned Autopilot package that the company has marketed as “full self-driving.”

The feature, called Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control, is designed to allow the vehicles to recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs.

To be clear, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving and this feature has its limits. The feature slows properly equipped Tesla vehicles to a stop when using “traffic-aware cruise control” or “Autosteer.” The vehicle will slow for all detected traffic lights, including green, blinking yellow and off lights, according to the software release notes.

As the vehicle approaches an intersection, a notification will indicate the intention to slow down. The vehicle will then begin to slow down and stop at the red line shown on the driving visualization, which is on the center display.

DragTimes tested and shared a video of a beta version of the feature (posted below).

Owners must pull the Autopilot stalk once or manually press the accelerator pedal to continue through the stop line. Tesla said the feature is designed to be conservative at first. Owners will notice that it will slow down often and will not attempt to turn through intersections. “Over time, as we learn from the fleet, the feature will control more naturally,” the company wrote in the release notes.

Tesla warns in the release notes that “as with all Autopilot features, you must continue to pay attention and be ready to take immediate action, including braking because this feature may not stop for all traffic controls.”

The software update also improved driving visualization, which is displayed in the vehicle. Additional objects such as stop lights, stop signs and select road markings now appear on the screen. The stop sign and stop light visualizations are not a substitute for an attentive driver and will not stop the car, Tesla said in the release notes.

An LA-led, public-private partnership pitches a $150B green infrastructure package to Congress

By Jonathan Shieber

Representatives from the government and the utility managing the power of Los Angeles are proposing a sweeping infrastructure package worth roughly $150 billion centered on the broad electrification of transportation and industry.

Drafted by the Los Angeles-based public-private Transportation Electrification Partnership, a collaboration between the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, the proposal lays out a number of initiatives based on work that’s already being done in Los Angeles to electrify the city’s infrastructure.

As the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, boasting an over $1 trillion economy, decisions made in the city can have broad economic and social implications that ripple far beyond the Southern California region. Alongside New York, Los Angeles has set some of the nation’s most aggressive targets for the rollout of renewable and sustainable industries.

The proposal sets out four big initiatives, including zero-emissions vehicle manufacturing, assembly and adoption; zero-emissions infrastructure investments; commitments to public transit investments; workforce development; and job training. There’s also a relatively modest request (of only $4 billion) for funding devoted to pilot projects, startup companies, and public clean technology investment initiatives (like LACI).

The initiative reserves the largest cash pile for the development of electric charging infrastructure around the country, according to the proposal seen by TechCrunch and sent to House and Senate leadership including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Image Credits: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Of the $85 billion set aside for the deployment of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, the TEP proposal reserves roughly one-fourth for upgrades to the electricity grid. The funding would include $20 billion for utility upgrades. Of that, $10 billion will go toward solar and energy storage projects designed to make grids more resistant to climate-related catastrophes like extreme weather events, wildfires and other disasters. The remaining $10 billion would support commercial and residential vehicle charging, solar energy development and energy storage projects.

Another $15 billion is dedicated to medium- and heavy-duty vehicle charging that would be administered by state governments, transit agencies or regional agencies. New developments could be added to truck yards, truck stops and plazas, as well as strategic locations, such as ports and airports.

Funding of the scale proposed here could enable a transformation not only in the LA metropolitan area, but across the country, as well as provide opportunities where possible for local hire through community benefit agreements, which are an effective mechanism to ensure charging infrastructure projects include workers living local to a project, as well as other targeted hiring policies, such as US Veteran hiring, are achieved,” writes LACI chief executive, Matt Peterson.  

Light-duty charging infrastructure occupies another $10 billion of the suggested stimulus measures. The goal, is to get local, shovel-ready projects the financing they’d need to start the process of hiring workers immediately. One project that’s already being rolled out in Los Angeles is the development of curbside charging infrastructure on streetlight poles to serve drivers who don’t have access to charging infrastructure at home.

Finally under the infrastructure bucket, the proposal recommends that Congress set aside $11 billion for transit and school bus charging to be administered via states, transit agencies and school districts;  $5 billion for state and local government fleets; and $4 billion to support the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The LIHEAP money is critical for the over 12 million Americans who have recently lost their job, the consortium argues and could also help finance the Department of Energy’s Weatherization program.

Popular programs like Opportunity Zones, New Market Tax Credits and Community Development Finance Institutions could be used to boost the government’s commitment with private capital, the plan’s authors argue.

Non-Electric vehicles fill a parking lot in Rosemead, California, where two Electric Vehicle charging stations are offered on September 12, 2018.

All of that charging infrastructure and grid upgrades are in part designed to help meet the increased power demands that the proposal expects to bring onto the grid through another $25 billion in government funding for electric vehicles of all types. The funds could be allocated through existing programs including the extension of the electric vehicle tax credit for automakers and new programs that would allow consumers to trade in older model vehicles for newer, preferably electric, vehicles.

An additional way the government could juice the auto industry — and specifically electric vehicles — is by providing point of sale rebates for all vehicles that could be issued through car dealerships, according to the proposal. “This will also help dealerships increase sales and bring needed sales tax revenues to local and state governments,” Peterson writes.

There’s $25 billion in money set aside for public transit and $12.5 billion set aside for workforce retraining and education.

For startups, the programs that could have the most impact — aside from the broad infrastructure package that could mean additional demand for new technologies — is a far smaller and more targeted proposal for roughly $4 billion that would allocate money directly to small and medium sized businesses and local incubation and corporate development programs.

“Startups and small businesses are the engine of every local and regional economy,” writes Peterson. “Targeting resources to this sector is critical to help entrepreneurs continue America’s leadership in technology innovation, restart small businesses, and help put people back to work.”

TEP is proposing a $1 billion grant for early stage research and development of cleantech and zero-emission mobility innovations and $1 billion for shovel ready pilot projects deployed by startups and small businesses via local governments.

Still more money would include $500 million in emergency loans and grants for cleantech startups and small businesses that are involved in solar installations, energy storage, and electric vehicle technology development. Revenues for these companies have dropped precipitously as consumer-facing demand has fallen off a cliff.

There’s also a $500 million pot targeted for startups and small businesses founded by women and people of color and $500 million for nonprofit cleantech and innovation incubators.

Alongside LACI, there are a few of these nonprofit investment programs which have cropped up across the Midwest that could be a boon to budding entrepreneurs.

Finally, the proposal advocates for at least $500 million in funding to train unemployed or underemployed would-be laborers along with veterans and the formerly incarcerated.

Some of these initiatives have been tried in the past, and despite partisan complaints, proved effective. The Obama-era loan program established to boost clean energy companies generated revenues for the government despite the much-publicized flameout of the solar startup, Solyndra. Even Tesla benefited from the program, paying back a $460 million loan from the program a decade ahead of schedule.

With increasing volatility in oil prices, the move to an increasingly electric infrastructure makes sense because it offers more stability for energy buyers, including consumers and businesses.

Polestar’s first all-electric vehicle will start at $59,900 in the US

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar, the electric performance brand spun out of Volvo, said the base price of its first all-electric vehicle will be $59,900 in the United States, lower than originally targeted.

The 2021 Polestar 2, an electric performance fastback, is the first EV to come out of a brand that was relaunched three years ago. Polestar, once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars, was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017. The aim was to produce exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since.

The company believes the vehicle is well-positioned for a successful entry into the U.S. market thanks to its lower pricing, tax incentives and the ability for customers to buy it online, said Gregor Hembrough, who heads up Polestar USA. The U.S. prices are also below incentive thresholds in a few critical markets such as California and New York.

Polestar has been trickling out announcements around the upcoming Polestar 2 for months now, including pricing for Europe, which starts at €58,800. On Thursday, the company revealed a few more pricing details for the various options customers can buy, including a $5,000 performance pack, a $4,000 upgrade of Nappa leather interior and $1,200 for 20-inch alloy wheels.

The Polestar 2 will likely be held up as a possible competitor to the Tesla Model 3. The pricing on the two vehicles don’t quite match up unless the $7,500 federal tax incentive, for which Polestar still qualifies, is considered. Tesla no longer qualifies for the federal tax credit because it has sold more than 200,000 electric vehicles.

Stripping out the incentives, the base price of the Polestar 2 is slightly more expensive than the performance version of the Model 3, which starts at $56,990.

Until the automaker begins delivery to the U.S., which is expected this summer, it won’t be clear how it stacks up against the Model 3.

Polestar is aiming to attract customers with tech and the performance specs of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP. Polestar hasn’t released the EPA estimates for the Polestar 2.

The interior of the Polestar 2, which features Google’s Android Automotive operating system.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, plans to open physical retail showrooms called Polestar Spaces once stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted. The first of these locations will open on the West Coast of the United States and New
York in late summer 2020, the company said. The Polestar 2 will be available in all 50 states to buy or lease.

EV startup Byton furloughs half of its 450-person staff in the US

By Kirsten Korosec

China-based electric car startup Byton has furloughed about half of the 450 employees who work at its North American headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., putting the release date of the automaker’s upcoming M-Byte vehicle into question.

Byton told TechCrunch the furloughs were the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The intention is to bring these furloughed employees back, the company said without providing a timeline.

“Given the impact of the pandemic on the global economy and the auto industries we, like several companies, have had to take action to face the challenge,” a Byton spokesperson wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “The furloughs have affected all areas within Byton’s U.S. operations. Employees in China have not been furloughed.”

Electrek was the first to report the furloughs.

The furloughs come as the company is preparing to bring its M-Byte electric SUV into volume production later this year. The vehicle, perhaps best known for its massive 48-inch wraparound digital dashboard, will be produced at Byton’s factory in Nanjing, China. The M-Byte will be sold in China, the U.S. and Europe.

Byton previously said sales will begin in China in the second half of 2020, followed by the U.S. The vehicle will come to the first European markets in the first half of 2021. However, the COVID-19 pandemic — and the ensuing furloughs and cuts — could delay Byton’s timeline.

Byton told TechCrunch it is evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on production of the M-Byte. Byton’s China factory reopened in mid-February and is now nearly fully operational, according to the company. 

Byton has raised about $820 million from investors that include the company’s founding team, FAW Group, Nanjing Qiningfeng New Energy Industry Investment Fund and CATL.

The startup has been working to close a Series C round of fundraising for months now. The company told TechCrunch it is in the “final stage” of the round, which will include investors FAW Group and the industrial investment fund of Nanjing municipal government, Myoung Shin Co. of South Korea, MS Autotech and Japanese enterprise Marubeni Corporation .

The Station: Pony.ai turns to delivery, Kodiak cuts, Lime snaps up Boosted’s IP

By Kirsten Korosec

Hi and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

What you’re reading here is an abbreviated version of The Station. To get the complete newsletter, which comes out every weekend, go here and click The Station.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Let’s go.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

There wasn’t a ton of news in micromobility this week, but I came across an interesting read over at City Lab about whether or not cities should financially support micromobility services. Shared bikes and scooters provide transportation options to city-dwellers during a time when some cities are deciding to scale back public transportation operations in order to keep its employees and residents safe.

In Portland, City Lab pointed to how the city agreed to temporarily waive e-scooter fees as long as Spin passed those savings onto riders. Now, Spin rides cost about 50% less in Portland.

But, as the authors write, “While we believe that waiving e-scooter fees and offering public funding may be necessary, we harbor no illusions that it would be easy to do so in the current fiscal environment.”

— Megan Rose Dickey

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear things. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

Layoffs are nothing new in this COVID-19 world. More than 260 startups have laid off 25,010 workers, according Layoffs.fyi, a website that is attempting to track cuts in the startup ecosystem amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not all of these layoffs are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, the pandemic has merely augmented pre-existing problems. One such example is Kodiak Robotics, an autonomous trucking startup, that laid off 20% of its staff on Wednesday (about 15 of its 85-person staff). The Information was the first to report the layoffs and TechCrunch has since confirmed those numbers. The official line is that Kodiak reduced its headcount due to the dramatic impact COVID-19 has had on the economy. The move was couched as the best way to position Kodiak for the future.

We’ve learned from several people that the company was already facing considerable headwinds on the fundraising front.

Kodiak Robotics came out of stealth in August 2018 with $40 million in a Series A funding round led by Battery Ventures. CRV, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Tusk Ventures also participated in the round. The company likely attracted interest and investment because of its founders. CEO Don Burnette was part of the Google self-driving project before leaving and co-founding Otto in early 2016, along with Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron and Claire Delaunay. Uber then acquired Otto (and its co-founders). Burnette left Uber to launch Kodiak in April 2018 with Paz Eshel, a former venture capitalist and now the startup’s COO.

The pair scaled up quickly. The company, headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., went on a hiring spree in 2019 and opened a new facility in North Texas to support commercial deliveries using its fleet of eight trucks. Autonomous vehicle technology startups are already capitally intensive. But Kodiak was also trying to launch a carrier service — not just developing the self-driving truck stack.

Fundraising efforts started late last year and Kodiak was hoping to raise a $100 million round on a $300 million pre-money valuation, according to two sources. It was suggested that Kodiak already had a lead. However, the company has had trouble closing a Series B round with attractive terms, according to several sources who spoke to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity. When COVID-19 erupted it put more pressure on the startup.

Kodiak is hardly alone. Autonomous vehicle technology startups have had a more tepid reception from investors since spring 2019. It’s still possible to raise funds. But it’s harder now — particularly those seeking larger raises — and the terms are less desirable.

Another autonomous delivery pivot

the station autonomous vehicles1

Pony .ai is the latest autonomous vehicle startup to turn its efforts to delivery — at least temporarily. The company announced this week it will partner with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine, Calif.

The new delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said.

Pony.ai, which recently raised $400 million from Toyota Motor Corporation, has focused on shuttling people, not packages. The company has launched ride-sharing and commuter pilots in Fremont and Irvine, California and Guangzhou, China.

Pony.ai now said it will use its Irvine robotaxi fleet of 10 electric Hyundai Kona vehicles for delivery through at least mid-summer. It’s not clear how, or if, Pony.ai can generate revenue with this new delivery service. The company is in talks with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that issues AV testing permits, about this issue. The DMV doesn’t allow AV testing fleets to charge money by delivering goods or rides. However, a deployment permit, which Pony.ai has for its Irvine service, does allow for commercial use, just not a delivery fee.

Pronto.ai makes a move

the station semi truck

Pronto.ai, a startup co-founded by controversial star engineer Anthony Levandowski, is not pursuing Level 4 autonomous vehicle technology, Instead, the company is developing an advanced driver assistance system product for trucks called Copilot. Pronto AI was originally called Kache.ai, according to paperwork discovered at the time by TechCrunch, and was registered as a corporation with the California Secretary of State.

The startup has maintained a low profile since August 2019 when Levandowski was indicted by a federal grand jury on theft of trade secrets, forcing him to step down as CEO. Levandowski has since reached a plea deal. Now, it seems that the company is making some moves.

Pronto.ai recently applied for a five-year exemption from the federal government that would let drivers in trucks with Pronto’s CoPilot technology to stay on the road longer than current rules allow. The request to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which was first reported by Freight Waves, would let drivers to drive up to 13 hours within a 15-consecutive hour driving window after coming on duty, following 10 consecutive hours off duty.

Drivers are typically allowed to drive up to 11 hours in a 14-hour window, after being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours.

Lime swoops up Boosted IP

Boosted, startup behind the Boosted Boards and, more recently, the Boosted Rev electric scooter, would typically fall into micromobbin’. But it deserves it’s own segment this week.

Five weeks ago, Boosted laid off “a significant portion” of its team and began actively seeking a buyer. It seems that a sale never materialized and Lime swooped in and bought up Boosted’s core patents, according to a report from The Verge.  Lime was apparently working on acquiring Boosted’s intellectual property since the end of 2019. The shared scooter company snapped up the IP after a proposed acquisition from Yamaha fell through for Boosted.

Boosted cofounder and former CEO Sanjay Dastoor, who left the board 18 months ago, posted a message to the Boosted subreddit shortly after The Verge story published that suggests Lime’s acquisition was broader than originally thought.

Dastoor wrote that the company is closed and will likely enter into some form of bankruptcy protection. He also wrote that Lime had purchased all the assets and IP of the company and appears to be in possession of everything at Boosted’s headquarters in Mountain View, including access to the building. Here’s one important nugget:

“As far as I can tell, this includes design files, software and code, diagnostics, parts, and test equipment I’m not sure if this includes the responsibility for warranty coverage for boards and scooters sold before. I do know that a handful of former engineers at Boosted, most senior is Michael Hillman who joined as VP Engineering last year, are now at Lime and may be able to help. Regardless of how this is structured, if we want our products to continue being supported, including parts for boards or any software diagnostic tests and debugging, their cooperation and help will be needed.”

He added that some Boosted employees have been trying unsuccessfully to service and send boards back to customers for weeks.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that those boards should rightfully get back to their owners and should be safe to ride, and I’m trying to find a way to help with this,” Dastoor wrote. “In the meantime, I’d recommend folks who are looking to get in touch more urgently should reach out to Lime directly.”

Driverless vehicles in the age of the novel coronavirus

By Megan Rose Dickey

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to different outcomes for different businesses. While some have stood to benefit (think Zoom, Facebook and bidet startup Tushy), others have been hit hard and laid off employees in order to survive. But there are some that fall somewhere in the middle. Autonomous driving startup Voyage believes is not explicitly benefiting, but it’s not at risk of going under either, says CEO Oliver Cameron.

Cameron’s response to the pandemic centers around three areas: passenger operations, technology and company-building. While operations have halted, Voyage is moving forward with its technology and has shifted the company to a 100% remote work environment. With a post-pandemic world in mind, Cameron envisions more demand for autonomous vehicles.

Before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Voyage had already paused its consumer operations, which primarily serve seniors in retirement communities.

“We did that because, obviously, seniors are disproportionately impacted by this and it would be horrific for Voyage to be patient zero in the retirement community and this is something we were operating out of an abundance of caution,” says Cameron. “So we paused our operations from a consumer service perspective very early and we won’t open those up for quite some time. It’s tough to say at what particular point because it seems like the consensus is it will be a progressive opening up of the economy, meaning some populations will be fine to go back to work and there will be some that are significantly impacted, like seniors, that are effectively locked down for an extended period of time. So we’re not in a rush to get that back up and running until we hear from the community itself that it’s ok to do that.”

Despite the hiatus in operations, Voyage is still running simulations and using a variety of automated testing tools to determine if it is making progress. For example, Voyage uses automation to test for regressions in perception. A challenge in perception is false positives and false negatives — that is, seeing something that isn’t there or not seeing something that is there, Cameron explains.

“And we have this pretty cool tool that enables us to monitor with each perception release if we are seeing regressions based on perception performance in the past,” he says. “We don’t need to be there in the real world to see that. We can just tell instantaneously if that is the case.”

Voyage also has a way of testing different permutations of environments to see how its planning and prediction software can handle different scenarios. Then, of course, it uses more traditional simulation tools provided by Applied Intuition.

“But we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that simulation or automated testing makes up for all that real-world testing brought to the table,” Cameron says. “It doesn’t, and there’s definitely going to be some time that we have to spend once we do get back on the road, fixing issues that we just couldn’t find as a result of not being on the road.”

From a company and personnel standpoint, Voyage has also transitioned into a remote-working company. It hasn’t been a distraction, according to Cameron, since Voyage embraced remote work some time ago.

“We’re lucky that we are able to weather the storm,” Cameron says. “We’ve got a good chunk of cash in the bank and, luckily, we raised at a reasonable time — at the end of last year — so we’re going to be fine.”

Many companies in the tech ecosystem have been forced to lay off employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Voyage, however, will seemingly not be one of them. As Cameron noted, Voyage raised a $31 million round in September.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about great companies will weather this and the companies that were going to die anyway will die. I’m sure there is some truth to that but some of it is just luck. Some of it is that you raised at a time you didn’t know was important, but turned out to be quite important. And, you know, our burn has always been low compared to others in the space. For us, we’ve always been frugal and it turns out that’s quite important in a pandemic.”

Despite Voyage’s use of simulation, its automated testing and healthy bank account, the pandemic is still a major complication.

“I think it’s got to set everyone back,” Cameron says. “I think there is a spectrum and there are companies that stand to benefit from this. We’ve seen with Zoom they stand to benefit from this. Remote working tools, they stand to benefit from this. And then you go all the other way to the end of the spectrum — those that are actively impacted like airlines, ride-sharing, scooters and I believe we’re somewhere in the middle. The reason we’re in the middle is because in a post-virus world, I’m pretty sure behaviors change. It’s TBD on how long those behaviors last, but it’s clear that behaviors are going to change.”

In that world where behaviors change, Cameron bets that driverless cars will add more value than traditional ride-hailing services. In a world where people may still be hesitant to get into a car with strangers, a driverless car would mitigate those fears, he says.

“In the short term, everyone’s impacted,” he says. “There’s a slowdown in everything. in the medium and long term, we’ll be fine because I believe the demand is still there for driverless vehicles and even more so for those disproportionately impacted.”

Self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski files motion to force Uber into arbitration

By Kirsten Korosec

Anthony Levandowski, the star self-driving car engineer who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit, has filed a motion to compel Uber into arbitration in the hopes that his former employee will have to shoulder the cost of at least $179 million judgment against him.

The motion to compel arbitration filed this week is part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s the latest chapter in a long and winding legal saga that has entangled Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

The motion represents the first legal step to force Uber to stand by an indemnity agreement with Levandowski. Uber signed an indemnity agreement in 2016 when it acquired Levandowski’s self-driving truck startup Otto . Under the agreement, Uber said it would indemnify — or compensate — Levandowski against claims brought by his former employer Google.

In Uber’s view the stakes are at least $64 million, according to the ride-hailing company’s annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission . Although Levandowski, who was ordered in March 2020 to pay Google $179 million, is clearly shooting for more.

“For much of the past three years, Anthony ceded control of his personal defense to Uber because Uber insisted on controlling his defense as part of its duty to indemnify him. Then, when Uber didn’t like the outcome, it suddenly changed its mind and said it would not indemnify him. What Uber did is wrong, and Anthony has to protect his rights as a result,” Levandowksi’s lawyer Neel Chatterjee of Goodwin Procter said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

The backstory

Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. The Google self-driving project later spun out to become Waymo, a business under Alphabet. Levandowski was paid about $127 million by Google for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court document filed this week.

Levandowski left Google in January 2016 and started Otto, a self-driving trucking company, with three other Google veterans Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.

Before the acquisition closed, Uber conducted due diligence including hiring outside forensic investigation firm Stroz Friedberg to review the electronic devices of Levandowski and other Otto employees, according to the recent court filing. The investigation discovered that Levandowski had files belonging to Google on his devices, as well as indications that evidence may have been destroyed.

Uber agreed to a broad indemnification agreement in spite of the forensic evidence, which would protect Levandowski against claims brought by Google relating to his previous employment. Levandowski was worried that Google would attempt to get back any or all of the $127 million in compensation he had received.

That forecast didn’t take long to come true. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, it was on the hook under the indemnification agreement, to defend Levandowski.

Uber accepted those obligations and defended Levandowski. While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit in February 2017 against Uber, for trade secret theft. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial and ended in a settlement, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber. Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

Meanwhile, the arbitration panel issued an interim award in March 2019 against each of Google’s former employees, including a $127 million judgment against Levandowski. The judgment also included another $1 million that Levandowski and Ron were jointly liable for. Google submitted a request for interest, attorney fees and other costs. A final award was issued in December.

Ron settled in February with Google for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition in March, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.

As the legal wrangling between Google and Levandowski and Uber played out, the engineer faced criminal charges. In August 2019, he was indicted by a federal grand jury with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Last month, Levandowski reached a plea agreement with the U.S. District Attorney and pleaded guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets.

What’s next

Levandowski’s lawyers argue that when the final judgment was entered against him, Uber reneged on its indemnification agreement. Levandowski said he was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because Uber has refused to pay.

“While Uber and Levandowski are parties to an indemnification agreement, whether Uber is ultimately responsible for such indemnification is subject to a dispute between the Company and Levandowski,” Uber said, using similar language found in its annual report filed with the SEC.

Even if Levandowski’s legal team is able to convince a judge to compel Uber into arbitration, that doesn’t mean the outcome will be positive. Arbitration could take months to play out. In the end, Levandowski could still lose. But the filing allows Levandowski to speak out — albeit using legalese — and share details of his employment at Google and Uber. Among those are details about what Uber knew (and when) about Levandowski’s activities in recruiting Google employees as well as information he had downloaded onto his laptop, and discovered during the forensic investigation.

The first cracks between Uber and Levandowski appeared in April 2018, based on a timeline in the court document. It was then that Uber told Levandowski it intended to seek reimbursement for expenses used to defend him in the arbitration, according to claims laid out in the motion. Uber told Levandowski at the time, that one reason it was seeking reimbursement is because Levandowski “refused to testify at his deposition through an unjustifiably broad invocation of the Fifth Amendment.” Levandowski had used the Fifth Amendment in the deposition during the arbitration with Google.

Uber never requested Levandowski waive his Fifth Amendment rights and testify during the arbitration, according to the court document. Levandowski said that he immediately alerted Google and the arbitration panel that he was willing to testify and offered to make himself available for deposition before the arbitration hearing.

Levandowski-Uber Motion to Compel by TechCrunch on Scribd

TuSimple partners with supplier ZF to mass produce self-driving truck tech

By Kirsten Korosec

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale.

The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.

TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.

The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

UPS partners with Wingcopter to develop new multipurpose drone delivery fleet

By Darrell Etherington

UPS is working with German startup Wingcopter to develop a new type of delivery drone, to be used for the logistics company’s growing commercial drone deliver efforts both in the U.S. and globally. Wingcopter has already designed an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that have ranges of up to 75 miles, and can achieve speeds as high as 150 miles per hour, in conditions include windspeeds of up to 45 miles per hour.

The two originally entered into a partnership last December, and Wingcopter will be working closely with UPS’ Flight Forward subsidiary, the dedicated drone delivery unit that UPS developed last year in July to house its commercial drone delivery program. In October, Flight Forward received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to effectively operate a full-scale ‘drone airline’ at scale for the purpose of package delivery.

Wingcopter has already demonstrated how its drones could operate in commercial settings, including during a demonstration with Merck earlier this year that saw its autonomous eVTOLs carry small packages between the drug company’s various office locations in Darmstadt in Germany. It’s also used its aircraft to deliver critical medical supplies and life-saving equipment to hard to reach areas, including through partnerships with UNICEF and other relief organizations.

This collaboration will begin with efforts on behalf of both companies to certify Wingcopter’s aircraft for use in making commercial delivery in the U.S., which will pave the way for collaborative development of additional types of aircraft that will serve a variety of needs, including in industries ranging from healthcare, to hospitality, to retail and more.

Wingcopter’s main advantage is a design that allows it to switch from hovering and vertical lift, to a low-noise forward flight mode, which is better suited to use over populated areas. It manages this using a tilt-rotor design, which has the added benefit of making it more stable in difficult weather conditions, including rain and high winds.

Tesla gets OK to produce long-range Model 3 at China factory

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has received government approval to produce the long-range rear-wheel-drive version of its Model 3 vehicle at its Chinese factory, according to documents posted Friday on the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology website.

Reuters was the first to report the story.

Tesla started producing a standard-range-plus rear-whee-drive version of the Model 3 at its Shanghai factory late last year. The first deliveries began in early January. This approval allows Tesla to add another variant to its Chinese portfolio. Eventually, Tesla plans to manufacture the Model Y electric vehicle at the China factory.

The move is notable because Tesla discontinued production of the long-range RWD Model 3 in the U.S. and now only offers that variant as a dual-motor all-wheel drive. It also appears to be a shift from Tesla’s initial plan to sell a more basic version of the Model 3 in China.

The standard-range-plus Model 3 can travel 276 miles on a single charge, according to Tesla’s China website. The company hasn’t posted a range on its Chinese website for the longer-range variant.

Tesla struck a deal with the Chinese government in July 2018 to build a factory in Shanghai. It was a milestone for Tesla and CEO Elon Musk, who has long viewed China as a crucial market. And it was particularly notable because China agreed for this to be a wholly owned Tesla factory, not a traditional joint venture with the government. Foreign companies have historically had to form a 50-50 joint venture with a local partner to build a factory in China.

Anthony Levandowski ordered to pay $179 million to Google

By Kirsten Korosec

Anthony Levandowski, the engineer and autonomous vehicle startup founder who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, has been ordered to pay $179 million to end a contract dispute over his departure from Google.

Reuters was the first to report the court order.

An arbitration panel ruled in December that Levandowski and Lior Ron had engaged in unfair competition and breached their contract with Google when they left the company to start a rival autonomous vehicle company focused on trucking called Otto. Uber acquired Otto in 2017. A San Francisco County court confirmed Wednesday the panel’s decision.

Ron settled last month with Google for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, had disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition today, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.

Levandowski himself may not have to pay the money personally; Uber, like other large companies, indemnifies its employees against certain types of fines and damages. But this may also be disputed. For now, however, it does seem as though the $179M will eventually find its way out of somebody’s pockets into Google’s.

This story is developing pending comment from Levandowski and Google, and the release of further documentation from the court.

Devin Coldewey contributed to this story.

Ford is building an all-electric Transit cargo van for the US market

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford said it will produce and sell an all-electric version of its popular Ford Transit cargo van for the North American market starting with the 2022 model year as part of the automaker’s broader bet on electrification.

The all-electric Transit, which will be assembled in the U.S., is part of Ford’s more than $11.5 billion investment in electrification through 2022. Ford’s EV plan includes an all-electric Transit for the European market that it announced in April 2019, the Mustang Mach-E SUV and an electric F-150 truck.

Ford’s decision to include commercial vans into its EV strategy is linked to sales in U.S. and the company’s outlook on future growth. The company’s U.S. truck and van fleet sales have grown 33% since 2015. Ford said it expects continued growth of van sales in the U.S. as e-commerce and “last mile” delivery increase.

Ford said it expects electric vehicles to grow to 8% of the industry in 2025 in the United States.

“Commercial vehicles are a critical component to our big bet on electrification,” Ford chief operating officer said Jim Farley said in a statement. “As leaders in this space, we are accelerating our plans to create solutions that help businesses run better, starting with our all-electric Transit and F-150. This Ford Transit isn’t just about creating an electric drivetrain, it’s about designing and developing a digital product that propels fleets forward.”

Ford will focus on tech features like in-vehicle internet and driver assistance.

“The world is heading toward electrified products and fleet customers are asking for them now,” Farley said. “We know their vehicles operate as a connected mobile business and their technology needs are different than retail customers. So Ford is thinking deeply on connectivity relationships that integrate with our in-vehicle high-speed electrical architectures and cloud-based data services to provide these businesses smart vehicles beyond just the electric powertrains.”

These built-in “smart” features could help customers optimize fleet efficiency and reduce waste or improve driver behavior, according to Ford, an indication that fleets will be able to access data collected through Ford’s telematics system using an embedded FordPass Connect modem featuring a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot with connectivity for up to 10 devices. Ford said managers can use Ford’s data tools like live map GPS tracking, geofencing and vehicle diagnostics to see key performance indicators at a glance for vehicle and driver.

 

GM reveals ‘Ultium,’ the heart of its EV strategy

By Kirsten Korosec
Ed Niedermeyer Contributor
Ed Niedermeyer is an author, columnist and co-host of The Autonocast. His book, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, was released in August 2019.

GM revealed Wednesday a new electric architecture that will be the foundation of the automaker’s future EV plans and support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs, performance vehicles and a new Bolt EUV crossover that will come to market next summer.

This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front, rear and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM’s focus on making this EV architecture modular underlines the automaker’s desire to electrify a wide variety of its business lines, from the Cruise Origin autonomous taxi and compact Chevrolet Bolt EUV to the GMC HUMMER electric truck and SUV and the newly announced Cadillac Lyriq SUV. GM also on Wednesday showed a variety of electric vehicles that had not yet been announced or revealed in public, to show how this modularity will be exploited further out in their product plan, including a massive Cadillac flagship sedan called Celestiq.

The Celestiq will be hand-built in the Detroit area, GM President Mark Reuss said, joining a large electric SUV in Cadillac’s future lineup. A pair of future Buick crossovers showed that brand’s styling moving in a decidedly Tesla-inspired direction, while a mid-sized Chevrolet crossover hinted at a more affordable option in GM’s otherwise premium-focused future EV lineup.

Using a single architecture for such a wide variety of vehicles provides much-needed scale and capital-efficiency to what has been a small-volume and profitability-challenged EV market. GM sees this scale driving reductions in the cost and complexity of its battery packs, eliminating 80% of the pack wiring compared to the current Chevrolet Bolt and enabling it to drive battery cell costs below the $100/kWh level.

At the heart of the new modular architecture will be large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint manufacturing venture between LG Chem and GM. The companies announced in December plans to mass produce battery cells for GM’s electric vehicles at a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

While the automaker has used LG Chem as a lithium-ion and electronics supplier for at least a decade, the joint venture marks a shift that aims to accelerate the automaker’s ability to win in the electric vehicle space.

GM’s relationship with LG Chem has produced a new Nickel Cobalt Manganese Aluminium (NCMA) battery cell, which the automaker says will have the lowest cobalt content of any large-format pouch cell. The flat, rectangular pouch cells allow GM to stack batteries vertically, enabling more packaging flexibility and interior space than the cylindrical cells favored by Tesla, Rivian and others.

GM and LG Chem will break ground on the new $2.3 billion joint venture plant this spring, where they will have annual production capacity of 30 gigawatt hours of these cells, with room to expand. The two firms said they will work together to eventually drive all cobalt and nickel out of its cell chemistries, develop electrolyte additives that heal cell degradation and explore solid-state cell options.

The initial wave of electric vehicles from GM will be led by an updated version of the Chevrolet Bolt later this year, followed by a Bolt EUV crossover next summer that will be the first vehicle outside of the Cadillac brand to feature the hands-free SuperCruise driver assistance system. GM will reveal two new premium electric SUVs later this year, the GMC HUMMER EV that will begin production in 2021 and the Cadillac Lyriq, which will follow it to market in 2022.

GM’s new EV architecture enables Level 2 and DC fast charging, with up to 100 miles of range available in the first 10 minutes of charging. But rather than launching its own in-house fast-charging network, GM is aggregating public charger networks like ChargePoint and EVgo into its myChevrolet mobile app and enabling in-app payment at EVgo chargers. GM is also partnering with Qmerit to provide accredited home charger installation, because 80% of EV customers charge at home, the company said.

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