China Roundup: Beijing is tearing down the digital ‘walled gardens’

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, China gets serious about breaking down the walled gardens that its internet giants have formed for decades. Two major funding rounds were announced, from the newly established autonomous driving unicorn Deeproute.ai and fast-growing, cross-border financial service provider XTransfer.

Tear down the walls

The Chinese internet is infamously siloed, with a handful of “super apps” each occupying a cushy, protective territory that tries to lock users in and keep rivals out. On Tencent’s WeChat messenger, for instance, links to Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace and ByteDance’s Douyin short video service can’t be viewed or even redirected. That’s unlike WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal that offer friendly URL previews within chats.

E-commerce platforms fend off competition in different ways. Taobao uses Alibaba’s affiliate Alipay as a default payments option, omitting its arch rival WeChat Pay. Tencent-backed JD.com, a rival to Alibaba, encourages its users to pay through its own payments system or WeChat Pay.

But changes are underway. “Ensuring normal access to legal URLs is the basic requirement for developing the internet,” a senior official from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said at a press conference this week. He added that unjustified blockages of web links “affect users’ experience, undermine users’ rights, and disrupt market orders.”

There is some merit in filtering third-party links when it comes to keeping out the likes of pornography, misinformation and violent content. Content distributors in China also strictly abide by censorship rules, silencing politically sensitive discussions. These principles will stay in place, and MIIT’s new order is really to crack anticompetitive practices and wane the power of the bloated internet giants.

The call to end digital walled gardens is part of MIIT’s campaign, started in July, to restore “orders” to the Chinese internet. While crackdowns on internet firms are routine, the spate of new policies announced in recent months — from new data security rules to heightened gaming restrictions — signify Beijing’s resolution to curb the influence of Chinese internet firms of all kinds.

The deadline for online platforms to unblock URLs is September 17, the MIIT said earlier. Virtually all the major internet companies have swiftly issued statements saying they will firmly carry out MIIT’s requirements and help promote the healthy development of the Chinese internet.

Internet users are bound to benefit from the dismantling of the walled gardens. They will be able to browse third-party content smoothly on WeChat without having to switch between apps. They can share product links from Taobao right within the messenger instead of having their friends copy-paste a string of cryptic codes that Taobao automatically generates for WeChat sharing.

Robotaxi dream

Autonomous driving startup Deeproute.ai said this week it has closed a $300 million Series B round from investors including Alibaba, Jeneration Capital, and Chinese automaker Geely. The valuation of this round was undisclosed.

We’ve seen a lot of publicity from Pony.ai, WeRide, Momenta and AutoX but not so much Deeproute.ai. That in part is because the company is relatively young, founded only in 2019 by Zhou Guang after he was “fired” by his co-founders at the once-promising Roadstar.ai amid company infighting.

Investors in Roadstar.ai reportedly saw the dismissal of Zhou as detrimental to the startup, which had raised at least $140 million up to that point, and subsequently sought to dissolve the business. It appears that Zhou, formerly the chief scientist at Roadstar, still commands the trust of some investors to support his reborn autonomous driving venture.

Like Pony.ai and WeRide, Deeproute is trying to operate its own robotaxi fleets. While the business model gives it control over reams of driving data, it’s research- and cash-intensive. As such, major Chinese robotaxi startups are all looking at faster commercial deployments, like self-driving buses and trucks, to ease their financial stress.

Cross-border trade boom

The other major funding news this week comes from Shanghai-based XTransfer, which helps small-and-medium Chinese exporters collect payments from overseas. The Series C round, led by D1 Partners, pulled in $138 million and catapulted Xtransfer’s valuation to over $1 billion. The proceeds will go towards product development, hiring and global expansion.

Founded by former executives from Ant Group, XTransfer tries to solve a pain point faced by small and medium exporters: opening and maintaining bank accounts in different countries can be difficult and costly. As such, XTransfer works as a payments gateway between its SME customer, the party that pays it, and their respective banks.

As of July, XTransfer’s customers had surpassed 150,000, most of which are in mainland China. The company of over 1,000 employees is also expanding into Southeast Asia.

While business-to-business export is booming in China, more and more products are also being directly sold from Chinese brands to consumers around the world. Some of the most successful examples, like Shein and Anker, use a different set of payments processors for their direct-to-consumer sales, which tend to be in bigger volume but smaller in average ticket value.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #alipay, #ant-group, #asia, #beijing, #bytedance, #china, #china-roundup, #geely, #jack-ma, #jd-com, #momenta, #online-payments, #robotaxi, #shanghai, #shein, #southeast-asia, #taobao, #tc, #tencent, #wechat, #xtransfer

Chinese tech giant Baidu begins publicly testing Apollo Go robotaxis in Shanghai

Chinese search engine giant Baidu has begun publicly testing its Apollo Go robotaxi mobile platform in Shanghai, marking the company’s continued expansion of its footprint in China. 

While Baidu says its robotaxis have achieved Level 4 capabilities, a human safety operator will be present during all rides, which are open to the public as of Sunday, in order to comply with local regulations. The Society of Automotive Engineers defines an L4 autonomous car as one that doesn’t require human interaction in most cases and can only operate in limited areas. Companies like Waymo, Cruise, Motional, Pony.AI and Yandex are all using a similar combination of lidar, radar, cameras and GPS to build a vehicle brain that’s capable of L4 autonomy. 

Shanghai’s fleet will be made up of Baidu’s electric Hongqi EVs, its fourth generation autonomous vehicles produced with FAW. The company did not disclose how many vehicles it has initially launched, but a Baidu spokesperson told TechCrunch that the goal is to make it to around 200 vehicles in Shanghai. In total, Baidu says it is either testing or publicly deploying about 500 AVs across 30 cities. 

While Baidu does have a permit to test its driverless tech in California, it hasn’t yet deployed any service and is instead putting most of its resources towards scaling up in China. There’s a huge increase in demand for robotaxi services at home, says a company spokesperson, so Baidu is focusing on improving its technology, building lots of vehicles and ensuring a good user experience. Shanghai marks the fifth city where the Apollo Go robotaxi service is open to the public, including Changsha, Cangzhou, Beijing and Guangzhou. 

Just a few weeks ago, Baidu expanded its Apollo Go services in Beijing into the Tongzhou District, which is considered to be the eastern gateway into the city, adding 22 new stations over 31 miles. In April, the company launched 10 fully driverless robotaxis in the capital city’s Shougang Park, a 1.2 square mile area that has become the testing ground for China’s first commercialized robotaxi operations. No human safety operator sits behind the wheel of these cars, only a safety member in the passenger seat to provide riders with reassurance. Each ride costs 30 yuan ($4.60) and is open to passengers aged 18 to 60. Everywhere else, including Shanghai, rides are free because the service is still in its trial phase.

Riders in Shanghai can use the Apollo Go app to call a robotaxi from 9:30am to 11pm and be picked up or dropped off at one of 150 stations across the Jianding District, which is home to Shanghai University, the Shanghai International Circuit and many tourist attractions. 

Shanghai is also the location of Baidu’s Apollo Park, an autonomous vehicle facility for operation, testing and R&D. The 10,000 square meter space will house the 200 AVs Baidu hopes to bring to the city, which would make it the site of the largest self-driving fleet in East China. 

Baidu’s long game is to deploy 3,000 AVs in the next two to three years across 30 cities in China. Considering the company has been investing in R&D for AV tech since 2013 and has been running the Apollo project since 2017, Baidu is poised to do just that. In June, Baidu and BAIC Group unveiled plans for the Apollo Moon, which is set to be mass-produced with a per unit manufacturing price of 480,000 yuan, or about $75,000, which is actually pretty cheap, all things considered. Baidu says it will produce 1,000 of these vehicles over the next couple of years, as well as different models yet to be announced, in order to supply its growing fleet. 

Infrastructure is a big part of Baidu’s goals to expand Apollo Go. A spokesperson from Baidu said the company is also investing in building 5G-powered, V2X infrastructure in hundreds of intersections throughout major Chinese cities. Baidu is already installing sensors like cameras and lidar, coupled with edge compute systems that can transfer road information to autonomous systems, in order to reduce traffic congestion. In the long term, smart infrastructure will help AVs perform more robustly and serve to offset some of the huge costs associated with onboard sensors and computing power, according to the company. 

While Baidu says its robotaxis currently still rely on onboard capabilities to achieve L4 autonomy, the company sees V2X as the future of large scale deployment.

#asia, #automotive, #autonomous-driving, #baidu, #robotaxi, #tc, #transportation

Waymo launches robotaxi service in San Francisco

Waymo, the self-driving vehicle company under Alphabet, has launched a robotaxi service that will be open to certain vetted riders in San Francisco.

On Tuesday, the company officially kicked off its Waymo One Trusted Tester program in the city with a fleet of all-electric Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with the company’s fifth generation of its autonomous vehicle system. This AV system, which has been branded the Waymo Driver, is informed by 20 million self-driven miles on public roads and over 10 billion miles driven in simulation, according to Waymo.

The so-called Waymo One Trusted Tester program mirrors the company’s strategy in Phoenix, where it rolled out its first commercial ride-hailing service several years ago. The Trusted Tester program is a rebranding of Waymo’s previous Early Rider Program that it launched in Metro Phoenix in April 2017. Seeing as it’s been over four years, those riders are no longer exactly “early,” so a name change was in order, according to a Waymo spokesperson.

In Phoenix, Waymo eventually invited some of the early riders to move over to the Waymo One service, which let users publicly share their impressions on the service and invite friends or family member who weren’t part of the early rider program. Waymo then opened up the service to everyone.

San Franciscans can download the Waymo One app and express their interest in joining the program, which will begin with an initial select group from diverse backgrounds with varied transportation needs, including wheelchair accessibility, according to Waymo. The company would not share how many riders would be included in the initial group, nor how many Jaguars it will have roaming the city, but it did say riders would have to be willing to offer a lot of detailed feedback on their riding experience and sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Waymo will encourage riders to use its autonomous service to help them with their everyday mobility needs. The rides are free for now, and will start out in an initial territory in parts of San Francisco, including the Sunset, Richmond, Pac Heights, Noe, the Castro, Haight Ashbury and more, with expectations to expand over time. The service will be offered 24 hours per day, seven days per week, the spokesperson told TechCrunch. 

The company will have so-called “autonomous specialists” — another term for human safety operators — sitting in the front seat to monitor the ride and ensure a safe experience. These safety drivers are contract workers, and employed by Transdev. Waymo has long partnered with Transdev to provide staffing for some of its operations.

Waymo’s rider support team will also be available at the tap of the button on the in-car screen or through the app if riders have any questions during their rides, the spokesperson said.

Waymo’s first ride-hailing service launched in Phoenix, but its roots are in California, notably the Silicon Valley enclave of Mountain View. It’s been testing in the greater San Francisco Bay area for more than a decade.

The company began testing its robotaxi service by offering autonomous rides to its employees in the city earlier this year.

The news about the Trusted Tester launch comes a week after Waymo announced that it’s scaling up its Waymo Via autonomous trucking operations in Texas, Arizona and California and is building a trucking hub outside of Dallas. The company has also been testing its fifth generation Driver on Class 8 trucks in Texas, hauling freight for carriers like J.B. Hunt, so this newest application of the Driver is a sign that Waymo is either succeeding at its push to full autonomy, or that it’s putting the recent $2.5 billion in funding to good use.

#automotive, #autonomous-driving, #robotaxi, #tc, #transportation, #waymo-driver

The Nuro EC-1

Six years ago, I sat in the Google self-driving project’s Firefly vehicle — which I described, at the time, as a “little gumdrop on wheels” — and let it ferry me around a closed course in Mountain View, California.

Little did I know that two of the people behind Firefly’s ability to see and perceive the world around it and react to that information would soon leave to start and steer an autonomous vehicle company of their very own.

Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far.

Yet, Nuro has remained largely in the shadows of other autonomous vehicle companies. Perhaps it’s because Nuro’s focus on autonomous delivery hasn’t captured the imagination of a general public that envisions themselves being whisked away in a robotaxi. Or it might be that they’re quieter.

Those quiet days might be coming to an end soon.

This series aims to look under Nuro’s hood, so to speak, from its earliest days as a startup to where it might be headed next — and with whom.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Mark Harris, a freelance reporter known for investigative and long-form articles on science and technology. Our resident scoop machine, Harris is based in Seattle and also writes for Wired, The Guardian, The Economist, MIT Technology Review and Scientific American. He has broken stories about self-driving vehicles, giant airships, AI body scanners, faulty defibrillators and monkey-powered robots. In 2014, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and in 2015 he won the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award.

The lead editor of this EC-1 was Kirsten Korosec, transportation editor at TechCrunch (that’s me), who has been writing about autonomous vehicles and the people behind them since 2014; OK maybe earlier. The assistant editor for this series was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman. The EC-1 series editor is Danny Crichton.

Nuro had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Harris nor Korosec have any financial ties to Nuro.

The Nuro EC-1 comprises four articles numbering 10,600 words and a reading time of 43 minutes. Here are the topics we’ll be dialing into:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#automation, #automotive, #california, #cvs, #dave-ferguson, #dominos-pizza, #dominos, #ec-mobility-hardware, #ec-1, #electric-vehicles, #emerging-technologies, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #fedex, #google, #kroger, #mit, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #robotaxi, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #seattle, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #technology, #transportation, #walmart

Motional to begin testing autonomous vehicles in LA as part of California expansion plan

Motional, the autonomous vehicle company born out of a $4 billion joint venture with Aptiv and Hyundai, is expanding its presence in California by opening a new operations facility in Los Angeles to support testing on public roads, hiring more engineers and adding an office in Silicon Valley.

The investment into the area follows a hiring spree that has pushed Motional’s total headcount to more than 1,000 people, an expansion into Seoul and its announcement last December to launch fully driverless robotaxi services in major U.S. cities in 2023 using the Lyft ride-hailing network.

While Motional declined to disclose its investment into the California expansion, the company is clearly putting its capital to work with plans to hire dozens of people and scale up operations in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Motional has had an office in Los Angeles since 2016. The LA office is where some of the company’s machine learning and hardware engineers are based. As part of its expansion plan, Motional has moved the team into a larger location in Santa Monica near the Santa Monica Pier.

Mortional is also opening a new operations facility located a few miles away and plans to more than double the number of employees based in Los Angeles to more than 100 people. The operations facility will support Motional’s plans to begin mapping roads and eventually testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads. Testing routes will initially be centered in and around the Santa Monica area, near its office and operations facility.

Motional said it will use the all-electric Hyundai IONIQ 5, the vehicle that will be the cornerstone of its eventual commercial robotaxi service, in its testing there. The Hyundai IONIQ 5, which was revealed in February 2021 with a consumer release date expected later this year, will be fully integrated with Motional’s driverless system. The vehicles will be equipped with the hardware and software needed for Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities such as lidar, radar and cameras. Level 4, is a designation by SAE, that means the vehicle will handle all driving operations in certain conditions and environments.

For now, the testing will involve autonomous vehicles with a safety driver behind the wheel. The company does not yet have a permit in the state to test its AVs without a human operator behind the wheel. That permit issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles,

This is first time the company has tested on public roads in Los Angeles. Motional already tests its AVs in Boston, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Singapore.

Motional’s President and CEO Karl Iagnemma described this as a “doubling down” of its West Coast footprint. “This expansion is the latest in our growth trajectory and will position Motional with the talent, testing capabilities, and R&D resources we need to deliver on our commercialization roadmap, Iagnemma said, adding that Los Angeles has long been an important part of its global operations.

Motional has also opened an office in Milpitas, a Silicon Valley town located in the southern section of the San Francisco Bay. The company’s compute design team will be based out of this office, Motional said in its announcement.

#automotive, #autonomous-vehicle, #california, #lyft, #motional, #robotaxi, #tc, #transportation

Chinese robotaxi unicorn WeRide bags over $600M in 5 months

It’s hard to keep up with the fundraising spree in China’s autonomous driving industry these days. Guangzhou- and California-based robotaxi company WeRide, which counts Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance as one of its strategic investors, has raised over $600 million in just under five months from its Series B and C financing rounds.

The four-year-old upstart said in May that its valuation leaped to $3.3 billion in its Series C fundraising. WeRide has kept details of the backing privy until today when it disclosed the investment was a lofty sum of $310 million from Alliance Ventures, a strategic venture capital fund operated by Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, China Structural Reform Fund, a Chinese state-owned private equity fund, and Pro Capital, which manages China’s CDB Equipment Manufacturing Funds.

It’s unclear how much WeRide has raised since its inception as some of its investments were undisclosed. It pulled in “tens of millions of dollars” from a Series A round.

This is the second time Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi has shelled out money for WeRide following its initial strategic investment back in 2018. The follow-on funding came as the two companies strengthen ties to develop Level 4 driving vehicles for the Chinese market. Electric cars from the Dongfeng-Nissan joint venture, automated by WeRide software, have been providing robotaxi service in Guangzhou for 18 months. WeRide uses Nissan vehicles in California for research and development.

Ashwani Gupta, COO of Nissan, gave an assuring statement about the partnership: “As China stands at the forefront of helping define the future of mobility, we are delighted to partner with WeRide to bring even more innovative technologies and services to enrich people’s lives in China.”

WeRide similarly sounded rosy about the alliance with Nissan. “Throughout the past three years, they have been playing a critical role in supporting WeRide’s autonomous driving platform, hence, enabling us to establish a leading fleet of robotaxis,” said Tony Han, WeRide founder and CEO .

“With the continued support of Nissan, we will accelerate the commercial use of our driverless robotaxis in China.”

#alliance-ventures, #asia, #cars, #china, #funding, #mitsubishi, #nissan, #renault, #robotaxi, #robotics, #transportation, #weride

Extra Crunch roundup: TC Mobility recaps, Nubank EC-1, farewell to browser cookies

What, exactly, are investors looking for?

Early-stage founders, usually first-timers, often tie themselves in knots as they try to project the qualities they hope investors are seeking. In reality, few entrepreneurs have the acting skills required to convince someone that they’re patient, dedicated or hard-working.

Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, was an early backer of Klarna, Spotify and several other European startups. Over the last two decades, he’s identified five key traits shared by people who create billion-dollar companies.


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“A true unicorn founder doesn’t need to have all of those capabilities on Day One,” says Brenner, “but they should already be thinking big while executing small and demonstrating that they understand how to scale a company.”

Drawing from observations gleaned from working with founders like Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, and iZettle’s Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson, Brenner explains where “VC FOMO” comes from and how it drives dealmaking.

We’re running a series of posts that recap conversations from last week’s virtual TC Mobility conference, including an interview with Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson, a look at how autonomous delivery startups are navigating the regulatory and competitive landscape, and much more. There are many more recaps to come; click here to find them all.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Founded in 2013 and based in São Paulo, Brazil, Nubank serves more than 34 million customers, making it Latin America’s largest neobank.

Reporter Marcella McCarthy spoke to CEO David Velez to learn about his efforts to connect with consumers and overcome entrenched opposition from established players who were friendly with regulators.

In the first of a series of stories for Nubank’s EC-1, she interviewed Velez about his early fundraising efforts. For a balanced perspective, she also spoke to early Nubank investors at Sequoia and Kaszek Ventures, Latin America’s largest venture fund, to find out why they funded the startup while it was still pre-product.

“There are people you come across in life that within the first hour of meeting with them, you know you want to work with them,” said Doug Leone, a global managing partner at Sequoia who’d recruited Velez after he graduated from grad school at Stanford.

Marcella also interviewed members of Nubank’s founding team to better understand why they decided to take a chance on a startup that faced such long odds of success.

“I left banking to make a fifth of my salary, and back then, about $5,000 in equity,” said Vitor Olivier, Nubank’s VP of operations and platforms.

“Financially, it didn’t really make sense, so I really had to believe that it was really going to work, and that it would be big.”

Despite flat growth, ride-hailing colossus Didi’s US IPO could reach $70B

Image Credits: Didi

In his last dispatch before a week’s vacation, Alex Wilhelm waded through the numbers in Didi’s SEC filing. The big takeaways?

“While Didi managed an impressive GTV recovery in China, its aggregate numbers are flatter, and recent quarterly trends are not incredibly attractive,” he writes.

However, “Didi is not as unprofitable as we might have anticipated. That’s a nice surprise. But the company’s regular business has never made money, and it’s losing more lately than historically, which is also pretty rough.”

What’s driving the rise of robotaxis in China with AutoX, Momenta and WeRide

AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.

The air taxi market prepares to take flight

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

“As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors,” Aria Alamalhodaei writes. “A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead.”

But while some electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — valuations are skyrocketing.

“Electric air mobility is gaining elevation,” she writes. “But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead.”

The demise of browser cookies could create a Golden Age of digital marketing

Though some may say the doomsday clock is ticking toward catastrophe for digital marketing, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update, which does away with automatic opt-ins for data collection, and Google’s plan to phase out third-party cookies do not signal a death knell for digital advertisers.

“With a few changes to short-term strategy — and a longer-term plan that takes into account the fact that people are awakening to the value of their online data — advertisers can form a new type of relationship with consumers,” Permission.io CTO Hunter Jensen writes in a guest column. “It can be built upon trust and open exchange of value.”

If offered the right incentives, Jensen predicts, “consumers will happily consent to data collection because advertisers will be offering them something they value in return.”

How autonomous delivery startups are navigating policy, partnerships and post-pandemic operations

Nuro second gen R2 delivery vehicle

Image Credits: Nuro

We kicked off this year’s TC Sessions: Mobility with a talk featuring three leading players in the field of autonomous delivery. Gatik co-founder and chief engineer Apeksha Kumavat, Nuro head of operations Amy Jones Satrom, and Starship Technologies co-founder and CTO Ahti Heinla joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to the category.

The trio discussed government regulation on autonomous driving, partnerships with big corporations like Walmart and Domino’s, and the ongoing impact the pandemic has had on interest in the space.

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun explains why it was the right time to launch an AV technology startup

Image Credits: Waabi via Natalia Dola

Raquel Urtasun, the former chief scientist at Uber ATG, is the founder and CEO of Waabi, an autonomous vehicle startup that came out of stealth mode last week. The Toronto-based company, which will focus on trucking, raised an impressive $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures.

Urtasun joined Mobility 2021 to talk about her new venture, the challenges facing the self-driving vehicle industry and how her approach to AI can be used to advance the commercialization of AVs.

#artificial-intelligence, #av, #didi, #ec-techcrunch-tc-mobility, #entrepreneurship, #extra-crunch-roundup, #finance, #fintech, #klarna, #nubank, #robotaxi, #spotify, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital

Chinese startup Pony.ai plans to launch a driverless robotaxi service in California in 2022

Pony.ai, the robotaxi startup that operates in China and the United States, has started testing driverless vehicles on public roads in California ahead of plans to launch a commercial service there in 2022.

The company said the driverless vehicle testing, which means the autonomous vehicles operate without human safety drivers behind the wheel, is happening daily on public roads in Fremont and Milpitas, California. Pony.ai is also testing its driverless vehicles in Guangzhou, China.

Pony.ai said it also plans to resume a rideshare service to the public in Irvine this summer using AVs with a human safety driver. Its goal is to roll out the fully driverless service to the public in 2022.

“Going completely driverless is key to achieving full autonomy and an indispensable catalyst to realizing our ambitious vision,” said James Peng, CEO and co-founder of Pony.ai.

Pony.ai still has some regulatory hurdles to clear before it can operate commercially. Autonomous vehicle companies that want to charge the public for driverless rides need both the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission to issue deployment permits. In early June, Cruise became the first company to receive a driverless autonomous service permit from the California PUC that allows it to test transporting passengers. The final step with the DMV, which only Nuro has achieved, is a deployment permit.

Pony’s driverless testing milestone in California comes a month after the state issued the company a permit to test a fleet of six driverless vehicles in a geographic area that spans about 39 square miles. While dozens of companies — 55 in all — have active permits to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver, it is less common to receive permission for driverless vehicles. Pony was the eighth company to be issued a driverless testing permit in the state, a list that includes Chinese companies AutoX, Baidu and WeRide as well as U.S. businesses Cruise, Nuro, Waymo and Zoox. Only Nuro has been granted a so-called deployment permit, which allows it to operate commercially.

Pony.ai, which was founded in 2016 by former Baidu developers Peng and Lou Tiancheng, has been allowed to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers since 2017.  The driverless permit issued in May by the California DMV expanded upon Pony’s existing activity in the state.

Pony has tested ridesharing in Fremont and Irvine, California. In 2019, a fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers equipped with a self-driving system from Pony.ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform began shuttling customers on public roads. The robotaxi service, called BotRide, wasn’t a driverless service, as there was a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. The BotRide pilot concluded in January 2020.

The company then started operating a public robotaxi service called PonyPilot in the Irvine area. Pony shifted that robotaxi service from shuttling people to packages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pony.ai also partnered with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine. The delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said at the time.

As the pandemic eases and California returns to normal operations, Pony is preparing to launch a commercial robotaxi service. It has already amassed a number of partners and more than $1 billion in funding, including $400 million from Toyota, to help it achieve that goal. Last November, the company said its valuation had reached $5.3 billion following a fresh injection of $267 million in funding. Pony has several partnerships or collaborations with automakers and suppliers, including Bosch, Hyundai and Toyota.

#asia, #automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #china, #cruise, #electric-vehicles, #nuro, #pony-ai, #robotaxi, #tc, #transportation

The rise of robotaxis in China

AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.


Enterprising governments

Worldwide, regulations play a great role in the development of autonomous vehicles. In China, policymaking for autonomous driving is driven from the bottom up rather than a top-down effort by the central government, observed executives from the three Chinese robotaxi startups.

Huan Sun, Europe general manager at Momenta, which is backed by the government of Suzhou, a city near Shanghai, said her company had a “very good experience” working with the municipal governments across multiple cities.

In China, each local government is incentivized to really act like entrepreneurs like us. They are very progressive in developing the local economy… What we feel is that autonomous driving technology can greatly improve and upgrade the [local governments’] economic structure. (Time stamp: 02:56)

Shenzhen, a special economic zone with considerable lawmaking autonomy, is just as progressive in propelling autonomous driving forward, said Jewel Li, chief operation officer at AutoX, which is based in the southern city.

#adas, #aptiv, #artificial-intelligence, #automotive, #av, #china, #early-stage-2021, #ec-mobility-hardware, #ec-techcrunch-mobility, #ev, #robotaxi, #saic, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #techcrunch-mobility-event-2021, #transportation, #waymo

SoftBank, Uber, Tencent set to reap rewards from Didi IPO

After years of speculation, Didi Chuxing, China’s ride-sharing behemoth, finally unveiled its IPO filing in the U.S., giving a glimpse into its money-losing history.

Didi didn’t disclose the size of its raise. Reuters reported the company could raise around $10 billion at a valuation of close to $100 billion.

Cheng Wei, Didi’s 38-year-old founder owns 7% of the company’s shares and controls 15.4% of its voting power before the IPO, according to the prospectus. Major shareholder SoftBank Vision Fund owns 21.5% of the company, followed by Uber with 12.8% and Tencent at 6.8%.

The nine-year-old company, which famously acquired Uber’s China operations in 2016, is more than a ride-hailing platform now. It has a growing line of businesses like bike-sharing, grocery, intra-city freight, financial services for drivers, electric vehicles and Level 4 robotaxis, which it defines as “the pinnacle of our design for future mobility” for its potential to lower costs and improve safety.

Didi set up an autonomous driving subsidiary that banked $500 million from SoftBank in May last year. The unit now operates a team of over 500 members and a fleet of over 100 autonomous vehicles.

For the twelve months ended March, Didi served 493 million annual active users and saw 41 million transactions on a daily basis.

Didi had been operating in the red from 2018 to 2020, when it finished the year with a $1.6 billion net loss, but managed to turn the tide in the first quarter of 2021 by racking up a net profit of $837 million, which it recognized was primarily due to the investment income from the deconsolidation of Chengxin, its cash-burning grocery group buying initiative, and an equity investment disposal.

Revenue from the quarter also more than doubled year-over-year to $6.6 billion. China accounts for over 90% of Didi’s revenues as of late. The company has tried to expand its presence in a dozen overseas countries like Brazil, where it bought local ride-hailing business 99 Taxis.

Of its mobility revenues in China, more than 97% came from ride-hailing between 2018 and 2020. Taxi hailing, chauffeur and carpooling, a lucrative business that was revamped following two deadly accidents, made up a trifling share.

Didi plans to spend 30% of its IPO proceeds on shared mobility, electric vehicles, autonomous driving and other technologies. 30% will go towards its international expansion and another 20% will be used for new product development.

#asia, #automation, #carsharing, #china, #didi, #didi-chuxing, #funding, #robotaxi, #robotics, #softbank, #softbank-group, #transport, #transportation, #uber

Here’s what’s on tap today at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

It’s game day for mobility tech mavens around the world. Well, at least for the ones who made the savvy decision to attend TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. Are you ready for a day packed with potential, overflowing with opportunity and focused on the future of transportation? Yeah, you are, and so are we!

No FOMO zone: Did you wait until the last minute? We don’t judge — simply purchase a pass at the virtual door.

Let’s take a look at just some of the speakers, presentations and breakout sessions on tap today. We’re talking about leading visionaries, founders and makers of mobility tech. They just might have info you need to know, amirite? The times listed below are EDT, but the event agenda will automatically reflect your time zone,

Throughout the course of the day: Be sure to make time to meet, greet and network with the 28 early-stage startups exhibiting in our virtual expo area (seriously, they’re an impressive bunch). The platform lets exhibitors present live demos, host Q&As about their products or hold private 1:1 meetings. Go mining for opportunities!

2:05 pm – 2:15 pm

EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with Ben Schippers, co-founder and CEO of TezLab, an app that operates like a Fitbit for Tesla vehicles (and soon other EVs) and allows drivers to go deep into their driving data. The app also breaks down the exact types and percentages of fossil fuels and renewable energy coming from charging locations.

2:40 pm – 3:10 pm

Equity, Accessibility and Cities: Can mobility be accessible, equitable and remain profitable? We have brought together community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler; Remix by Via co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig to discuss how (and if) shared mobility can provide equity in cities, while still remaining a viable and even profitable business. The trio will also dig into the challenges facing cities and how policy may affect startups.

3:10 pm – 3:40 pm

The Rise of Robotaxis in China: Silicon Valley has long been viewed as a hub for autonomous vehicle development. But another country is also leading the charge. Executives from three leading Chinese robotaxi companies (WeRide, AutoX and Momenta) — that also have operations in Europe or the U.S. — will join us to provide insight into the unique challenges of developing and deploying the technology in China and how it compares to other countries.

That’s just a tiny taste of what today has in store for you. Choosing which of the 20 presentations and breakout sessions to attend could be tough. The good news is that you can catch anything you missed — or want to review again — with video-on-demand.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 kicks off today — go drive this opportunity-packed day like you stole it.

#articles, #automation, #ben-schippers, #china, #europe, #fitbit, #frank-reig, #judge, #mining, #momenta, #renewable-energy, #robotaxi, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility-2021, #technology, #tezlab, #tiffany-chu, #united-states

Tezlab CEO Ben Schippers to discuss the Tesla effect and the next wave of EV startups at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.

Tezlab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.

Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of Tezlab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.

HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla  because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up Tezlab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.

The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.

We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.

Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.

And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.

Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.

#alexandr-wang, #amazon, #api, #articles, #aurora, #automation, #autotech-ventures, #autox, #av, #ben-schippers, #ceo, #china, #chris-urmson, #clara-brenner, #construct-capital, #coo, #facebook, #fitbit, #founder, #happyfuncorp, #hyundai, #jesse-levinson, #jewel-li, #joby, #joby-aviation, #joeben-bevirt, #karl-iagnemma, #linkedin, #major, #mate-rimac, #momenta, #motional, #pam-fletcher, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #rimac-automobili, #rivian, #robotaxi, #robotics, #scale-ai, #science-and-technology, #self-driving-cars, #startup-company, #tc, #technology, #tesla, #tezlab, #urban-innovation-fund, #volvo, #weride, #zoox

ChargerHelp co-founder, CEO Kameale C. Terry is heading to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

Thousands of electric vehicle charging stations will be built around the country over the next decade. ChargerHelp!, founded in January 2020 by Kameale C. Terry and Evette Ellis, wants to make sure they stay up and running.

The idea for the on-demand repair app for EV charging stations came to Terry when she was working at EV Connect, where she held a number of roles including director of programs and head of customer experience. She noticed long wait times to fix non-electrical issues at charging stations due to the industry practice to use electrical contractors.

“When the stations went down we really couldn’t get anyone on site because most of the issues were communication issues, vandalism, firmware updates or swapping out a part — all things that were not electrical,” Terry said in an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year.

After Terry quit her job to start ChargerHelp!, she joined the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, where she developed a first-of-its-kind EV Network Technician Training Curriculum. Shortly after, Terry and Ellis were accepted into Elemental Excelerator’s startup incubator and have landed contracts with major EV charging network providers like EV Connect and SparkCharge.

The company uses a workforce-development approach to hiring, meaning that they only hire in cohorts. Workers receive full training, earn two safety licenses, are guaranteed a wage of $30 an hour and receive shares in the startup, Terry said.

We’re excited to announce that Kameale Terry will be joining us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a one-day virtual event that is scheduled June 9. We’ll be covering a lot of ground with Terry, from how she developed her EV repair curriculum to what she sees in the company’s future.

Each year TechCrunch brings together founders, investors, CEOs and engineers who are working on all things transportation and mobility. If it moves people and packages from Point A to Point B, we cover it. This year’s agenda is filled with leaders in the mobility space who are shaping the future of transportation, from EV charging to autonomous vehicles to urban air taxis.

Among the growing list of speakers are Rimac Automobili founder Mate RimacRevel Transit CEO Frank Reig, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler and Remix/Via co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu, who will come together to discuss how (and if) urban mobility can increase equity while still remaining a viable business.

Other guests include Motional’s President and CEO Karl Iagnemma, Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, GM‘s VP of Global Innovation Pam FletcherScale AI CEO Alexandr WangJoby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation FundQuin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct CapitalZoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.

We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel LiHuan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.

Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at the door. Grab your passes right now and hear from today’s biggest mobility leaders.

#alexandr-wang, #aurora, #automation, #automotive, #autotech-ventures, #autox, #av, #ceo, #chargerhelp, #charging-station, #china, #chris-urmson, #clara-brenner, #construct-capital, #coo, #electric-vehicle, #electric-vehicle-charging-station, #electric-vehicles, #ev-connect, #events, #frank-reig, #jesse-levinson, #jewel-li, #joby, #joby-aviation, #joeben-bevirt, #karl-iagnemma, #linkedin, #mate-rimac, #momenta, #motional, #pam-fletcher, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #revel-transit, #rimac-automobili, #robotaxi, #robotics, #scale-ai, #science-and-technology, #sparkcharge, #startups, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility-2021, #technology, #tiffany-chu, #transport, #transportation, #urban-innovation-fund, #weride, #zoox

China’s autonomous vehicle startups AutoX, Momenta and WeRide are coming to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

As the autonomous vehicle industry in the United States marches towards consolidation, a funding spree continues to exhilarate China’s robotaxi industry. Momenta, Pony.ai, WeRide, and Didi’s autonomous vehicle arm have all raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year. 21-year-old search engine giant Baidu competes alongside the startups with a $1.5 billion fund launched in 2017 to help cars go driverless.

Their strategies are similar in some regards and diverge elsewhere. The biggest players have deployed small fleets of robotaxis, manned with safety drivers, onto certain urban roads and are diligently testing driverless vehicles inside pilot zones. Some companies embrace lidars to detect the cars’ surroundings while others agree with Elon Musk on a vision-only future.

The industry is still years from being truly driverless and operational at scale, so some contestants are seeking easier cases to tackle and monetize first, putting self-driving software inside buses, trucks and tractors that roam inside industrial parks.

Will investors continue to back the lofty dreams and skyrocketing valuations of China’s robotaxi leaders? And how is China’s autonomous driving race playing out differently from that in the U.S.?

We hope to find out at the upcoming TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, where we speak to three female leaders from Chinese autonomous vehicle startups that have an overseas footprint: Jewel Li from AutoX, which is backed by Chinese state-owned automakers Dongfeng Motor and SAIC Motor; Huan Sun from Momenta, which attracted Bosch, Daimler and Toyota in its $500 million round closed in March; and Jennifer Li from WeRide, of which valuation jumped to $3 billion after a financing round in May.

We can’t wait to hear from this panel! Among the growing list of speakers at this year’s event are GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Stay tuned for more announcements in these final weeks. Book your general admission pass for $125 today and join this year’s deep dive into the world of all things transportation at TC Sessions: Mobility.

#alexandr-wang, #articles, #automation, #automotive, #autotech-ventures, #baidu, #bosch, #ceo, #china, #clara-brenner, #construct-capital, #daimler, #dongfeng-motor, #driverless, #frank-reig, #jesse-levinson, #joby, #joby-aviation, #joeben-bevirt, #linkedin, #momenta, #musk, #pam-fletcher, #pony, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #robotaxi, #robotics, #saic-motor, #scale-ai, #science-and-technology, #search-engine, #self-driving-cars, #starship-technologies, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #technology, #tiffany-chu, #toyota, #united-states, #urban-innovation-fund, #zoox

China’s WeRide secures more funding, pushing valuation to $3.3 billion

Only four months after securing Series B fundraising of $310 million, Chinese autonomous driving company WeRide says it has achieved its Series C funding round that brings its post-money valuation to $3 billion.

This is first time the company has disclosed its value. The company did not share how much it has raised this round, only noting that it’s in the “hundreds of millions,” according to a statement released by the company. WeRide intends to use this funding round to invest in R&D and commercialization as it works towards the next-generation of Level 4 driving, a term that means a vehicle can drive without human intervention in some environments and conditions. The company is also using the funds to prepare to commercialize its technology.

WeRide has scored a slew of large investments over the past year, including its $200 million strategic round in December from Chinese bus maker Yutong. The speed and scale of these investments signals that the company is burning through money and hungry for more, and that investors are banking on China’s tech. Rival Momenta has also received large sums this year, exceeding its $1 billion in valuation with recent investments of $500 million and total funding of more than $700 million.

“WeRide Master Platform (WMP), our core autonomous driving technology solution has helped to accelerate the company’s development,” Tony Han, founder and CEO of WeRide, said in a statement. “This drives the successful operation of our Robotaxi service in Guangzhou since 2019 and the introduction of the WeRide driverless Mini Robobus, a completely new product category to the autonomous industry.”

WeRide’s robotaxi pilot in Guangzhou began in 2019, but it began conducting test drives in the city’s Central Business District in January. Not long after, the company’s driverless Mini Robobus began road testing in Guangzhou and Nanjing. WeRide became the first autonomous driving company in China to secure an official license for online car-hailing operations in February, and in April, the California DMV issued WeRide a permit to test its driverless vehicles on public roads in San Jose, California.

Many investors participated in this most recent round, including IDG Capital, Homeric Capital, CoStone Capital, Cypress Star, Sky9 Capital and K3 Ventures, as well as existing investors CMC Capital Partners, Qiming Venture Partners and Alpview Capital.

#autonomous-cars, #robotaxi, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #transportation, #weride

Less than 24 hours to save $100 to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

Calling all frazzled procrastinators, feet-draggers, lollygaggers and last-minute decision makers. The best price on passes to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, which takes place on June 9, disappears in mere hours.

It’s now o’clock, baby. Shift your EV into gear, hail a robotaxi or tell Mr. Scott to beam you up — whatever it takes to buy your pass before the early bird deadline expires tonight, May 6, at 11:59 pm (PT).

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 gathers the very best people in the mobility startup ecosystem to discuss the rapidly evolving trends, opportunities and challenges that come from inventing new ways to move populations — and all their stuff — around the planet and beyond.

This one-day deep dive will help you drive your startup forward, understand emerging trends and gain insight on what investors want and where they’re placing bets. Engage in hyper-focused networking and discover opportunities anywhere in the world.

We have a great line up, and here are just a few examples of the interviews, inter-active panel discussions and breakout sessions waiting for you. Don’t forget to check out the event agenda here.

Mobility’s Robotic Future: Automotive manufacturers are looking to robotics as the future of mobility, from manufacturing to autonomy and beyond. We’ll be speaking with James Kuffner, CEO, Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development, the head of robotics initiatives at one of the world’s largest automakers, to find out how the technology is set to transform the industry.

The Rise of Robotaxis in China: Silicon Valley has long been viewed as a hub for autonomous vehicle development. But another country is also leading the charge. Executives from three leading Chinese robotaxi companies (that also have operations in Europe or the U.S.) will join us to provide insight into the unique challenges of developing and deploying the technology in China and how it compares to other countries.

Will Venture Capital Drive the Future of Mobility? Clara Brenner (Urban Innovation Fund), Quin Garcia (Autotech Ventures) and Rachel Holt (Construct Capital) will discuss how the pandemic changed their investment strategies, the hottest sectors within the mobility industry, the rise of SPACs as a financial instrument and where they plan to put their capital in 2021 and beyond.

What are you waiting for? It’s now o’clock and time to save $100 — but only if you purchase your pass to Mobility 2021 before the price increase goes into effect tonight, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT). Let the learning, networking and scaling begin!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#automation, #automotive, #autotech-ventures, #ceo, #china, #clara-brenner, #europe, #james-kuffner, #motorola, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #robotaxi, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #self-driving-car, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility-2021, #technology, #toyota, #toyota-research-institute, #united-states, #urban-innovation-fund

Hear about building AVs under Amazon from Zoox CTO Jessie Levinson at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress towards those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.

[Did you know? Early Bird Ticket Sales End Next Week! Save $100 before prices go up]

In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.

Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.

We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.

Book your early-bird pass today and save $100 before prices increase next week and join today’s leading mobility-startup event.

#aicha-evans, #amazon, #automation, #av, #ceo, #jesse-levinson, #las-vegas, #robotaxi, #robotics, #san-francisco, #science-and-technology, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility-2021, #technology, #zoox

Volvo to supply Chinese ride hailing giant Didi with autonomous driving cars

As the autonomous driving race in China heats up, Didi is rushing to expand its car fleets by picking Swedish automaker Volvo, an old partner of Uber, as its ally.

Didi said on Monday it will be using the XC90 SUVs of Volvo, which has been owned by Chinese auto company Geely since 2010, for its network of robotaxis in the long term. Didi created a subsidiary dedicated to autonomous driving last year and the unit has since raised about $800 million from investors including SoftBank Vision Fund and IDG Capital. The subsidiary now has over 500 employees.

Didi started out as a ride-share app in 2012 and gobbled up Uber China in 2016. It now offers a range of mobility services including taxi hailing, ride-hailing, carpooling, shared bikes and scooters, as well as financial services for drivers. The company is seeking a valution north of $100 billion in an initial public offering, Reuters reported last month.

Didi’s autonomous driving arm has been testing robotaxis for the past two years in China and the United States, but Volvo’s XC90 model will be the first to adopt Didi’s freshly minted self-driving hardware system called Gemini, which contains sensors like short, mid and long-range lidars, radars, cameras, a thermal imager; a fallback system; and remote assistance through 5G networks.

Didi said that its Gemini platform, coupled with Volvo’s backup functions including steering, braking and electric power, will eventually allow its robotaxis to remove safety drivers. If any of the primary systems fails during a ride, Volvo’s backup systems can act to bring the vehicle to a safe stop.

Didi is competing against a clutch of well-funded robotaxi startups in China, such as Pony.ai and WeRide, which are busy tesing in major Chinese cities and California while splurging on R&D expenses to reach Level 4 driving. AutoX, another Chinese robotaxi company, announced last week that it will be using Honda’s Accord and Inspire sedans for its test drives in China. The edge of Didi, some suggest, is the mountains of driving data accumulated from its ride-hailing business spanning Asia, Latin America, Africa and Russia.

Rising electric automakers like Nio and Xpeng have also joined in the race to automate vehicles, making bold claims that they, too, will be able to remove safety drivers soon. Meanwhile, traditional car manufacturers don’t want to fall behind. BAIC, a state-owned enterprise, for instance, is adding Huawei’s advanced automation system and smart cockpit to its new electric passenger cars.

#accord, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #automation, #automotive, #autox, #china, #didi, #idg-capital, #robotaxi, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #softbank, #softbank-vision-fund, #transportation, #uber, #volvo, #volvo-cars, #xpeng

China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

#alibaba, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #automation, #automotive, #baic, #bosch, #cars, #china, #cloud-computing, #driver, #electric-car, #elon-musk, #emerging-technologies, #engineer, #founder, #huawei, #lasers, #li-auto, #lidar, #livox, #machine-learning, #nio, #norway, #nvidia, #qualcomm, #robotaxi, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #semiconductor, #shenzhen, #tc, #tesla, #transport, #transportation, #u-s-government, #united-states, #wu, #xavier, #xiaopeng, #xpeng

Hyundai IONIQ 5 will be Motional and Lyft’s first robotaxi

Motional will integrate its driverless technology into Hyundai’s new all-electric SUV to create the company’s first robotaxi. At the start of 2023, customers in certain markets will be able to book the fully electric, fully autonomous taxi through the Lyft app.

The Hyundai IONIQ 5, which was revealed in February with a consumer release date expected later this year, will be fully integrated with Motional’s driverless system. The vehicles will be equipped with the hardware and software needed for Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities, including LiDAR, radar and cameras to provide the vehicle’s sensing system with 360 degrees of vision, and the ability to see up to 300 meters away. This level of driverless technology means a human will not be required to take over driving.

The interior living space will be similar to the consumer model, but additionally equipped with features needed for robotaxi operation, according to a Motional spokesperson. Motional did not reveal whether or not the vehicle would still have a steering wheel, and images of the robotaxi aren’t yet available.

Motional’s IONIQ 5 robotaxis have already begun testing on public roads and closed courses, and they’ll be put through more months of testing and real-world experience before being deployed on Lyft’s platform. The company says it’ll complete testing only once it’s confident that the taxis are safer than a human driver.

Motional, the Aptiv-Hyundai $4 billion joint venture aimed at commercializing driverless cars, announced its partnership with Lyft in December, signaling the ride-hailing company’s primary involvement in Motional’s plans. The company recently announced that it began testing its driverless tech on public roads in Las Vegas. Hyundai’s IONIQ 5 is Motional’s second platform to go driverless on public roads.

#aptiv, #automation, #driver, #emerging-technologies, #hyundai, #hyundai-motor-company, #las-vegas, #lyft, #mobility, #motional, #robotaxi, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #technology, #transport

Inside Zoox’s six-year ride from prototype to product

Zoox, the autonomous vehicle company that was acquired this year by Amazon, revealed this week the product of six years of work: A purpose-built self-driving vehicle designed to carry people — and someday maybe even packages — in dense urban environments.

The company’s story has captured the attention of skeptics and supporters alike, perhaps because of its secretive nature and outsized mission. Unlike its rivals, Zoox is developing the self-driving software stack, the on-demand ride-sharing app and the vehicle itself. Zoox also plans to own, manage and operate its robotaxi fleet.

Unlike its rivals, Zoox is developing the self-driving software stack, the on-demand ride-sharing app and the vehicle itself.

It’s been an expensive pursuit that almost led to its demise before Amazon snapped it up — and the mission is still far from over. But today, as an independent Amazon subsidiary, it has the financial support of one of the world’s most valuable public companies.

TechCrunch interviewed Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s milestone, the vehicle design, its exit to Amazon and what lies ahead.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: What was your trick or how did you remain focused for six years on something that is futuristic, expensive and possibly could fail? What did you personally do to keep that focus?

Jesse Levinson: Well, doing something like this is definitely challenging and it requires patience. I think the advice I would give is first to convince yourself that what you’re doing makes sense and is important and worth doing. If you’re starting a company because your goal is to make as much money as possible, if it turns out to be hard it’s going to be really difficult to convince yourself and your team and investors to stick with the idea.

One of the great things about Zoox is that the idea itself just makes a lot of sense. From first principles, there’s really a compelling reason to solve the problem the way we’ve been solving it and the market opportunity is unquestionably enormous. So armed with those facts and a team of wonderful employees and investors who strongly believed in that, we were able to weather some of the ups and downs of the industry, even though it’s not always been an easy ride.

Let’s go back in time to the very first concept when you started to think of what a purpose-built vehicle would look like. Those early drawings showed a very, very different looking type of vehicle.

Are you referring to maybe like the sports-car-looking vehicle? We were actually never planning on launching a sports car as our first product; that was more of like a vision statement. Honestly, if you’re trying to move people around cities, it makes much more sense to have the kind of compact carriage like we showed this morning. We were never actually building a sports car. 

What is it like to create a long-term, cutting-edge product that exists at the edge of regulation? It seems like a very unique problem. 

I would say that if you have a big idea and you’re confident that it makes sense, you should at least explore the idea, rather than giving up because the current regulations aren’t designed for it.

At the same time, it’s very important to be respectful of the regulatory process, and you can’t assume that you can ignore it. I think companies that have tried that approach have usually found that doesn’t work very well either. We’ve taken a very proactive approach to working with regulatory agencies at the local, state and federal level, and we’ve been very forthcoming with “this is how we look at the problem” and “this is what we want to do.”

We’ve also been fortunate because over time the regulations on the local, state and federal level have really evolved to accommodate what we’ve been working on since 2014, even though when we started the company in 2014, those regulations did not exist. 

The vehicle today, was that what you had in your mind, or what the team had in mind, from the very beginning? Or was it a bit different?

Yeah, honestly, there have been very few substantive changes to the vehicle’s design since we started working on it in 2014 and 2015. Obviously, we refined it and actually had to make it work from an engineering and crash perspective. But if you look at some of the drawings that we were exploring in 2014 and 2015, it’s extremely similar.

#automation, #automotive, #jesse-levinson, #robotaxi, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #transportation, #zoox

AutoX becomes China’s first to remove safety drivers from robotaxis

Residents of Shenzhen will see truly driverless cars on the road starting Thursday. AutoX, a four-year-old startup backed by Alibaba, MediaTek and Shanghai Motors, is deploying a fleet of 25 unmanned vehicles in downtown Shenzhen, marking the first time any autonomous driving car in China tests without safety drivers or remote operators on public roads.

The cars, meant as robotaxis, are not yet open to the public, an AutoX spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The milestone came just five months after AutoX landed a permit from California to start driverless tests, following in the footsteps of Waymo and Nuro.

It also indicates that China wants to bring its smart driving industry on par with the U.S. Cities from Shenzhen to Shanghai are competing to attract autonomous driving upstarts by clearing regulatory hurdles, touting subsidies and putting up 5G infrastructure.

As a result, each city ends up with its own poster child in the space: AutoX and Deeproute.ai in Shenzhen, Pony.ai and WeRide in Guangzhou, Momenta in Suzhou, Baidu’s Apollo fleet in Beijing, to name a few. The autonomous driving companies, in turn, work closely with traditional carmakers to make their vehicles smarter and more suitable for future transportation.

“We have obtained support from the local government. Shenzhen is making a lot of rapid progress on legislation for self-driving cars,” said the AutoX representative.

The decision to remove drivers from the front and operators from a remote center appears a bold move in one of China’s most populated cities. AutoX equips its vehicles with its proprietary vehicle control unit called XCU, which it claims has faster processing speed and more computational capability to handle the complex road scenarios in China’s cities.

“[The XCU] provides multiple layers of redundancy to handle this kind of situation,” said AutoX when asked how its vehicles will respond should the machines ever go rogue.

The company also stressed the experience it learned from “millions of miles” driven in China’s densest city centers through its 100 robotaxis in the past few years. Its rivals are also aggressively accumulating mileage to train their self-driving algorithms while banking sizable investments to fund R&D and pilot tests. AutoX itself, for instance, has raised more than $160 million to date.

#alibaba, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #automation, #autox, #beijing, #china, #mediatek, #momenta, #robotaxi, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #shanghai, #shenzhen, #transportation, #waymo

Daimler-backed Momenta says its robotaxis will be fully driverless and profitable in 2024

In China and the U.S., there’s much debate about when and how humans will achieve fully autonomous robotaxis at scale — cars that chauffeur passengers under complex road conditions without safety drivers behind the wheel.

Many pieces are needed to make this happen: mammoth amounts of test data, advanced algorithms, strong operational teams, big checks from investors, local policy support, to name a handful. Until that day arrives, the bold claims from players in the field seem mostly out of reach.

One recent pledge came from Momenta, one of Asia’s most valuable artificial intelligence startups and the country’s first autonomous driving company to reach the $1 billion unicorn valuation back in 2018. The four-year-old startup, which specializes in software solutions for autonomous vehicles (AVs), told TechCrunch recently that its entire robotaxi fleet will operate without safety drivers in 2024, while some of its vehicles will already be driverless by 2022.

Competition in AVs is intense. Alphabet’s Waymo told customers last October that its completely driverless cars “are on the way.” Tesla planned to launch a robotaxi network in 2020. In China, Toyota-backed Pony.ai now offers autonomous ride-hailing service with safety drivers in two cities. SoftBank-backed ride-hailing leader Didi just began testing a robotaxi service in Shanghai.

An expensive pursuit

The autonomous cabs we now see around the world are mostly trial programs running in designated areas. Most self-driving companies build their own fleets from the ground up. The business is cash-hemorrhaging and commercialization is still years down the road, so the question is who can make it work before running out of cash.

“The expense [of building car fleets] is even unbearable for a multi-billion-dollar company like Baidu, let alone startups like us. But it may be possible for Waymo’s size,” said founder and chief executive Cao Xudong, who appeared in a plain white t-shirt on a Zoom call with us.

The 34-year-old founder previously helped launch face recognition giant SenseTime’s research division after a stint at Microsoft’s reputed Asia Research arm, which has trained many of China’s top AI brains and entrepreneurs.

Uber’s IPO prospectus revealed its self-driving unit was burning up to $20 million a month. Waymo’s valuation was slashed 40% by Morgan Stanley last year citing concerns of cash burn.

Cao claimed that his company can achieve full vehicle automation while keeping costs manageable for a startup like itself. While Momenta couldn’t reveal whether it’s actively fundraising, it said it has a “stable cash flow” that will last for at least three more years. The company had raised over $200 million by 2018.

Cao Xudong (far left) posing with municipal officials at an inaugural event for Momenta’s robotaxi program in Suzhou. Source: Momenta

Before diving into Momenta’s expenditures, it’s important to note that none of its progress can happen without state support. In its transition from traditional manufacturing to a tech-driven economy, China has made large sums of government-guided funds available for players in strategic industries such as 5G and artificial intelligence, which, of course, includes autonomous driving.

More recently, Beijing moved to speed up the development of so-called “new infrastructure” like data centers and 5G networks to offset COVID-19’s economic impact. These are basic facilities necessary for AVs, said Cao, and the policy push will certainly give China’s autonomous driving sector a strong boost.

The government is also clearing regulatory hurdles for promising AV operators. Just this month, Momenta secured the first license to recruit passengers for its robotaxis running on chosen public roads in Suzhou, an affluent and historic city bordering Shanghai that houses its sprawling 4,000-square-meter headquarters.

A sustainable path to automation

Unlike many peers in its field, Momenta depends on partners to deploy technology and reap data rather than owning its own fleets. While forms of collaboration may vary case by case, its robotaxi service will largely be a joint effort with automakers, which will likely provide vehicles and importantly, driver data; local governments, which can provide infrastructure like 5G networks; and itself, which develops self-driving software.

“If you have one million cars, which each costs a few hundred thousand RMB, that accrues to hundreds of billions of RMB. It’s no small money,” Cao contended.

Right now Momenta is working to solidify its alliance in Suzhou, where we rode in one of its trial AVs last year. While the startup aims to achieve full automation eventually, it’s not getting rid of all safety personnel.

“We will take advantage of 5G infrastructure and have remote safety staff who will each be monitoring, say, ten cars. Thus we will lower the cost of safety managers to one-tenth of its current level,” said Cao.

When all of its vehicles go driverless in 2024, the company will have significantly reduced labor costs and reach a positive operating margin per vehicle, the founder forecasted. If things go as planned, it will also roll its light-asset model into other cities outside Suzhou, entering a period of “enormous growth.”

“It’s a bit like MacDonald’s franchising model. We will come up with a set of operational standards and replicate them in other cities, where we will collaborate with the local government, taxi services, operational companies and et cetera,” said Cao.

Momenta also uses less expensive sensors, what the founder called “mass-produced” ones such as millimeter-wave radars and high-definition cameras as opposed to expensive LiDar sensors. Elon Musk would agree with his choice, having blared that “anyone relying on lidar is doomed.”

The startup procures core hardware parts from international and domestic vendors, counting NXP, Nvidia and Texas Instruments as its semiconductor partners. Cao declined to comment on the ramifications of ongoing U.S.-China trade tensions, but it’s not hard to see how sanctions from D.C. could choke the startup’s relationships with its suppliers.

Momenta’s autonomous driving test in a commercial district. Source: Momenta

The other cost-cutting tactic is automation, which allows the company to minimize the number of engineers. There are nuances in this seemingly simple principle though.

“I’ve repeatedly told our R&D team that they are hired not as problem solvers but as architects. Why? Because Level 4 [autonomous driving without human input] involves long-tail scenarios,” the founder explained enthusiastically. “You may be presented with millions of problems. Sure, we can solve 100 problems with 100 people, but we can’t hire one million engineers to answer one million questions… So if you can build an automatic problem-solving system, automation will take care of a lot of the work for us.”

Control of data

To get ahead in the AV race, contestants need to accumulate a large quantity of data to train up algorithms. Knowing it doesn’t enjoy the financial prowess to deploy thousands of robotaxis, Momenta has been selling autonomous driving software to traditional OEM partners and Tier 1 customers, which not only supply it with data but also a steady stream of revenue.

Once the partners’ vehicles go out on the market, driving data begins pouring in, and Momenta will input that data into algorithmic training and periodically upgrade the autonomous cars for consumers.

This setup — getting reams of data at low costs — sounds ideal in theory, but it has one big red flag: the data, which is the lifeblood of any AI company, belongs to auto companies, not Momenta. Cao didn’t seem concerned, arguing that the partners are incentivized to hand over data because Momenta can offer the advanced technology absent in traditional carmakers.

The field of view of Momenta during autonomous driving. Source: Momenta

“When we can extract data from customers’ long-tail problems to train our algorithms, their autonomous driving systems will consequently be improved. We are essentially creating value for customers,” Cao said with an air of confidence.

Working with outsiders also forces Momenta to juggle competing needs. Its business is no longer just about throwing money at R&D. Having customers means it needs to consider what makes commercial sense for automakers, from the choice of sensors to software solutions.

“The auto industry thinks very differently from the internet industry. You can’t ask carmakers to adapt to your way,” reckoned Cao. As such, he’s hired a considerable number of auto industry veterans, including business development managers with years of experience at Mercedes Benz and Toyota.

Momenta has been reticent about its list of clients, though Cao hinted to us last year that there weren’t many because partnerships in AVs necessitate close and resource-intensive collaboration.

So far, we know Momenta is developing high-definition maps for Toyota’s AVs. The startup also counts Daimler as a major investor, which kicked off its AV strategy in 2017, though it wouldn’t disclose whether the German auto giant is a client. Daimler’s website offers a clue, listing Momenta under its portfolio managed by the “M&A Tech Invest” team, which is responsible for technology and startup acquisitions for the world’s leading premium car brand.

#artificial-intelligence, #asia, #automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #china, #daimler, #momenta, #robotaxi, #self-driving-vehicles, #tc, #transportation