The Station: Uber’s new battles in the UK, Lucid Motors’ second life plans and Cruise acquires Voyage

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 friends and new readers, welcome to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B. Before I forget, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the newsletter, if you’re interested in attending our upcoming early-stage conference. I have a gift for you.

Um, there is a #$@% ton of mobility news to get to, including a few scoops, some investment news, and a new “market map” that takes a deep look into the business of Mobility-as-a-service apps. Buckle up.

First up, here’s the market maps story (I just mentioned) from writer Jason Plautz. The upshot: As transit agencies seek to win back riders, a flurry of platforms — some backed by giants like Uber, Intel and BMW — are offering new technology partnerships. Whether it’s bundling bookings, payments or just trip planning, startups are selling these mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings as a lifeline to make transit agencies the backbone of urban mobility. Third-party platforms have become more appealing to transit agencies as they scramble to keep buses, trains and rail full of customers.

And yep, this is an Extra Crunch story, which requires a subscription. As I’ve shared in here before, we’re bringing more transportation analysis to Extra Crunch. Last month, we had Mark Harris’ market analysis on solid state batteries. Next week, Extra Crunch will feature stories on the state of holographic tech in vehicles, the second-life battery marketplace and software plays in the micromobility industry.

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

Micromobbin’

Bird peeped up this week (they’ve been sorta quiet lately) and announced it is investing $150 million into a European expansion plan that will include launching in more than 50 cities this year, a move that it says will double its footprint in the region.

According to Bird, this growth plan is already underway, with the shared micromobility company recently bringing its scooters to Bergen, Norway; Tarragona, Spain; and Palermo, Italy.

Bird emphasized that its European expansion will be more than just a geographic one. The company said it is adding more scooters to its existing fleets and made several other promises as part of its announcement, including plans to launch new mobility products and safety initiatives, “the next generation of recycling and second-life applications for vehicles,” investing in equity programs and “securing partnerships across the region.”

I might have raised an eyebrow or two when I first read this announcement. Why? Welp, for one it isn’t clear what these new mobility products or initiatives around safety or recycling will be. A Bird spokesperson told me these will be new vehicles and “transport modes” in the region. Bird didn’t provide details about what it means by “securing partnerships,” a phrase that could mean an extension of its franchise program called the Bird Platform or some other kind of arrangement with local governments or operators.

And then there’s the bit about that $150 million. A Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch it’s using “existing resources” to fund these various initiatives. However, the pandemic, its acquisition of Circ and its effort to launch operations in new cities while maintaining existing fleets have depleted its funds. (Last June, Bird shut down scooter sharing in several cities in the Middle East, an operation that was managed by Circ.) The company’s last public fundraising announcements were more than a year ago. The company raised $275 million in a Series D round back in September 2019. That round was later extended to $350 million.

Now, this could be the $100 million in convertible debt that Bird reportedly was close to finalizing (per The Information’s reporting back in January). But something tells me there is more to this. Stay tuned.

A few other interesting micromobbin’ nugs for you … 

Lime and Lyft appear to have secured a license that will allow the companies to exclusively operate scooter and bike share services in Denver. The city’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure said it is moving two licensing agreements through the Denver City Council approval process. On March 23, he DOTI will present the licensing agreements to Denver City Council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee  for approval before heading to full council for consideration.

The “license” term is important here and marks a shift in how Denver is thinking about dockless shared scooters and bikes. A license would replace how dockless electric scooter and bike companies currently operate in Denver, which is through a permit. If the licenses are approved by Council, Lyft and Lime would be the only two companies operating vehicles in Denver under the new bike and scooter share program. The license would be valid for 5 years.

Superpedestrian, the startup that makes e-scooters equipped with self-diagnostic software, is upgrading its product as it prepares for a major expansion into 10 new cities within the next two weeks, TechCrunch’s Rebecca Bellan reported. Superpedestrian might not be a household name, but it is an up-and-coming player in the micromobility world. The company has developed AI — which is integrated into the vehicle — that monitors and corrects scooter safety issues in real time.

The next-generation operating system that will provide those upgrades, codenamed “Briggs,” will be uploaded to its global fleet of LINK e-scooters. It includes improvements to geofencing capabilities and battery life, making Superpedestrian more attractive to cities looking for partners who can provide assurances around safety and reliability.

SMART, a startup founded in 2020, revealed its first product: An airless bicycle tire based on technology NASA engineers created to make future lunar and Martian rovers even more resilient. This nifty tech that shows how NASA investments towards space exploration can end up improving life on Earth. SMART has a partnership with NASA through the Space Act Agreement and is part of the agency’s formal Startup Program that aims to commercialize some of its innovations.

SMART's METL tire close up

Image Credits: SMART Tire Company

The company’s “METL tire” came out of its work with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where NASA engineers Dr. Santo Padula and Colin Creager first developed their so-called “shape memory alloy” (SMA) technology. SMA allows for a tire constructed entirely of interconnected springs, which requires no inflation and is therefore immune to punctures, but which can still provide equivalent or better traction when compared to inflatable rubber tires, and even some built-in shock-absorbing capabilities, TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington reports.

SMART’s  co-founders, Survivor: Fiji” champion Earl Cole and engineer Brian Yennie, are targeting the cycling market first with their METL tire, which is set to become available to the general public by early next year. SMART intends to bring SMA tires to the automotive and commercial vehicle industries.

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, my “deal of the week” has a financial figure tied to it. This time, I don’t have those terms. (Feel free to share,  if you do.) This deal made it to the top of the list because of its importance in the autonomous vehicle industry.

I am, of course, talking about Cruise acquiring Voyage, a four-year-old autonomous vehicle startup that is well-known in the industry despite its size relative to other major players. Voyage had 60 employees and raised about $52 million compared to giants like Cruise that has a nearly 2,000-person workforce and is valued at $30 billion. But Voyage made an indelible mark on the industry, in large part because of its co-founder and CEO Oliver Cameron. The company, which spun out of Udacity in 2017, is best known for its operations in two senior living communities. Voyage tested and gave rides to people within a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, California, as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida.

I’ve been told the majority of Voyage’s team will move over to Cruise and Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product. Basically, Cameron will be in charge of anything that touches the customer.

Importantly, Voyage’s ride-hailing service (which always included a human safety driver behind the wheel) at the two senior communities, one in California and the other in Florida, will be ending before summer. The Villages community in Florida is massive and its where Voyage scaled up and at one point had “hundreds” of riders. The shuttering of this service would seem to open up the opportunity to other AV companies; my guess is that Cameron has already fielded a few inquiries.

Voyage’s partnership with FCA, now called Stellantis, will also end once the acquisition with Cruise closes.

Other deals that stood out …

Aerovel, the manufacturer of uncrewed vertical take-off and landing aircraft designed for surveillance, has raised $2.5 million in Series B capital. The investment is from undisclosed leaders in aviation, according to the company.

Arbe Robotics, a company that sells long-range 4D imaging radar, has agreed to merge with special purpose acquisition company Industrial Tech Acquisitions Inc. The transaction is expect4ed to deliver about $177 million in gross cash  proceeds that includes Industrial Tech’s $77 million cash-in-trust as well as $100 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, M&G Investment Management, Varana Capital, Texas Ventures and Eyal Waldman, the founder and CEO of Mellanox Technologies. You can check out their investor presentation here.

For a little insight into Arbe, check out this Autonocast podcast episode from 2018, when I — along with my co-hosts Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer — interviewed Arbe CEO Kobi Marenko about his company’s high-resolution radar technology.

Charge Amps, the Swedish maker of smart charging stations, cables, and cloud software, raised 130 million crowns ($15.3 million) in a funding round led by Swedbank Robur. The company raised the funds ahead of a planned IPO next year, Reuters reported.

Fort Robotics raised $13 million in a round led by Prime Movers Lab, the round also features Prologis Ventures, Quiet Capital, Lemnos Labs, Creative Ventures, Ahoy Capital, Compound, FundersClub and Mark Cuban. The Philadelphia-based company was founded in 2018 by Samuel Reeves, who previous headed up Humanistic Robotics. That fellow Pennsylvania startup is focused on landmine and IED-clearing remote operating robotic systems.

Momenta, the five-year-old Chinese autonomous driving startup, closed another massive round of nearly $500 million. The funding lifts its total funding to more than $700 million and in its short life has attracted a dazzling list of investors, including Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, the government of Suzhou and Daimler.

Momenta’s chief of business development Sun Huan told TechCrunch’s Rita Liao that the investment marks an important step toward the firm’s international expansion. In a few months’ time, Sun will head to Stuttgart, the German hometown of Mercedes-Benz, and open Momenta’s first European office.

Unagi, the startup behind the portable, design-centric electric scooters, raised $10.5 million in a Series A round led by led by the Ecosystem Integrity Fund with participation from Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels and Gaingels, among others. Unagi, which was launched in late 2018 by former Beats Music CEO and MOG co-founder David Hyman, plans to use the money to fund its expansion and bring  its subscription service to six more U.S. cities, including Austin, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Unagi will also be expanding its existing service in the New York and LA metropolitan regions, including all five NYC boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and Northern New Jersey, as well as the Westside and Southeast LA, the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery

Lots. of. news. Let’s get to it.

Autonomous vehicles and robotics

Ford Motor announced plans to embed 100 of its researchers and engineers in a new $75 million robotics and mobility facility on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. The arrangement will give Ford space to conduct robotics research and access to students — and vice versa — from the top floor of the four-floor, 134,000 square-foot building. In addition to its fourth-floor lab, Ford will have access to a high-bay garage space to test autonomous vehicles.

Shortly after the event wrapped up, TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater hopped on the phone with Ford’s Technical Expert Mario Santillo, who will help head up the expanded robotics efforts. Here’s what Santillo had to say.

Electric

Amazon is expanding customer deliveries via electric cargo vehicle to San Francisco, making the Bay Area the second of 16 total cities the company expects to bring its Rivian-sourced EVs to in 2021. San Francisco’s unique terrain and climate were a couple of the reasons Amazon said it chose the city for its second round of testing. Its EVs, which were designed and built in partnership with Rivian, can last up to 150 miles on a single charge.

BMW takes the wraps off of the all-electric i4 sedan. The German automaker also announced version 8 of its iDrive operating system, which will feature a new dashboard layout and visual design, with two curved screens. It will make its debut in the i4 and iX.

Chanje, EV startup that emerged from stealth in 2017 and is owned by Chanje is owned by Chinese automotive company  FDG, is being sued by truck rental company Ryder for alleged failing to deliver 100 of the 125 vans it was promised, The Verge reported. Ryder says it’s owed nearly $4 million. Chanje was on The Autonocast waayyyyy back in 2018. At the time, I was impressed by the idea and the van, which I drove with co-host Alex Roy around downtown Los Angeles. But it seems that Chanje is riddled with problems — and lawsuits. The Verge reported that Chanje has been sued more than once in Los Angeles Superior Court by former employees who say they’re owed tens of thousands in back pay and bonuses. The company has also been hit with liens from the California Secretary of State for not paying taxes.

Lucid Motors, which is already experimenting with energy storage systems for commercial and residential customers, is also eyeing ways to repurpose batteries from its electric vehicles, according to this scoop by TechCrunch’s Aria Alamalhodaei. While Lucid CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson has previously discussed plans to eventually build energy storage systems like Tesla that uses new batteries, this is the first time the company has talked about second-life applications for the product.

This is interesting because Lucid is still years from having to contend with a large number of used batteries. After all, its first EV, the luxury Lucid Air sedan, isn’t coming to market until the second half of 2021.

Hyundai is offering owners of the 2021 Kona Electric and Ioniq Electric access to 250 kWh of complimentary charging (approximately 1,000 miles of EPA estimated driving range) on the  Electrify America fast-charging network.

Rivian plans to install more than 10,000 chargers by the end of 2023. The network will have a dual purpose: quickly power its electric vehicle models with fast chargers installed along highways and provide Level 2 chargers at further afield locations next to parks, trailheads and other adventurous destinations. The company said that its so-called Rivian Adventure Network will include more than 3,500 DC fast chargers at over 600 sites, which will only be accessible to owners of its electric vehicles. Each site will have multiple chargers and located on highways and main roads, often by cafes and shops.

Rivian is also installing thousands of “waypoint” Level 2 AC chargers throughout the United States and Canada. These waypoint chargers will have a 11.5 kW charging speed, which should be able add up to 25 miles of range every hour for its R1T pickup truck and R1S SUV. The waypoint chargers will be strategically located along and near routes that Rivian customers are likely to take. They will be found at shopping centers restaurants, hotels, campsites and parks.

Volkswagen AG revealed how it aims to seize the top spot as the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, outlining plans to have six 40 gigawatt hour (GWh) battery cell production plants in operation in Europe by 2030. To get there, the automaker put in a 10-year, $14 billion order with Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt — and that’s only one of the six planned factories. A second plant in Germany will commence production in 2025.

Volkswagen Power Day 2021

Thomas Schmall, VW Group board member and CEO of Volkswagen Group Components. Image credits: Volkswagen

Ride-hailing

Uber says that drivers in the U.K. who use its ride-hailing app will be treated as workers, a designation that will give them some benefits such as holiday pay. However, even as Uber seemingly concedes to a Supreme Court ruling last month, a new fight could already be brewing over the company’s decision to calculate working time from the point a trip commences — rather than when drivers log on to the app.

All drivers in the U.K. will be paid holiday time based on 12.07% of their earnings, which will be paid out every two weeks. Drivers will also be paid at least the minimum wage after accepting a trip request and after expenses. Eligible drivers in the U.K. will automatically be enrolled into a pension plan with contributions from Uber. These contributions will represent approximately 3% of a driver’s earnings.

However … Uber will only guarantee that drivers’ working time and other benefits will accrue once they accept a trip and not based on when they have signed into the app to begin working. That already has labor activists fuming.

Meanwhile, Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for a driver identity system is being challenged in the U.K., where the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE) have called for Microsoft to suspend the ride-hailing giant’s use of B2B facial recognition after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London (TfL).

The union said it has identified seven cases of “failed facial recognition and other identity checks” leading to drivers losing their jobs and licence revocation action by TfL, TechCrunch reporter Natasha Lomas writes.

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#automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #cruise, #electric-vehicles, #ford, #lucid-motors, #momenta, #startups, #transportation, #uber, #venture-capital, #voyage

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Another self-driving startup got gobbled up by incumbents

Promotional image of two men standing next to an electric car.

Enlarge / Cruise CTO Kyle Vogt and Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron. (credit: Voyage)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about reports that Cruise—a self-driving venture co-owned by GM and Honda—was on the verge of buying startup Voyage. Now it’s official: Cruise is acquiring Voyage.

Voyage’s strategy was to launch its first self-driving taxi service at the Villages, a massive retirement community in Florida. The Villages is large enough that people need a car to get around, yet many of its residents are at or near the age where they can’t drive safely. The community had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour, reducing the risk that anyone would be killed if a self-driving car malfunctioned.

In a piece two years ago, I suggested that focusing on a relatively easy application of self-driving technology like this could allow a startup like Voyage to succeed while their larger rivals floundered. I argued that once a company like Voyage has a viable commercial service in a limited area, expanding over time to a larger area and higher speeds would be relatively easy.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#cars, #cruise, #oliver-cameron, #self-driving-car, #voyage

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Cruise acquires self-driving startup Voyage

Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that spun out of Udacity, has been acquired by Cruise, a deal that points to the continued consolidation within the nascent industry.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed; the majority of Voyage’s 60-person team will move over to Cruise and the company’s co-founder and CEO Oliver Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product.

Voyage, which was founded in 2017, was a tiny startup compared to well-funded operations like Cruise, Argo AI, Waymo and Aurora. But despite its size and only raising $52 million, Cameron helped Voyage stand out. The company is best known for its operations in two senior living communities. Voyage tested and gave rides to people within a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, Calif., as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida.

“Voyage’s approach has always been to leverage our limited resources to deliver a product that restores mobility to those who need it most: senior citizens. We’ve made tremendous progress towards this goal, moving countless senior citizens (some as old as 92!) around their communities,” Cameron wrote in a blog post announcing the deal. “Now at Cruise, we are thrilled to have the substantial resources to eventually serve not just senior citizens, but every possible demographic who stands to benefit from self-driving services.”

Voyage won’t be shutting down operations at the two senior communities immediately. However, Cruise reiterated to TechCrunch that its focus is commercial operations in San Francisco. Inevitably, any testing or operations at the senior communities will come to end, although Cruise did not provide a timeline.

Cameron’s role as VP of product is another signal that Cruise is inching forward with plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco. Cruise has hired hundreds of engineers, both hardware and software, but it will need to win over customers if it hopes to build a loyal base of robotaxi users. In his new role, Cameron will be the one who will be thinking through every customer touchpoint for Cruise’s self-driving service.

Cameron described the union of Cruise and Voyage as a “wonderful marriage,” in a tweet Monday morning. He noted that Cruise has the “most advanced self-driving technology, unique auto partners and the first purpose-built self-driving vehicle.” “With Voyage and our customer-service obsessed team, we’ll together deliver a game-changing self-driving product.”

Cruise has the funds to put towards this component of the business. Earlier this year, Cruise said it raised $2 billion in a new equity round that has pushed its valuation up to $30 billion and delivered Microsoft as an investor and partner. GM, Honda and other institutional investors also put more capital into Cruise as the autonomous vehicle company inches closer to commercializing its technology.

 

#cruise, #tc, #voyage

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Self-driving startups are becoming an endangered species

A Voyage vehicle at the Villages in Florida.

Enlarge / A Voyage vehicle at the Villages in Florida. (credit: Voyage)

Bloomberg reports that Cruise, a self-driving company jointly owned by GM and Honda, is in talks to acquire the startup Voyage. Founded four years ago, Voyage is working to launch a self-driving taxi service at the Villages, a massive retirement community in Florida.

Bloomberg says that “no deal is imminent,” and I don’t have any inside information. But such a deal would be consistent with an ongoing trend: it’s becoming harder and harder for self-driving startups to remain independent.

Voyage was part of a wave of self-driving startups that were founded between 2013 and 2018. Cruise itself was one of the earliest of these companies; it was co-founded in 2013 by its current CEO Kyle Vogt. Others included nuTonomy in 2013, Zoox in 2014, Drive.ai, Optimus Ride, and TuSimple in 2015, Starsky Robotics, Nuro and Udelv in 2016, Voyage, Aurora, and May Mobility in 2017, and Ike and Kodiak Robotics in 2018.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#cars, #cruise, #self-driving-cars, #voyage

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When Start-Ups Go Into the Garage (or Sometimes the Living Room)

Labs closed in the pandemic, but innovation doesn’t stop. So while some workers have the home office, engineers have the garage.

#batteries, #cerebras-systems, #computers-and-the-internet, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #driverless-and-semiautonomous-vehicles, #engineering-and-engineers, #innovation, #laboratories-and-scientific-equipment, #natron-energy, #relocation-of-business, #shutdowns-institutional, #silicon-valley-calif, #start-ups, #voyage

0

The Station: Luminar takes the SPAC path and Voyage lifts the hood on its next-gen robotaxi

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.

Hello and welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

I’ll skip the typical wind up and get right to things this week. We’ve got SPACs, venture deals and micromobility news along with a peek at one AV company’s newest vehicle.

I wanted to mention one item before we launch because it speaks to a larger issue of safety and how some shared mobility startups are turning to tech in an attempt to improve it.

Shared electric moped startup Revel resumed operations in New York City a month after shutting down its service following several deaths. The startup’s blue mopeds (3,000 of them) that had become a familiar sight in New York City are back, but with a number of new protocols and features aimed at boosting safety and assuaging city officials. Revel is leaning heavily on tech, and specifically its app, to improve safety, including training videos and tests, a helmet selfie feature that requires photographic evidence the user is wearing a helmet and a community reporting tool. The question is, will this effort be sufficient?

Revel moped

Image credits: Getty

Alright, let’s go!

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

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Remember last week when I told y’all about California Assembly Bill 1286? Here’s a quick refresher: the bill passed the Assembly in 2019 and moved over to committee within the Senate. It sat untouched until this month, when it popped up and passed a committee vote, an action that sent it to the full Senate.

To say the micromobility industry was caught off guard, might be an understatement. The action set off alarm bells and a coalition of micromobility companies, advocacy groups and bike share operators sent a letter to Senate leadership arguing that the bill was an existential threat to shared micromobility in the state. The group was specifically concerned with a line in the bill that would prohibit companies from putting a liability waiver in the user agreement.

That language was removed this week, prompting at least a few emails with comments like “micromobility in California has been saved.”


The National Association of Transportation Officials released its annual report on the growth and use of shared micromobility such as bike share, e-bike share and scooter share in the United States. This report focuses on 2019 ridership data, however, NACTO also weighs in a bit on the first half of 2020.

The study found that people in the U.S. took 136 million trips on bikes and scooters in 2019 — a 60% increase from the previous year. Of those trips, 40 million were on station-based bike share systems. The remaining 96 million trips were on dockless systems with 10 million on ebikes and 86 million on scooters.

That doesn’t mean it was a balanced picture. NACTO reported that scooter expansion was in some cases unstable as companies exited markets at the end of the year (prior to the pandemic), possibly due to over-competition and other market pressures.

NACTO report micromobility

Image Credits: NACTO

Shared micromobility trips were on average 11 to 12 minutes long and for a distance of 1 to 1.5 miles. Short trips are important, NACTO said in its report, noting that 35% of all U.S. car trips are under 2 miles.

Adam Kovacevich, Lime’s head of North America and APAC Government Affairs, called the numbers “eye popping” in an emailed statement, adding that “People are voting with their feet, and they clearly want more scooters and dockless bikes in their cities.”


We’re not finished yet; one more item of note. Jump returned to the Sacramento region on Saturday. Through an agreement with SACOG, Lime said it is now the “exclusive” regional bikeshare operator for the region.

Deal of the week

money the station

Luminar, the lidar startup founded in 2012 by whiz kid and Thiel fellow Austin Russell, has taken the SPAC path to the public markets. SUMMER OF THE SPAC CONTINUES!

The lidar startup announced it was merging with special purpose acquisition company Gores Metropoulos Inc., with a post-deal market valuation of $3.4 billion. The SPAC merger comes just three months after Luminar hit a critical milestone and announced that Volvo would start producing vehicles in 2022 equipped with its lidar and a perception stack. Volvo plans to use the Luminar technology to deploy an automated driving system for highways in its production vehicles.

Image Credits: Luminar

Russell told me in a recent interview that they wanted to go public at some point, but the momentum from the Volvo deal along with interest within public markets led the company to take the SPAC route.

Luminar is the latest startup — and second lidar company — to turn to SPACs this summer in lieu of a traditional IPO process. In June, Velodyne Lidar struck a deal to merge with special purpose acquisition company Graf Industrial Corp., with a market value of $1.8 billion. Four electric vehicle startups have also skipped the traditional IPO path in recent months, opting instead to go public through a merger agreement with a SPAC, which are also known as blank check companies. Canoo, Fisker Inc., Lordstown Motors and Nikola Corp. have gone public via a SPAC merger this spring and summer. Shift Technologies, an online used car marketplace, also used a SPAC to go public.


xpeng

Image Credits: Xpeng via Weibo

Meanwhile, Chinese electric automaker Xpeng Inc. made its public market debut the old-fashioned way. Although this traditional IPO path still packed in some unexpected financial thrills. Despite escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, the company raised more than it expected in its initial public offering.

Xpeng, which began trading Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol XPEV, said in a filing that it sold 99.7 million shares for $15 each, raising about $1.5 billion through its initial public offering. The automaker had originally planned to sell 85 million shares with a price guidance of between $11 and $13.

Xpeng will need the capital. The company faces an increasingly crowded pool of electric automakers in China, including Tesla, Li Auto and Nio. Shares of Xpeng closed up at $22.79 on Friday.

Other deals that got my attention …

CoPilot, a mobile app for buying and owning vehicles, raised $10 million in a new Series A funding round led by Next Coast Ventures, with participation from Max Levchin’s SciFi Ventures and Arthur Patterson, co-founder of Accel Partners, along with existing investors Chicago Ventures. The investment brings the company’s total outside funding to $17 million.

curbFlow, a curb management startup that uses a network of computer vision devices to detect available parking spots, raised $8 million in seed stage funding led by General Catalyst and Initialized Capital. Doordash is its first paying customer. Keep an eye out for a longer piece on curbFlow; I interviewed the founder Ali Vahabzadeh about the startup and where he sees it evolving. If the name Ali Vahabzadeh sounds familiar, it should. He is the co-founder and former CEO of Chariot, the on-demand shuttle service that Ford acquired and then killed off.

Delivery Hero, the Berlin-based restaurant delivery company that operates mainly in emerging markets, acquired Dubai-based grocery delivery platform InstaShop. The acquisition values the company at $360 million, $270 million upfront plus an additional $90 million based on InstaShop meeting certain growth targets, according to the company. Investors in InstaShop are surely celebrating right now. The five year-old startup had raised just $7 million before being acquired.

Firefly, which offers Uber and Lyft drivers a digital display to make extra money by running ads, acquired Strong Outdoor. The company said it has also become the advertising partner for fleet operator Sally.

Fox Robotics, the Austin-based startup that builds automated forklifts, raised $9 million in a Series A round led by Menlo Ventures. The latest round brings its total funding to date up to $13 million, with support from previous investors Eniac, Famiglia, SignalFire, Congruent, AME and Joe.

Motiv Power Systems, a company that builds all-electric chassis and software systems for the electrification of medium-duty trucks and buses, said it has secured $15 million in additional funding from GMAG Holdings Corp. The company that the funding will be made by means of convertible notes that are expected to be converted into a Series C funding round, which Motiv is in the process of raising.

Shopmonkey, a San Jose, Calif.-based SaaS startup that serves auto repair shops, raised $25 million in a Series B funding round led by Bessemer Venture Partners with participation from Index Ventures, e.ventures and I2BF.

Zoomo, a three-year-old electric bike platform marketed to gig economy delivery workers, raised $11 million from a Series A funding round led by Australian Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Zoomo was actually Bolt Bikes until this past week. The company announced its new name along with its funding round. The round also included equity from Hana Ventures and existing investors Maniv Mobility and Contrarian Ventures, together with venture debt from OneVentures and Viola Credit.

People: layoffs, hiring and moves

It’s been a minute since I wrote about hirings and firings and such. Two bits of hiring news got my attention this week.

Rivian electric vehicles

Image credit: Rivian

First up, Bloomberg reported that Rivian hired former Tesla executive Nick Kalayjian to lead its engineering. Kalayjian is replacing Mark Vinnels, a former executive a McLaren Automotive.

You might recall that relations between Rivian and Tesla are a bit prickly at the moment. Tesla filed a lawsuit in July against Rivian and four former employers on claims of poaching talent and stealing trade secrets. Specifically, Tesla claimed that Rivian instructed a recently departed Tesla employee about the types of confidential information it needed.

Rivian recently fired back. Rivian filed motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that two of the three claims in the case fail to state sufficient allegations of trade-secret theft and poaching talent and instead was an attempt to malign its reputation and hurt its own recruiting efforts.

It should be noted that Kalayjian didn’t come directly from Tesla; he had a brief stint at San Francisco-based Plenty Inc., according to his Linkedin profile. Still, Kalayjian spent a decade at Tesla, and his move to Rivian likely got the attention of his former employer.


Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, has hired former Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom as the company’s president and Chief Operating Officer, effective August 31, 2020. Okerstrom will be responsible for Convoy’s finance, operations, sales, marketing, supply, and marketplace growth teams. Okerstrom wrote a blog about what prompted to leave Expedia after a decade.

Convoy is only five years old, but it’s become a giant in the nascent digital freight business. The company has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors such as Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Greylock Partners, Y Combinator, Cascade Investment (the private investment vehicle of Bill Gates) and Code.org founders Hadi and Ali Partovi. Even U2’s Bono and the Edge have invested in Convoy.

Last November, Convoy announced it had raised $400 million in a Series D funding round, funding that would be used to scale its business amid an increasingly competitive market. Convoy said at the time that its post-money valuation to $2.75 billion.

AV Spotlight: Voyage

Voyage G3 robotaxi

Image Credits: Voyage

Autonomous vehicle startup Voyage is a smaller enterprise than its industry peers, in terms of capital raised and number of employees. But that doesn’t mean Voyage isn’t making moves — and progress.

The three-year-old startup tests and operates a self-driving vehicle service (with human safety operators) in retirement communities in California and Florida. They started by modifying Ford Fusion vehicles and later retrofitted FCA’s Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans with its autonomous vehicle technology. Last year, Voyage partnered with FCA to provide next-generation purpose-built Pacifica Hybrid vehicles that have been developed for integration of automated technology. These vehicles come with customizations such as redundant braking and steering that are necessary to safely deploy driverless vehicles. (The partnership wasn’t announced until this spring).

Now, Voyage is lifting the veil on its third-generation robotaxi, called G3. CEO Oliver Cameron tells me G3 is designed to drive without the need of a human safety operator, equipped with COVID killing U-VC hardware and half the cost of its previous second-generation (G2) vehicle.

It might seem odd for the CEO of an AV company to exclaim that its vehicle is designed to be driverless. What Cameron means is that the vehicle generation has progressed to a point where it has all of the necessary redundancies and automotive grade hardware to move beyond testing and into commercial driverless operations. Voyage points to three technologies that get it there.

First, there’s the brain of the G3 — internally called Commander — that is powered by its perception, prediction and behavioral modules. Commander runs atop a safety-certified middleware and monitored by self-diagnostic systems. Then there’s the collision mitigation system called Shield that acts as a backup system to bring the vehicle to a safe stop if necessary. And then finally, a remote operations feature called Telessist. When the brain, or Commander, faces a novel or chaotic traffic situation it has the capability to ask for assistance.

Voyage has talked about these elements before, but it has never really dug into the compute side of things. As Cameron noted to me, “it used to be you had to choose between automotive grade and performance. Now, we have both.”

Voyage worked with Nvidia on the compute. It also involved another company, which took the Nvidia boards and made them automotive grade. “So think ruggedized aluminum, think safety certified, think liquid cooling — all the things you need to do this safely and in a vehicle,” Cameron said.

Also of note, Voyage is using Blackberry’s QNX operating system in the G3. This generation also has a number of features aimed at its senior citizen customers, including two-way voice, extra steps to help mobility-challenged riders get in and out of the vehicle, extra lighting, and an in-cabin user interface that caters to vision-impaired riders.

Image Credits: Voyage

Inside the vehicle, Voyage has added U-VC hardware to kill COVID and other airborne diseases. Cameron said they knew it would be critical to find some cost-effective way of cleaning the vehicles. A friend suggested that he look into ambulances.

“Ambulances have really figured out how to prevent contamination from one person to another after each trip,” Cameron said. “It turns out they primarily use UV-C and it turns out in multiple studies and publications that UV-C at a certain intensity, kills COVID.”

The UV-C lights, provided by a company called GHSP, are placed in each row of the vehicle.

Despite the extra cost of the UV-C lighting and other features, Cameron said the G3 is still 50% cheaper than its previous generation.

“In the past 12 months, we’ve seen our sensor costs decrease by 65% and our compute costs decrease by 25%, resulting in a vehicle that is about 50% cheaper than the prior generation. And that’s puts us on a viable path to make money.”

The G3 isn’t quite ready for prime time. Beta versions of the G3 are being tested on the road in San Jose. Production vehicles and commercial driverless are expected to follow next year.

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery

Loads of other mobility news went down this week. Let’s check it out.

Bentley’s Bentayga packed in a series of surprises for TechCrunch’s Matt Burns. Here’s what he discovered over 24 hours with the $177,000 sport utility vehicle.

Blackberry is pushing into China. The company announced it will be powering the Level 3 driving domain controller of Xpeng, one of the most-funded electric vehicle startups in China, and Tesla’s local challenger.

Bollinger Motors, the Michigan-based startup known for its rugged electric SUV and pickup truck, unveiled a delivery van concept called the DELIVER-E that it plans to start producing in 2022. This shouldn’t be confused with the E-Chassis, now called Chass-E, that the company designed for Class 3 commercial vehicles.

Elon Musk called an attempted cyberattack against Tesla “serious,” a comment that confirmed the company was the target of a foiled ransomware attempt at its massive factory near Reno, Nevada. The Justice Department released a complaint that described a thwarted malware attack against an unnamed company in Sparks, Nevada. It wasn’t clear if the company was Tesla until Musk publicly commented on it. Russian national Egor Igorevich Kriuchkov, 27, allegedly attempted to recruit and bribe a Tesla employee to introduce malware in the company’s network, according to the complaint.

Ford, Bosch and Bedrock are demonstrating automated valet parking in downtown Detroit. This system is designed to allow drivers to exit a vehicle and the vehicle would park itself in the parking structure. You might recall that Bedrock also has a pilot with automated shuttle startup May Mobility.

Image Credits: Ford

GM is moving the engineering team responsible for the mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette to the company’s electric and autonomous vehicle programs to “push the boundaries” on what its future EV battery systems and components can deliver, according to an internal memo from Doug Parks.

Monet, a joint venture between SoftBank Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled two adapted vans. One of the vans pumps fresh air through the vehicle to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure, Reuters reported.

Pony.ai, the self-driving startup Pony.ai, and Bosch reached an agreement to explore the future of automotive maintenance and repair for autonomous fleets. The companies started in July a pilot of the robotaxi fleet maintenance at an undisclosed Bosch Car Service location in the San Francisco Bay area.

Scout Campers unveiled its new Kenai unit, a camper that packs a massive amount of equipment into its small footprint, including a 160-watt solar panel, CNET’s Roadshow reports.

Xwing, the autonomous aviation startup, revealed its go-to-market strategy, a plan that includes focusing on regional 500-mile distance cargo flights.

#automotive, #bentley, #elon-musk, #gm, #luminar, #revel, #tesla, #the-station, #transportation, #voyage, #xpeng, #xwing

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Why some self-driving startups reject Google’s “moonshot” approach

Aurora said Monday that it would focus on testing self-driving trucks in the Dallas area.

Enlarge / Aurora said Monday that it would focus on testing self-driving trucks in the Dallas area. (credit: Aurora)

Progress on self-driving technology has been slower than many people expected just a few years ago. Google’s Waymo was aiming to launch a fully driverless taxi service by the end of 2018 but missed its deadline. GM’s Cruise abandoned plans to launch a commercial service in 2019. Tesla has repeatedly fallen short of Elon Musk’s optimistic timelines for delivering fully self-driving technology.

This isn’t a crisis for these companies. They have plenty of cash and can keep working on the problem as long as they need to. But it is a big challenge for some of their competitors: independent self-driving startups that rely on venture capital to stay afloat. As the timeline for self-driving technology has stretched out, fundraising has gotten more difficult.

“Given the amount of resources required to develop an autonomous vehicle, it never made sense to have dozens of companies doing the same thing,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Guidehouse Insights. “There was always going to be a shake-out.”

Read 37 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#argo, #aurora, #cars, #cruise, #may-mobility, #nuro, #voyage, #waymo

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This self-driving startup built a “car without wheels” for remote driving

A man operates an automobile simulator.

Enlarge (credit: Voyage)

The ideal self-driving car would drive itself all the time, in all situations. But achieving that goal in practice is difficult—so difficult, in fact, that most self-driving companies have provisions for human backup to help cars get out of tricky or confusing situations.

But companies are often secretive about exactly how these systems work. Perhaps they worry that providing details—or even admitting they exist—will cast their self-driving technology in an unflattering light.

So it was refreshing to see the self-driving startup Voyage unveil its remote driving console as if it was announcing a major new product—which, in a sense, it is. Voyage didn’t just create software that allows a remote operator to give instructions to a self-driving car—it built a physical “Telessist Pod” where a remote driver sits to control the vehicle.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#cars, #self-driving-cars, #telessist, #voyage, #waymo

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Voyage gets the green light to bring robotaxi service to California’s public roads

Voyage has cleared a regulatory hurdle that will allow the company to expand its self-driving service from the private roads of a retirement community in San Jose, Calif. to public roads throughout the rest of the state.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a permit Monday that gives Voyage permission to transport passengers in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads. The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Voyage in a new and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program.

The permit also puts Voyage on a path toward broader commercialization.

The company was operating six autonomous vehicles — always with a human safety driver behind the wheel — in The Villages, a community of more than 4,000 residents in San Jose, Calif. (Those activities have been suspended temporarily under a statewide stay-at-home order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Voyage also operates in a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in central Florida.

Voyage didn’t need a CPUC permit because the community is made up of private roads, although CEO Oliver Cameron said the company wanted to adhere to state rules regardless of any technicalities. Voyage was also motivated by a grander ambition to transport residents of The Villages to destinations outside of the community.

“We want to bring people to all the things that live outside The Villages, facilities like hospitals and grocery stores,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron told TechCrunch in an interview Monday.

Voyage’s strategy was to start with retirement communities — places with specific customer demand and a simpler surrounding environment. The demographic that Voyage serves has an average age of 70. The aim isn’t to change its customer base. Instead, Cameron wants to expand the company’s current operational design domain to give Voyage a bigger reach.

The end goal is for Voyage’s core customers — people Cameron dubs power users — to be able to use the service for everything from heading to a neighbor’s house for dinner to shopping, doctor’s visits and even the airport.

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

Under the permit, Voyage can’t charge for rides. However, there might be some legal wiggle room. Voyage can technically charge for rides within The Villages; in fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown, the company had started charging for a ride-hailing service.

Rides outside of The Villages would have to be free, although it’s unclear if the company could charge for mileage or time until the vehicle left the community.

Voyage has aspirations to take this further. The company is also applying for a traditional Transportation Charter Permit, which is required for limousine, bus and other third-party charter services. Cameron said the company had to go through the stringent application process for the CPUC’s Drivered AV permit first.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. There are 65 companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits issued by the DMV. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with the DMV.

#aurora, #automation, #automotive, #av, #california, #emerging-technologies, #florida, #oliver-cameron, #pony, #san-jose, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #technology, #transportation, #voyage, #waymo, #zoox

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Driverless vehicles in the age of the novel coronavirus

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 it 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, ridesharing, 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.”

#autonomous-vehicles, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #voyage

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