The Station: Zoox seeks out rain and Tesla fans go on the attack — again

By | October 25, 2021


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

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

TechCrunch’s Rebecca Bellan and Aria Alamalhodaei were a bit ambitious this week, which means I dialed back some of the other parts. Let’s go!

But before we dive in, I wanted to give a nod to the inaugural effort of the Indy Autonomous Challenge, which was held Saturday. The IAC brought together students from 21 universities from 9 countries, who were charged with programming driverless racecars to compete in a  high-speed autonomous race. The winning team, which received the $1 million grand prize, was the Technical University of Munich. I did not attend, but was told by a few folks who were there that it was a small, yet fun event and solid foundation had been established for this to continue in future years.

As always, you can email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

Let’s start the week with a new-ish company and this week’s unsung hero of micromobility: Zoba.

Zoba, a Boston-based startup that runs fleet optimization for many major micromobility companies, including Spin, just announced a $12 million Series A raise.

The company’s AI runs behind the operator’s fleet management software. Zoba’s software takes into account shifting local regulations and basically helps micromobility companies get as many customers on vehicles as possible, while being as efficient as possible and helping to adhere to a company’s bottom line.

While we’re on the subject of bottom lines, Lime said CEO Wayne Ting said the third quarter of 2021 would be the company’s second profitable quarter, adjusted for EBITDA, of course. While Lime wasn’t able to generate more sales or revenue to increase top line growth, it seems it was able to increase efficiency in a way that quite possibly has led to profitability. But we’ll have to take their word for it. Nothing can be certain until the company goes public and dishes up those earnings.

Bolt Mobility is launching both an in-app navigation system for its e-scooters, called “MobilityOS,” as well as a new scooter with a built-in smartphone holder that also uses the scooter’s battery to charge the phone! Let’s see how that one goes. Is it safer to just listen to audio directions and occasionally try to check your phone while riding, or is it safer to take a cheeky peek down at the screen every now and again?

Helbiz has partnered with mapping company Fantasmo to integrate its parking tech into Helbiz’s e-scooter app. Fantasmo’s camera-positioning tech detects the exact location of e-scooters and validates parking within eight inches or less via a rider’s phone camera. The integration will roll out in Miami first.

Voi is making a Copenhagen comeback as the city aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Voi, based in neighboring country Sweden, is bringing 800 e-scooters to the Danish metropolis for the next year; the service could be extended another two years if all goes well.

Niu Technologies, a Chinese electric motor scooter manufacturer, announced it would start making e-bikes in order to help grow its international presence. The e-bike series includes a 15 mph and a 28 mph version. The bikes are pretty heavy at nearly 100 pounds, due to large aluminum frames and oversized dual suspension.

Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Kawasaki says it’s going all-electric in developed countries by 2035, which really gives it plenty of time to get its model together and keep selling gas-powered motorcycles in the meantime.

To compete with Ola’s amazing success selling electric scooters (the big ones, not the kick ones), Honda announced it would be selling the same in India. Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India told the Economic Times it would have a product within the next financial year.

Finally, at the Micromobility America conference last month, micromobility legend Horace Dediu presented the 10 commandments of micromobility, which I now present to you. I do think you should watch the video, as well.

1. Nobody invented micromobility. “Micromobility is the confluence of thousands of ideas and the work of thousands of people.” A range of enabling technologies, like lithium ion batteries becoming cheaper, led to this micro outcome.

2. Most trips are short, which means short trips are more important. 50% of trips are from 0 to 5 miles. That number could actually increase if people have more access to a vehicle that’s designed for shorter trips.

3. Cars are a bundle. You can substitute the short trips with smaller vehicles, and you can substitute the bigger trips with bigger vehicles that are shared, like planes, trains and buses.

4. The smaller it gets, the bigger it gets. And by this he means volumes. For example, Android and iPhone sales far surpass those of PCs and other revolutionary computers, even though they came to market much later. In terms of vehicles, Dediu expects micromobility vehicles to grow much faster than electric vehicles in the future.

5. You can’t get there from here. There are more cars than ever in all of our cities and countries, and based on adoption curves, that number will only increase exponentially. Even if you tried to electrify all cars, emissions would still rise beyond legal limits. But with micromobility, we could have twice the number of drivers with half the amount of emissions.

6. Don’t dig where there’s no treasure. All infrastructure is a sunk cost. All the arguments we have about not changing infrastructure are based on the massive costs associated with infrastructure builds, but those are fallacies. We’ve destroyed infrastructures in the past. Inner-city highways can be demolished, too.

7. They promised flying taxis. We got bike lanes. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on big moonshots like autonomous vehicles and flying cars, but the simple bike lane is far better and more revolutionary than “any of this crap.”

8. You sell miles, but customers buy smiles. The transition to micromobility will happen because people are happy with the vehicles and like riding them.

9. Micromobility is a mind for the bicycle. Micromobility absorbs data, software, intelligence and sensing. It’s cheaper and builds on the shoulders of giants, and it’s increasingly the smartest machine on the road. “The power of software allows us to invest in solutions to overcome most of our machines’ shortcomings.

10. Cities always win. Micromobility is urban freedom. Cities have gone through much worse than coronavirus, and they all came back stronger than ever. Cities are antifragile, the more you stress them, the stronger they become.

— Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

money the station

Welp … I’m not ready to call peak urban air mobility quite yet, but we might be getting close.

HT Aero, an urban air mobility company that’s an affiliate of Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer Xpeng, raised an eyebrow-raising $500 million in a Series A round. The company said it will use the funds to acquire top-tier talent, advance R&D and “continue to gain airworthiness provision and certification” as it advances toward the next generation of its vehicles, according to Deli Zhao, founder and president of the company.

The company recently revealed its fifth-generation flying vehicle, the Xpeng X2, which can handle autonomous flight take-off and landing for certain city scenarios, back-end scheduling, charging and flight control. The company says it wants to provide UAM solutions for individual consumers, rather than businesses, which would certainly be in line with Xpeng’s goals.

Other deals that got my attention …

AirGarage, a startup that works with parking real estate owners and offers a full-stack software and management service for their lot or garage, closed a $12.5 million Series A round led by a16z, with participation from existing investors Floodgate, Founders Fund and Abstract Ventures. AirGarage has more than 200 locations across 30 states under its management.

Alaska Airlines launched a new venture capital arm, dubbed Alaska Star Ventures. The aim is to find and invest in emerging technologies to help decarbonize air travel. Its first investment was to put $15 million into the Los Angeles-based UP.Partners’ inaugural venture fund. UP.Partners’ $230 million early-stage fund is focused on mobility technologies. Woven Capital, the investment arm of Toyota Motor’s Woven Planet Group, Standard Industries, Hillwood and OSM Maritime have also invested in the UP.Partners fund.

Ally Financial, the automotive finance giant, plans to acquire credit card company Fair Square Financial for $750 million, reported Automotive News.

BMW i Ventures invested an undisclosed amount into Our Next Energy Inc., a Michigan-based energy storage solutions company working to develop longer range, lower cost batteries for electric vehicles.

FlixMobility, the $3 billion-German transportation startup, showed it’s pretty darned interested in the U.S. market. The company agreed to acquire Greyhound Lines, the iconic U.S. bus network, from U.K.-based owner FirstGroup. The deal, which includes a vehicle fleet, trademarks and related assets and liabilities, has an enterprise value on a debt-free/cash-free basis of $46 million, with an unconditional deferred consideration of $32 million with an interest rate of 5% per annum alongside that.* (Check out Ingrid Lunden’s article to get deeper into the details, including what that * is all about)

Flock Freight, the trucking logistics company, raised a $215 million Series D round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, making it the industry’s most recent unicorn at a valuation of more than $1 billion.

Gatik, the autonomous vehicle startup, reached a strategic lease and vehicle maintenance agreement with Ryder System, Freightwaves reported.

River, an Indian startup focused on the electric two-wheeler market, came out of stealth with $2 million in backing from Maniv Mobility and TrucksVC.

Yummy, the Venezuelan delivery super app founded in 2020, raised $18 million in a Series A round aimed at accelerating the company’s proposed expansion throughout Latin America. Anthos Capital led the latest round, with additional participation from JAM Fund, whose founder Justin Mateen was an investor in the startup’s $4 million seed round.

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hello everyone! Welcome back to Policy Corner.

The big news this week is the appointment of Missy Cummings, former Navy fighter pilot and engineering professor at Duke University, to a senior safety advisory role at the nation’s top vehicle safety regulator.

This kind of appointment might not typically get much notice from the general public. But Tesla fans sure did (side note from transportation editor and The Station creator Kirsten Korosec: the AV industry absolutely took notice; they just didn’t comment publicly). The reaction from a community of Tesla owners and shareholders was loud — a torrent of concern and vitriol that frothed forth on Twitter and that at times devolved into attacks on Cummings gender and character.

Cummings has been a vocal critic of Tesla’s Autopilot advanced driver assistance system, and more recently, its rollout of the “Full Self-Driving” beta program to thousands of drivers across the United States. On the McKinsey Global Institute podcast last month, she called attention to what she referred to as “mode confusion,” or when the driver doesn’t have sufficient understanding of the capabilities (and limitations) of a system.

“We’ve known about this for a long time in aviation, but this is new learning for the automotive world,” she said on the podcast. “We see this when people think that Autopilot and Full Self-Driving actually mean those things, and people climb in the backseat or take their hands off the steering wheel and don’t realize the trouble they’re in, and the car crashes.”

Just as news of the appointment was circulating, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla.” That tweet fanned the growing flames of dissent from Tesla fans, many of whom are also shareholders. A petition has even been circulated on Change.org requesting her removal.

Supporters of Tesla have also called attention to Cummings’ service on the board of Veoneer, a Tier 1 company that supplies automakers with advanced driver assistance software and the accompanying hardware such as radars, lidars, thermal night vision cameras and other vision systems. It’s the lidar — a sensor that most in the industry with the exception of Tesla believe is required to offer fully automated driving — that triggered Tesla fans. Qualcomm recently reached an agreement to acquire Veoneer.

Her critics suggest that the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration may take a more conservative stance on ADAS and Tesla in the future. (It should be noted that NHTSA has in the past has generally taken rather laissez faire approach with Tesla; anything beyond that will seem as if the regulatory gates have come crashing down on the automaker.) It is unclear whether she will take an advisory role in the investigation into Autopilot currently underway at NHTSA, which was opened following 12 incidents of Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles.

Kirsten here with a side note on this issue: Missy Cummings first protected and then ended up deleting her Twitter account because she was not just trolled; she received death threats, which are being investigated, according to my sources.

Update: FSD software beta was rolled back Sunday. Musk tweeted Sunday “Seeing some issues with 10.3, so rolling back to 10.2 temporarily. Please note, this is to be expected with beta software. It is impossible to test all hardware configs in all conditions with internal QA, hence public beta.”

The other piece of news that caught my eye this week  ….

Uber and Lyft have been lobbying the government to include provisions to boost electric vehicle adoption in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill currently being debated in Congress.

The two ride-hailing giants have made sweeping, ambitious pledges that all rides booked on their platforms will be taken in an electric vehicle by 2030 — a goal that each company is unlikely to reach without hefty government support.

Both companies consider cost and lack of charging infrastructure to be two key obstacles to larger EV uptake, according to reporting from E&E News. And it’s true that for many, electric vehicles remain prohibitively expensive, especially compared to the plethora of used internal combustion engine vehicles available… well, basically anywhere.

“Our population of drivers who use our app, they are coming from lower-income communities, and they’re serving mobility in urban areas,” Adam Gromis, a sustainability policy manager with Uber, told E&E News. “So for us, we want to see slow charging in underserved neighborhoods and multiunit dwellings, and we want to see fast charging in urban areas and areas of high mobility demand.

According to the spending transparency platform OpenSecrets, Uber and Lyft have each spent close to $1 million so far in the first half of the year on lobbying efforts, though each employed fewer lobbyists overall. Data on third quarter lobbying spending is not yet available.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable reads and other tidbits

Keeping this short — and a bit of a mishmash — this week.

Elon Musk’s Boring Company received initial approval to build a transportation system that would shuttle passengers in Tesla vehicles via a network of tunnels under Las Vegas. The special use permit and franchise agreement would allow the Boring Company to expand its Vegas Loop system beyond its current 1.7-mile footprint that connects the Las Vegas Convention Center campus to a 29-mile route with 51 stations that would include stops at casinos along the Las Vegas Strip, the city’s football stadium and UNLV. It would eventually reach the McCarran International Airport.

Lyft released its first and long overdue safety report.

Miles, the universal rewards app that lets users earn miles for every mile traveled, has launched in Japan. The expansion aims to build off of Miles’ marketplace, which now offers users 500 personalized rewards from 350 brands, including Garmin, Hulu, Japan Airlines, Red Bull and Under Armour.

Motional, the autonomous vehicle joint venture between Hyundai Motor Group and Aptiv, is partnering with Transport for New South Wales too help the Australian state better understand the technology and possibilities that come with a driverless ride-hail service.

Plus, self-driving truck technology developer, said it plans to expand into Europe. The company has hired Bosch veteran Sun-Mi “Sunny” Choi as senior director of business development to accelerate that European expansion.

Rivian, which filed to go public, said in a recent regulatory filing that it expects to record a quarterly net loss of up to $1.28 billion due to costs associated with the start of production of its debut truck. The net loss for the period ended Sept. 30 will range from $1.18 billion to $1.28 billion, according to the preliminary results.

Stellantis, the automaker formed through a merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Groupe PSA, reached a preliminary deal with LG Energy Solution to produce battery cells and modules in North America.

Tesla continued its profitability streak, reporting net income of $1.62 billion in the third quarter. That’s a nearly fivefold increase from the $331 million it earned in the same period last year. The record-setting profit came thanks to record sales and despite a global chip shortage and supply chain constraints that have affected the industry. Notably, Tesla was able to earn that record net income (on a GAAP basis) even as the vast majority of its sales came from its cheaper Model Y and Model 3 electric vehicles.

Wolfe Research went out and rode in an Argo AI autonomous test vehicle. The tl;dr is that they saw great progress and the vehicle was able to navigate an environment packed with cars, double parked trucks, street-cleaners, e-bikes, aggressively driven scooters, and pedestrians. “For the most part the vehicle performed complex decisions (yielding or not yielding to pedestrians, unprotected left turns, adjusting to construction),” the report said. Their takeaway: “We tested an Argo’s AV. And it reinforced our view that this technology is coming sooner, with potential for greater disruption than investors currently appreciate.”

Zoox, the autonomous vehicle startup acquired last year by Amazon, is expanding to Seattle. The company plans to open in 2022 an engineering office and operations facility, which will act as a base for its autonomous vehicle testing. The company, which today employs more than 1,300 people, tests its autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Foster City, California, near its headquarters. The company started testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads in Las Vegas in 2019.

I spoke to co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson and he said Zoox has been eyeing Seattle as a test site for years. The company even completed a small pilot in the city in late 2019. The frequency of rain in the area is one of the primary reasons Zoox picked Seattle, Levinson said.

Zoox has developed some advanced weather proofing, including what Levinson described as “active rain mitigation” for its sensors. “We’re very excited about that and we want to test it and validate it in the rain; Seattle is a great place for that,” Levinson said.

While Zoox is setting up operations in the city where Amazon is based, Levinson emphasized that the two companies still operate separately. The Zoox office and operations hub will not be housed on the Amazon campus, for instance. Zoox will take advantage of its proximity to Amazon to work with the company on various collaborations in the future, Levinson said, describing that as an “extra bonus.”




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