XPRIZE names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

XPRIZE, the non-profit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning XPRIZE .

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

XPRIZE set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists including: New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based, learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning, and human computer interactions, and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion, merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary ad secondary school level. Some research, cited by XPRIZE, indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning XPRIZE field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15 month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, XPRIZE said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

Aptiv takes its self-driving car ambitions (and tech) to China

Aptiv, the U.S. auto supplier and self-driving software company, is opening an autonomous mobility center in Shanghai to focus on the development and eventual deployment of its technology on public roads.

The expansion marks the fifth market where Aptiv has set up R&D, testing or operational facilities. Aptiv has autonomous driving operations in Boston, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Singapore. But China is perhaps its most ambitious endeavor yet.

Aptiv has never had any AV operations in China, but it does have a long history in the country including manufacturing and engineering facilities. The company, in its earlier forms as Delphi and Delco has been in China since 1993 — experience that will be invaluable as it tries to bring its autonomous vehicle efforts into a new market, Aptiv Autonomous Mobility President Karl Iagnemma told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

“The long-term opportunity in China is off the charts,” Iagnemma said, noting a recent McKinsey study that claims the country will host two-thirds of the world’s autonomous driven miles by 2040 and be trillion-dollar mobility service opportunity.

“For Aptiv, it’s always been a question of not ‘if’, but when we’re going to enter the Chinese market,” he added.

Aptiv will have self-driving cars testing on public roads by the second half of 2019.

“Our experience in other markets has shown that in this industry, you learn by doing,” Iagnemma explained.

And it’s remark that Iagnemma can stand by. Iagnemma is the co-founder of self-driving car startup nuTonomy, one of the first to launch a robotaxi service in 2016 in Singapore that the public—along with human safety drivers — could use.

NuTonomy was acquired by Delphi in 2017 for $450 million. NuTonomy became part of Aptiv after its spinoff from Delphi was complete.

Aptiv is also in discussions with potential partners for mapping and commercial deployment of Aptiv’s vehicles in China.

Some of those partnerships will likely mimic the types of relationships Aptiv has created here in the U.S., notably with Lyft . Aptiv’s self-driving vehicles operate on Lyft’s ride-hailing platform in Las Vegas and have provided more than 40,000 paid autonomous rides in Las Vegas via the Lyft app.

Aptiv will also have to create new kinds of partnerships unlike those it has in the U.S. due to restrictions and rules in China around data collection, intellectual property and creating high resolution map data.

Uber spent $457 million on self-driving and flying car R&D last year

Uber spent $457 million last year on research and development of autonomous vehicles, flying cars (known as eVTOLs) and other “technology programs” and will continue to invest heavily in the futuristic tech even though it expects to rely on human drivers for years to come, according to the company’s IPO prospectus filed Thursday.

R&D costs at Uber ATG, the company’s autonomous vehicle unit, its eVTOL unit Uber Elevate and other related technology represented one-third of its total R&D spend. Uber’s total R&D costs in 2018 were more than $1.5 billion.

Uber filed its S-1 on Thursday, laying the groundwork for the transportation company to go public next month. This comes less than one month after competitor Lyft’s debut on the public market. Uber is listing under the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “UBER,” but has yet to disclose the anticipated initial public offering price.

Uber believes that autonomous vehicles will be an important part of its offerings over the long term, namely that AVs can increase safety, make rides more efficient and lower prices for customers.

However, the transportation company struck a more conservative tone in the prospectus on how and when autonomous vehicles will be deployed, a striking difference from the early days of Uber ATG when former CEO Travis Kalanick called AVs an existential risk to the business.

Uber contends there will be a long period of “hybrid autonomy” and it will continue to rely on human drivers for its core business for the foreseeable future. Uber said even when autonomous vehicle taxis are deployed, it will still need human drivers for situations that “involve substantial traffic, complex routes, or unusual weather conditions.” Human drivers will also be needed during concerts, sporting events and other high-demand events that will “likely exceed the capacity of a highly utilized, fully autonomous vehicle fleet,” the company wrote in the S-1.

Here’s an excerpt from the S-1:

Along the way to a potential future autonomous vehicle world, we believe that there will be a long period of hybrid autonomy, in which autonomous vehicles will be deployed gradually against specific use cases while Drivers continue to serve most consumer demand. As we solve specific autonomous use cases, we will deploy autonomous vehicles against them. Such situations may include trips along a standard, well-mapped route in a predictable environment in good weather.

Uber contends it is well-suited to balance that potentially awkward in-between phase when both human drivers and autonomous vehicles will co-exist on its platform.

“Drivers are therefore a critical and differentiating advantage for us and will continue to be our valued partners for the long-term,” Uber wrote.

Despite Uber’s forecast and more tempered tone, the company is pushing ahead on autonomous vehicles.

Uber ATG was founded in 2015 in Pittsburgh with just 40 researchers from Carnegie Robotics and Carnegie Mellon University . Today, Uber ATG has more than 1,000 employees spread out in offices in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

Uber acknowledged under the risk factors section of the S-1 that it could fail to develop and successfully commercialize autonomous vehicle technologies or could be undercut by competitors, which would threaten its ride-hailing and delivery businesses.

Uber’s view of which companies pose the biggest threat to the company was particularly interesting. The company named nearly a dozen potential competitors, a list that contained a few of the usual suspects like Waymo, GM Cruise and Zoox, as well as less-known startups such as May Mobility and Anthony Levandowski’s new company, Prontio.ai. Other competitors listed in the S-1 include Tesla, Apple, Aptiv, Aurora and Nuro. Argo AI, the subsidiary of Ford, was not listed.

ATG has built more than 250 self-driving vehicles and has three partnerships — Volvo, Toyota and Daimler — that illustrates the company’s mult-tiered strategy to AVs.

Uber has a first-party agreement with Volvo. Under the agreement announced in August 2016, Uber owns Volvo vehicles, has added its AV tech and plans to deploy those cars on its own network.

Its partnership with Daimler is on the other extreme. In that partnership, announced in January 2017, Daimler will introduce a fleet of its own AVs on the Uber network. This is similar to Lyft’s partnership with Aptiv.

Finally, there’s Toyota, a new partnership just announced in August 2018, that is a hybrid of sorts of the other two. Uber says it expects to integrate its autonomous vehicle technologies into purpose-built Toyota vehicles to be deployed on its network.

Transportation weekly: Nuro dreams of autonomous lattes, what is a metamaterial, Volvo takes the wheel

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Read the first edition hereAs I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. An email subscription is coming!

This week, we’re shoving as much transportation news, tidbits and insights in here as possible in hopes that it will satiate you through the end of the month. That’s right, TechCrunch’s mobility team is on vacation next week.

You can expect to learn about metamaterials, how traffic is creating genetic peril, the rise of scooter docks in a dockless world, new details on autonomous delivery startup Nuro and a look back at the first self-driving car fatality.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

nuro-scout-coffee

Mark Harris is here again with an insider look into autonomous vehicle delivery bot startup Nuro. The 3-year-old company recently announced that it raised $940 million in financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

Harris, during his typical gumshoeing, uncovers what Nuro might do with all that capital. It’s more than just “scaling up” and “hiring talent” — the go-to declarations from startups flush with venture funding. No, Nuro’s founders have some grand ideas from automated kitchens and autonomous latte delivery to smaller robots that can cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. Nuro recently told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it wants introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years.

The company’s origin story and how it’s tied to autonomous trucking startup Ike is just as notable as its “big ideas.”

Come for the autonomous lattes; stay for the story … How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s money


Dig In

What do metamaterials and Volvo have in common? Absolutely nothing. Except they’re both worth higlighting this week.

First up, is an article by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey on a company called Lumotive that has backing from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures. The names Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures aren’t the most interesting components of the story. Nope, it’s metamaterials.

Let us explain. Most autonomous vehicles, robots and drones use lidar (or light detection and ranging radar) to sense their surroundings. Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; in short, lidar helps create a 3D map of the world. (Here’s a complete primer on WTF is Lidar).

However, there are limitations to lidar sensors, which rely on mechanical platforms to move the laser emitter or mirror. That’s where metamaterials come in. In simple terms, metamaterials are specially engineered surfaces that have embedded microscopic structures and work as a single device. Metamaterials remove the mechanical piece of the problem, and allow lidar to scan when and where it wants within its field of view.

Metamaterials delivers the whole package: they’re durable and compact, solve problems with existing lidar systems, and are not prohibitively expensive.

If they’re so great why isn’t everyone using them? For one, it’s a new and emerging technology. Lumotive’s product is just a prototype. And Intellectual Ventures (IV) holds the patents for known techniques, Coldewey recently explained to me. IV is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech — something it has done with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out.

Shifting gears to Volvo

Automakers are rolling out increasingly robust advanced driver assistance systems in production cars. These new levels of automation are creating a conflict of sorts. One on hand, features like adaptive cruise control and lane steering can make commutes less stressful and arguably safer. And yet, they can also cause overconfidence in the system and complacency among drivers. (Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted that complacency is a problem among owners using its advanced ADAS feature called Autopilot). (And yes, I wrote advanced ADAS; it sounds repetitive, but it’s meant to express higher levels of automation and a term I recently encountered from two respected sources)

Some argue that automakers shouldn’t deploy these kinds of automated features unless vehicles are equipped with driver-monitoring systems (DMS are essentially an in-car camera and accompanying software) that can ensure drivers are paying attention. Volvo is taking that a step further.

Driver Monitoring Camera in a Volvo research vehicle

The company announced this week that it will integrate DMS into its next-gen, SPA2-based vehicles beginning in the early 2020s and more importantly, enable its system to take action if the driver is distracted or intoxicated. The camera and other sensors will monitor the driver and will intervene if a clearly intoxicated or distracted driver does not respond to warning signals and is risking an accident involving serious injury or death. Under this scenario, Volvo could limit the car’s speed, call the Volvo on Call service on behalf of the driver or cause the vehicle to slow down and park itself on the roadside.

Volvo’s plans raise all kinds of questions, including privacy concerns and liability. The intent is to add a layer of safety. But it also adds complexity, which could compromise Volvo’s mission. The Autonocast, a podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, talk about Volvo’s plans in our latest episode. Check it out.


A little bird …

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

blinky-cat-bird

Remember two weeks ago when we dug into Waymo’s laser bears and wondered whether we had reached “peak” LiDAR? (Last year, there were 28 VC deals in LiDAR technology valued at $650 million. The number of deals was slightly lower than in 2017, but the values jumped by nearly 34 percent.)

It doesn’t look like we have. We’re hearing about several funding deals in the works or recently closed, a revelation that shows investors still see opportunity in startups trying to bring the next generation of light ranging and detection sensors to market.

Spotted …. Former Zoox CEO and co-founder Tim Kentley Klay was spotted at the Self-Racing Car event at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, Calif., this weekend.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering and announced it will kick off the roadshow for its IPO. That means the initial public offering will likely occur in the next two weeks. Here’s the S-1 that Lyft filed in early March. This latest announcement also revealed new details, including that its ticker symbol will be  “LYFT” — as one might expect — and that the IPO range is set for between $62 and $68 per share to sell 30,770,000 shares of Class A common stock. Lyft could raise up to $2.1 billion at the higher end of that range, or $1.9 billion at the lower end.

The Lyft news was big — and it’s a story we’ll be following for awhile. However, we wanted to highlight another one of Ingrid Lunden’s articles because it underscores a point I’ve been pushing for awhile: not every important move in the world of autonomous vehicles occurs in the big three of Detroit, Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley.

This week, Yandex, the Russian search giant that has been working on self-driving car technology, inked a partnership with Hyundai to develop software and hardware for autonomous car systems. This is Yandex’s first partnership with an OEM. But it’s not Hyundai’s first collaboration with an autonomous vehicle startup. (Hyundai has a partnership with Aurora too)

Yandex will work with Hyundai Mobis, the car giant’s OEM parts and service division, “to create a self-driving platform that can be used by any car manufacturer or taxi fleet” that will cover both a prototype as well as parts for other car-makers.

Other deals:


Snapshot

uber-bike-crash

One year ago, I parked on a small rise overlooking Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. The mostly dirt knoll, dotted with some trees and a handful of structures known out here as ramadas, was hardly remarkable. Just one other car sat in the disintegrating asphalt parking lot, the result of so many sun-baked days. A group of homeless people had set up at the picnic tables under a few of the structures, their dogs lolling nearby.

And yet, it was here, or specifically on the gleaming road below, that something extraordinary had indeed happened. Just days before, Elaine Herzberg was crossing Mill Avenue south of Curry Road when an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed her. The vehicle was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a human test driver behind the wheel.

I had been in the Phoenix area, a hub for testing autonomous vehicle technology, to moderate a panel on that very subject. But the panel had been hastily canceled by organizers worried about the optics of such a discussion. And so I picked up Starsky Robotics CEO Stefan Seltz Axmacher who was also in town for this now-canceled panel, and we drove to site where Herzberg had died.

I wrote at the time, that “March 18 changed everything—and nothing—in the frenzied and nascent world of autonomous vehicles.” One year later, those words are still correct. The incident dumped a bucket of ice water over the figurative heads of autonomous vehicle developers. Everyone it seemed, had sobered up. Testing was paused, dozens of companies assessed their own safety protocols. Earnest blogs were written. Lawsuits were filed.

And yet, the cogs on the AV machine haven’t stopped turning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Innovation can sometimes “make the world a better place.” But it’s rarely delivered in a neat little package, no strings attached.

I’m hardly the first to reflect or write about this one-year anniversary. There are many takes, some of them hot, others not so much. And there are a few insightful ones; Autonocast co-host Niedermeyer has one entitled 10 Lessons from Uber’s Fatal Self-Driving Car Crash that’s worth reading.

Right now, I’m more interested in those lessons that haven’t been learned yet. It’s partly what prompted us to launch this newsletter, a weekly post that aims to be more than a historical record or a medium to evangelize AV technology.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again. Data is queen. This past week, mobility management startup Passport partnered with Charlotte, N.C., Detroit, Mich. and Omaha, Neb. and Lime to create a framework to apply parking principles, data analysis and more to the plethora of shared micromobility services.

And, in case you missed it, Bird had to let some people go late last week. We’ve learned a few more details since the news broke. That came out to about 40 people out of the ~900-person company. The layoffs were part of Bird’s annual performance review process and only affected U.S.-based employees, TechCrunch learned. Those laid off are eligible for severance, including health and medical benefits. Despite the layoffs, Bird is actively looking to hire for more than 100 positions throughout the company.

Meanwhile, Ford-owned Spin partnered with mobility startup Zagster to deploy scooters in 100+ new cities and campuses by the end of this year.

Megan Rose Dickey


Notable reads

Traffic affects more than people. Take a look at the map pictured above. See the red line? That’s Interstate 15 in southern California. To the east, are inland communities and eventually the San Bernardino National Forest and San Jacinto Mountains.

To the west, are the Santa Ana Mountains and an increasingly isolated family of 20 cougars, the Los Angeles Times reports this week. The 15 and the heavy traffic on it is putting pressure on the gene pool. In the past 15 years, at least seven cougars have crossed the 15. Just one sired 11 kittens. This lack of genetic diversity — the lower documented for the species outside of the endangered Florida panther — could have devastating effects on mountain lions here. A study published in the journal Ecological Applications predicts extinction probabilities of 16 percent to 28 percent over the next 50 years for these lions.

In this specific case, the last natural wildlife corridor in the area — and perhaps the difference between survival and extinction —  is little Temecula Creek.

This phenomenon is happening in other areas as well, causing communities to toy with possible solutions. One option: shuttling the lions over the other side, a move that could cause all sorts of problems. In other places, such as an area near the Santa Monica Mountains, a wildlife overpass has been proposed.

Transit pain points

Meanwhile, digital and mobile ticketing and payment company CellPoint Mobile released a report this week that examines the rising cost of acquiring new riders, mobile technology limitations and outdated procurement processes. The titillatingly named report — Challenges Facing Municipal, Regional and National Transit Agencies in the United States — surveyed 103 ground and mass transit operators in the United States.

Some takeaways and key findings:

  • 30 percent of mass transit providers collect fares through a mobile app; only 39 percent have an app at all
  • 26 percent of transit operators say costs are their biggest challenges. Among metro mass transit agencies, that concern jumps to 40 percent
  • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of national operators and 24 percent of large transit agencies (1,000  to 10,000 employees) say that implementing mobile technology is their single biggest challenge.
  • Customer acquisition is the second-most common challenge in US transportation, cited by 23 percent national, 33 percent regional, and 17 percent of private operators.

Other items of note:


Testing and deployments

Lyft Scooters docks

Dockless scooters have been all the rage; now it seems that cities and scooters startups are considering whether free-floating micromobility might need to be reined in a skosh.

Lyft, which has scooters in 13 cities, recently experimented with parking racks. These parking racks or docks are designed specifically for scooters. The company set up these docking stations in Austin during SXSW and released a handy Guide to Good Scootiquette to encourage better and safer rider behavior.

Meanwhile, an industry around scooter management is emerging. Swiftmile, a startup that developed light electric vehicle charging systems for bike share, has new solar-powered charging platforms for scooters. TechCrunch met Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche in Austin earlier this month and learned that a number of cities are interested in deploying these systems. Swiftmile’s system not only charges the scooters, it also can provide scooter companies with diagnostics and keep the device locked in the dock if it’s malfunctioning. The docks can be programmed to lock the scooters up during certain hours — bar closing time would seem like an optimal time — to keep them from being misused. Systems like these could help scooter companies like Bird and Lime extend the life of their scooters and keep local officials happy.

Autonomous street sweepers

ENWAY and Nanyang Technological University are deploying autonomous street sweepers in the inner city of Singapore as part of a project with National Environmental Agency Singapore. The project began this month and will run into September 2020.

Under the pilot, ENWAY’s autonomous sweeper will clean an area of more than 12 kilometers of roads every day. The sweeper is equipped with numerous sensors, including 2D and 3D lidars, 3D cameras, GNSS. The base vehicle is a retrofitted all-electric compact road sweeper from Swiss manufacturer Bucher Municipal.

The company aims to commercialize autonomous cleaning on public ground in Singapore and abroad.

A demo of the sweeper is in the video below.

Silvercar scales up

On the other end of the transportation spectrum, Silvercar by Audi has rolled out a delivery and pick up service in downtown locations in New York and San Francisco. Silvercar customers can request their rental be dropped off and picked up at home or a location of their choosing for an additional fee. Silvercar also announced plans to bring its premium rental experience to Boston at Logan International Airport on April 15.

If you’ve never heard of Silvercar, you’re forgiven. It’s not exactly widespread. The company aims to remove the headache of traditional car rental. I recently tried it out in Austin during SXSW and found that it is convenient, and works pretty well, but doesn’t remove some of the annoying pinch points of car rentals. Yes, there are no lines. When I got off the plane in Austin, I received a message that my car was ready and to hail my driver who picked me up curbside, drove me to the Silvercar operation, and brought me to my Audi. I used the app to unlock the vehicle.

That’s cool. What would be even better is skipping all those steps and being able to access the vehicle right there in the airport without interacting with anyone. (Granted, not everyone wants that) This new delivery and pickup service in New York and San Francisco gets closer to that sweet spot.

Other stuff:


On our radar

New York Auto Show is coming up and I’ll be in the city right before the show. But then it’s back to the west coast for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, a one-day event held April 18 at UC Berkeley. I’ll be interviewing Anthony Levandowski on stage and moderating a panel with Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson and Uber ATG Toronto chief Raquel Urtasun to talk about building the self-driving stack and how AI is used to help vehicles understand and predict what’s happening in the world around them and make the right decisions.

Also, the PAVE Coalition is hosting its first public demonstration event April 5-7 at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. The public will have an opportunity to ride in a self-driving car, and interactive displays will help visitors understand the technology behind self-driving cars and their potential benefits.

Finally, one electric vehicle thing we’ve been following. Columbus, Ohio won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Smart City Challenge and we’ve been tracking the city’s progress and its efforts to increase electric vehicle adoption.

One of the organizers told TechCrunch that since the beginning of 2017, the cumulative new EV registrations in the Columbus metropolitan area have increased by 121 percent. New EV registrations over this period outpaced the 82 percent expansion in the Midwest region and the 94 percent growth seen across the U.S. over the same time period.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos en dos semanas.

Transportation Weekly: Uber’s spending habits, Tesla Model Y, scooters and AVs in Austin

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up by reading the first edition here or check out last week’s edition, which offered the gamut of mobility news from Lyft and Bird to Waymo’s laser bears and cybersecurity.

As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. An email subscription is coming!

This week we’ll focus on the city of Austin, gain insight into Uber’s spending habits, do a little scooter number crunching, the Tesla Model Y, and the so-called “race” — an overused and inaccurate term — to develop autonomous vehicles.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.uber atg pittsburgh office

Mark Harris is back with new details on Uber’s autonomous vehicle technology program. The upshot: Uber was spending $20 million a month to develop self-driving technologies.

The new information, gleaned from recently unsealed court documents, provides new insight into the company’s past activities and what that might mean for its upcoming IPO.

Harris writes: “The figures, dating back to 2016, paint a picture of a company desperate to meet over-ambitious autonomy targets and one that is willing to spend freely, even recklessly, to get there. As Uber prepares for its IPO later this year, the new details could prove an embarrassing reminder that the company is still trailing in its efforts to develop technology that founder Travis Kalanick called “existential” to Uber’s future.”

This historical look at Uber and its self-driving tech unit, Uber ATG, should be considered alongside more recent news, including that it’s in negotiations with investors, including the SoftBank Vision Fund, to secure an investment as large as $1 billion for its autonomous vehicles unit.


Dig In

After five days in Austin for SXSW, I headed to Los Angeles, actually Hawthorne, for Tesla’s Model Y unveiling. In many ways, this was like all the other Tesla events I’ve attended: the pumpy music and mood lighting, the designed-to-inspire kick off video, the Tesla superfans (pictured below), and the long lines for a brief test ride.

Tesla Model y unveiling

And yet, something was different. The Model Y unveil reminded me of other more traditional automaker reveals. There were mutterings at the event, and wild cries on Twitter, of disappointment (there were plenty of platitudes as well). Many expected something more exciting than this Model 3 doppelganger.

The Model Y is the kind of next act one might expect from an established and more cautious automaker. And while the market’s reaction was negative, there were folks who noted that the Model Y’s likeness to the 3 meant it was getting serious about selling vehicles.

And that’s not a bad thing — accept for two niggling details. First, the Model Y is so similar to the 3 that it could suffer from buyer malaise or cannibalization of one of the two vehicles. Secondly, even if everyone loved this vehicle and Tesla was poised to take advantage of these perceived efficiencies gained from sharing at least 75 percent of the parts with the Model 3, the Y isn’t coming until fall 2020.

That lengthy timeline raises a lot of questions that we’ll be (and surely others) digging into in the coming weeks and months. Where Tesla chooses to produce the Model Y is perhaps the most important, unanswered question.

Tesla Model Y prototype

 


A little bird …

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

blinky-cat-bird

Welp, we didn’t anticipate this happening. Two tips turned into stories this week: Ford expanding its autonomous vehicle program to Austin and GM Cruise ramping up its hiring machine with plans to hire at least 1,000 more engineers by the end of the year.

What else are we hearing? There’s a new autonomous trucking company coming out of stealth. We’ll share more soon.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

It’s not a done deal, yet. But it’s just an intriguing. Uber is in talks with Softbank Vision Fund and Toyota to raise $1 billion for its self-driving unit Uber ATG. This investment would give Uber ATG a valuation of between $5 billion and $10 billion, WSJ reported. The talks are fluid and could still fall apart, these people warned.

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes investment and partnership activity in the autonomous vehicle space these days. In short, these relationships are getting messy and hard to follow.

Let’s not forget that Softbank’s Vision Fund already has a nearly 20 percent stake in GM’s self-driving subsidiary GM Cruise following its $2.2 billion investment in 2018.

Then there’s Volkswagen AG, which is in continued talks with Ford to partner on self-driving car technologies. The framework of the agreement is expected to include VW making an investment into Ford-backed autonomous vehicle startup Argo AI.

VW already has other partnerships. VW Group, Intel’s  computer vision subsidiary Mobileye  and Champion Motors said in November they plan to deploy Israel’s first self-driving ride-hailing service in 2019 through a joint venture called New Mobility in Israel. VW also has a partnership with AV startup Aurora to integrate self-driving systems in custom-designed electric shuttles for VW’s new Moia brand.

Other deals:

  • Flight-hailing startup Blackbird raises $10 million
  • Drivezy, India’s vehicle-sharing startup is raising more than $100 million
  • BMW i Ventures invested in Bright Machines, a San Francisco-based company that has combined software and robotics to help automotive, computer and electronic brands improve product quality, throughput, and factory optimization.
  • Toyota Motor, DENSO Corporation, and Toyota Tsusho Corporation made a $15 million investment into connected vehicle services startup Airbiquity. The four parties will collaborate to accelerate the development and commercialization of an automotive grade over-the-air (OTA) system enabling remote vehicle software updates and management.

  • Freight railroad owner Genesee & Wyoming is considering a sale of all or part of itself, Bloomberg reported

Snapshot

I spent the week in Austin to participate in a number of SXSW-related events, including a couple of panels. As MRD notes in the micromobility section below, scooters were everywhere. And I used them a lot.

Here’s what many might not have considered as they zipped along the streets, and sidewalks of Austin. The new new new thing often kills off something else, or at least forces it to change.

Which brings me to pedicabs. The snapshot below is a long lineup of empty pedicabs in downtown Austin. I saw these pedicabs-sans-riders everywhere in Austin. I remember SXSW just one year ago and the pedicabs were full; I took them several times that week. But now, scooters and bike share are here, and the pedicabs seem to be the ones suffering the most. I hired a pedicab during my stay and the driver confirmed my observations: they’re waiting much longer for customers now.

Sometimes that disruption can hit the new new thing too. Take bike share. The Austin City Council on approved in February 2018 the creation of a “dockless” bike share pilot program. Some companies were already operating these services; this action created a regulatory framework. But then scooters came en masse.

City officials and one dockless mobility executive told me that scooters upended bike share, and prompted companies to take some of their bikes off the streets do to lack of demand.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

It seems like everyone is riding scooters now. Case in point, Austin during SXSW. MRD weighs in on what went down.

I wasn’t in Austin this week for SXSW. And it’s a good thing I wasn’t because there were reports of a tornado! Well, a tornado of scooters. According to The Verge, scooters and bikes were out and about, enabling the hundreds of thousands of conference goers to get from one bar to the next — and from one session to the other.

“Some of the astounding sights I’ve seen in the past few days include multiple vicious-looking wipeouts, a man cranking the accelerator and doing donuts in a crowded parking lot, and scooters littering the gutters of East 6th Street while throngs of people avoid tripping over them,” The Verge’s Nick Statt wrote. “At one point, I read that a man was found riding one down the shoulder of an Austin highway. Riders here are disregarding all manner of street signage and traffic lights; some people flagrantly speed the wrong way down streets.”

In other micromobility news

Micromobility data platform Populus raised some skrillz — $3.1 million, to be exact. That’s in part because, while cities are down for this new era of transportation and operators are down to share their data, cities still have to find out what to do with this data and how to extract learnings from it.

This is where Populus comes in. Populus raised the seed round from Precursor Ventures, Relay Ventures and others to help cities make sense of the influx of transportation data. This brings the startup’s total funding to $3.85 million.

And  … just because scooters are hot right now, doesn’t mean companies aren’t facing headwinds. The Information reported that Bird has laid off between 4 to 5 percent of its workforce.

Megan Rose Dickey


Notable reads

Navigant Research released its annual, and often controversial autonomous vehicle leaderboard report, by principal analyst Sam Abuelsamid. The Navigant Research Leaderboard examines the strategy and execution of 20 leading automated driving system companies and rates them based on 10 criteria, including vision; go-to market strategy; partners; production strategy; technology; sales, marketing, and distribution; product capability; product quality and reliability; product portfolio; and staying power.

The leaders, in Navigant’s view are:

  1. Waymo
  2. GM Cruise
  3. Ford autonomous vehicles
  4. Aptiv
  5. Intel-Mobileye
  6. Volkswagen Group
  7. Daimler-Bosch
  8. Baidu
  9. Toyota
  10. . Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance

Other quotable notables:

With the rise of autonomous delivery bots — or at least news of all the capital they’re raising — it’s worth revisiting a white paper that KPMG put out in November called Autonomy Delivers: An oncoming revolution in the movement of goods. The report notes how e-commerce is pushing this delivery phenomenon forward. Two forecasts worth noting:

  • expecting no acceleration in e-commerce adoption trends, KMPG estimates that by 2040 e-commerce will reduce shopping trips in the U.S. by 30 percent. It could be as high as 50 percent.
  • as a result, delivery vehicle miles traveled will skyrocket from 23 billion annual miles to more than 78 billion by 2040.

Testing and deployments


Ford continues to expand its autonomous vehicle program. This time, the automaker is
setting up shop in Austin. During my week in Austin for SXSW, I had heard rumors that Ford was preparing to open an autonomous vehicle program there. A number of Ford executives were on the ground in Austin during SXSW to participate in panels and other events including one I moderated at the Smart Mobility Summit.

That chatter was confirmed by a new job listing for an autonomous vehicles “market specialist” based in Austin. Austin is the fifth city to join the automaker’s testing program, which already includes Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles is getting ready for a widespread deployment of scooters. About seven companies already have permission to operate on a conditional basis, according to Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s general manager Seleta Reynolds. Now it’s about to get bigger.

The city recently launched a one-year dockless on-demand personal mobility program. As part of that program, the LADOT accepted applications from companies seeking one-year permits. Eleven companies applied for permission to operate about 38,000 dockless devices. The city is prepping for coming deluge by creating designated parking areas and other signage.

That sounds like a lot; and it is. But it could have been a much higher number. If these companies had maxed out the total number allowed under the permit, it could have meant 160,000 scooters in Los Angeles.

Why wouldn’t Bird, Lime, Spin and others max out the allowable 10,500 scooters per permit? Here’s one thought: cost and supply.

The annual permit application fee is a non-refundable $20,000. Companies also most pay $130 fee per vehicle annually if they’re operating in non-disadvantage communities (DAC). LADOT is allowing companies a maximum of 3,000 scooters in non-DAC areas, 5,000 in DACs in San Fernando Valley and up to 2,500 in DACs in outside of San Fernando Valley. Permits for scooters in DACs are $39 per vehicle, a 70 percent reduction in that fee.

That means if a company could max out and hit the 10,500 scooter limit, which includes DACs, it would be looking at more than $700,000 in permitting fees to operate for a year.

Two car things

  • Gridwise, a mobile app designed to increases rideshare drivers’ hourly earnings by helping them find more rides and track their performance, launched in a number of cities, including Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Gridwise app is already available in numberous U.S. cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.
  • And Citymobil, one of the largest Russian taxi aggregators, has teamed up with Gazprom to launch a taxi runs on natural gas. About 500 taxi cars that participate with Citymobil have already been converted to work on methane. By the end of the year, their number is expected to reach 10,000.

On our radar

There is a lot of transportation-related activity this month.

Nvidia GTC

TechCrunch will be at Nvidia’s annual GPU Technology Conference from March 18 to 21 in San Jose.

The 4th annualADAS Sensors 2019 conference and expo held March 20 to 21 in Detroit Michigan. See the full conference agenda at: http://www.adassensors.com/agenda.html

Self Racing Cars

The annual Self Racing Car eventwill be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California. Sign up to participate or drop them a line at contact@selfracingcars.com.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

Argo.AI acquires permit to test autonomous vehicles in California

Argo.AI, the self-driving car startup that burst onto the scene in 2017 with $1 billion in backing from Ford, has obtained a permit to test its autonomous vehicles in California.

The permit, issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, is for one vehicle and two drivers.

Unlike other self-driving car companies, California isn’t the first, or even third, market where Argo.AI is testing its tech.

The company, which founded by former Google self-driving project veteran Bryan Salesky and Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s former engineering lead Peter Rander, has been busy in its short life, including acquiring LiDAR company Princeton Lightwave.

Argo.AI does much of its testing in Pittsburgh, where it’s based. The company is also testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Miami, Detroit, and soon Washington D.C. as part of its relationship with Ford. Argo AI has had vehicles on DC’s streets for months now, mapping roads in the first step toward testing in autonomous mode. Ford said last year that the self-driving vehicles would begin testing on public roads in the first quarter of 2019.

Argo.AI is an independent company, although Ford is a major backer and has seats on its board. Ford is also Argo.AI’s only customer — at least for the moment. Argo.AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. Ford has said it plans to launch a self-driving taxi and delivery service in 2021.

It’s not clear, if Argo.AI’s plans to test in California are part of its relationship with Ford, related to a new customer, or part of its testing program. TechCrunch will update the story when it learns more.

This wristband detects an opiate overdose

A project by students at Carnegie Mellon could save lives. Called the HopeBand, the wristband senses low blood oxygen levels and sends a text message and sounds an alarm if danger is imminent.

“Imagine having a friend who is always watching for signs of overdose; someone who understands your usage pattern and knows when to contact [someone] for help and make sure you get help,” student Rashmi Kalkunte told IEEE. “That’s what the HopeBand is designed to do.”

The team won third place in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Opioid Challenge at the Health 2.0 conference in September and they are planning to send the band to a needle exchange program in Pittsburgh. They hope to sell it for less than $20.

Given the more than 72,000 overdose deaths in America this year a device like this could definitely keep folks a little safer.

Uber resumes testing self-driving cars nine months after deadly crash

An Uber self-driving car drives down 5th Street on March 28, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

Uber is returning to public roads in Pittsburgh nine months after an Uber self-driving car struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. However, Uber’s new testing program will be massively scaled back from the one it had a year ago.

At the start of 2018, Uber had an extensive testing program that operated in both the Pittsburgh and Phoenix metropolitan areas. Dozens of Uber cars were driving around both cities, racking up more than two million miles of testing under the supervision of safety drivers.

But the whole program came screeching to a halt in March, when a malfunctioning Uber car crashed into Herzberg. In-car video seemed to show the safety driver glancing down at her lap for several seconds before the crash; records later revealed that she was streaming a television show on her phone at the time.

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