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Transportation Weekly: Polestar CEO speaks, Tesla terminology, and a tribute

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Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch . This is the fourth edition of our newsletter, a weekly jaunt into the wonderful world of transportation and how we (and our packages) move.

This week we chat with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath, dig into Lyft’s S-1, take note of an emerging trend in AV development, and check out an experiment with paving. Oh, and how could we forget Tesla.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here, here and here. 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). 


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.

This week, we’re featuring excerpts taken from a one-on-one interview with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath.

On February 27, Volvo’s standalone electric performance brand Polestar introduced its first all-electric vehicle, a five-door fastback called the Polestar 2. The EV, which has a 78 kWh battery pack and can travel 275 miles (estimated EPA guidance) on a single charge, will be manufactured at a new factory in Chengdu, China. Other notable specs: The infotainment system will be powered by Android OS, Polestar is offering subscriptions to the vehicle, and production starts in 2020.

Here is what Ingenlath had to say to me about …

EV charging infrastructure

To be very unpolitical, I think it would be totally stupid if we were to aim to develop electric charging infrastructure on our own or for our brand specifically. If you join the electric market today, of course, you would see partnerships; that’s sensible thing to do. Car companies together are making a big effort in getting out a network of necessary charging stations along the highway. 

That’s what we’re doing; we’re teaming up and have the contracts being designed and soon signed.

On the company’s approach to automation 

The terminology is important for us. We very clearly put that into a different picture, we’re not talking about, and we clearly do not ever want to label it, anautopilot.” The focus of this system is a very safe distance control, which brakes for you and accelerates for you, and of course, the lane keeping. This is not about developing an autopilot system, it is about giving your safety. And that’s where we don’t want to provoke people thinking that they have full rollout autopilot system there. But it is a system that helps you being safe and protected on the road.

I also reached out to Transportation Weekly readers and asked what they wanted to know and then sent some of those questions to Ingenlath.

TW Reader: How did it feel taking one of your personal styling elements – the C shaped rear lamps – from your previous brand over to Polestar?

Ingenlath: It’s an evolutionary process. Polestar naturally builds on its “mothers” DNA and as a new branch develops its own personality. Thor’s hammer, the rear light signature -—with each new model launch (Volvo and Polestar) those elements diverge into a brand specific species.

TW Reader: How much do you still get to do what you love, which is design?

Ingenlath: Being creative is still my main job, now applied on a broader scope — trying to lead a company with a creative and  brand building mindset. Still, I love the Fridays when I meet up with Robin and Max to review the models, sketches and new data. We really enjoy driving the design of both brands to new adventures.


Dig In

Tesla is finally going to offer customers a $35,000 Model 3. How the automaker is able to sell this electric vehicle at the long-awaited $35,000 price point is a big piece of that story — and one that some overlooked. In short, the company is blowing up its sales model and moving to an online only strategy. Tesla stores will close or be converted to “information centers” and retail employees will be laid off.

But this is not what we’re going to talk about today. Tesla has also brought back its so-called “full self-driving” feature, which was removed as an option on its website last year. Now it’s back. Owners can opt for Autopilot, which has automatic steering on highways and traffic-aware cruise control, or FSD.

FSD capability includes several features such as Navigate on Autopilot that is supposed to guide a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including navigating interchanges and making lane changes. FSD also includes Advanced Summon, Auto Lane Change, and Autopark. Later this year, the system will recognize and respond to traffic lights in more complex urban environments, Tesla says.

All of these features require the driver to be engaged (or ready to take over), yet it’s called “full self-driving.” Now Tesla has two controversially named automation features. (The other is Autopilot). As Andrew Hawkins at The Verge noted in his coverage, “experts are beginning to realize that the way we discuss, and how companies market, autonomy is significant.”

Which begs the obvious question, and one that I asked Musk during a conference call on Thursday. “Isn’t it a problem that you’re calling this full self-driving capability when you’re still going to require the driver to take control or be paying attention?” (I also wanted to ask a followup on his response, but the moderator moved onto the next reporter).

His response:

“We are very clear when you buy the car what is meant by full self driving. It means it’s feature complete, but feature complete requiring supervision.

As we get more — we really need billions of miles, if not maybe 10 billion sort of miles or kilometers on that order collectively from the fleet — then in our opinion probably at that point supervision is not required, but that will still be up to regulators to agree.

So we’re just very clear.  There’s really three steps: there’s being feature complete of full self driving that requires supervision, feature complete but not requiring supervision, and feature complete not requiring supervision and regulators agree.

In other Tesla news, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a crash, that at first glance seems to be similar to the fatal crash that killed Tesla owner Joshua Brown.


A little bird …

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

blinky-cat-bird

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is one of the hubs of autonomous vehicle development in the world. But what’s not so widely known — except for a group of government and company insiders — is that Mayor William Peduto is on the verge of issuing an executive order that will give more visibility into testing there. 

The city’s department of mobility and infrastructure is the central coordinator of this new executive order that aims to help guide testing and policy development there. The department is going to develop guidelines for AV testing, we’re told. And it appears that information on testing will be released to the public at least once a year.

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


Deal of the week

Daimler and BMW are supposed to be competitors. And they are, except with mapping (both part of the HERE consortium), mobility services (car sharing, ride-sharing), and now the development of highly automated driving systems. The deal is notable because it illustrates a larger trend that has emerged as the AV industry hunkers down into the “trough of disillusionment.” And that’s consolidation. If 2016, was the year of splashy acquisitions, then 2019 is shaping up to be chockfull of alliances and failures (of some startups).

Also interesting to note, and one that will make some AV safety experts cringe, both companies are working on Level 3 driving automation, a designation by the SAE that means conditional driving automation in which multiple high levels of automation are available in certain conditions, but a human driver must be ready to take over. This level of automation is the most controversial because of the so-called “hand off” problem in which a human driver is expected to take control of the wheel in time.

Speaking of partnerships, another deal that got our attention this week involved New York-based mapping and data analytics startup Carmera and Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development. TRI-AD is an autonomous drive unit started by Toyota with Denso and Aisin. TRI-AD’s mission is to take the research being done over at the Toyota Research Institute and turn its into a product.

The two companies are going to test a concept that will use cameras in Toyota test vehicles to collect data from downtown Tokyo and use it to create high definition maps for urban and surface roads.

TRI-AD considers this the first step towards its open software platform concept known as Automated Mapping Platform that will be used to support the scalability of highly automated driving, by combining data gathered from vehicles of participating companies to generate HD maps. AMP is new and has possible widespread implications at Toyota. And TRI-AD is full of A-listers, including CEO James Kuffner, who came from the Google self-driving project and Nikos Michalakis, who built Netflix’s cloud platform, and Mandali Khalesi, who was at HERE.

Read more on Khalesi and the Toyota’s open source ambitions here.

Other deals:


Snapshot

Snapshot this week is a bit untraditional. It’s literally a snapshot of myself and my grandmother, months before her 100th birthday. Her memorial service was held Saturday. She died at 101.

I suppose I could blame my emotions and timing for her sudden inclusion in this week’s newsletter. But if Evelyn deserves a tribute anywhere, it’s here at TechCrunch.

I often wonder, that if given the opportunity, what technical field she would have ended up in? Given her specific skill set, I think she would have been a wonderful mechanical engineer. She was a closet techie, a lover of science fiction who was equally fascinated by the very real breakthroughs in science and space travel that occurred throughout her lifetime. Her 30-year career as a factory worker at an avionics manufacturer certainly wasn’t romantic. But it did give her a certain technical acumen (not to mention tenacity) that I admired.

And, she was one of my favorite test car companions. She loved cars and fast ones, but not so much driving them. Every time I got a new press car, we’d hit the road and she’d encourage me to take the turns a bit faster — sometimes beyond my comfort zone.

She also loved road trips and in the 1920s and 30s, her father would drive the family on the mostly dirt roads from New Jersey to Vermont and even Canada. In her teens, she loved riding in the rumble seat, a feature found in a few vehicles at the time including the Ford Model A.

She was young at heart, until the very end. And my one regret is that I didn’t find a way to get her into an autonomous vehicle.

Next week, we’ll focus on the youngest drivers and one automotive startup that is targeting that demographic.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

Lyft’s S-1 lays out the risks associated with its micromobility business and its intent to continue relying on third parties to manufacture its bikes and scooters. Here’s a key nugget about adoption:

“While some major cities have widely adopted bike and scooter sharing, there can be no assurance that new markets we enter will accept, or existing markets will continue to accept, bike and scooter sharing, and even if they do, that we will be able to execute on our business strategy or that our related offerings will be successful in such markets. Even if we are able to successfully develop and implement our network of shared bikes and scooters, there may be heightened public skepticism of this nascent service offering.”

And another about seasonality:

“Our limited operating history makes it difficult for us to assess the exact nature or extent of the effects of seasonality on our network of shared bikes and scooters, however, we expect the demand for our bike and scooter rentals to decline over the winter season and increase during more temperate and dry seasons.”

Lyft, which bought bike-share company Motivate back in July, also released some data about its electric pedal-assist bikes this week, showing that the pedal assist bikes are, unsurprisingly, more popular than the traditional bikes. They also traveled longer distances and improved winter ridership numbers. Now, Lyft is gearing up to deploy 4,000 additional electric bikes to the Citi Bike system in New York City.

One more thing …

Google Maps has added a feature that lets users see Lime scooters, pedal bikes and e-bikes right from the transit tab in over 80 new cities around the world. Users can click the tab to find out if Lime vehicle is available, how long it’ll take to walk to the vehicle, an estimate of how much their ride could cost, along with total journey time and ETA.


Notable reads

If take the time to read anything this week (besides this newsletter), spend some time with Lyft’s S-1. The ride-hailing company’s prospectus mentions autonomous 109 times. In short, yeah, it’s something the company’s executives are thinking about and investing in.

Lyft says it has a two-pronged strategy to bring autonomous vehicles to market. The company encouraging developers of autonomous vehicle technology to use its open platform to get access to its network and enable their vehicles to fulfill rides on the Lyft platform. And Lyft is trying to build its own autonomous vehicle system at its confusingly named “Level 5 Engineering Center.”

  • The company’s primary investors are Rakuten with a 13 percent stake, GM with 7.8 percent, Fidelity with 7.7 percent, Andreessen Horowitz with 6.3 percent and Alphabet with 5.3 percent. GM and Alphabet have business units, GM Cruise and Waymo respectively, that are also developing AV technology.
  • Through Lyft’s partnership with AV systems developer and supplier Aptiv, people in Las Vegas have taken more than 35,000 rides in Aptiv autonomous vehicles with a safety driver since January 2018.
  • One of the “risks” the company lists is “a failure to detect a defect in our autonomous vehicles or our bikes or scooters”

Other quotable notables:

Check out the Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State report, a newly released report from Volvo Car USA and The Harris Poll called  The State of Electric Vehicles in America.


Testing and deployments

Again, deployments doesn’t always mean the latest autonomous vehicle pilot.

On Saturday, Sidewalk Labs hosted its Open Sidewalk event in Toronto. This is part of Sidewalk Toronto, a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a “mixed-use, complete community” on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront

The idea of this event was to share ideas and prototypes for making outdoor public space the “social default year-round.” One such prototype “hexagonal paving” got our attention because of its use case for traffic control and pedestrian and bicyclist safety. (Pictured below)

These individual precast concrete slabs are movable and permeable, can light up and give off heat. The idea is that these hexagonal-shaped slabs and be used to clear snow and ice in trouble spots and light up to warn drivers and pedestrians of changes to the street use or to illuminate an area for public uses or even designate bike lanes and hazard zones. And because they’re permeable they can be used to absorb stormwater or melted snow and guide it to underground stormwater management systems.

Sidewalk Labs tell me that the pavers have “plug and play” holes, which allow things like bike racks, bollards, and sign posts to be inserted. Sidewalk Labs initially built these with wood, and the new prototype is the next iteration, featuring modules built from concrete.


On our radar

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

The Geneva Motor Show: Press days are March 5 and March 6. Expect concept, prototype and production electric vehicles from Audi, Honda, Kia, Peugeot, Pininfarina, Polestar, Spanish car company Hispano Suiza, and Volkswagen.

SXSW in Austin: TechCrunch will be at SXSW this coming week. Here’s where I’ll be.

  • 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. March 9 at the Empire Garage for the Smart Mobility Summit, an annual event put on by Wards Intelligence and C3 Group. The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, will also be on hand.
  • 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. March 12 at the JW Marriott. The Autonocast and founding general partner of Trucks VC, Reilly Brennan will hold a SXSW podcast panel on automated vehicle terminology and other stuff.
  • 3:30 p.m over at the Hilton Austin Downtown, I’ll be moderating a panel Re-inventing the Wheel: Own, Rent, Share, Subscribe. Sherrill Kaplan with Zipcar, Amber Quist, with Silvercar and Russell Lemmer with Dealerware will join me.
  • TechCrunch is also hosting a SXSW party from 1 pm to 4 pm Sunday, March 10, 615 Red River St., that will feature musical guest Elderbrook. RSVP here

Self Racing Cars

Finally, I’ve been in contact with Joshua Schachter who puts on the annual Self Racing Car event, which will be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California.

There is still room for participants to test or demo their autonomous vehicles, drive train innovation, simulation, software, teleoperation, and sensors. Hobbyists are welcome. 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.

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A white supremacist website got hacked, airing all its dirty laundry

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Enlarge / Patriot Front members spray painting in Springfield, IL.

Unicornriot.ninja

Chat messages, images, and videos leaked from the server of a white supremicist group called the Patriot Front purport to show its leader and rank-and-file members conspiring in hate crimes, despite their claims that they were a legitimate political organization.

Patriot Front, or PF, formed in the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right rally, a demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in one death and 35 injuries when a rally attendee rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. PF founder Thomas Rousseau, started the group after an image posted online showed the now-convicted killer, James Alex Fields, Jr., posing with members of Vanguard America shortly before the attack. Vanguard America soon dissolved, and Rousseau rebranded it as PF with the goal of hiding any involvement in violent acts.

Since then, PF has strived to present itself as a group of patriots who are aligned with the ideals and values of the founders who defeated the tyranny of British colonists in the 18th century and paved the way for the United States to be born. In announcing the the formation of PF in 2017, Rousseau wrote:

The new name was carefully chosen, as it serves several purposes. It can help inspire sympathy among those more inclined to fence-sitting, and can be easily justified to our ideology [sic] and worldview. The original American patriots were nothing short of revolutionaries. The word patriot itself comes from the same root as paternal and patriarch. It means loyalty to something intrinsically based in blood.

Turbo cans and rubber roofing cement

But a published report and leaked data the report is based on present a starkly different picture. The chat messages, images, and videos purport to show Rousseau and other PF members discussing the defacing of numerous murals and monuments promoting Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ groups, and other social justice causes.

This chat, for instance, appears to show a PF member discussing the targeting of a civil rights mural in Detroit. When a member asks what the best way is to fully cover up a mural with paint, Rousseau is shown replying “It’s in the stencil guide. Turbo cans.” The stencil guide refers to these instructions provided to PF members showing how to effectively use spray paint and not get caught. The PF member also sent Rousseau pictures taken while scouting the mural.

When a different member discussed whether rubber roofing cement was suitable to covering a George Floyd memorial that had been treated with anti-graffiti clear coating, Rousseau allegedly responded: “Keep me posted as to your research and practice with this substance. Orders will be given out at the event.”

The data dump also appears to document the defacing of a monument in Olympia, Washington.

What it looked like before.
Enlarge / What it looked like before.

Unicorn.ninja

What it looked like after.
Enlarge / What it looked like after.

Unicorn.ninja

The leaked data purports to show a range of other illegal activities the group discussed. They include Rousseau informing members planning a rally in Washington DC that one participant will call 911 from a burner phone and make a false report to authorities.

“He will cite that there is a protest, he sees shields BUT NO WEAPONS, and everyone involved appears to be behaving peacefully, waving and handing out flyers, nonetheless he is a concerned citizen and suggests the police take a look into it to ensure everyone’s civil rights are safe,” Rousseau appeared to write. “He will add that it looks like we just arrived from the metro. This will soften the police up before our big visual contact on the bridge, and provide a little confusion and misinfo that’s within the realm of honest dialogue.”

Attempts to reach Rousseau or other PF members didn’t succeed.

Friday’s published report said that the leak comprised about 400 gigabytes of data and came from a self-hosted instance of RocketChat, an open source chat server that’s similar to Slack and Discord. It’s only the latest example of a hate group being hacked and its private discussions being dumped online. In 2019, the breach of the Iron March website revealed, among other things, that many of its members were members of the US Marines, Navy, Army, and military reserves.

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Supply chain attack used legitimate WordPress add-ons to backdoor sites

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Dozens of legitimate WordPress add-ons downloaded from their original sources have been found backdoored through a supply chain attack, researchers said. The backdoor has been found on “quite a few” sites running the open source content management system.

The backdoor gave the attackers full administrative control of websites that used at least 93 WordPress plugins and themes downloaded from AccessPress Themes. The backdoor was discovered by security researchers from JetPack, the maker of security software owned by Automatic, provider of the WordPress.com hosting service and a major contributor to the development of WordPress. In all, Jetpack found that 40 AccessPress themes and 53 plugins were affected.

Unknowingly providing access to the attacker

In a post published Thursday, Jetpack researcher Harald Eilertsen said timestamps and other evidence suggested the backdoors were introduced intentionally in a coordinated action after the themes and plugins were released. The affected software was available by download directly from the AccessPress Themes site. The same themes and plugins mirrored on WordPress.org, the official developer site for the WordPress project, remained clean.

“Users who used software obtained directly from the AccessPress website unknowingly provided attackers with backdoor access, resulting in an unknown number of compromised websites,” Ben Martin, a researcher with Web security firm Sucuri, wrote in a separate analysis of the backdoor.

He said the tainted software contained a script named initial.php that was added to the main theme directory and then included in the main functions.php file. Initial.php, the analysis shows, acted as a dropper that used base64 encoding to camouflage code that downloaded a payload from wp-theme-connect[.]com and used it to install the backdoor as wp-includes/vars.php. Once it was installed, the dropper self-destructed in an attempt to keep the attack stealthy.

The Jetpack post said evidence indicates that the supply chain attack on AccessPress Themes was performed in September. Martin, however, said evidence suggests the backdoor itself is much older than that. Some of the infected websites had spam payloads dating back nearly three years. He said his best guess is that the people behind the backdoor were selling access to infected sites to people pushing web spam and malware.

He wrote, “With such a large opportunity at their fingertips, you’d think that the attackers would have prepared some exciting new payload or malware, but alas, it seems that the malware that we’ve found associated with this backdoor is more of the same: spam, and redirects to malware and scam sites.”

The Jetpack post provides full names and versions of the infected AccessPress software. Anyone running a WordPress site with this company’s offerings should carefully inspect their systems to ensure they’re not running a backdoored instance. Site owners may also want to consider installing a website firewall, many of which would have prevented the backdoor from working.

The attack is the latest example of a supply chain attack, which compromises the source of a legitimate piece of software rather than trying to infect individual users. The technique allows miscreants to infect large numbers of users, and it has the benefit of stealth, since the compromised malware originates from a trusted provider.

Attempts to contact AccessPress Themes for comment were unsuccessful.

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Red Cross implores hackers not to leak data for 515k “highly vulnerable people”

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The Red Cross on Wednesday pleaded with the threat actors behind a cyberattack that stole the personal data of about 515,000 people who used a program that works to reunite family members separated by conflict, disaster or migration.

“While we don’t know who is responsible for this attack, or why they carried it out, we do have this appeal to make to them,” Robert Mardini, the director-general of the International Committee for the Red Cross, said in a release. “Your actions could potentially cause yet more harm and pain to those who have already endured untold suffering. The real people, the real families behind the information you now have are among the world’s least powerful. Please do the right thing. Do not share, sell, leak or otherwise use this data.”

Wednesday’s release said the personal data was obtained through the hack of a Switzerland-based subcontractor that stores data for the Red Cross. The data was compiled by at least 60 different Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies worldwide. The ICRC said it has no “immediate indications as to who carried out this cyber-attack” and is so far unaware of any of the compromised information being leaked or shared publicly.

Those affected had used Restore Family Links, a service the Red Cross operates in cooperation with the Red Crescent to reunite families. On Wednesday, the site was down. The Internet Archive last updated it on December 27, raising the possibility of the breach occurring a few weeks ago.

The release provided few details about the attack. It’s not clear if it was done by profit-motivated ransomware criminals, nation-state hackers, or others. Over the past few years, a rash of ransomware breaches has hit healthcare providers, forcing them in many cases to reroute ambulances and cancel elective surgeries. In 2020, the ICRC helped lead a coalition that called on nations around the world to crack down on cyberattacks involving hospitals and healthcare providers.

Last September, the ICRC confirmed it was on the receiving end of a hack the previous April that compromised login credentials and other data that could be used to target agencies within the intergovernmental organization. The earliest known date the hackers obtained access to the UN’s systems, Bloomberg News reported, was April 5, and the hackers remained active through at least August. The breach came to light when private researchers noticed login credentials for sale on the dark web.

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