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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A little bird …
We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.
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.
- 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
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
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:
- GM Cruise
- Ford autonomous vehicles
- Volkswagen Group
- . 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
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.
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
Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips.
Nos vemos la próxima vez.
Pixel Pass introduces Google’s new way to buy its phones
Many consumers, especially in the US, prefer to buy their phones from their mobile carriers, not really out of loyalty to the network. More often than not, it’s the subsidies and financing options that soften the blow when buying a new and more expensive smartphone. Manufacturers have, of course, started offering such options to convince people to buy phones directly for them, and Google’s new Pixel Pass takes that idea a bit further by putting Pixel 6 buyers knee-deep in its services for a long time.
As leaked before, Pixel Pass is Google’s answer to Apple One, but it comes with a unique twist. Both subscription programs revolve around each company’s services covering music streaming, gaming, and cloud storage. The difference is that Google is throwing in a Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro with that subscription.
Of course, another way of seeing it is that Google is offering its services as a bundle for buying a Pixel phone under a financing option. Pixel Pass lets you get a Pixel 6 for $45 a month or a Pixel 6 Pro for $55 per month, with an option to upgrade to a new phone after two years. In a way, this mirrors Apple’s own iPhone upgrade program, though, for 24 months instead of Apple’s 12.
The services that are included in Pixel Pass pretty much bundle Google’s most notable subscription offerings. There’s a 200GB Google One tier, both YouTube Premium and YouTube Music Premium, and Google Play Pass (which might be too easy to confuse with Pixel Pass). There’s also device protection courtesy of Preferred Care coverage.
Pixel Pass is available on Google Store, where you can get an unlocked Pixel 6 to use on any network. Alternatively, buyers can also get it through Google Fi with a phone plan and get a $5 discount on the monthly fee. Pixel Pass subscribers can cancel anytime, but they will have to pay the remaining value of the Pixel phone at its regular price.
Pixel 6 Magic Eraser removes uninvited people from photos
A few years ago, Google teased the almost magical ability that would allow people to remove “distracting objects” from photos, whether they be a fence or innocent bystanders. While that functionality has been available on some photo editing software like Photoshop, it was far from automatic nor convenient for mere mortals. It took more than four years for that moment to finally come, and Pixel 6 owners can now confidently take photos even when they know there are people or things lurking in the background.
Almost everyone who has tried to take a photo with a smartphone or a digital camera will have experienced the photobombing phenomenon at one point or another. It doesn’t even have to be people, even, as power lines and animals can sometimes get in the way of a perfect shot. A lot of the time, we’re unable to move these objects or wait for them to step out of the frame, but a Pixel 6 can now let you magically remove those after the fact.
It couldn’t be easier than simply loading up the photo in Google Photos and letting the app suggest what objects to remove from the background. You could also manually select the Magic Eraser tool and circle or brush over specific objects you want to be exorcised from the photo. All it takes is a few taps and doesn’t require any photo editing skills at all.
Of course, the secret sauce is Google’s favorite machine learning, which predicts what pixels would have looked like without those obstacles. It then tries to fill those in and erase distracting objects and people to produce what should have been the perfect moment. This seemingly magical ability does require some heavy ML and AI processing, which is why Google had to wait for its Tensor chip to become a reality in order to bring it to its Pixel phones.
That is also why Google Photos’ Magic Eraser is available only the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro starting October 28. The good news is that it will work on any photo you give it, including old ones taken using non-Pixel phones.
Brave privacy browser ditches Google in favor of its own search engine
Brave, the company behind the privacy-centric web browser by the same name, is betting big on its own search engine. Brave browser now defaults to the company’s search engine, offering it in the place of Google for users in select markets like the US, Canada, and the UK. Users in other countries will also see the change soon.
Brave announced the big change today, one that comes only a few months after the company rolled out its privacy search engine for anyone to use. Unlike the major search engine, Brave’s search engine doesn’t include user tracking, making it a more appealing option for the company’s users. Users in the US, UK, and Canada will now default to Brave Search instead of Google.
In addition, users in Germany will now default to Brave Search instead of DuckDuckGo and users in France will default to the privacy search engine instead of Qwant. Brave says it plans to rollout this default search engine change in other countries over “the next several months.” If you don’t want to wait, you can also manually change the Brave Browser’s default search engine to Brave Search.
The change applies to the latest versions of Brave browser on desktop, Android, and iOS, assuming you live in one of the aforementioned countries. As expected, users can still manually change the default search engine, so if you’d prefer to stick with Google, DuckDuckGo, or one of the alternatives, that remains an option.
In addition to the default browser change, Brave says it is also launching the Web Discovery Project for users who want to contribute to Brave Search. Under this, users can anonymously share data with the company for improving the search engine’s quality and coverage, Brave says, without the risk of the data being linked back to specific devices or users.
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