The Station: Robotaxi apps on the rise, an AI pioneer’s new startup and mobility event highlightsJune 16, 2021
Hello and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.
Welp, the mobility event is over and we had loads of interesting interviews — and anyone with an Extra Crunch subscription can access the videos. For instance, Rita Liao moderated a panel with executives from three Chinese robotaxi companies — WeRide, AutoX and Momenta — that also test and develop in Europe and the United States.
One interesting takeaway on the regulations front is that policymaking for AVs in China is driven from the bottom up rather than a top-down effort by the central government, the three panelists explained. They also spoke about how foreign counterparts can crack open China’s market.
Jewel Li from AutoX laid out the challenges of operating in China:
I think it’s not as simple as opening up an office, right? It’s much more than that, to be able to succeed in the market. You need to build the landscape, you need to build the ecosystem, your own partners. The whole ecosystem chain is quite long. It’s quite complicated, involving government relations. It also involves the data that you have already accumulated. The driving experience has to fit in the local world. Many things comes into play.
Other highlights included my interview with Mate Rimac of Rimac Automobili, who disclosed how close the company came to failing, provided advice to fellow and aspiring founders and explained his interest in electric robotaxis. Then there was the discussion about the AV industry between Motional’s Karl Iagnemma and Aurora’s Chris Urmson — not an interview to miss. More recaps of the event will be published in the coming week.
Some other coverage from the event:Why Mate Rimac is working on electric robotaxis Scale to launch a mapping product to address the changing needs of its autonomous driving customers Motional CEO hints at an autonomous future in logistics Joby Aviation eyes Asia and Europe as early markets alongside North America
This week, as Kirsten Korosec mentioned above, we had our big Mobility event, where the leaders, upstarts and startups of the mobility world joined us on our virtual stage to talk about the future of moving people, goods and even ideas. I led a panel with Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig. We discussed the importance of mobility companies being equitable and accessible to everyone in a city, especially the most vulnerable, and how that affects profitability.
Something interesting that came out of my questioning was Reig’s comments about Revel achieving profitability. (The revelations about profitability were first shared in May, although Reig did provide a bit more color during the event.) For three months in the summer of 2020, Revel was full-company profitable, “so beyond just market profitability, beyond just unit economics,” said Reig. “I’m talking my salary and everything else that’s involved in running a company.”
This was back when Revel was only an e-moped company and before it added several other business lines, including EV charging hubs, e-bikes and ride-hailing. We don’t know exactly how Revel is measuring profitably — are we talking EBITDA? Gross profit? — and on the panel we didn’t have time to dig into the money salad. But it is notable as the company settles into its newest business line of ride-hailable Tesla vehicles. We’ll be watching Revel closely as it continues to ramp up its different revenue streams. Maybe someday they’ll go public so we can have a closer look.
Let’s get back to the important issue of whether or not mobility companies, like Revel, can help cities achieve equitability of movement. Movement should be a right, not a privilege, but it often feels like we’re playing the same game with different vehicles today. Mobility has always benefited those at the top more, so why should it be any different today? Does the moral highway really drive us toward justice? What good reason do companies have to spend their time and money actually making sure their services help cities achieve equity of movement?
“I think if you’re doing the work that theoretically is to serve people then you should want to serve all people,” said Butler. “For companies, I would say that people like to say it takes too much time or costs too much money to do things equitably, but whether or not you’re retrofitting a house or retrofitting your company, whenever you retrofit something it costs more money. So if you think about equity as something you build in from the beginning, it will actually save you money and take less time than if you try to do it later because someone tells you to do it or you’ve had some controversy.”
You can watch the full talk on Extra Crunch.
Some micro morsels…
Leo Riders, an e-scooter platform for those in the hospitality industry, is expanding into Athens, Greece, with more than 20 agreements with local hotels. Hotels like Brown Hotel and Colors Urban Hotel will now be able to offer guests e-scooters to ride around the city. Sounds sick. What could go wrong?!
E-scooter subscription and sales company Unagi is expanding its “All-Access” service” to Chicago, D.C. and some other regions around those two great American cities.
Lime is extending its “Ride to Recovery” initiative — which provides free e-scooter and bike rides to vaccine appointments — to the Fourth of July. Riders can access a promo code for two free 15-minute rides here, as well as information on vaccines and where to get one.
Future Motion’s Onewheel, the unique and fun-looking vehicle that’s like a skateboard with a giant wheel in the middle of the board, has reached 52.5 million miles. They wanted me to tell you that’s 220 trips to the moon and back, 2,100 times around the earth and nearly 18,000 trips between Santa Cruz, California and NYC.
— Rebecca BellanDeal of the week
Didi, the Chinese ride-hailing company, has already raised tens of billions of dollars from the private market. Now it’s ready to tap the public one.
The company filed for an IPO, and digging a bit into the filing here’s what we find. As TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm notes, the S-1 shows how quickly and painfully COVID-19 blunted Didi’s global operations. As COVID-19 numbers have fallen and economies have opened back up, Didi has settled back to late-2019 gross transaction volume numbers.
Didi manage a GTV recovery in China. However, its aggregate numbers are flatter, and recent quarterly trends are not incredibly attractive. And taking a historical look at its financial figures, it’s clear that Didi has never generated positive operating income. The company’s revenues in Q1 2021 were smaller than its Q3 and Q4 2020 numbers, for example.
A few other items of note, the company reported a $1.7 billion loss on $21.6 billion in revenue for 2020. And some of its largest stakeholders are SoftBank with 21.5%, Uber with 12/5% and Tencent with 6.8%.
Other deals that got my attention …
Branch Insurance, a startup offering bundled home and auto insurance, raised $50 million in a Series B funding round led by Anthemis Group. Acrew, Cherry Creek Holdings and existing backers Greycroft, HSCM Bermuda, American Family Ventures, SignalFire, SCOR P&C Ventures, Foundation Capital and Tower IV also participated in the round. The startup has raised $82.5 million in total funding since its inception in 2017.
A couple of Chinese grocery delivery companies filed for IPOs this week. First up is Dingdong, which previously raised more than $400 million from investors including General Atlantic, Sequoia Capital China, Starquest China, Qiming Venture Partners, Bertelsmann Asia Investments and General Atlantic. The regulatory filing shows that Digndong had a net loss of $485 million on $1.73 billion in revenue last year. Then there’s Missfresh, which has raised more than $2 billion from investors, including a fund under state-backed China International Capital Corporation, ICBC International Securities, Tencent, Abu Dhabi Capital Group, Tiger Global and a fund managed by the government of Changshu county. Missfresh reported a $252 million net loss on $956 million in revenue in 2020, according to the filing.
Circulor, a supply chain traceability and CO2 tracking company, raised $14 million in a Series A funding round. The Westly Group led the round, with participation by Salesforce Ventures, BHP Ventures, Future Positive Capital, 24Haymarket and Sky Ocean Ventures, alongside existing investors in the company. Circulor’s product is used by Volvo Cars to trace the cobalt used in its all-electric XC40 Recharge and by Polestar to assess the environmental and human rights risks of sourcing cobalt, lithium, nickel, lithium and mica for its electric cars.
Embraer’s electric vehicle takeoff and landing unit Eve Urban Air Mobility is in talks to merge with special purpose acquisition company Zanite Acquisition Corp. The deal would value the combined entity at about $2 billion, Bloomberg reported.
Hesai, a Shanghai-based lidar maker founded in 2014, raised more than $300 million in a Series D funding round led by GL Ventures, the venture capital arm of private equity firm Hillhouse Capital, smartphone maker Xiaomi, on-demand services giant Meituan and CPE, the private equity platform of Citic. Huatai International Private Equity Fund, the USD investment arm of Huatai Securities, Lightspeed China Partners and Lightspeed Venture Capital as well as Qiming Venture Partners, also participated.
Incari, a Berlin-based HMI startup, closed a €15 million ($18.1 million) Series A financing round led by Lukasz Gadowski, the founder of Delivery Hero and Team Europe.
Kitty Hawk, the eVTOL company backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, acquired 3D Robotics. Under the deal, 3D Robotics co-founder Chris Anderson will become chief operating officer at Kitty Hawk, Forbes reported. The article also revealed that Kitty Hawk engineer Damon Vander Lind, who built the initial versions of Heaviside, was dismissed, CEO Sebastian Thrun confirmed to Forbes.
Nvidia is acquiring DeepMap, the high-definition mapping startup announced. The company said its mapping IP will help Nvidia’s autonomous vehicle technology sector, Nvidia Drive. Nvidia is expected to finalize the acquisition in Q3 2021.
Trucks Venture Capital, the venture firm that backs early-stage entrepreneurs in transportation, is launching two new funds. Its new core fund, known as Trucks Venture Fund 2, was raised over the last year and recently closed on $52,525,252. The fund is backed by three auto OEMs and three auto suppliers that make everything from bicycles to Class 8 big rig trucks, as well as one communications company, according to Trucks VC. The VC’s new follow-on fund, Trucks Growth Fund, will provide later-stage capital to some of the most promising companies already in Trucks’ portfolio.
Waabi, a new autonomous vehicle startup founded by AI pioneer and chief scientist at Uber ATG Raquel Urtasun, raised $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures, with additional participation from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC and Aurora Innovation, as well as leading AI researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others. Urtasun said she is taking what she describes as an “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, starting with long-haul trucks.
WhereIsMyTransport announced it is set to raise $14.5 million in a Series A extension round led by Naspers Foundry, Cathay AfricInvest Innovation Fund and SBI Investment. Other participants confirmed in the extension are Capria Ventures and Wuri Ventures, Mission Gate, B&Y and KDDI Open Innovation Fund managed by Global Brain.Robotaxi apps on the rise
Last week, I shared the Waymo One app information courtesy of Sensor Tower, the mobile app market intelligence firm. There are not many other AV developers that have launched ride-hailing apps, although that might be changing.
Argo AI and Zoox have job listings for Android software engineers. Zoox is looking for an iOS engineer as well.
Sensor Tower did note to TechCrunch that Pony.ai has launched a few apps. PonyPilot+ has hit about 6,000 installs on China’s App Store. PonyPilot has seen about 2,000 in the U.S., most of which happened in the first three months of 2020, according to Sensor Tower. The company also has two apps available in Russia called PonyExpress+, which has seen about 1,500 installs, and PonyFleetGO. There are no download estimates for PonyFleetGo.
AutoX also has an app available, AutoX Food Delivery, which has reached about 200 installs in the United States.Policy corner
President Joe Biden has set his sights on hardening the country’s supply chains for essential goods and critical minerals. The White House said on June 8 it had created a task force aimed at addressing supply chain bottlenecks, including in semiconductors and critical minerals used in EV batteries.
Biden wants to get many more Americans driving electric vehicles, but the majority of key critical minerals in batteries, like lithium and graphite, are mined and processed abroad. As part of a Fact Sheet also released on June 8, Biden’s administration said it would create a task force to identify opportunities to produce minerals domestically — something that until now has kicked up a lot of controversy amongst environmental groups.
The U.S. Department of Energy released a blueprint for lithium batteries through 2030 that calls for eliminating two key minerals from batteries — cobalt and nickel — as a way of fortifying the supply chain. The DOE says it will support R&D efforts to develop batteries without these minerals, which are largely found in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Indonesia, and are processed mainly in China. Scientific innovation is certainly one way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign adversaries for its batteries.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a sweeping $547 billion infrastructure package after a whopping 19 hours of debate (pour one out for the Congressional interns). The final vote was 38-26. As a reminder, the INVEST in America Act would largely fund improvements to roads, bridges and passenger rail, but earmarks $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and around $4 billion to invest in zero-emission transit vehicles.
Just two Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the bill. The INVEST in America Act is still very, very far from becoming law: It now advances to the full House for further debate, then would be sent to the Senate for further rehashing, etcetera etcetera… nevertheless, it’s an encouraging sign, especially as legislators managed to work out over 200 proposed amendments to the legislation.
GM is changing its tune on proposed tailpipe emission rules in California. The country’s largest automaker had previously opposed California’s tough emissions limits for passenger vehicles, which it reached in concert with five other automakers: Ford, Honda Motor Company, Volkswagen AG, Volvo and BMW. The New York Times reported that GM CEO Mary Barra said in a Wednesday letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan that “GM supports the emissions reduction goals of California through model year ’26,” and that, “the auto industry is embarking upon a profound transition as we do our part to achieve the country’s climate commitments.”
However, she said that GM “believes that the same environmental benefits can and should be achieved through a high-volume electric vehicle pathway.” That is to say, she said the best way to reduce emissions is to boost EV sales through government incentives, rebates and other programs.
The EPA will be publishing its proposed tailpipe emissions reductions and fuel economy standards in July. Regan has been meeting with major OEMs, including GM, in advance of that release.
— Aria AlamalhodaeiExtra Crunch: Air taxi market analysis
TechCrunch’s Aria Alamalhodaei dug into the aspirations of the burgeoning electric vertical take-off and landing industry. The upshot: The industry is bullish on its future, a view perhaps augmented by the string of partnership deals, SPACs, private funding and newly achieved unicorn statuses.
However, as in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors. A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead. Other disagreements have higher stakes. Wisk Aero filed a lawsuit against Archer Aviation alleging trade secret misappropriation. Meanwhile, valuations for companies that have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — are skyrocketing.
Electric air mobility is gaining elevation. But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead. This is an Extra Crunch article, which means it requires a subscription. Happy reading.
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