The Station: A Tesla-NHTSA fight brews, catching up with Kodiak and how LA is prepping for air taxis

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

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

Before we jump in, let’s turn to Los Angeles and the coming wave of eVTOL companies hoping to take flight there. Aria Alamalhodaei took a deep dive into Urban Movement Labs, a non-profit organization that spun out of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, and what it’s doing to prepare the city for eVTOLS. If we have learned anything from ride-hailing and scooters, cities can’t start thinking about future forms of transportation too soon.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

This week, I sat down with Mike Radenbaugh, CEO of Rad Power Bikes, as part of an ongoing TechCrunch+ series picking the brains of transportation founders. Radenbaugh started his company when he was only 15, throwing together parts he ordered from Radio Shack and eBay to create the earliest versions of what are now wildly popular e-bikes.

We talked about how to navigate logistics in these tricky times, how to make a bike that people actually want to ride and what it takes to power the e-bike revolution. The interview is behind a paywall, so here’s a quick excerpt (but you should definitely subscribe to get the full content):

The mission-driven nature of business is that this stuff is in my blood. It flows through everyone in this organization; we are all here on that same mission. There are a lot of new entrants into the space that are trying to replicate what Rad does at a much smaller scale, or are in it for more mercenary reasons, and it’s a very different business. It’s just the way we think about building something that really can solve the climate disaster.

Meanwhile, Bird had a busy week. The micromobility startup officially launched its sidewalk riding detection technology in Milwaukee and San Diego and has plans to expand it to Madrid by early next year, followed by more cities. The tech, which is co-developed by wireless semiconductors and high-precision positioning module producer u-blox, will be on all new vehicles coming off the assembly line.

This development makes Bird the latest of shared operators to announce the addition of what I like to call scooter advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that can detect poor rider behavior and correct it in real time by bringing the rider to a stop. Superpedestrian recently acquired Navmatic to integrate a similar technology, which relies on hyper-accurate positioning and sensor fusion to determine sidewalk riding, whereas other companies like Spin, Voi and Helbiz are attaching cameras to their scooters for a more computer vision-based approach.

In other Bird news, the company also nabbed $150 million, up from $40 million, in a financing credit facility from Apollo Investment Corporation (Disclaimer: Apollo acquired Verizon Media Group, which owned TechCrunch. The company is now called Yahoo Inc.). This upsize will go into effect once Bird’s SPAC merger with Switchback II Corporation officially closes. The shareholder meeting to approve and confirm the deal is happening on November 2. The extra funds will help Bird purchase more vehicles this winter so it can further expand its footprint, giving it time to earn revenue in spring and summer which it will use to pay Apollo back, according to the company.


Speaking of expanding footprints, Russian tech giant Yandex is developing more of a presence in Israel with the recent acquisition of shared e-scooter company Wind’s Israeli operations, which includes 10,000 Wind scooters. Yandex only recently launched an e-scooter sharing service in its home market, but only has about 5,000 scooters on the ground, so this will significantly increase the company’s fleet size. The Russian company is already operating or testing out other mobility platforms in Israel; it has a ride-hailing and last-mile delivery service Yango and an express grocery delivery service Yango Deli on the ground, and is testing out autonomous delivery robots and self-driving cars.

Dott is joining the multi-modal game with its launch of an e-bike-sharing service in Paris. The bikes will join Dott’s fleet of e-scooters in the City of Love, along with Lime and Tier.

Gogoro, the Taiwanese e-scooter maker, officially launched its popular battery swapping service in China with 45 stations in Hangzhou. The company is targeting 80 stations by the end of the year before expanding into other major cities with its partners Yadea and Dachangjiang Group (DCJ).

Swft, a budding mobility startup that started late last year selling electric hoverboards and has since launched three e-bikes and an e-moped, has raised $10 million in seed funding. The company plans to use the money to expand its light-duty vehicle offerings, adding to its lineup a couple of electric motorcyles, a four-wheeler, a three-wheeler and a scooter over the next couple of years. Swft operates on a D2C model but says it’s bikes are also being sold through Best Buy.

VanMoof has teased its new high-speed bike, the VanMoof V, via live YouTube video. The plan is to release the bike, which should cost about $3,598, by the end of 2022. The company says the bike will be able reach a top speed of 37 miles per hour. That doesn’t mean riders will be able to accelerate up to 37 mph, since speed restrictions in Europe, and elsewhere, fall well below that. Maybe VanMoof will force transport authorities to take another look at the current regulations for what does and does not maketh a bike.

Populus could probably help with that. The company’s platform pulls data from fleets of shared vehicles and delivers that info to cities to help planners understand and manage how streets are used. Populus is now beginning Phase II of a U.S. Department of Transportation-funded initiative to work with micromobility operators and leverage data from over 80 million trips to help public agencies create safer streets. Over 15 cities are participating, including Cleveland, Washington D.C. area cities, Bay Area cities, Lexington, and Charlottesville, among others. Maybe they’ll come to the conclusion that we’ve known all along — find ways to take more space from cars and create more protected bike lanes…

…so that sweet scooters like the new Blizwheel can ride safely! The Blizwheel is a portable, foldable wee thing, weighing under nine pounds and only 15.6 inches in length. Despite its size, it is mighty, with a top speed of 12 miles per hour. The eight-mile range leaves something to be desired, but presumably, if it makes it to market, that’s something the company can work on. Blizwheel has so far been funded over 1033% via kickstarter with around $109,000 in funding.

Finally, let’s wrap with this fun and fresh news. MoonBikes, the maker of electric snowbikes (!!!) has announced the close of a $5 million seed round. The MoonBike created by engineer Nicolas Muron, who was born and raised in the French Alps, actually looks like an e-bike and a snowmobile had a baby, with a light frame, one ski in the front and a track in the back. The target rider for this contraption is a resident of an icy tundra who wants a cool way to commute, or a mountain person who wants something three times lighter than a snowmobile. It can climb groomed slopes with a 40% steepness grade, has a top speed of 26 miles per hour and a range of up to three hours with the optional dual battery.

 — Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

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Vroom, the online used car marketplace that filed to go public in 2020 and is now listed on the Nasdaq exchange under the VRM ticker, is using its access to capital to swoop up other companies as it seeks out new ways to generate revenue.

This time, Vroom has agreed to acquire auto financing company United Auto Credit Corporation for $300 million in cash. The financial terms are subject to adjustment based upon UACC’s closing book value. This is the third acquisition by Vroom, which is financing the purchase price through cash on hand.

This is Vroom’s second acquisition in less than a year. The company acquired CarStory, an analytics and auto retail services company, in December 2020. And way back in 2015, when online used car marketplaces were a favorite investor hangout, Vroom acquired Texas Direct Auto.

UACC is going to become an indirect wholly-owned subsidiary of Vroom and will continue to operate under the UACC name. Vroom noted that following the closing, “the acquisition is expected to immediately be accretive to Vroom’s earnings.”

The transaction is expected to close either late in the fourth quarter of 2021 or early in the first quarter of 2022.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

BMW Group has invested, through its venture capital fund, in Lilac Solutions, a U.S. startup that has developed and patented a process designed to improve efficiency, costs and sustainability by extracting lithium from brine resources, which are natural deposits of salt water. The investment was not disclosed.

CarDekho, an Indian search and e-commerce platform for new and used cars, raised $250 million in debt and equity in its Series E financing round. The round, which valued the Jaipur-headquartered firm at $1.2 billion, was led by LeapFrog Investments. Canyon Partners, Mirae Asset, Franklin Templeton, Harbor Spring Capital as well as existing investors Sequoia Capital India and Sunley House also participated in what CarDekho has described as its pre-IPO round.

Crabi, an auto insurance company based in Guadalajara, Mexico, raised $4 million in a seed funding round led Kaszek Ventures with participation from Tuesday Capital and Redwood Ventures.

Hailo, which makes edge-device chips customized to work with AI workloads, raised $136 million in a Series C round of funding, one of the biggest to date in the AI chip market. TechCrunch confirmed with sources close to Hailo that the investment values it at around $1 billion. Poalim Equity and Gil Agmon co-led the round, with participation from previous backers Hailo Chairman Zohar Zisapel, ABB Technology Ventures (ATV), Latitude Ventures and OurCrowd; and new investors Carasso Motors, Comasco, Shlomo Group, Talcar Corporation Ltd. and Automotive Equipment (AEV). The company has now raised some $224 million to date.

MotorK, an automotive sales startup based in Italy, wants to raise 150 million euros with an initial public offering of shares on the Dutch stock exchange Euronext Amsterdam, Reuters reported.

Pon Holdings, the Dutch owner of bike brands including Gazelle, Santa Cruz and Urban Arrow, agreed to buy Cannondale, Schwinn and Mongoose from Dorel Industries Inc. for $810 million. The merger, if approved, will create one of the largest bike makers globally with 2.5 billion euro in estimated annual sales, according to Pon.

Reliable Robotics, an autonomous cargo plane developer, raised a $100 million in a Series C funding round led by Coatue Management.

Rose Rocket, a transportation management software startup based in Toronto, raised $25 million in a Series A round led by Addition Capital and Shine Capital.

Woven Capital, the investment arm of the Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet Group made an undisclosed investment in the Climate Technology Sustainability Fund of 2150. The fund, commonly referred to as 2150, is a London and Copenhagen-based venture capital firm investing in technology companies that seek to reimagine the urban environment and reshape it sustainably.

Policy corner

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Hello everyone! Welcome back to Policy Corner.

President Joe Biden is reportedly facing pressure to pass the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the Democrat-crafted $3.5 trillion budget bill before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland at the end of the month, The Hill reported. The budget bill in particular contains a number of spending provisions aimed at driving down the country’s carbon emissions, like a clean energy tax credit and a methane emissions fee for the oil and gas industry.

But there are still a few major sticking points. Beyond the sheer size of the budget bill — which has both conservative Democrats and Republicans leery — there are a few provisions that are still facing major opposition. Last month I wrote about how automakers like Honda, Toyota and Tesla are opposing a section that would expand tax incentives by as much as $4,500 for electric vehicles that were manufactured in union shops in the United States.

It seems that the fight is far from over. Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia — a state home to a single auto assembly plant by Kia — sent a letter to Georgia’s congressional delegation urging them to oppose the additional incentive. He said in a statement that limiting the tax incentive “puts Georgia workers at a severe disadvantage.” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster sent his own letter urging the removal of the provision. South Carolina is home to three assembly plants, respectively owned by BMW, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz.

Lobbying by automakers has already increased so far this year compared to the same period last year, according to spending transparency platform OpenSecrets. Toyota spent $3.3 million in the first half of this year, compared to $2.9 million for the same period of 2020; both Ford and General Motors have also spent more on lobbying this year compared to last.


I was also interested in this small piece of news out of Colorado, where the state’s largest investor-owned utility, Xcel Energy, is commencing a new pilot plant with six automakers to study how to best match EV charging times with times of day when renewable energy is plentiful.

The Charging Perks pilot is open to 600 drivers of BMW, Chevy, Ford, Honda or Tesla EVs. Without getting too far in the weeds, the pilot will use day-ahead forecasts of renewable energy availability and pair that with drivers’ charging needs to create a customized charging schedule.

This caught my eye because it’s well and good to say you want a million EVs on the road by 2030 — which is Colorado’s stated goal — but without proper planning it’s hard to see how we’ll get there without overwhelming the electric grid. Electric utilities are going to be key players in ensuring any kind of transition to electric mobility, so I’ll be eager to see the results of this pilot (or if it scales in the future).

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Catching up with Kodiak

Kodiak Robotics autonomous trcuk red

Kodiak Robotics introduced its fourth-generation autonomous truck in late September. Image credit: Kodiak Robotics

A few weeks ago, Kodiak Robotics revealed details about its fourth-generation autonomous truck system and announced it was expanding its own fleet by 15 PACCAR Class 8 trucks. (They have 10 trucks in the field today)

The tl;dr: the fourth-gen truck has a modular sensor suite that includes a center pod on the front roofline of the truck as well as pods integrated into both of the side mirrors. I caught up with co-founder and CEO Don Burnette, at the time, to learn more about what one of the last smaller AV developers is doing as is goes up against better funded and larger companies also trying to commercialize self-driving trucks.

The first thing on my mind was why should I care about this new generation truck? And what does it mean for Kodiak? My assumption, and likely yours as well, is that this new truck is an improvement over the previous version. But I wanted to know exactly what improved. Burnette said one of the primary goals was stability.

“Part of the challenge in self driving is that you have hardware, sensors, computers, network switches, cables and power systems — and decisions that need to be made, all the time, 10 times a second or even 100 times a second. And computers are finicky, these components and bits are finicky. The more we can improve our systems to deal with errors and handle errors is great, but actually building more reliable hardware — in the first place — and building more reliable architectures — in the first place — really helps improve the stability of the overall system.”

Burnette said that, in turn, accelerates development of software and ultimately allows the company to show better performance on the commercial side. The upshot: this new generation is more “stable” and “rugged.”

The other significant “improvement” or change at this stage is that Kodiak is able to start to showcasing where they’re going in the future. Previous generations were a bit more “prototype-y” (Burnette’s word, not mine). This generation is more integrated, has more redundancy, is more sophisticated and is pushing into the industrial design phase of Kodiak’s development program. Importantly, he said “we really wanted to put a stake in the ground and make a statement about how we envision the use case of this technology in the long run.”

Burnette said that trucking fleets care a lot about downtime. And as he began to think through what deploying an AV fleet at scale might look like, he imagined there would be a need for specialized technicians throughout the country, ready to diagnose an issue and repair a sensor. “I think that’s a high bar — that’s a lot of burden to place on the maintenance infrastructure network of various fleets, and so we wanted to create a design that was particularly modular so that in the field, if there’s an issue, you can just pull off the modular system and put on a new one.”

Obviously, that means these systems have to be robust, easy to install and sensors have to be calibrated correctly and in advance. Without getting too deep in the weeds, Burnette said that’s exactly what they’re doing. And he mentioned they’ve already tested swapping out one modular system after one of the mirrors on a truck was damaged (while parked btw). The change worked and the truck was back testing the following day. “We think we can get that time down considerably and at scale for real commercial deployment.”

Notable news and other tidbits

ADAS (meaning drivers still must take over)

AAA found in a new study that advanced driver-assistance technology is significantly reduced by moderate and heavy rain, especially auto emergency braking and lane-keeping systems.

During closed course testing, AAA simulated rainfall and found that test vehicles equipped with automatic emergency braking traveling at 35 mph collided with a stopped vehicle 33% of the time. Lane keeping assistance didn’t fare any better with test vehicles departing their lane 69% of the time, according to the study. AAA pointed to the results as another reason that testing standards should incorporate real-world conditions that drivers normally encounter.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent a pair of letters to Tesla targeting the company’s use of non-disclosure agreements for owners who gain early access to its “full self-driving” software beta as well as its decision to use an over-the-air software update to fix an issue that regulators say should have been a recall.

The letters signal NHTSA’s increasing scrutiny of Tesla and its practices related to over-the-air software updates and automated driving features within its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system.

Autonomous vehicles (no driver? no problem)

Waymo vehicles in San Francisco got a bit of extra attention from a local TV network, which then spread like wildfire on social media, when the AVs kept going down the same dead end street, where they would be forced to make three-point turns. I asked Waymo about this. Here’s their statement:

“We continually adjust to dynamic San Francisco road rules. In this case, cars traveling North of California on 15th Ave have to take a u-turn due to the presence of Slow Streets signage on Lake. So, the Waymo Driver was obeying the same road rules that any car is required to follow. “

That didn’t really answer my question as to why the cars kept going down the street, especially since the “slow streets” designation had been in place for some time. Apparently, this was a street that Waymo wanted to drive on and learn from and  that the vehicles are now being limited in that area.

Electric vehicles

Electric Last Mile Solutions, commercial electric vehicle company, said it will open a new tech hub in San Francisco. The “urban mobility lab” will focus on advanced in-vehicle technology, edge-to-cloud architecture, data-intensive applications and machine learning.

General Motors started shipping to dealers replacement battery modules for recalled Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles after delays caused by shutdowns at multiple manufacturing plants as a result of the widespread shortage of semiconductors. Meanwhile, LG Electronics agreed to reimburse GM up to $1.9 billion to pay for the recall and repairs to thousands of Bolts. The issue isn’t totally resolved yet; GM says it will idle the Orion Assembly plant where Bolts are produced until November 1 so it can focus on repairing the EVs that already exist before it makes any new ones.

National Grid in New England used aThomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley electric school bus equipped with a Proterra battery system to send electricity back into the regional grid over 30 events this summer, an example vehicle-to-grid technology.

Porsche’s electric Taycan outsold its iconic internal combustion-powered 911 sports car in the first nine months of the year, a milestone for the EV that was introduced in late 2019. Sales overall were up 13% compared to the same 9-month period last year, an increase driven by a nearly threefold increase in Taycan deliveries as well as growth by its popular gas-powered Macan vehicle. Porsche delivered 28,640 Taycan vehicles in the January-to-September period and 27,972 of its 911 sports cars, which also grew compared to last year.

In-car tech

Hyundai Motor is the latest automaker to announce plans to develop its own semiconductor chips in order to reduce reliance on chipmakers.

Spotify’s in-car entertainment system “Car Thing,” which launched this spring on an invite-only basis, is now becoming more broadly available, TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez reported. Car Thing will become available to U.S. users who want to purchase the $79.99 device.

Volvo is working with a company called BreezoMeter, which uses a network of about 47,000 sensors and satellites to detect and report on air quality. The company delivers micro-local environmental intelligence (within 5 meters of the driver) through the vehicle’s HMI (human-machine interface). The information is available on all new 90 and 60 Series Volvo models.

Misc. stuff

AB Volvo, the construction truck arm of Sweden’s Volvo Group, unveiled a new vehicle made with a majority of “fossil-free” steel. The company plans to begin smaller-scale series production using the new material as early as 2022. The prototype vehicle, a fully electric and autonomous load carrier for use in mining and quarries, is composed of over 3,000 kilograms (6,600 pounds) of the new steel. Volvo said it targeted construction trucks first because, on average, around 70% of the vehicle weight comes from steel and cast iron.

Financial Times digs into the flaws of Biden’s “open all hours” ports strategy.

Luminar has hired two new executives, Debra Poppas as its quality leader, who previously was a vp of quality at PACCAR, and Sameer Ladiwala as chief accounting officer. Ladiwala held a similar position at the semiconductor and software design company Arm.

Swvl, Treepz, Jatri, SafeBoda, Urbvan, Chalo and Buser are some of the startups that have popped up in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America in recent years, all with a focus on providing on-demand access to transportation. Not only are these startups products of the emerging markets, but because mobility is so essential to a thriving economy, they’re actually driving development. Rebecca Bellan gives us an introduction into these startups and how they are driving growth in this sector.


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