Toyota partners with ENEOS to explore a hydrogen-powered Woven City

Toyota has tapped Japanese company Eneos to help develop the hydrogen fuel cell system that will power its futuristic prototype city Woven City.

The vision for the 175-acre city, where people will live and work amongst all of Toyota’s projects, including its autonomous e-Palette shuttles and robots, is to build a fully connected ecosystem powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Woven Planet, the innovation-focused subsidiary of Toyota that is in charge of the project, announced Monday that ENEOS, a Japanese petroleum company that’s investing heavily into hydrogen, will help make Toyota’s “human-centered” city of the future. This new partnership not only signifies Toyota’s backing of hydrogen over electric, but it also could help Japan achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The two companies will work together to test the feasibility of a hydrogen-based supply chain, from production to delivery to usage. To facilitate this, ENEOS will further its technological developments in hydrogen production in order to achieve a fully carbon-free supply chain. 

“As Japan’s leading integrated energy company, ENEOS has demonstrated its valuable expertise in all vital processes from hydrogen production to sales and we are confident they have the holistic perspective we require for success,” said Akio Toyoda, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, in a statement. “To realize a hydrogen-based society, in addition to the evolution of individual technologies, it is essential to seamlessly integrate all the processes of production, delivery, and use.” 

Toyota is positioning hydrogen as a top viable clean energy source for the future with this partnership, although it certainly has more electric vehicles on the market than hydrogen, including three new ones this year. Its iconic hydrogen fuel-cell powered car, the Toyota Mirai, saw a 2021 upgrade, and it’s the same tech that Toyota used in its Kenworth T680 tractor. 

As part of its partnership with Woven City, ENEOS will use its expertise of operating 45 commercial hydrogen refueling stations in the four major metropolitan areas in Japan to establish one outside of Woven City. The company will also be expected to produce hydrogen derived from renewables, to help install stationary fuel cell generators inside Woven City and to work with Toyota to research hydrogen supply. 

“We believe that hydrogen energy will play an integral role in the realization of carbon neutrality on a global scale,” Katsuyuki Ota, president of ENEOS said in a statement. “By working together with Toyota to fully explore hydrogen’s potential, we believe we can make a significant contribution to the creation of new hydrogen-based lifestyles.”

Construction at the Woven City site in Susono City, Shizuoka Prefecture, at the base of Mount Fuji began in February. A month later, the Toyota subsidiary launched Woven Capital, a new venture fund that will invest in technologies that will build the future of safe mobility. Woven Capital’s first investment is in autonomous delivery company Nuro

Lidar startup Innovusion closes $64M round led by Temasek

More investors are joining the wave to bet on lidar, the remote sensing method that uses laser light to measure distances and has garnered ample interest from automakers in recent times. But it’s also a technology that has long been scorned by Elon Musk partly due to its once exorbitant costs.

Innovusion, a five-year-old lidar company and a supplier to Chinese electric car upstart Nio, just landed a Series B funding round of $64 million. The new proceeds boost its total investment to over $100 million, not a small amount but the startup is in a race crowded with much bigger players that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, like Velodyne and Luminar.

Temasek, the Singaporean government’s sovereign wealth fund, led Innovusion’s latest financing round. Other investors included Bertelsmann Asia Investment Fund, Joy Capital, Nio Capital, Eight Roads Ventures, and F-Prime Capital.

Innovusion runs core development teams out of Sunnyvale, California and Suzhou, an eastern Chinese city near Shanghai that the robotaxi unicorn Momenta also calls home.

Junwei Bao, Innovusion’s co-founder and CEO, is not deterred by the industry’s existing giants. Back at Baidu where Bao oversaw sensors and onboarded computing systems for autonomous driving, he also worked on the Chinese search engine leader’s investment in Velodyne.

“They were designing things more like a college student designing in their labs,” Bao said of Velodyne.

Lidar was a niche market up until about five years ago, the founder explained, for the technology was mostly used by a small community of amateurs and areas such as military, surveying and mapping. These were relatively small markets in terms of shipping volume and Velodyne filled the demand.

“They were not thinking about industrialization, volume manufacturing, or roadmap extensibility. They were a pioneer and we [Baidu] recognized their value… but we also knew their weakness.”

In fairness, Silicon Valley-based Velodyne today is a $2.2 billion company supplying to some of the world’s largest automakers, including Toyota and Volkswagen. It also pocketed a hefty sum of cash after going public via a SPAC merger last year. Innovusion’s strategy is to make sensors for automakers that are “good enough for the next five years,” according to Bao. The startup chooses “mature components” so it can quickly ramp up production to 100,000 units a year.

Its biggest customer at the moment is Nio, a Chinese challenger to Tesla which has backed Innovusion through its corporate venture fund Nio Capital. For mass production of its auto-grade lidar, Innovusion is partnering with Joynext, a smart vehicle arm of the Chinese auto component supplier, Joyson Electronics.

For now, China is the largest market for Innovusion. The startup is scheduled to ship a few thousand units this year, mainly for smart transportation and industrial use. Next year, it has a target to deliver several tens of thousands of units to Nio’s luxury sedan, ET7, which is said to have a scanning range of up to 500 meters, an ambitious number, and a standard 120-degree field of view.

Similar alliances between carmakers and lidar suppliers have played out in China as the former race to fulfill their “autonomous driving” promises with the aid of lidar. Xpeng, a competitor to Nio, recently rolled out a sedan powered by Livox, a lidar maker affiliated with DJI that markets its consumer-grade affordability.

Price is similarly important to Innovusion, which sells lidars to automakers for about $1,000 apiece at the volume of 100,000 per year.

“Adding a $1,000 upfront cost plus another couple thousand dollars for a car that’s selling for $30,000 or $50,000 is affordable,” Bao suggested.

With the fresh capital, Innovusion plans to increase the production volume of its auto-grade lidar and put more R&D efforts into smart cities and vehicles. The company has over 100 employees and plans to expand its headcount to over 200 this year.

Bird reportedly prepares to go public via SPAC, aims for 2023 profitability

Micromobility startups are following the lead of EV companies going public via mergers with special purpose acquisition companies, a financial instrument that came back en vogue in 2020.

Bird Rides, the California-born micromobility company that now operates in more than 100 cities across the United States, Europe and the Middle East, plans to merge with Dallas-based blank-check company Switchback II Corporation, reports dot.LA. Switchback, the blank-check company merging with Bird, was formed in 2019 and led by former executives at oil and gas driller RSP Permian, Scott McNeill and Jim Mutrie.

Bird is the second scooter company this year to eschew the traditional IPO path and instead opt for the trendy SPAC tool. In February, Helbiz, a micromobilty startup in Europe and USA, also became a public company via SPAC in a merger with GreenVision Acquisition Corp. Many micromobility companies saw ridership fall during the pandemic last year, so we might expect to see more go the SPAC route in order have access to capital quickly, without the time or expense of a traditional IPO process. 

Bird has not responded to a request for comment. 

At the start of 2020, Bird was valued at $2.85 billion. It has had its struggles, particularly during the pandemic when revenue dropped to $95 million in 2020, a 37% decrease from the previous year, according to the pitch deck viewed by dot.LA. In 2020, Bird laid off 406 employees, or about 30% of its workforce, to cut costs.

The impending transaction valued the company at $2.3 billion below its valuation last year, according to the pitch deck. With this merger, Bird will have access to cash, which the company will likely use to pay off its debts and fund its European expansion in a push for profitability. Last month, the company announced intentions to spend $150 million to double its European operations by expanding to 50 new cities

The pitch deck reveals a number of other financial and ridership details. For instance, Bird expects to achieve profitability by 2023 after trimming this year’s losses to $96 million and next year’s to $28 million. It would also need to make $815 million in revenue in 2023 to be profitable, and the company expects to make $188 million this year. 

“The financials included in the slides reveal a company quickly burning through the $1.1 billion of cash it has raised since 2017, with a $226 million adjusted EBITA loss in 2019 and a $183 million loss last year,” writes dot.LA.

The pitch deck also shows ridership rebounds after the lockdown, with an 81% increase in topline revenue over the past month, but much of that could be attributed to springtime weather.

Bird is one of the three cities that recently won a permit to operate in New York City’s pilot e-scooter program in the Bronx, a win that might be contributing to the company’s future prospects, even as it lost bids for Paris, Chicago and San Francisco. As more cities are creating a favorable regulatory environment for shared micromobility, better hardware continues to emerge and the industry further consolidates, making high growth an achievable possibility for the company. 

Bloomberg first reported Bird’s conversations with Credit Suisse to go SPAC in November last year, and according to The Information, Bird has been raising $100 million in convertible debt from its existing investors, debt that could be converted into stock, but the company hasn’t confirmed the deal yet. 

Harley-Davidson spins out LiveWire into a standalone electric motorcycle brand

LiveWire, Harley-Davidson’s electric motorcycle, is being spun out as a standalone brand, complete with a new logo and brand identity.

Harley-Davidson first unveiled the LiveWire electric motorcycle in 2018 with a listing price of $29,799, placing it on the higher end for motorcycles. It went into production the following year, with some bumps, including a brief halt to production due to a charging-related problem on one of the motorcycles. The first “first LiveWire branded motorcycle” will launch on July 8. Its public debut will come a day later at the International Motorcycle Show, Harley-Davidson said Monday.

Dealers had trouble selling the bike to younger, newer motorcycle riders, Reuters reported in 2019. Part of the issue was the price, which is in the same category as a Tesla Model S, dealers told the news wire at the time. Given that Harley-Davidson’s core constituency is still Baby Boomers, who are beginning to age out of the products, the question is whether a new spin out and rebranding can attract younger (and affluent) riders.

The two companies will share technological advancements and LiveWire will “benefit from Harley-Davidson’s engineering expertise, manufacturing footprint, supply chain infrastructure, and global logistics capabilities,” Harley-Davidson said Monday.

LiveWire will have dedicated showroom locations, starting in California, and a “virtual” headquarters with hubs in Silicon Valley and Milwaukee.

Harley-Davidson is one of the most recognizable motorcycle makers in the country, but its sales have struggled in recent years. The company’s annual revenue dropped nearly 24% in 2020 compared to the previous year, though some of that is likely due to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The company also cut 700 jobs from its global operations last summer, in a restructuring plan known as “The Rewire.”

More recently, the company debuted a five-year strategic plan dubbed “The Hardwire.” Included in the plan is to further invest in the electric market. The company has already started moving in this direction with the release last November of its Serial 1 Cycle e-bicycles. Its Rush/Cty Speed model can hit speeds of up to 28 mph and comes in at $5,000.

Ford reveals three new details about its officially named F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck

Ford confirmed Monday that its all-electric pickup truck will be named the F-150 Lightning, resurrecting a name that once donned the SVT F-150 in the 1990s.

The company hasn’t said much about the powertrain, range or other specs. However, Ford President and CEO Jim Farley provided new details about the electric pickup that is coming to market next year. Most notably, it seems that the battery on the Ford F-150 Lightning will have the ability to power a home during an outage. Ford has touted the capability of its Hybrid F-150 to power a job site or tools, but this is the first time the company has said one of its vehicles could act as a backup generator to a home.

Farley also said the electric truck will have the capability to handle over-the-air software updates and will be quicker than the original F-150 Lightning performance truck, the V8-powered truck that debuted in 1993.

“Every so often, a new vehicle comes along that disrupts the status quo and changes the game … Model T, Mustang, Prius, Model 3. Now comes the F-150 Lightning,” Farley said in a statement. “America’s favorite vehicle for nearly half a century is going digital and fully electric. F-150 Lightning can power your home during an outage; it’s even quicker than the original F-150 Lightning performance truck; and it will constantly improve through over-the-air updates.”

Production of the electric pickup truck is expected to begin next spring at the company’s Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center.

The Ford F-150 Lightning will be revealed via a livestream May 19 at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. 

The Station: Einride preps for a US expansion, Argo AI reveals its lidar specs and a Tesla Autopilot reality check

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 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.

What a week! It’s too much to cover everything that happened in world of transportation, so here are some of the highlights. Oh, and yes, I know that the big story this weekend was Elon Musk’s appearance on SNL. Since there’s no shortage of hot — and tepid — takes on Twitter and the rest of the interwebs, I think I’ll pass on any commentary.

Instead, it’s worth noting that what Musk says publicly about Tesla Autopilot and the company’s progress on a fully autonomous driving system directly contradicts with reality — and what his own employees are telling regulators.

A memo that summarizes a meeting between California regulators and employees at the automaker shows that Musk has inflated the capabilities of the Autopilot advanced driver assistance system in Tesla vehicles, as well the company’s ability to deliver fully autonomous features by the end of the year. The memo was released by transparency site Plainsite, which obtained it via a Freedom of Information Act request. You can read the whole story here.

My email inbox is always open. Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

News and announcements this week demonstrated how micromobility businesses are evolving and merging with other forms of mobility.

No company embodies this better than Revel, the company that began with shared electric mopeds and, since the start of 2021, has evolved into an e-bike subscription service, an EV charging hub and an all-Tesla, all-employee ride-hailing service.

What, one might ask, is founder and CEO Frank Reig up to? Well, we did ask it, and we published our interview so our readers could learn more about Revel’s journey and plans for the future.

“If we’re talking about electrifying mobility in major cities, it starts with infrastructure. And we’re the company rolling up our sleeves and doing it now by building that infrastructure and operating fleets. Because in a city like New York, the infrastructure does not exist for electric mobility.”

Another company that’s diving straight into the subscription model is the Australian startup Zoomo. The startup — which connects the gig economy, subscription services, electric mobility and big business — has a business model that wouldn’t have seemed possible more than a decade ago. Zoomo offers monthly e-bike subscriptions to gig economy bike delivery workers and corporate partners with bike delivery fleets. The startup announced it raised $12 million, only a few months after an $11 million Series A. Zoomo said it will use the fresh cash to expand its service into more of the U.S. and into continental Europe, as well as to further develop its consumer subscription offerings.

Betting on e-mopeds

Micromobility charging infrastructure company Swiftmile is partnering with European e-moped manufacturer GOVECS Group to deploy Mobility Hubs to charge and organize e-mopeds in shared and commercial fleets. With included parking stations, this model, which we’re starting to see with e-bikes and e-scooters, could be a great way to eliminate the use of vans to swap batteries. Germany is expected to see the first of these hubs in Q1 2022.

A small win for JOCO

Last week, I wrote about NYC Department of Transportation’s cease-and-desist order to the new e-bike-sharing platform JOCO. The company ignored the order, maintaining that since its bikes are stationed in private garages, the city doesn’t have the authority to control its operations. To that, the city replied with a lawsuit, demanding a halt in operations and penalties for violations.

On May 7, the court denied the city’s request for a temporary restriction on JOCO’s operations. The case is very much still open, but it’s a small win for JOCO and will allow the company to continue operating and expanding as scheduled. The hearing is scheduled for June 16, during which time the city is likely to drive home its exclusive partnership with Lyft-owned Citi Bike.

#BatteriesForBirds

As a recent transplant to New Zealand, I can tell you that this country really loves its native birds (and therefore, often hates cats, which are not native). Because of the isolation of New Zealand’s ecosystem, mammalian life never arrived or evolved, meaning the country has only native birds, insects and reptiles and amphibians — and not much in the way of predators, allowing the birdlife to flourish.

I say all of this so you understand the significance of Lime’s plan to give its old scooter and bike batteries a second life powering tools designed to save these precious birds. The project, done in partnership with The Cacophony Project and 2040 Limited, will use damaged Lime e-bike battery cells to power thermal cameras that are used to identify bird predators.

Bike launches

CERO, the LA-based ebike startup, has launched its CERO One electric cargo bike for preorders. The bike, with a small front tire, a big back tire and racks over each one, is designed to carry loads up to 77 pounds. Customers can choose between a Platform, Small Basket, and Big Basket variant. The starting price (including a front platform) is $3,799, and first deliveries can be expected around August or September.

Aventon has also announced the launch of the newest model of its Aventure e-bike, complete with fat tires and a color display screen that syncs with your smartphone to handle functions like turning the bike on, tracking mileage, powering on and off the lights and planning trips.

— Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

money the station

It’s not all acquisitions and SPAC rumors in the world of autonomous vehicles. There are still traditional VC raises taking place, even in the midst of continued consolidation.

Einride, the Swedish startup known for its unusual-looking electric and autonomous pods that are designed to carry freight, raised $110 million to help fund its expansion in Europe and into the United States. The Series B round, which far exceeds its previous raises of $10 million in 2020 and $25 million in 2019, included new investors Temasek, Soros Fund Management LLC, Northzone and Maersk Growth. Existing investors EQT Ventures, Plum Alley, Norrsken VC, Ericsson and NordicNinja VC also participated in the round.

Einride has raised a total of $150 million to date. The company didn’t share its post-money valuation.

Einride is an interesting case study in the AV world. It has a present-day business of human-driven electric trucks, which carry freight for customers like Coca Cola and Oatly. It’s also developing, testing and eventually planning to deploy its Pod vehicles, which are designed without a cab. These Pods are meant to operate autonomously, although it should be noted that they are also supported with teleoperations, which means a human monitors and can control the vehicle remotely.

Einride had planned to expand into the U.S. but COVID-19 interrupted the move. Now, with fresh capital co-founder and CEO Robert Falck told me that the company is planning to have operations up and running in the U.S. before the end of the year. The plan is to set up headquarters in Austin, Texas, and open additional offices in New York and Silicon Valley. Global agreements are in place with brands such as Oatly, which includes U.S. operations, with more to be announced soon.

Einride’s presence in the United States, and specifically Texas, brings yet another AV company focused on freight into the region. Middle-mile delivery is getting more attention, interest and investment as 2021 unfolds. Another competitor in the region promises to spice things up, particularly on the hiring front.

Other deals that got my attention …

Firefly Aerospace raised $175 million, across a $75 million Series A round that valued the company north of $1 billion, and a $100 million secondary transaction which consisted of the sale of holdings held by primary Firefly investor Noosphere Ventures. The launch startup also announced that it intends to raise another $300 million later in 2021, after its forthcoming inaugural Alpha rocket launch, which is currently targeting a June take-off.

Kneron, a startup that develops semiconductors to give devices artificial intelligence capabilities by using edge computing, received a $7 million boost in capital from Delta Electronics, a Taiwanese supplier of power components for Apple and Tesla. The $7 million investment pushes Kneron’s total financing to more than $100 million to date. As part of the deal, Kneron also agreed to buy Vatics, a part of Delta Electronics’ subsidiary Vivotek, for $10 million in cash, TechCrunch’s Rita Liao reported.

Reinvent Technology Partners X, a new special purpose acquisition company created by Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus, filed for an IPO. The filing states that the SPAC is looking at merging with a late-stage company in a “technology sector or subsector, including consumer internet, online marketplaces, ecommerce, payments, gaming, artificial intelligence, SaaS, digital healthcare, autonomous vehicles, transportation, and others.” The duo’s previous SPAC announced earlier this year it agreed to merge with Joby Aviation.

Solid Power, Louisville, Colorado-based developer of solid-state batteries, raised $130 million in Series B funding round led by Ford and BMW, the latest signal that the two OEMs see SSBs powering the future of transportation. Under the investment, Ford and BMW are equal equity owners, and company representatives will join Solid Power’s board. Solid Power received additional investment in the round from Volta Energy Technologies, the venture capital firm spun out of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Youibot, a four-year-old startup that makes autonomous mobile robots for a range of scenarios, raised 100 million yuan ($15.47 million) in its latest funding round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia, the Seoul-based early-stage arm of the global investment behemoth. Youibot’s previous investors BlueRun Ventures and SIG also participated in the round. Also, it’s worth noting that Softbank Ventures Asia led a financing round back in December for another Chinese robotics startup called KeenOn, which focuses on delivery and service robots.

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

President Joe Biden isn’t the only person in Washington with his eyes on electrifying transportation. Two separate pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress this week aimed at boosting zero-emission vehicle use in the country.

First, we have a $73 billion proposal introduced May 4 by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Their plan, “Clean Transit for America,” would replace more than 150,000 diesel buses, vans, ambulances and other publicly-owned vehicles with zero-emission models, as well as building out charging infrastructure to support the new fleet.

The following day, Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) re-introduced a revised version of the “Electric Vehicles Freedom Act” to build out a network of EV charging stations across the country. Democrats supported a version of this bill last year. Although that bill failed, Biden’s outspoken support for EVs and his $2 trillion climate plan may give this new bill a more optimistic fate.

On the same day that Reps. Levin and Ocasio-Cortez announced their bill, a House subcommittee on Commerce and Energy held a hearing to discuss yet another bill that was introduced back in March. This bill, known as the CLEAN Futures Act, is the Democrats’ comprehensive climate legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally by 50% by 2030. It would also earmark billions for EV infrastructure and to spurn domestic manufacturing of EV parts, like batteries. (Are you keeping all of this straight?)

Not every lawmaker at the hearing was so enthusiastic on the terms of the CLEAN Futures Act. There was particular pushback from Republicans. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich) said that the bill would “push” EVs on Americans “whether they are ready for them or not.”

“I have concerns that the CLEAN Future Act puts the cart before the horse by mandating electric vehicles, because there is no consideration for American workers or car buyers, our growing reliance on China for critical materials and minerals to make batteries, and certainly the strain that EVs will place on our grid,” he said.

Rep. Greg Pence (R-Indiana) added that the future of the transportation industry should not be a “one-size-fits-all made by Washington.” He said that hydrogen and renewable diesel should also be considered alongside battery electric.

During that same House subcommittee on Commerce and Energy meeting, most of which was spent on the CLEAN Future Act, several other proposed bills were mentioned, including the “NO EXHAUST Act,”  the “Electric Vehicles for Underserved Communities Act of 2021” and the “Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Future Act of 2021” or the “ATVM Future Act.”

The NO EXHAUST Act promotes the electrification of the transportation sector to improve air quality and electric vehicle infrastructure access — especially in rural, urban, low-income,and minority communities, according to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who introduced the bill.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear things; and we’re here to share them with you.

Remember waaaaayyyyy back in April when a report from The Information said that Argo AI CEO and co-founder Bryan Salesky told employees in an all-hands meeting that the autonomous vehicle startup was planning for a public listing later this year? At the time, and right here in The Station, I provided a bit more context, noting that while Salesky did indeed mention the prospect of an IPO during the company’s regular weekly all-hands meeting, there was more to the story.

The comments were made as the CEO discussed upcoming important milestones in 2021 that will lead to an IPO or a significant raise of some kind. The upshot: apparently all fundraising options are on the table, including a merger with a special acquisition company, or SPAC. (Argo has raised $2 billion to date.)

Now, it appears that Argo is leaning towards a more traditional investment path — at least, at first. In an interview with Bloomberg’s Ed Ludlow, Salesky said the company is going to be raising money this summer. His public comments support what I’ve heard from folks in the know.

“We’re really excited about doing that,” Salesky said in the interview. “We’ll be taking money from some of the capital markets and we’ll be looking at, you know, an IPO in the in the future as well. I think that it’s one of those things where you know we don’t know the exact source that we’re going to take the funding from next. We’re looking at a bunch of options, but we’re really excited about how that’s going to keep us going for the future to really be able to scale out autonomous vehicles.”

Speaking of Argo, the company revealed new details on a long-range lidar sensor that it claims has the ability to see 400 meters away with high-resolution photorealistic quality and the ability to detect dark and distant objects with low reflectivity. The technology, which is the product of Argo’s acquisition of lidar company Princeton Lightwave, is poised to help it deliver autonomous vehicles that can operate commercially on highways and in dense urban areas starting next year.

The company said  the first batch of these lidar sensors are already on some of Argo’s test vehicles, which today is comprised of Ford Fusion Hybrid sedans and Ford Escape Hybrid SUVs. By the end of the year, Argo’s test fleet will transition to about 150 Ford Escape Hybrid vehicles, all of which will be equipped with the in-house lidar sensor. Ford, an investor in and customer of Argo, plans to deploy autonomous vehicles for ride-hailing and delivery in 2022. Argo’s other investor and customer, Volkswagen, said it will launch commercial operations in 2025.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

The TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, which is scheduled for June 9, is approaching in about a month. We recently released a “mostly” final agenda.

Now two more announcements. Pam Fletcher, who is leading innovation efforts at GM, will be interviewed at the event. And, for all those AV fans out there … we’re putting Karl Iagnemma, an co-founder who now heads up Motional, and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson on our “virtual” stage together. Have a question for either of these folks? Email me.

Other guests to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, whose SPAC merged with Joby, investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, as well as Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. We also plan to bring together community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig to talk about equity, accessibility and shared mobility in cities.

See y’all next week. 

Tesla refutes Elon Musk’s timeline on ‘full self-driving’

What Tesla CEO Elon Musk says publicly about the company’s progress on a fully autonomous driving system doesn’t match up with “engineering reality,” according to a memo that summarizes a meeting between California regulators and employees at the automaker.

The memo, which transparency site Plainsite obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequently released, shows that Musk has inflated the capabilities of the Autopilot advanced driver assistance system in Tesla vehicles, as well the company’s ability to deliver fully autonomous features by the end of the year. 

Tesla vehicles come standard with a driver assistance system branded as Autopilot. For an additional $10,000, owners can buy “full self-driving,” or FSD — a feature that Musk promises will one day deliver full autonomous driving capabilities. FSD, which has steadily increased in price and capability, has been available as an option for years. However, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. FSD includes the parking feature Summon as well as Navigate on Autopilot, an active guidance system that navigates a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable “Navigate on Autopilot” for that trip.

Tesla vehicles are far from reaching that level of autonomy, a fact confirmed by statements made by the company’s director of Autopilot software CJ Moore to California regulators, the memo shows.

“Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ,” according to the memo summarizing the conversation between regulators with the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ autonomous vehicles branch and four Tesla employees, including Moore.

The memo, which was written by California DMV’s Miguel Acosta, states that Moore described Autopilot — and the new features being tested — as a Level 2 system. That description matters in the world of automated driving.

There are five levels of automation under standards created by SAE International. Level 2 means two primary functions — like adaptive cruise and lane keeping — are automated and still have a human driver in the loop at all times. Level 2 is an advanced driver assistance system, and has become increasingly available in new vehicles, including those produced by Tesla, GM, Volvo and Mercedes. Tesla’s Autopilot and its more capable FSD were considered the most advanced systems available to consumers. However, other automakers have started to catch up.

Level 4 means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention and is what companies like Argo AI, Aurora, Cruise, Motional, Waymo and Zoox are working on. Level 5, which is widely viewed as a distant goal, would handle all driving in all environments and conditions.

Here is an important bit via Acosta’s summarization:

DMV asked CJ to address from an engineering perspective, Elon’s messaging about L5 capability by the end of the year. Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ. Tesla is at Level 2 currently. The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in the magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation. Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about L5 capabilities. Tesla couldn’t say if the rate of improvement would make it to L5 by end of calendar year.

Portions of this commentary were redacted. However, Plainsite was able to copy and paste the redacted part, which shows up as white space on a PDF, into another document.

The comments in the memo are contrary to what Musk has said repeatedly in the public sphere.

Musk is frequently asked on Twitter and in quarterly earnings calls for progress reports on FSD, including questions about when it will be rolled out via software updates to owners who have purchased the option. In a January earnings call, Musk said he was “highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of a human this year.” In April 2021, during the company’s first quarter earnings call, Musk said “it’s really quite, quite tricky. But I am highly confident that we will get this done.”

The memo released this week provided other insights into Tesla’s push to test and eventually unlock greater levels of autonomy, including the number of vehicles testing a beta version of “Navigate on Autopilot on City Streets,” a feature that is meant to handle driving in urban areas and not just highways. Regulators also asked the Tesla employees if and how participants were being trained to test this feature, and how the sales team ensures that messaging about the vehicle capabilities and limitations are communicated.

As of the March meeting, there were 824 vehicles in a pilot program testing a beta version of “city streets.”  About 750 of those vehicles were being driven by employees and 71 by non-employees. Pilot participants are located across 37 states, with the majority of participants in California. As of March 2021, pilot participants have driven more than 153,000 miles using the City Streets feature, the memo states. The memo noted that Tesla planned to expand this pool of participants to approximately 1,600 later that month.

Tesla told the DMV that it is working on developing a video for the participants and that the next group of participants will include referrals from existing participants. “The new participants will be vetted by Tesla by looking at insurance telematics based on the VINs registered to that participant,” according to the memo.

Tesla also told the DMV that it is able to track when there are failures or when the feature is deactivated. Moore described these as “disengagements,” a term also used by companies testing and developing autonomous vehicle technology. The primary difference worth noting here is that these companies only use employees who are trained safety drivers, not the public.

Autonomous vehicle pioneers Karl Iagnemma and Chris Urmson are coming to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

Long before the multimillion-dollar acquisitions and funding rounds pushed autonomous vehicles to the top of the hype cycle, Karl Iagnemma and Chris Urmson were researching and, later, developing the foundations of the technology.

These pioneers — Iagnemma coming from MIT, Urmson from Carnegie Mellon University — would eventually go on to launch their own autonomous vehicle startups in an aim to finally bring years of R&D to the public.

That task isn’t over quite yet. Urmson, who is co-founder and CEO of Aurora, and Iagnemma, who is president and CEO of Motional, are still working on unlocking the technical and business problems that stand in the way of commercialization.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Urmson and Iagnemma will be joining us on the virtual stage of TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. The one-day event, scheduled for June 9, is bringing together engineers and founders, investors and CEOs who are working on all the present and future ways people and packages will get from Point A to Point B. Iagnemma and Urmson will come to discuss the past, the present challenges and what both aim to do in the future. We’ll tackle questions about the technical problems that remain to be solved, the war over talent, the best business models and applications of autonomous vehicles and maybe even hear a few stories from the early days of testing and launching a startup.

Both guests have a long list of accolades and accomplishments — and too many to cover them all here.

Urmson has been working on AVs for more than 15 years. He earned his BSc in computer engineering from the University of Manitoba in 1998 and his PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. He was a faculty member of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, where he worked with house-sized trucks, drove robots in the desert and was the technical director of the DARPA Urban and Grand Challenge teams. Urmson has authored more than 60 patents and 50 publications.

He left CMU and was one of the founding members of Google’s self-driving program, serving as its CTO. In 2017, Urmson co-founded Aurora with Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell.

Iagnemma is also considered an authority on robotics and driverless vehicles. He was the director of the Robotic Mobility Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where his research resulted in more than 150 technical publications, 50 issued or filed patents and numerous edited volumes, including books on the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge autonomous vehicle competitions. He holds a BS from the University of Michigan, where he graduated first in his class, and MS and PhD degrees from MIT, where he was a National Science Foundation fellow.

In 2013, Iagnemma co-founded autonomous vehicle startup nuTonomy, one of the first to launch ride-hailing pilots. The company was acquired by Aptiv in late 2017. Aptiv and Hyundai formed the joint venture, which he now heads, in 2020. 

Iagnemma and Urmson are two of the many best and brightest minds in transportation who will be joining us on our virtual stage in June. Among the growing list of speakers are GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event. Early Bird sales end tonight, May 7 at 11:59 pm PT. Be sure to book your tickets ASAP and save $100.

NYC files lawsuit to halt Citi Bike rival JOCO’s ebike operations

The City of New York has filed a lawsuit against JOCO, the docked electric bike share service, just weeks after the company launched operations in the city.

The city alleges JOCO is operating illegally because all bike-sharing systems within the city require prior written authorization from the Department of Transportation. JOCO has argued that it’s not violating any laws since its docking stations are all on private property and thus outside the jurisdiction of the city’s regulation. In late April, the city issued a cease and desist notice to JOCO, which the company ignored. 

The court denied Thursday the city’s request to temporarily halt JOCO’s operations in advance of a hearing scheduled for June 16. 

“We are pleased with the result in court today, and in the months ahead we will be expanding our operations to help New Yorkers with more mobility options as they return to work and begin to again enjoy the city as it re-opens and recovers from the pandemic,” said the co-founders of JOCO, Johnny Cohen and Jonny A. Cohen, in a statement.

JOCO launched 300 e-bikes at 30 stations around Manhattan in April, and said it plans to nearly triple that number by June. The company has partnerships with parking garages in the city, including the iconic Icon Parking, the city’s largest operator of private garages.

The lawsuit filed this week, which includes a request to impose a civil penalty against JOCO of $5,000 for every day a violation occurs, specifies that Citi Bike, a subsidiary of Lyft, is the only company presently authorized by the DOT to operate a bike share in any of New York’s five boroughs. The Citi Bike system, which launched in 2012 and has recorded more than 111 million trips, originated in a request for bike share proposals from the department that would benefit the public, including mandated safety, service levels and maintenance standards, as well as privacy and consumer protections. 

“We’re committed to the highest safety standards,” the two Cohens told TechCrunch. “We have fleet management, we give free helmets to all our members. We are a responsible startup making sure we have all our bases covered in this regard, and to add onto that, we’re using a very reputable bike.”

A JOCO spokesperson declined further comment regarding the city’s justification for regulation and exclusivity with Citi Bike.

We all live on top of each other in NYC,” tweeted New York State Senator Liz Krueger in response to the lawsuit. “Our street space requires thoughtful regulation to be functional and safe. Any transportation service that moves people in large numbers on the public right-of-way needs oversight, public accountability and to obey the laws that exist.”

The exclusive operations rights afforded Citi Bike are also an incentive for the investment of private capital needed to expand the system, according to language in the lawsuit. The city’s contract with Lyft, which was most recently amended in 2020, includes an investment of $300 million to expand the system.

A Lyft spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is returning to space in June

Orbital launch company Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next mission to space.

Virgin Orbit will be returning its LauncherOne rocket to orbit in June to deliver payloads for the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program, SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

The manifest includes three CubeSat satellites as part of the DoD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative; a CubeSat satellite called BRIK II, Norway’s first military satellite to go to space; and two optical imaging satellites from SatRevolution for Earth observation. DoD awarded the launch to Virgin Orbit’s defense-focused subsidiary VOX Space last April.

LauncherOne will take its payload to a target orbit of around 310 miles above Earth.

This will be the LauncherOne’s first take-off since a demonstration mission in January, during which the LauncherOne carried satellites to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. That most recent demonstration was the first time Virgin Orbit proved that its unique hybrid aircraft/orbital rocket system actually works. The first try, which took place in May of last year, ended after the rocket initiated an automatic safety shutdown after detaching from the Boeing 747 that takes it to launch altitude.

The mission will be conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on a yet-to-be-announced date in June. The rocket will be shipped out to the Mojave site “in the coming days” for prelaunch operations, the company said. Virgin Orbit will offer a public livestream of the mission on its website.

Virgin Orbit is part of a small cohort of private orbital launch companies that have actually sent payloads to space. As opposed to providers like SpaceX, which uses massive rockets similar to legacy designs from agencies like NASA, LauncherOne is essentially a 747 that’s been retrofitted with a rocket. Besides being smaller and able to take off from traditional airplane runways, the 747 saves on costs by being completely reusable.

Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017, with the latter focusing exclusively on commercial human spaceflight services. In homage to its beginnings as a humble record company, the mission has been christened “Tubular Bells, Part One,” so named after the first track on the first album ever released by Virgin Records.