Tesla delivers 88,400 electric vehicles, beating expectations

Tesla delivered 88,400 vehicles in the first quarter, beating most analysts expectations despite a 21% decrease from the previous quarter as the COVID-19 pandemic put downward pressure on demand and created logistical challenges.

Tesla said Thursday it produced 103,000 electric vehicles in the first quarter, about 2% lower than the previous period.

The deliveries and production figures beat most analysts expectations, causing Tesla shares to jump more than 10.4% in after hours trading. Analysts, who had anticipated lower numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had varying forecasts. A consensus of analysts by FactSeat expected more than 79,908 vehicles would be delivered while Reuters reported IBES data from Refinitiv forecast numbers as high as 93,399 vehicles.

The company, which does direct sales to consumers as opposed to using dealerships, was able to beat those expectations because it continued to produce and deliver its electric vehicles to customers in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While COVID-19 still affected Tesla, the company still managed to beat its delivery numbers from the first quarter of 2019.

Here’s a breakdown of the first quarter 2020 deliveries and production:

  • Tesla delivered 88,400 vehicles (compared to 112,000 in Q4 and 63,000 in Q1 2019)
  • Tesla produced 103,000 vehicles (compared to 105,000 in Q4 and 77,100 in Q1 2019)

This quarter deliveries included some Model Y vehicles, the newest addition to Tesla’s portfolio. Model Y production started in January and deliveries began in March according to Tesla.

Tesla also said that its new Shanghai factory, which is producing the Model 3 for Chinese customers, is achieving “record levels of production, despite significant setbacks.” Tesla didn’t provide any details on the levels of production at the Shanghai factory. The first public deliveries of Model 3 sedans produced at its Shanghai factory began January 7, one year after Tesla began construction on its first factory outside the United States.

Self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski files motion to force Uber into arbitration

Anthony Levandowski, the star self-driving car engineer who was at the center of a trade secrets lawsuit, has filed a motion to compel Uber into arbitration in the hopes that his former employee will have to shoulder the cost of at least part of the $179 million judgment against him.

The motion to compel arbitration filed this week is part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s the latest chapter in a long and winding legal saga that has entangled Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

The motion represents the first legal step to force Uber to stand by an indemnity agreement with Levandowski. Uber signed an indemnity agreement in 2016 when it acquired Levandowski’s self-driving truck startup Otto . Under the agreement, Uber said it would indemnify — or compensate — Levandowski against claims brought by his former employer, Google.

In Uber’s view the stakes are at least $64 million, according to the ride-hailing company’s annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission . Although Levandowski, who was ordered in March 2020 to pay Google $179 million, is clearly shooting for more.

“For much of the past three years, Anthony ceded control of his personal defense to Uber because Uber insisted on controlling his defense as part of its duty to indemnify him. Then, when Uber didn’t like the outcome, it suddenly changed its mind and said it would not indemnify him. What Uber did is wrong, and Anthony has to protect his rights as a result,” Levandowksi’s lawyer Neel Chatterjee of Goodwin Procter said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

The backstory

Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. The Google self-driving project later spun out to become Waymo, a business under Alphabet. Levandowski was paid about $127 million by Google for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court document filed this week.

Levandowski left Google in January 2016 and started Otto, a self-driving trucking company, with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.

Before the acquisition closed, Uber conducted due diligence, including hiring outside forensic investigation firm Stroz Friedberg to review the electronic devices of Levandowski and other Otto employees, according to the recent court filing. The investigation discovered that Levandowski had on his devices files belonging to Google, as well as indications that evidence may have been destroyed.

Uber agreed to a broad indemnification agreement in spite of the forensic evidence, which would protect Levandowski against claims brought by Google relating to his previous employment. Levandowski was worried that Google would attempt to get back any or all of the $127 million in compensation he had received.

That forecast didn’t take long to come true. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, it was on the hook, under the indemnification agreement, to defend Levandowski.

Uber accepted those obligations and defended Levandowski. While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial and ended in a settlement, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber. Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

Meanwhile, the arbitration panel issued an interim award in March 2019 against each of Google’s former employees, including a $127 million judgment against Levandowski. The judgment also included another $1 million that Levandowski and Ron were jointly liable for. Google submitted a request for interest, attorney fees and other costs. A final award was issued in December.

Ron settled with Google in February for $9.7 million. However, Levandowski, disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition in March, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable.

As the legal wrangling between Google and Levandowski and Uber played out, the engineer faced criminal charges. In August 2019, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Last month, Levandowski reached a plea agreement with the U.S. District Attorney and pleaded guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets.

What’s next

Levandowski’s lawyers argue that when the final judgment was entered against him, Uber reneged on its indemnification agreement. Levandowski said he was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because Uber has refused to pay.

“While Uber and Levandowski are parties to an indemnification agreement, whether Uber is ultimately responsible for such indemnification is subject to a dispute between the Company and Levandowski,” Uber said, using similar language found in its annual report filed with the SEC.

Even if Levandowski’s legal team is able to convince a judge to compel Uber into arbitration, that doesn’t mean the outcome will be positive. Arbitration could take months to play out. In the end, Levandowski could still lose. But the filing allows Levandowski to speak out — albeit using legalese — and share details of his employment at Google and Uber. Among those are details about what Uber knew (and when) about Levandowski’s activities in recruiting Google employees as well as information he had downloaded onto his laptop and discovered during the forensic investigation.

The first cracks between Uber and Levandowski appeared in April 2018, based on a timeline in the court document. It was then that Uber told Levandowski it intended to seek reimbursement for expenses used to defend him in the arbitration, according to claims laid out in the motion. Uber told Levandowski at the time that one reason it was seeking reimbursement is because Levandowski “refused to testify at his deposition through an unjustifiably broad invocation of the Fifth Amendment.” Levandowski had used the Fifth Amendment in the deposition during the arbitration with Google.

Uber never requested Levandowski waive his Fifth Amendment rights and testify during the arbitration, according to the court document. Levandowski said that he immediately alerted Google and the arbitration panel that he was willing to testify and offered to make himself available for deposition before the arbitration hearing.

Levandowski-Uber Motion to Compel by TechCrunch on Scribd

On-demand shuttle startup Via hits $2.25 billion valuation on latest funding round led by Exor

On-demand shuttle startup Via has hit a $2.25 billion valuation following a Series E funding round led by Exor, the Agnelli family holding company that owns stakes in PartnerRe, Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The Series E funding round, which included other investors, totaled $400 million, according to a source familiar with the deal. Exor invested $200 million into Via as part of the round, both companies said in an announcement. Noam Ohana, who heads up Exor Seeds, the holding company’s early stage investment arm, will join Via’s board.

New investors Macquarie Capital, Mori Building and Shell also participated in the round as well as existing investors 83North, Broadscale Group, Ervington Investments, Hearst Ventures, Planven Ventures, Pitango and RiverPark Ventures.

Via, which employs about 700 people, plans to use most of these funds to expand its “partnerships,” the software services piece of its business. Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. But the core of its business is really its underlying software platform, which it sells to cities and transportation authorities to deploy their own shuttles.

When the company first launched in 2012 there was little interest from cities in the software platform, according to co-founder and CEO Daniel Ramot . The company started by focusing on its consumer-facing shuttles. Over time, and using the massive amounts of data it collected through these service, Via improved its dynamic, on-demand routing algorithm, which uses real-time data to route shuttles to where they’re needed most.

Via landed its first city partnership with Austin in late 2017, after providing the platform to the transit authority for free. It was enough to allow Via to develop case studies and convince other cities to buy into the service. In 2019, the partnerships side of the business “took off,” Ramot said in a recent interview, adding that the company was signing on 2 to 3 cities a week before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, the Via platform is used by more than 100 partners, including cities such as Los Angeles, Cupertino, Calif., and Arriva Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company that uses it for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

Raising funds in a pandemic

Via managed to close the funding round during an inauspicious time for startups that have found it increasingly difficult to lock in capital due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus, has upended markets along with every industrial and business sector from manufacturing and transportation to energy and real estate.

Via managed to raise a sizable fund, which just closed, despite the credit tightening and uncertainty. Ramot told TechCrunch that while he was worried the round might be delayed, he noted that Exor is a long-term and patient investor that shares the company’s “same vision of where transit is going.”

Even now, as nearly every category within transportation —including public transit, ride-hailing, shared micromobility and airlines — has seen ridership drop or dry up altogether, Ramot and Ohana see a promising future.

Ohana said that the market is starting to understand the limits of ride-hailing — hurdles such as poor unit economics and an uncertain path to profitability. “On the other hand, the size of the market for an on-demand dynamic shuttle service is large and underappreciated,” Ohana said. “When we look at public transit today, there is a significant opportunity for Via, which already has impressive experience working with municipal and public transit partners across the globe.”

That doesn’t mean Via is immune to the widespread tumult caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Via’s consumer business has been negatively affected as ridership has dropped due to the spreading disease.

However, there has been some promise with its partnerships business, Ramot said.

Existing partners, a list that includes transit authorities in Berlin, Germany, Ohio and Malta, have worked with Via to convert or adapt the software to meet new needs during the pandemic. A city might dedicate its shuttle service to transporting goods or essential personnel. For instance, Berlin converted its 120-shuttle fleet transport to an overnight service that provides free transit to healthcare workers traveling to and from work.

“There has been a real interest in emergency services,” Ramot said, adding he expects to see more demand for the software platform and the flexibility it provides as the pandemic unfolds.

Uber co-founder Garrett Camp steps back from board director role

Uber co-founder Garrett Camp is relinquishing his role as a board director and switching to board observer — where he says he’ll focus on product strategy for the ride hailing giant.

Camp made the announcement in a short Medium post in which he writes of his decade at Uber: “I’ve learned a lot, and realized that I’m most helpful when focused on product strategy & design, and this is where I’d like to focus going forward.”

“I will continue to work with Dara [Khosrowshahi, Uber CEO] and the product and technology leadership teams to brainstorm new ideas, iterate on plans and designs, and continue to innovate at scale,” he adds. “We have a strong and diverse team in place, and I’m confident everyone will navigate well during these turbulent times.”

The Canadian billionaire entrepreneur signs off by saying he’s looking forward to helping Uber “brainstorm the next big idea”.

Camp hasn’t been short of ideas over his career in tech. He’s the co-founder of the web 2.0 recommendation engine, StumbleUpon. He’s also founded a startup studio and incubator, Expa Studios and Expa Labs — which has spawned startups like Haus, which is pushing an alternative model for home ownership. More recently he’s been been building Eco: A crypto currency with an energy efficiency twist.

Uber’s other co-founder, Travis Kalanick, left the company board entirely at the end of last year — having been forced out of the CEO role in 2017 following a shareholder revolt by prominent investors at the height of controversy around Uber’s toxic workplace culture.

At the time, Camp said the culture controversy at Uber had left him “upset and deeply reflective“. And he backed replacing Kalanick as CEO — helping to bring in Khosrowshahi, who remains at Uber’s helm.

Ryan Graves — Uber’s first employee and first CEO — also left the board last year, shortly after the IPO.

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment on the latest board change.

India’s travel and hotel booking firm Ixigo cuts salary of every employee over coronavirus

Ixigo, a 13-year-old travel and hotel booking service in India, said on Monday it is cutting the salary of its entire staff as the firm grapples with severe disruption in its business due to the coronavirus outbreak that has pushed New Delhi to issue a nationwide lockdown.

Aloke Bajpai, co-founder and chief executive of Ixigo, said the leadership at the firm has agreed to take a 60% pay cut while the rest of the staff, about 200 people, have agreed to have their salaries reduced between 20% to 50%. Bajpai and Rajnish Kumar, the other co-founder, have decided to forgo their entire salary until the business is back on track.

“We will reinstate the salaries as soon as the situation improves and we will also convert the accumulated salary deductions over the hardship period into equivalent ESOPs so that everyone benefits from future upside when the going gets better again,” said Bajpai.

The Indian government suspended all domestic flights and other public transportation services earlier this month and ordered a complete lockdown for three weeks to its 1.3 billion people in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease in the country.

Verteran industry executive Bajpai said the current situation is “the darkest hour for travel.” And it has hit the company at a time when it had just turned EBIDTA positive in the first two months of 2020.

Bajpai said Ixigo’s revenue surged by almost 50% in 2019 and burn rate dropped by almost 85% in the same year. The pay cut has enabled the company to not let go of any individual, he said.

“What the travel industry (and indeed any industry in our nation) faces today is no less than a war. India and the entire world are facing a catastrophe imposed by a microscopic adversary that has forced us to be confined to our homes, taken away our freedom to socialize with others, to roam and travel freely and forced us to give up all those things that help us experience the world and make us more human,” he said.

MakeMyTrip, another travel and stay booking service, announced last week that it was also cutting the salary of its top management level across the company, which includes flight ticketing service Goibibo and bus ticketing service redBus.

Indian news outlet Entrackr reported last week that MakeMyTrip may fire as many as 400 people if the business remains disruptive for long.

Bird lays off about 30% of workforce amid COVID-19 pandemic

Bird is the latest startup hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Bird laid off about 30% of its employees amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, TechCrunch has learned.

“The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates,” Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden wrote to staffers in a memo, obtained by TechCrunch, today. “As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.”

Bird has confirmed the layoffs and says it is providing four weeks of pay, three months of health coverage* and an extended timeframe of 12 months to exercise their stock options. According to a source, Bird’s balance sheet is strong but it needed to reduce burn in order to extend its runway into 2021.

Bird’s layoffs come shortly after news broke that Lime is looking for a funding round that would cut its valuation from $2.4 billion to $400 million.

Last week, Bird along with Lime suspended their respective services in response to the pandemic.

Bird is not the only startup forced to have layoffs amid the crisis. As The Information reported earlier this week, layoffs are accelerating across Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, Lime is reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here’s the full memo VanderZanden sent this morning:

We’ve watched the COVID-19 pandemic radically and quickly transform our lives, the world, and our business in less than a month. This once in a decade black swan event presents one of the greatest challenges in history because of the viral impact it has not just on our health, but also on our lives—our families, friends, communities, finances, work, emotions—the list goes on.

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.

In business, I feel like every challenge is surmountable with the right team. And I believe Bird has been building the right team these past few years. Until today, there wasn’t a problem we couldn’t solve together. That’s what makes this such a painful situation. To say goodbye to some of the most incredible, intelligent, scrappy, funny, loving, dedicated members of our Bird Family for reasons totally outside our control, hurts deeply.

I recognize and sympathize that this situation adds to an already difficult time. As you know, we strive to be community-focused at Bird—we always try to care deeply about the people we serve. The impacted individuals are an important part of this community and I hope that our commitment to caring and supporting them during this transition by providing severance pay, extended health insurance, and an extended window to exercise options makes a positive impact during this crisis.

We looked at many different options and scenarios and took as many preventive measures as possible to reduce the impact of the virus. Given the unknown timeline and current economic situation, we were forced to cut back in this way to elongate the trajectory of Bird and our mission.  As you know, we just raised hundreds of millions from investors, but given all the uncertainty, we needed to ensure a cash runway to last through the end of 2021.

Moving forward, together

As we all know: yes, the world has changed and continues to change. This will be a difficult season, but we continue to work around the clock to move us forward as a team. As mentioned last week, we’re aggressively shoring up resources and protecting our existing assets. We’ve curbed all spending company-wide that is not directly related to helping us weather this storm together. We appreciate all your help identifying unnecessary spend during this down time.

History also tells us something important: micromobility, especially scooters, will very likely have an important role to play as communities begin to get moving again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is not the first time that a public health crisis has had a direct impact on the micromobility industry. When the SARS outbreak was sweeping through China, e-bike sales surged as riders looked for more personalized alternatives to public transit.

History suggests that people will demand a large scale mobility option that still allows for personal distancing. And Bird will be there, working hand in hand with cities to help communities heal, and help riders regain mobility, in the wake of the most serious global pandemic in recent memory.

I just want to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has rallied to keep up with such a rapidly changing situation. We’ll try to keep everyone informed as it relates to changing priorities and business impact. We’ve had successes that allow businesses to persevere in times of uncertainty and, with your trust, patience and determination, we will overcome the challenges we face today as well.

Lean on each other. Over communicate. Support each other. Reach out to your teammates and managers to understand what you can do to keep us moving forward.

*An earlier version of this story said three weeks of health insurance instead of three months. We apologize for the error.

Wheels is deploying e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers

Wheels, which recently paused its shared bike service to limit the spread of COVID-19, is making its pedal-less e-bikes available for gig workers, restaurants, non-profits or any other people who do their own deliveries. What’s different about these bikes is they will come with self-cleaning NanoSeptic handlebars and brake levers.

NanoSeptic’s technology, which is powered by light, uses mineral nano-crystals to create an oxidation reaction that is stronger than bleach, according to the company’s website. NanoSeptic then implements that technology into skins and mats to turn anything from a mousepad to door handles to handlebars into self-cleaning surfaces.

People can either rent these bikes on a weekly or monthly basis or purchase them outright. Weekly rentals will cost $29.99 and monthly rentals cost $89.99. Buying it outright will cost $999.

“Before we temporarily paused our regular service, we were taking all the appropriate actions to keep our bikes clean,” Wheels wrote in a blog post. “Among other things, we were frequently and thoroughly cleaning our bikes with disinfectant and wiping them down with a microfiber towel. But with shared scooters and bikes being ridden by many different people every day and no operator able to manually clean each device prior to every ride, we believed a more comprehensive solution was needed.”

Wheels’ pause in operations and launch of self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers came after the micromobility company was forced to lay off 6% of its staff in February. Wheels’ regular service will be paused at least through the end of this month.

TuSimple partners with supplier ZF to mass produce self-driving truck tech

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology such as sensors on a commercial scale.

The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.

TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.

The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

Helm.ai raises $13M on its unsupervised learning approach to driverless car AI

Four years ago, mathematician Vlad Voroninski saw an opportunity to remove some of the bottlenecks in the development of autonomous vehicle technology thanks to breakthroughs in deep learning.

Now, Helm.ai, the startup he co-founded in 2016 with Tudor Achim, is coming out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. More than a dozen angel investors also participated, including Berggruen Holdings founder Nicolas Berggruen, Quora co-founders Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo, professional NBA player Kevin Durant, Gen. David Petraeus, Matician co-founder and CEO Navneet Dalal, Quiet Capital managing partner Lee Linden and Robinhood co-founder Vladimir Tenev, among others.

Helm.ai will put the $13 million in seed funding toward advanced engineering and R&D and hiring more employees, as well as locking in and fulfilling deals with customers.

Helm.ai is focused solely on the software. It isn’t building the compute platform or sensors that are also required in a self-driving vehicle. Instead, it is agnostic to those variables. In the most basic terms, Helm.ai is creating software that tries to understand sensor data as well as a human would, in order to be able to drive, Voroninski said.

That aim doesn’t sound different from other companies. It’s Helm.ai’s approach to software that is noteworthy. Autonomous vehicle developers often rely on a combination of simulation and on-road testing, along with reams of data sets that have been annotated by humans, to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.

Helm.ai says it has developed software that can skip those steps, which expedites the timeline and reduces costs. The startup uses an unsupervised learning approach to develop software that can train neural networks without the need for large-scale fleet data, simulation or annotation.

“There’s this very long tail end and an endless sea of corner cases to go through when developing AI software for autonomous vehicles, Voroninski explained. “What really matters is the unit of efficiency of how much does it cost to solve any given corner case, and how quickly can you do it? And so that’s the part that we really innovated on.”

Voroninski first became interested in autonomous driving at UCLA, where he learned about the technology from his undergrad adviser who had participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless car competition in the U.S. funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And while Voroninski turned his attention to applied mathematics for the next decade — earning a PhD in math at UC Berkeley and then joining the faculty in the MIT mathematics department — he knew he’d eventually come back to autonomous vehicles. 

By 2016, Voroninski said breakthroughs in deep learning created opportunities to jump in. Voroninski left MIT and Sift Security, a cybersecurity startup later acquired by Netskope, to start Helm.ai with Achim in November 2016.

“We identified some key challenges that we felt like weren’t being addressed with the traditional approaches,” Voroninski said. “We built some prototypes early on that made us believe that we can actually take this all the way.”

Helm.ai is still a small team of about 15 people. Its business aim is to license its software for two use cases — Level 2 (and a newer term called Level 2+) advanced driver assistance systems found in passenger vehicles and Level 4 autonomous vehicle fleets.

Helm.ai does have customers, some of which have gone beyond the pilot phase, Voroninski said, adding that he couldn’t name them.