Morning Brew - ☕ Great expanse

Where is Waymo expanding its robotaxi service?
Morning Brew August 25, 2021

Emerging Tech Brew

Sprig

How goes it? After a brief lull, the NFT frenzy is back. This week in headlines...

Facebook is considering building NFT services into its forthcoming digital wallet, called Novi; Visa bought its first piece of digital art (for $150,000); sales on NFT platform OpenSea have reached $1.9 billion so far in August, up from $148 million in March, when plenty of us first learned what non-fungible meant. 

In today’s edition: 

Sandwich-sized satellites 
F-150 Lightning update
Waymo expands

Jordan McDonald, Dan McCarthy, Ryan Duffy

CONNECTIVITY

What’s as small as a sandwich and floating in the night sky?

spaceX swarm satellite connectivity

Swarm Technologies

While the race to see which billionaire can push farther past the Kármán line commands most of the space biz headlines, some companies are charting a quieter path to space, launching constellations of tiny satellites that could accelerate the commercialization of the expanse above.

These satellites, which are shaped like a Rubik’s Cube and can be the size of a sandwich, are called CubeSats. They’re used to transmit small amounts of data from remote locations, allowing companies to monitor the goings-on in tough-to-reach areas without physically being there. 

  • Due to their size—generally, they’re about 4 inches on either side and weigh less than 3 pounds—they tend to be cheaper than legacy options available for moving the same data. 
  • Using CubeSats, an organization could monitor moisture levels in a dense forest, or regularly collect oceanic data from buoys in the middle of the sea.

“It's a fairly new phenomenon really, because CubeSats maybe go back 15 years at most,” Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at The George Washington University, told Emerging Tech Brew. “The launching of large numbers of these constellations is really in the last few years. It’s proliferated.”

A swarm of sats

Swarm Technologies, which has launched 120 satellites to date, is a buzzy player in this niche market. It was acquired by SpaceX in early August, and before that it had raised $27.7 million. 

One use case: SweetSense, which manages water and energy services in remote environments, spends $5 per device per month on Swarm’s data plan, and a flat $120 on its tiles, SweetSense CEO Evan Thomas told us. He said SweetSense used to spend $30 per device per month, and a flat $300 per radio, with legacy satellite provider Iridium.

The tradeoff is that CubeSats can only move small amounts of data. Swarm’s network normally operates at one to three kilobits per second, CEO and cofounder Sara Spangelo told us. Contrast that with Starlink, which transmits data at speeds anywhere from 50 megabits per second (MBps) to 150MBps. 

Big picture: CubeSats have limited bandwidth by design, and this specialization was likely a major factor driving SpaceX’s purchase of Swarm a few weeks ago. As Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo told us days before the acquisition, “We're not actually a direct competitor with Starlink.”

Click here to read the full story.—JM

EV

Electrifying numbers

ford truck f-150

Ford

Back in May, when the Ford F-150 Lightning was unveiled, we wondered how well the all-electric pickup truck would sell.

Now...we sorta know. On Monday, Reuters reported that Ford doubled its production target for the electric version of the F-150, thanks to higher-than-expected demand. The F-150 is the best-selling truck in America, and the extent to which the US can convert truck-lovers to electric is a key question in the country’s quest to electrify.

  • In 2022, the truck’s first year of production, Ford plans to make 15,000 units. It’ll scale up to 55,000 the following year.  
  • And Ford is now aiming to ship 80,000+ units in 2024—up from its initial goal of 40,000—and nearly 160,000 in 2025. 

The upgraded goals are driven in large part by commercial customers, per Reuters. Darren Palmer, who heads up Ford’s electric vehicle (EV) push, foreshadowed that to Emerging Tech Brew in May, noting that fleet owners responded positively to the starting price of $39,974, before EV incentives and/or discounts. 

  • According to Palmer, fleet owners could get a return on their vehicle in under 1.5 years.

Big picture: Ford’s numbers are encouraging news for the US’s nascent transportation electrification push. But the automaker sells around 900,000 gas-guzzling F-150s per year, so even with the increased production targets, the road to total—or even majority—F-150 electrification remains long.—DM 

        

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AV

It’s coming home?

self-driving autonomous vehicle robotaxi driverless

Waymo

Waymo is officially expanding. Yesterday, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle (AV) unit announced a “Trusted Tester'' program in San Francisco. The company will accept select SF residents as riders via an application process. The chosen ones can take autonomous rides, free of charge and with a safety operator onboard “for now.”

  • Waymo’s Jaguar I-Pace EVs will provide the rides in SF, as opposed to the Chrysler Pacifica minivans we were acquainted with in Arizona. 

Receipts: On Monday morning, I (Ryan) Slacked Dan: “Mark my words, it's coming. [Waymo SF expansion] is going to happen soon.” Beyond the navel-gazing, let’s count the reasons why SF is key for Waymo: 

  1. There’s stiff local competition, from the likes of GM’s Cruise and Amazon’s Zoox.
  2. This is home, where Waymo/Google have been logging autonomous miles for 12+ years. 
  3. Waymo’s already driving 100,000+ autonomous miles a week in the California city. 
  4. The Bay Area has higher population density and ride-hail demand than suburban Phoenix. Those two attributes “will be necessary to achieve profitability,” Asad Hussain, mobility analyst at PitchBook, said. 

“Trusted Tester” could follow the same evolutionary playbook as Waymo’s “Early Rider” program in Phoenix: Start with a group of early adopters, gather feedback, iterate, scale to the general public, and eventually, go driverless. 

+ While we’re here: The other side of the Waymo house—trucking—is scaling up its presence in Texas.—RD

        

BITS & BYTES

generic satellite image

Pixabay

Stat: SpaceX has shipped 100,000 Starlink satellite internet terminals. Fun fact: The company has nicknamed the ground stations “Dishy McFlatface.”

Quote: “Eventually, you will use your Coinbase account for every financial transaction. We kind of call it ‘unbank the banked.’"—Surojit Chatterjee, Coinbase CPO, to Protocol 

Read: How Phoenix residents feel about riding in Waymos.

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WHAT ELSE IS BREWING

  • Samsung foldables have 800,000 preorders in South Korea. Narrative violation? 
  • TikTok is building an augmented reality dev studio, à la Snapchat and Facebook. 
  • Intel won a DoD contract to provide semiconductor foundry services for government agencies. 
  • Cyber insurance underwriters are raising premiums amid a surge in ransomware attacks.
  • Margaret Mitchell, the former colead and founder of Google’s AI ethics team who was fired in February, is joining Hugging Face. 

TRIVIA

Lots of satellites in today’s issue. So let’s keep the streak going—how well do you know the hunks of metal orbiting our planet? 

Click here to take the quiz.

MARKET RESEARCH

AutoX has published a 360° video of its driverless vehicles navigating the crowded streets of an urban Chinese village. Watch the impressive (presumably cherry-picked) footage for yourself here

About AutoX: Led by a technologist nicknamed Professor X, the Alibaba-backed startup is a front-runner in China’s autonomous vehicle industry. The company, which operates a sizable robotaxi warehouse in Shanghai, has raised $160 million to date. 

And just like Waymo, it has 5th-gen “driver” tech stack in production, uses Chrysler Pacifica minivans, and offers driverless rides to the public (in Shenzhen, as of January).

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Written by Dan McCarthy, Jordan McDonald, and Ryan Duffy

Illustrations & graphics by Francis Scialabba

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