The Station - Calling all mobility founders, an unexpected Tesla Cyber Rodeo cameo and Gogoro's public debut

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By Kirsten Korosec

Sunday, April 10, 2022

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.

First up! Calling all mobility startup founders! Come pitch your startup at TC Sessions: Mobility 2022.

Here’s a link with all the information you need to apply. We’re looking for six early-stage startups. Eligible applicants must be an early-stage startup with a minimally viable product that focuses on tech impacting various aspect of mobility, including AI, robotics, 5G, SaaS, climate tech, VITAL crafts, fueling, data processing, autonomous vehicle, transportation, logistics, infrastructure and even material science.

In addition to the opportunity to pitch, you’ll get training with TC’s Startup Battlefield Editor, two complimentary passes to the entire TC Sessions: Mobility event and an invitation to showcase on the Disrupt San Francisco 2022 show floor. The deadline to apply is April 21.

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 Kirsten at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin'

The biggest micromobility news of the week had to have been Gogoro’s public debut. The company, which is now listed on the Nasdaq through its SPAC merger with Poema Global, will give the company the funds it needs — $335 million in cash, to be exact — to scale its battery swapping system across Asia.

Why not across the world? Well, because Gogoro is being smart about which markets it pursues. Riding two-wheelers, electric or no, in the U.S. and even Europe is not commonplace enough to warrant a battery swapping network.

However, in dense Asian cities where two-wheeled vehicles are already popular, Gogoro can win. The company is expanding outside its native Taiwan and into China, India and Indonesia, and I’m excited to see where else it ends up.

Do it for Mother Earth

My inbox tells me that it’s Earth Month, and with it, the well-timed campaigns and announcements from your favorite micromobility companies.

Let’s start with Lime. If you follow the operator on Twitter, you’ll likely have seen its “Break up with cars” campaign. Lime is challenging riders to take the pledge to end their toxic relationship with cars, even electric ones, and move to greener forms of transportation. People who pledge can win up to $3,500 worth of free rides.

Trek Bicycle Corp. announced its partnership with Call2Recycle, a battery collection and recycling nonprofit, in honor of Earth Month. Starting this month, e-bike batteries used by Trek consumers can be safely recycled through drop-off sites identified by Call2Recycle.

Since Earth Month is all about being more environmentally friendly, I think it’s worth taking a look at this study published by Tokyo University of Science that analyzed bike usage patterns in four real-world bike sharing systems. The study found ways to make rebalancing of bikes, which makes them more available, more efficient by understanding social dynamics and human movement.

In other news …

Here’s a fun little graph that shows that even though micromobility companies are a bit touchy when you ask them who manufactures their scooters, it’s really only ever going to be Okai or Segway.

UPS is trying out eQuad electric bikes for urban deliveries in Europe, and soon, the U.S. and Asia.

Google is offering employees a free Unagi scooter subscription to get them to return back to the office.

VanMoof unveiled redesigned premium e-bikes in the form of the full-sized S5 and the smaller A5. A couple of great looking bikes, but damn, they’re not cheap. $3,000, because of the chip shortage.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

I’m going to put this in the ‘um, aaawwkkkkkwwwaaarrrrrddd’ category.

While Tesla CEO Elon Musk was on stage during the “Cyber Rodeo” celebration for the company’s factory in Austin, he displayed a few slides on the giant screen highlighting the company’s history, accomplishments and hints of what was to come.

One image, with the header “Where We Started” got some folks attention. The photo, shows a man in a blue shirt leaning over two others while looking at a computer screen. The man in blue is none other than Peter Rawlinson, the former chief vehicle engineer at Tesla who was responsible for the Model S. Rawlinson left Tesla in 2012 and is now CEO and CTO of Lucid Group.

Musk has repeatedly trolled Rawlinson on Twitter, claiming he never held such a title or downplaying his contributions at Tesla and its flagship Model S. However, one only need to read this Tesla blog post to confirm Rawlinson’s role at the company.

The image also shows Alan Clarke, who is now executive director of Ford Advanced EV Development. (Not sure on the third person). A few eagle-eyed folks spotted the image as it popped up on the big screen and also as it circulated on Twitter.

According to one tipster, the picture was taken in late 2009 upstairs at SpaceX in the early development days of Model S. Rawlinson had recruited Clarke from Honda Racing and hired him as a vehicle engineer on chassis and suspension.

Considering Musk’s repeated pokes at Rawlinson, I’m guessing he didn’t pick this image for the slide deck.

A little bird image

Image Credits: Screenshot/live stream of Cyber Rode event

Deal of the week

money the station

Gogoro’s public debut was going to be my deal of the week, but Rebecca stole my thunder. So let’s turn to YET ANOTHER EV COMPANY GOING PUBLIC.

This time it is Vinfast. The company filed confidentially for an IPO. The size and price range for the proposed offering have yet to be determined.

Never heard of Vinfast? Well get prepared to hear more about them. Vinfast was born out of Vietnam’s Vingroup.

The company first launched in 2017 and became Vietnam’s first domestic car manufacturer when its gas-powered models reached consumers in 2019. Vinfast has since promised to build only electric vehicles by late 2022.

Vinfast has its eyes set on the U.S. market. It plans to build its first U.S. factory in North Carolina and already has operations up and running in California.

Other deals that got my attention …

Bcomp, a Swiss company that manufactures high-performance composites from natural fibers, raised $35 million (CHF 32.4 million) in a Series B round that included a number of strategic investors such as BMW i Ventures, Volvo Cars Tech Fund and Porsche Ventures as well as Airbus Ventures, Generali, and existing investors.

Porsche made a $75 million investment in the industrial production of eFuels, a synthetic low-carbon complement to its plans to electrify 80% of its model lineup by 2030. Porsche said the technology could enable the automaker to continue producing its classic, flat-six-engine sports cars into the next decade.

SmartHop, a startup that uses AI to help interstate truckers make their routes more efficient and lucrative by removing administrative headaches, raised a $30 million in a Series B round led by Sozo Ventures. Existing investors Union Square Ventures, RyderVentures, Greycroft, Equal Ventures, Las Olas VC and The Fund also participated alongside a range of angels from the logistics and trucking industry.

Notably news and other tidbits

Autonomous vehicles

Aurora Innovation is launching its third autonomous freight pilot in Texas. Starting this week, trucks with Aurora’s self-driving system, will haul loads for Werner Enterprises, a transportation and logistics company, between Fort Worth and El Paso, Texas. The startup is already hauling freight for Uber Freight customers and for FedEx, a less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier.

Kodiak Robotics, the self-driving truck developer, and U.S. Xpress completed a pilot that tested autonomous freight service between Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia. Texas has turned into the unofficial test bed for self-driving truck development and U.S. Xpress is right in the thick of it,

Motional will be working with TÜV SÜD on the safety evaluation process of its next-gen robotaxi, the electric IONIQ 5-based robotaxi.

Steer Tech, a Maryland-based AV technology company, has been making headway in the automated parking arena. The startup, which has secured at least two OEM partnerships to embed its parking tech as a feature for passenger vehicles, is now expanding on that original thesis and moving into the commercial sector. Steer was awarded $1.5 million in funding from the North Central Texas Council of Governments to develop a test bed at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

Torc Robotics, an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck, is opening a technology and software development center in Stuttgart, Germany. The company said this team in Stuttgart will support the ongoing development of SAE Level 4 virtual driver for deployment in autonomous trucks in the United States.

ADAS

Mercedes-Benz is preparing to bring its Level 3 automated hands-free driving and reporter Abigail Bassett dug into the tech before it’s released to the masses at the end of year. (And by “masses,” I’m talking about the Mercedes S Class owners who opt for the upgrade).

Level 3 autonomy is about as easy to execute as removing an active hornet’s nest. In other words, it’s tricky and complex and if things go wrong, they can go really wrong. Mercedes seems confident though — even taking on the liability. I’m excited to test this system out.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company plans to roll out this year its “full self-driving” beta software to all customers in North America who have plunked down as much as $12,000 for the controversial version of its driver assistance system. The last data point I’m aware of puts FSD beta into the hands of 60,000 Tesla owners, although there is certainly more now.

Musk made a few other declarations at the company’s Cyber Rodeo event, including that Tesla would make a dedicated robotaxi and that the Cybertruck would be coming in 2023.

The dedicated robotaxi was a bit of a head scratcher for me since Musk has been talking about turning personally owned Tesla vehicles into robotaxis since 2016. Musk’s vision is to launch a Tesla Network, which would allow owners to place their vehicles-turned-robotaxi on a ride-hailing app. He promised during the company’s Autonomy Day in 2019 that the first autonomous vehicles on the robotaxi network would launch in 2020. That has not happened yet.

The dedicated robotaxi appears to be a different effort entirely.

In other Tesla news, the company said it will start delivering Model Y and Model 3 vehicles without radar to customers in Europe and the Middle East, a continuation of its plans and Musk’s desire to only use cameras combined with machine learning to support its advanced driver assistance system and other active safety features.

Toyota is following the lead of Tesla in trying to advance self-driving technology with low-cost cameras, Reuters reported.

Electric vehicles, batteries & charging

Automakers’ U.S. sales for the first three months of the year may portend the arrival of the battery-electric age sooner than expected. TechCrunch reporter Jaclyn Trop digs into the numbers.

ChargerHelp!, a startup we profiled in 2021, released a data platform designed for the maintenance and operation of electric vehicle charging stations.

DeLorean, the automaker behind the pop culture icon gull-winged car, provided a fresh teaser image and a debut date of an all-electric vehicle concept that aims to breathe new life into the brand.

General Motor’s Chevrolet brand announced the return of the all-electric Bolt sedan and utility vehicle with a pair of national ad campaigns set to coincide with Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. GM restarted retail production for both the Bolt EV and SUV on Monday after idling for eight months.

Hertz agreed to buy up to 65,000 Polestar electric vehicles over five years, a deal that will help the rental giant electrify its fleet and give the EV automaker access to a wider market, including corporate customers and ride-hailing drivers.

Nissan unveiled a prototype production facility for solid-state batteries, a critical step in the automaker’s bid to develop and deliver an EV powered by the next-generation battery technology by 2028. The materials, design and manufacturing processes developed while producing the prototype at the Nissan Research Center will be used in a pilot production line at Nissan’s plant in Yokohama in 2024.

Rivian produced 2,553 vehicles in the first quarter, putting it on course to meet its production goal of 25,000 EVs this year. (The production target was lowered to 25,000 vehicles earlier this year due to supply chain constraints, the company said at the time.) The production figures include a mix of the Rivian R1T pickup truck, R1S SUV and the commercial vans it is making for Amazon, a Rivian shareholder.

Sono Motors and Valmet Automotive signed a binding term sheet to produce the company’s Sion solar electric vehicle. The Finnish contract manufacturer will produce the Sion at its plant in Uusikaupunki. Valmet Automotive will provide the capacity to produce more than 257,000 vehicles over a seven-year period.

The U.S. government owns about 1,100 charging stations. It may need more than 100,000 charging stations to support widespread EV use in the next decade, according to testimony from the Government Accountability Office.

In-car tech and other stuff

Mercedes-Benz opened a new tech center in Sindelfingen that it’s calling the Electric Software Hub. The center, and the 1,100 employees that will work there, is part of the company’s effort to ramp up its in-house software expertise.

Spotify’s $90 in-car entertainment system “Car Thing,” which went on sale to the general public in February, is gaining a number of new features, including the ability to add songs and podcasts to a queue.

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