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April 21, 2019
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Phantom Auto raises $13.5M to expand remote driving business to delivery bots and forklifts

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Remote driving startup Phantom Auto has raised $13.5 million of financing in a Series A round led by Bessemer Venture Partners — capital used to expand a logistics business targeting sidewalks, warehouses and cargo yards, all the places where autonomy and teleoperation are being deployed today.

The startup, founded in 2017, has raised about $19 million to date. Byron Deeter and Tess Hatch from Bessemer have joined Phantom’s board.

The so-called “race” to deploy self-driving trucks, robotaxi services and other applications of autonomous vehicle technology on public roads has encountered a speed bump of sorts that has sent ripples throughout the nascent industry.

In short: autonomous vehicles are hard and everyone seems to be waking up to that fact.

As deployment timelines have moved, companies have quieted. Some have pivoted, shuttered, or been snapped up in acquisitions by other better capitalized companies looking for talent. Other companies, like Phantom Auto that are adjacent to the industry, are expanding into new areas as they wait for autonomous vehicle developers to catch up.

Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz emphasized that the company is still working with customers deploying autonomous passenger and commercial vehicles on public roads. This new logistics business, however, holds more near-term potential. 

“We continue to be designed into our customers’ stacks who are focusing on AVs on public roads, but it will take some time for autonomous passenger vehicles and commercial trucks to be deployed at scale,” Phantom founder Shai Magzimof said in a statement.

The company is working with some of the largest logistics companies in the world, Katz said. Phantom Auto isn’t providing a full list of customers yet. One named partner is Dutch yard truck manufacturer Terberg.

Katz told TechCrunch that customers include companies launching autonomous delivery robots. They’re also using the platform to remotely operate forklifts and yard trucks equipped with its teleoperation software. Yard trucks are used by major retailers, for example. 

There has been zero innovation with yard trucks in the past 40 years,” Katz said. “And customers in this segment, are itching to gain efficiencies. That’s that’s the name of the game for them. They see this as a path to get there.”

Phantom Auto’s teleoperation platform allows a remote driver, sometimes located thousands of miles away, to take control of an autonomous vehicle if needed. The platform, which uses public cellular networks, isn’t designed to take over in a split second in hopes of avoiding an accident. Instead, it’s used as a safety backup to take control of the vehicle if it encounters a difficult scenario and gets confused, or is even involved in an accident.

In the logistics application, the Phantom Auto system is used in low speed environments. A remote control center could control a company’s yard trucks anywhere in the country.

Phantom Auto isn’t employing the remote drivers in this use case. Instead, Katz said these logistics customers typically want to train their own employees how to use the platform. And this doesn’t necessarily replace drivers who are on the ground operating these yard trucks or forklifts. The system is seen as a way to use workers at one location that is experiencing a lull in activity to remotely operate a busier spot farther away.

For delivery robots, the platform can be used to help the vehicle handle tricky situations like stairs or other complex environments.

 

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

100 Car2go Mercedes hijacked in Chicago crime spree

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Car2go, free-floating car-sharing service owned by Daimler, temporarily shut down its service in Chicago on Wednesday after dozens of Mercedes-Benz vehicles were stolen using the app.

The Chicago Police Department was alerted by Car2Go that some of their vehicles may have been rented by deceptive or fraudulent means through a mobile  app, a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

The news was first reported via tweet by Brad Edwards, a reporter with CBS Chicago. Edwards reported that sources said that many of the vehicles were allegedly used to commit other crimes. CPD did not provide any details about how the vehicles were used and said the investigation was ongoing.

Car2go launched in Chicago last June, the first time in four years that the company added a U.S. city to its ranks. The car-sharing company lets customers rent out vehicles on a short-term basis. Daimler’s diminutive Smart cars were once the lone option for Car2go customers. The company has expanded its offerings in recent years and now offers Mercedes-Benz CLA and GLA, as well as the two-door Smartfortwo vehicles.

CPD said 100 vehicles are still unaccounted for. It is believed that 50 vehicles, all of them Mercedes-Benz remain in the greater Chicago area. Police are questioning more than a dozen persons of interest.

CPD said it’s working with Car2go to determine whether there are any other vehicles whose locations cannot be accounted for.  At this time the recoveries appear to be isolated to the West Side, CPD said.

While the perpetrators appear to have gained access to the vehicles through “fraudulent means,” Car2go emphasized that no personal or confidential member information has been compromised.

TechCrunch received a tip from a user who received this “temporary pause in service” message when trying to use the app. Car2go confirmed the shut down and added that it will provide an update as soon as possible.

 

Car2go is going through a branding and organizational transition. Daimler  AG and BMW Group officially agreed to merge their urban mobility services into a single holding company back in March 2018 with a 50 percent stake each. In February, the companies announced plans to unify their services under five categories by creating five joint ventures — Reach Now, Charge Now, Park Now, Free Now and Share Now.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Audi self-driving unit taps newcomer Aeva for its unique lidar

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Audi’s self-driving unit has tapped a startup with a unique approach to lidar as it ramps up testing in Munich using a fleet of autonomous electric e-tron crossover vehicles.

Audi subsidiary Autonomous Intelligent Driving, or AID, said Wednesday it’s using lidar sensors developed by Aeva, a startup founded just two years ago by veterans of Apple and Nikon.

Aeva, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company started by Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, has developed what it describes as “4D lidar” that can measure distance as well as instant velocity without losing range, all while preventing interference from the sun or other sensors. Move past the 4D branding-speak, and the tech is compelling.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance. It’s considered by many (with Tesla as one exception) in the emerging automated driving industry as a critical and necessary sensor. And for years, that industry has been dominated by Velodyne.

Today, there are dozens of lidar startups that have popped up with promises of technological breakthroughs that will offer lower-cost sensors with better resolution and accuracy than Velodyne. It’s a promise that is fraught with challenges, notably the ability to scale up manufacturing.

Traditional lidar sensors are able to determine distance by sending out high-power pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then tracking how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.

Aeva’s sensors emit a continuous low-power laser, which allows them to sense instant velocity of every point in the frame at ranges up to 300 meters, the company says. In other words, Aeva’s sensors can determine distance and direction, as well as speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them.

This is a handy perception feature for autonomous vehicles operating in an environment of objects that travel at different speeds, like pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles.

Aeva, backed by investors including Lux Capital and Canaan Partners, says its sensors are also unique because they’re “free” from interference from other sensors or sunlight.

It was this combination of long-range perception, instantaneous velocity measurements at cm/s precision and robustness to interferences that sold AID CTO Alexandre Haag on the Aeva sensors.

Aeva spent the past 18 months going through a validation process with Audi and parent company Volkswagen. This announcement confirms that Aeva has made it past a critical hurdle in Audi’s AV plans. Aeva’s sensors are already on Audi e-tron development vehicles in Munich. The automaker plans to bring autonomous driving to urban mobility services within the next few years.

Interference is possible and can cause a stream of random points on a 3D map if the lidar is pointed directly at the sun or if there are multiple sensors on the same vehicle. Lidar companies have instituted various techniques to prevent interference patterns; autonomous vehicle developers also account for potential interference problems from the sun and snow by creating algorithms to reject these kinds of outliers.

Still, Salehian argues that interference is a significant challenge.

When you talk about the challenge of building to scale and designing for mass scale, it’s not just about how easily they can be manufactured, Salehian contends. “It’s also about having these things work in unison together on a row. So when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of these cars, that’s a big deal.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Alibaba will let you find restaurants and order food with voice in a car

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Competition in the Chinese internet has for years been about who controls your mobile apps. These days, giants are increasingly turning to offline scenarios, including what’s going on behind the dashboard in your car.

On Tuesday, Alibaba announced at the annual Shanghai Auto Show that it’s developing apps for connected cars that will let drivers find restaurants, queue up and make reservations at restaurants, order food and eventually complete a plethora of other tasks using voice, motion or touch control. Third-party developers are invited to make their in-car apps, which will run on Alibaba’s operating system AliOS.

Rather than working as standalone apps, these in-car services come in the form of “mini apps,” which are smaller than regular ones in exchange for faster access and smaller file sizes, in Alibaba’s all-in-one digital wallet Alipay . Alibaba has other so-called “super apps” in its ecosystem, such as marketplace Taobao and navigation service AutoNavi, but the payments solution clearly makes more economic sense if Alibaba wants people to spend more while sitting in a four-wheeler.

There’s no timeline for when Alibaba will officially roll out in-car mini apps but it’s already planning for a launch, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Making lite apps has been a popular strategy for China’s internet giants operating super apps that host outside apps, or “mini-apps”; that way users rarely need to leave their ecosystems. These lite apps are known to be easier and cheaper to build than a native app, although developers have to make concessions like giving their hosts certain level of access to user data and obeying rules as they would with Apple’s App Store. For in-car services, Alibaba says there will be “specific review criteria for safety and control” tailored to the auto industry.

Photo source: Alibaba

Alibaba’s move is indicative of a heightened competition to control the operating system in next-gen connected cars. For those who wonder whether the ecommerce behemoth will make its own cars given it’s aggressively infiltrated the physical space, like opening its own supermarket chain Hema, the company’s solution to vehicles appears to be on the software front, at least for now.

In 2017, Alibaba rebranded its operating system with a deep focus to put AliOS into car partners. To achieve this goal, Alibaba also set up a joint venture called Banma Network with state-owned automaker SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen, which is the French car company’s China venture, that would hawk and integrate AliOS-powered solutions with car clients. As of last August, 700 thousand AliOS-powered SAIC vehicles had been sold.

Alibaba competitors Tencent and Baidu have also driven into the auto field, although through slightly different routes. Baidu began by betting on autonomous driving and built an Android-like developer platform for car manufacturers. While the futuristic plan is far from bearing significant commercial fruit, it’s gained a strong foothold in self-driving with the most mileage driven in Beijing, a pivotal hub to test autonomous cars. Tencent’s car initiatives seem more nebulous. Like Baidu, it’s testing self-driving and like Alibaba, it’s partnered with industry veterans to make cars, but it’s unclear where the advantage lies for the social media and gaming giant in the auto space.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Electric car startup Byton loses co-founder and former CEO, reported $500M Series C to close this summer

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The race is on for building and shipping more cost-effective electric cars, but today one of more ambitious startups in the field announced some significant changes that underscore some of the challenges in making that a reality. Byton, the Chinese electric car startup, today announced that Carsten Breitfeld, the former BMW executive and Byton co-founder who had been the CEO and was most recently chairman, has left the company “to start a new adventure within the start-up industry.”

To offset that news, Byton said that it is currently recruiting for a new CTO, will close its Series C funding — a $500 million round, according to this report from January — this summer, and is on track for production of its M-Byte SUV vehicle for Q4 2019. The company recently said that it is looking towards an IPO, with the business currently valued at around $4 billion and counting 50,000 customers, with half in China and half in the US.

“Thanks to our founding team and all employees we’re well on track and looking forward to delivering the M-Byte this year to customers in China, followed by the US and Europe in 2020,” said Byton co-founder and current CEO Dr. Daniel Kirchert. “Carsten helped build a strong BYTON brand and bring in the right people to take our start-up to the next level. Now we are focusing on our main goal to achieve the on-time-start-of-production of the first BYTON series production model in 2019 with our strong team and partners.” There were no comments about IPOs in today’s statement.

It’s not clear who is overseeing the technical aspects of the business in the meantime — it doesn’t appear that there had been an official CTO at the company previously, but before Byton, Breitfeld had been VP of engineering at BMW. Dick Abendroth, another BMW engineering alum, left Byton in October of last year to become CTO of OEM Continental.

Byton was originally started as Future Mobility Corporation as a joint venture between Harmony Auto, Tencent, and Foxconn, who put Breitfeld and Kirchert, pictured below left and right, in place as co-founders and leaders of the business. It has raised about $700 million to date, with the most recent round of $500 million closing in June 2018.

But there have been reports that the company was running out of money since the end of last year, balancing the capital intensiveness of building new vehicle technology and new vehicles as a startup (no small feat considering that its competitors are some of the biggest companies in the world), with the fact that the company now employs some 1,600 people — a good portion of which were cherry picked from existing automotive companies and are therefore expensive.

Byton is not the only electric car company that swerving to try to avoid unexpected roadblocks in its growth. Tesla earlier this year cut its workforce to streamline its own production, and it has been making many sudden decisions on its retail strategy in an effort to cut costs.

For the new generation of vehicles, it’s not just all-electric technology that is tricky to build in a cost-effective and efficient way, but the fact these investments are being balanced against other major initiatives around vehicle software, and in particular autonomous technology.

Many believe that the industry is heading inevitably towards self-driving vehicles, but nright now we’re far from that and the development of the features poses a lot of safety and other hurdles and a completely picture of how it will look is still a moving target. Byton, for its part, is currently working with a third party, Aurora, for self-driving tech for its vehicles.

We have contacted Byton with questions about who is acting as CTO at the company currently, and if it can provide any more details on the Series C or valuation, and we will update this post as we learn more.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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