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June 16, 2019
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Consumer Reports knocks Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot feature

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Consumer Reports is calling the automatic lane-change feature on Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot “far less competent” than a human driver and cautioned it could pose safety risks.

The consumer advocacy organization posted its review Wednesday on the newest version of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.

Navigate on Autopilot is an active guidance system that is supposed to navigate 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 pushed out a software update last month to allow for automatic lane changes. Drivers have to enable this feature, which gives the car permission to make its own lane changes. If not enabled, the system asks the driver to confirm the lane change before moving over. Automatic lane changes can be canceled at any time.

The system has been touted as a way to make driving less stressful and improve safety. In practice, the system had startling behavior, Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports told TechCrunch.

“It doesn’t take very long behind the wheel with this feature on to realize it’s not quite ready for prime time,” Fisher said. CR said one of the more troubling concerns were failures of Tesla’s three rearward-facing cameras to detect fast-approaching objects from the rear better than the average driver.

The CR reviewers found Navigate on Autopilot lagged behind human driving skills and engaged in problematic behavior such as cutting off cars and passing on the right. CR drivers often had to take over to prevent the system from making poor decisions.

As a result, the system increases stress and doesn’t improve safety, Fisher said, before asking “So what is the point of this feature?”

The automatic lane change reviewed by Consumer Reports is not the default setting for Autopilot, Tesla notes. It’s an option that requires drivers to remove the default setting. Tesla also argues that drivers using Navigate on Autopilot properly have successfully driven millions of miles and safely made millions of automated lane changes.

While Fisher acknowledged the default setting, he contends that isn’t the issue. He notes the Tesla has many warnings that the driver must be alert and ready to take over at any time.

“Our concern is that if you’re not alert (or ready to take over) you could be put into a tricky situation,” he said.

The bigger concern for all systems like these is the driver will put too much trust into it, Fisher said. The automatic lane-change feature might not be good enough for drivers to let down their guard yet. If Tesla improves this system, even a little bit, the risk of complacency and too much trust rises.

And that’s problematic because drivers still must be ready to take over. “Just watching automation is a harder human task than driving the car,” he said.

CR asserts that an effective driver monitoring system would mitigate this risk. DMS is typically a camera combined with software designed to track a driver’s attention and pick up on cognitive issues that could cause an accident such as drowsiness.

DMS are found in certain BMW models with an ADAS system called DriverAssist Plus, the new 2020 Subaru Outback and Cadillac’s equipped with its Super Cruise system.

This isn’t the first time CR has raised concerns about Autopilot. Last week, the consumer advocacy organization called on Tesla to restrict the use of Autopilot and install a more effective system to verify driver engagement in response to a preliminary report by National Transportation Safety Board on the fatal March 2019 crash of a Tesla Model 3 with a semi-trailer in Delray Beach, Fla.

Last year, CR gave GM’s Super Cruise the top spot in its first-ever ranking of partially automated driving systems because it is the best at striking a balance between technical capabilities and ensuring drivers are paying attention and operating the vehicle safely. Tesla followed in the ranking not because it was less capable, but because of its approach to safety, Fisher noted.

CR evaluated four systems: Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6, Autopilot on Tesla Model S, X and 3 models, ProPilot Assist on Infiniti QX50 and Nissan Leaf, and Pilot Assist on Volvo XC40 and XC60 vehicles. The organization said it picked these systems because they’re considered the most capable and well-known in the industry.

In Ford’s future, two-legged robots and self-driving cars could team up on deliveries

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Autonomous vehicles might someday be able to navigate bustling city streets to deliver groceries, pizzas, and other packages without a human behind the wheel. But that doesn’t solve what Ford Motor CTO Ken Washington describes as the last 50-foot problem.

Ford and startup Agility Robotics are partnering in a research project that will test how two-legged robots and self-driving vehicles can work together to solve that curb-to-door problem. Agility’s Digit, a two-legged robot that has a lidar where its head should be, will be used in the project. The robot, which is capable of lifting 40 pounds, can ride along in a self-driving vehicle and be deployed when needed to delivery packages.

“We’re looking at the opportunity of autonomous vehicles through the lens of the consumer and we know from some early experimentation that there are challenges with the last 50 feet,” Washington told TechCrunch in a recent interview. Finding a solution could be an important differentiator for Ford’s commercial robotaxi service, which it plans to launch in 2021.

The communication between Digit and a Ford autonomous vehicle is perhaps the most compelling piece of this research project. As the GIF below shows, the AV arrives at its destination, the hatch of the Ford Transit van opens and Digit unfolds itself, then grabs the package and walks to the door.

Digit is equipped with lidar and stereo cameras, just enough sensors for basic navigation.

But there’s more to the story. The autonomous vehicle — equipped with a robust suite of sensors and computing power that allows for more complex decision making — is sharing its data with Digit long before it is deployed. When Digit “wakes up” it already knows where it is in the world. And if Digit runs into trouble, it can communicate with the idling AV for that extra perception and decision-making prowess.

This solves what Agility CEO Damion Shelton describes as a “classic robotics problem,” of helping the robot know where it is when it wakes up from its sleep state.

“If you know you’re riding around in the vehicle with a clear view of your entire surroundings, it’s a lot easier to get up and move around,” Shelton explained. “That’s really how we’re viewing the primary purpose of this beta exchange; to help the robot be aware of its surroundings, so that you don’t go through this sort of boot up process where the robot gets out of the car and is confused for the first 30 seconds it’s turned on.”

Agility’s Digit robot isn’t the only option Ford is experimenting with to solve that vehicle-to-doorstep problem, Washington said. However, Washington did note that the two-legged robots do have certain advantages, like the ability to step over cracks in the sidewalk and walk up stairs, that can be problematic for wheeled robots.

Ford and Agility’s agreement is categorized as a research project, for now. Ford has not taken an equity stake in Agility, Washington said, although he quickly added “that doesn’t mean we’re not open to it at some point.” 

For Agility, this project is a turning point — or certainly an acceleration — of its very new business. The robotics startup spun out of Oregon State University in late 2015 with an aim to commercialize research from the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory on bipedal locomotion. The company introduced its ostrich-inspired Cassie robot in 2017 as a bipedal research platform. Digit, which added an upper torso, arms, sensors, and additional computing power to the Cassie design, was introduced in February 2019.

Agility has 20 employees, about half of whom support the construction of the robots. The company has raised nearly $8.8 million in capital from a seed and Series A round. And now, with this latest partnership, Agility is prepping to raise another round to help it scale.

Agility has made two first-generation Digit robots. The company, which has offices in Albany, Oregon and Pittsburgh, plans to unveil the second-generation Digit in early summer. A third version of Digit — marking the final design of this bipedal robot — will likely come out in summer or early fall, Shelton said.

Agility will produce about six of these final versions of Digit. From here, Shelton estimated the company will have a steady state production of about two Digits a month. Ultimately, Agility is on pace to make between 50 and 100 by 2021.

All of this research and experimentation is part of the Ford’s eventual goal to launch a commercial robotaxi service. And that last 50-feet will be one of the critical hurdles it will need overcome if it hopes to make self-driving vehicles a profitable enterprise. To prepare, the automaker is pursuing two parallels tracks — testing and honing in on how an AV business might operate, while separately developing autonomous vehicle technology through its subsidiary Argo AI .

Argo AI,  the Pittsburgh-based company into which Ford invested $1 billion in 2017, is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford is testing its go-to-market strategy through pilot programs with local businesses as well as large corporate partners like Walmart, Domino’s and Postmates.

Ford plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 under an LLC that’s dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. The $4 billion spending plan includes a $1 billion investment in startup Argo AI.

Ford is testing in Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. and is poised to expand into Austin.

The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

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In August of last year, Getaround scored $300 million from Softbank. Eight months later they handed that same amount to Drivy, a Parisian peer-to-peer car rental service that was Getaround’s ticket to tapping into European markets.

Both companies shared similar visions for the future of car ownership, they were about the same size, both were flirting with expanding beyond their home market, but only one had the power of the Vision Fund behind it.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. [Have feedback? Shoot me an email at lucas@techcrunch.com] 

Alven Capital’s Jeremy Uzan

Alven Capital partner Jeremy Uzan first invested in Drivy’s seed round in 2013. Uzan joined Index Ventures co-leading a $2 million round that valued the company at less than $10 million. The firms would later join forces again for the company’s $8.3 million Series A.

I chatted at length with Uzan about what lies ahead for the Drive team, what Paris’s startup scene is still in desperate need of, and how Softbank’s power is becoming even more impossible to ignore.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Getting the checkbook

Lucas Matney: So before we dive into this acquisition, tell me a little bit about how you got to the point where you were writing these checks in the first place.

Jeremy Uzan: So, I studied computer science and business and then spent three years as a tech banker. I was actually in a very small investment banking boutique in Paris helping young startups to raise their Series A rounds. They were all French companies, my first deal was with the YouTube competitor DailyMotion.

Lyft adds more safety features including in-app emergency assistance, reminders to check the plate

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Earlier this spring, both Uber and Lyft introduced new safety features and policies following the death of a university student who was kidnapped and murdered after getting into a vehicle she believed to be her Uber ride. Today, Lyft is announcing an expanded set of safety features and programs, including those that help riders find and identify their ride, alert emergency services if they believe they are in danger, and communicate ride issues back to Lyft support and drivers.

It’s also introducing a new driver and rider education program.

In April, Lyft had begun the process of making its app and service safer with the implementation of continuous background checks for drivers — something Uber had in place since 2018. It also said it was enhancing its identity verification process for drivers to prevent driver identity fraud on its platform.

Uber, meanwhile, had last month introduced new system banners and alerts to remind users to check their ride details — like the license plate, car make and model, as well as the driver’s name and photo. It had previously rolled out its own slate of safety features a year ago, which included its in-app Safety Center and an “Emergency” button.

Today, Lyft is catching up with the announcement of a similar feature set.

In the weeks ahead, Lyft says it, too, will roll out an in-app feature that provides access to 911 from within its app for riders. (Drivers already had this feature in their own app, Lyft notes.)

Like Uber, Lyft is also redesigning its app to better highlight the ride details — and specifically, making it easier to see the license plate number. When the car arrives, the driver photo, car photo and license plate appear in a pop-up in the app, alongside a reminder to match the plate to the one on the vehicle.

Some riders may have already seen this change, but it will now roll out to the remaining user base, says Lyft.

The company is also introducing mandatory feedback that will require riders to explain when a driver receives less than four stars.

This feedback is shared anonymously with the driver in a single location in their app, Lyft says. However, this change may not resolve issues with drivers who behave poorly because many people are uncomfortable leaving feedback when they felt unsafe. Riders, and especially women, often believe the driver would figure out that it’s them, even if it’s anonymous. Plus, if the driver has picked them up from their home, office or another place they frequent, they may feel even less comfortable leaving a review since the driver literally knows where to find them.

Finally, Lyft says it will make sexual harassment prevention education available to all Lyft drivers and riders this year, but didn’t share the details as to how these materials will be rolled out.

The new features join Lyft’s existing line-up of features, programs and policies focused on safety like its background checks on drivers, in-app photos of drivers and vehicles, real-time ride tracking, digital receipts, and two-way rating systems — the majority of which are common to ride-hailing apps.

The company says it expects to expand its efforts in this space over the course of the year and in the future.

The changes arrive soon after both Uber and Lyft saw their IPOs perform poorly, a result of investor concerns around slowing growth, mounting losses, increased global competition, and numerous other factors. Adding to that the fact that their apps may not be safe enough in their present state could have been another big ding against both businesses, had the companies not addressed the problem.

China’s Tesla wannabe Xpeng starts ride-hailing service

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There’re a lot of synergies between electric vehicles and ride-hailing. Drivers are able to save more steering an EV compared to a gas vehicle. Environmentally conscious consumers will choose to hire an electric car. And EVs are designed with better compatibility with autonomous driving, which is expected to hit the public road in the coming decades.

Indeed, Tesla is eyeing to launch its first robotaxis in 2020 as part of a broader ride-sharing scheme. Over in China where Tesla has a few disciples, EV startup Xpeng Motors, also known as Xiaopeng, just started offering a ride-hailing app powered by its own electric fleets.

Screenshot of Xpeng’s ride-hailing app ‘Youpeng Chuxing’

The company is the latest in a clutch of carmakers flocking to introduce their own ride-hailing platforms. Didi Chuxing’s massive loss has not deterred their ambitious plans. Rather, this may be a prime time to crack a market long dominated by Didi, which is prioritizing safety over growth following two high-profile incidents and a series of new government regulations.

Xpeng’s ride-hailing app is currently only available in a limited area within Guangzhou where it’s headquartered, shows a test conducted by TechCrunch’s on Thursday.

The company’s coffer is probably large enough to fund its newly minted venture. It’s one of the most-backed EV upstarts alongside rival Nio, which raised $1 billion from a New York initial public offering last year.

Xpeng has to date banked $1.3 billion from Alibaba, IDG Capital, Foxconn, UCAR and other big-name investors, according to disclosed funding data collected by Crunchbase. Founder He Xiaopeng, a serial entrepreneur who made a fortune selling his mobile browser company UCWeb to Alibaba, told CNBC in March that Xpeng may also try an IPO down the road but wants to focus on building the business first.

When it comes to sources of inspiration for the business, Xpeng told local media that it sees Tesla as its “benchmark”. The company has never been shy about its admiration for its American peer. In an interview with Quartz in 2018, He said one of the reasons he founded Xpeng “was because Elon Musk made Tesla’s patents available. It was so exciting.”

But the affection might have gone a little far. In March, Tesla sued an ex-employee for allegedly stealing Autopilot’s proprietary technology before taking a job at Xpeng.

Xpeng started shipping to its first owners in March and was founded five years ago against the backdrop of Beijing’s aggressive electric push in the transportation sector. The sprawling city Shenzhen, just north to Hong Kong, has turned all its public buses and almost all of its taxis electric.

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