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February 24, 2019
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Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson on the company’s new investor, Amazon, and much more

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You might not think of self-driving technologies and politics having much in common, but at least in one way, they overlap meaningfully: yesterday’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally.

Such was the message we gleaned Thursday night, at a small industry event in San Francisco, where we had the chance to sit down with Chris Urmson, the cofounder and CEO of Aurora, a company that (among many others) is endeavoring to make self-driving technologies a safer and more widely adopted alternative to human drivers.

It was a big day for Urmson. Earlier the same day, his two-year-old company announced a whopping $530 million in Series B funding, a round that was led by top firm Sequoia Capital and that included “significant investment” from T. Rowe Price and Amazon.

The financing for Aurora — which is building what it calls a “driver” technology that it expects to eventually integrate into cars built by Volkswagen, Hyundai, and China’s Byton, among others —  is highly notable, even in a sea of giant fundings. Not only does it represent Sequoia’s biggest bet yet on any kind of self-driving technology, it’s also an “incredible endorsement” from T. Rowe Price, said Urmson Thursday night, suggesting it demonstrates that the money management giant “thinks long term and strategically [that] we’re the independent option to self-driving cars.”

Even more telling, perhaps, is the participation of Amazon, which is in constant competition to be the world’s most valuable company, and whose involvement could lead to variety of scenarios down the road, from Aurora powering delivery fleets overseen by Amazon, to Amazon acquiring Aurora outright. Amazon has already begun marketing more aggressively to global car companies and Tier 1 suppliers that are focused on building connected products, saying its AWS platform can help them speed their pace of innovation and lower their cost structures. In November, it also debuted a global, autonomous racing league for 1/18th scale, radio-controlled, self-driving four-wheeled race cars that are designed to help developers learn about reinforcement learning, a type of machine learning. Imagine what it could learn from Aurora.

Indeed, at the event, Urmson said that as Aurora had “constructed our funding round, [we were] very much thinking strategically about how to be successful in our mission of building a driver. And one thing that a driver can do is move people, but it can also move goods. And it’s harder to think of a company where moving goods is more important than Amazon.” Added Urmson, “Having the opportunity to have them partner with us in this funding round, and [talk about] what we might build in the future is awesome.” (Aurora’s site also now features language about “transforming the way people and goods move.”)

The interest of Amazon, T. Rowe, Sequoia and Aurora’s other backers isn’t surprising. Urmson was the formal technical lead of Google’s self-driving car program (now Waymo) . One of his cofounders, Drew Bagnell, is a machine learning expert who still teaches at Carnegie Mellon and was formerly the head of Uber’s autonomy and perception team. Aurora’s third cofounder is Sterling Anderson, the former program manager of Tesla’s Autopilot team.

Aurora’s big round seemingly spooked Tesla investors, in fact, with shares in the electric car maker dropping as a media outlets reported on the details. The development seems like just the type of possibility that had Tesla CEO Elon Musk unsettled when Aurora got off the ground a couple of years ago, and Tesla almost immediately filed a lawsuit against it, accusing Urmson and Anderson of trying poach at least a dozen Tesla engineers and accusing Anderson of taking confidential information and destroying the  evidence “in an effort to cover his tracks.”

That suit was dropped two and a half weeks later in a settlement that saw Aurora pay $100,000. Anderson said at the time the amount was meant to cover the cost of an independent auditor to scour Aurora’s systems for confidential Tesla information. Urmson reiterated on Thursday night that it was purely an “economic decision” meant to keep Aurora from getting further embroiled in an expansive spat.

But Urmson, who has previously called the lawsuit “classy,” didn’t take the bait on Thursday when asked about Musk, including whether he has talked in the last two years with Musk (no), and whether Aurora might need Tesla in the future (possibly). Instead of lord Aurora’s momentum over the company, Urmson said that Aurora and Tesla “got off on the wrong foot.” Laughing a bit, he went on to lavish some praise on the self-driving technology that lives inside Tesla cars, adding that “if there’s an opportunity to work them in the future, that’d be great.”

Aurora, which is also competing for now against the likes of Uber, also sees Uber as a potential partner down the line, said Urmson. Asked about the company’s costly self-driving efforts, whose scale has been drastically downsized in the eleven months since one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, Urmson noted simply that Aurora is “in the business of delivering the driver, and Uber needs a lot of drivers, so we think it would be wonder to partner with them, to partner with Lyft, to partner [with companies with similar ambitions] globally. We see those companies as partners in the future.”

He’d added when asked for more specifics that there’s “nothing to talk about right now.”

Before Thursday’s event, Aurora had sent us some more detailed information about the four divisions that currently employ the 200 people that make up the company, a number that will obviously expand with its new round, as will the testing it’s doing, both on California roads and in Pittsburgh, where it also has a sizable presence. We didn’t have a chance to run them during our conversation with Urmson, but we thought they were interesting and that you might think so, too.

Below, for example, is the “hub” of the Aurora Driver. This is the computer system that powers, coordinates and fuses signals from all of the vehicle’s sensors, executes the software and controls the vehicle. Aurora says it’s designing the Aurora Driver to seamlessly integrate with a wide variety of vehicle platforms from different makes, models and classes with the goal of delivering the benefits of its technology broadly.

Below is a visual representation of Aurora’s perception system, which the company says is able to understand complex urban environments where vehicles need to safely navigate amid many moving objects, including bikes, scooters, pedestrians, and cars.

It didn’t imagine it would at the outset, but Aurora is building its own mapping system to ensure what it (naturally) calls the highest level of precision and scalability, so vehicles powered by the company can understand where they are and update the maps as the world changes.

We asked Urmson if, when the tech is finally ready to go into cars, they will white-label the technology or else use Aurora’s brand as a selling point. He said the matter hasn’t been decided yet but seemed to suggest that Aurora is leaning in the latter direction. He also said the technology would be installed on the carmakers’ factory floors (with Aurora’s help).

One of the ways that Aurora says it’s able to efficiently develop a robust “driver” is to build its own simulation system. It uses its simulator to test its software with different scenarios that vehicles encounter on the road, which it says enables repeatable testing that’s impossible to achieve by just driving more miles.

Aurora’s motion planning team works closely with the perception team to create a system that both detects the important objects on and around the road, and tries to accurately predict how they will move in the future. The ability to capture, understand, and predict the motion of other objects is critical if the tech is going to navigate real world scenarios in dense urban environments, and Urmson has said in the past that Aurora has crafted its related workflow in a way that’s superior to competitors that send the technology back and forth.

Specifically, he told The Atlantic last year: “The classic way you engineer a system like this is that you have a team working on perception. They go out and make it as good as they can and they get to a plateau and hand it off to the motion-planning people. And they write the thing that figures out where to stop or how to change a lane and it deals with all the noise that’s in the perception system because it’s not seeing the world perfectly. It has errors. Maybe it thinks it’s moving a little faster or slower than it is. Maybe every once in a while it generates a false positive. The motion-planning system has to respond to that.

“So the motion-planning people are lagging behind the perception people, but they get it all dialed in and it’s working well enough—as well as it can with that level of perception—and then the perception people say, ‘Oh, but we’ve got a new push [of code].’ Then the motion-planning people are behind the eight ball again, and their system is breaking when it shouldn’t.”

We also asked Urmson about Google, whose self-driving unit was renamed Waymo as it spun out from the Alphabet umbrella as its own company. He was highly diplomatic, saying only good things about the company and, when asked if they’d ever challenged him on anything since leaving, answering that they had not.

Still, he told as one of the biggest advantage that Aurora enjoys is that it was able to use the learnings of its three founders and to start from scratch, whereas the big companies from which each has come cannot completely start over.

As he told TechCrunch in a separate interview last year when asked how Aurora tests its technology, then it comes to self-driving tech, size matters less than one might imagine. “There’s this really easy metric that everyone is using, which is number of miles driven, and it’s one of those things that was really convenient for me in my old place [Google] because we’re out there and we were doing a hell of a lot more than anybody else was at the time, and so it was an easy number to talk about. What’s lost in that, though, is it’s not really the volume of the miles that you drive.” It’s about the quality of the data, he’d continued, suggesting that, for now, at least, Aurora’s is hard to beat.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Uber Freight co-founders and top dealmakers join logistics startup Turvo

in Activant Capital/cargo/Delhi/Felicis Ventures/India/lior ron/Logistics/Politics/Reid Hoffman/slow ventures/Startups/Transportation/Travis Kalanick/Uber/uber freight by

Last year, Charlie Bergevin and Brian Cristol, co-founders of Uber’s trucking logistics business Uber Freight, heard Reid Hoffman say Turvo had some of the best technology he had ever seen. Frustrated with the direction Uber Freight had taken, they called up Turvo’s founder and chief executive officer Eric Gilmore.

It wasn’t long before offers were on the table and now, they’ve joined Turvo full-time. Cristol as head of enterprise partnerships and Bergevin as an enterprise partnerships executive. Bin Chang, a founding engineer at Uber Freight, is joining Turvo, too, a move I’m told Cristol and Bergevin were unaware of until they’d already accepted roles at the venture-funded startup. Chang begins Feb. 11.

“Brian and Charlie … have contributed so much to incubate this business and scale it to where we are today,” Uber Freight chief Lior Ron wrote in an internal email to employees shared with TechCrunch. “They were always on the forefront of exploration and innovation and were able to constantly push themselves, and all of us, to the next frontier.”

Cristol and Bergevin were Uber’s first B2B sales hires when they joined the ride-hailing firm in 2016. Tasked with finding product market fit for Uber’s final-mile businesses under the ‘Uber Everything’ initiative, they began learning about the truckload transportation and logistics industry. That’s when they linked up with Curtis Chambers, Uber’s long-time director of engineering. Together, the trio pitched their idea for a logistics business unit within Uber to then CEO Travis Kalanick.

Turvo’s real-time logistics platform.

Today, Uber Freight has roughly 750 employees and $1 billion in revenue. While the loss of two of its key dealmakers, who established relationships with Uber Freight’s Fortune 1000 customers, is cause for concern, Cristol and Bergevin suggested the unit is a rocket ship waiting to take off. 

“Uber Freight has by far the biggest market size and is by far the newest and it was made from scratch,” Bergevin told TechCrunch in reference to other Uber-branded businesses. “Sure we had the brand but with Uber Eats we had drivers, too, this was starting from scratch.”

So why are they leaving? The pair told TechCrunch they simply don’t feel like they are solving enough of the key issues plaguing the industry, particularly legacy systems. Uber Freight, for its part, focuses on freight brokerage, optimizing for top-line revenue. The business automates the backend operations that exist in transportation and truckload brokerage today, aggregating trucking fleets via the Uber Freight app and connecting drivers with shippers.

Turvo, on the other hand, works across the supply chain. The company, which has raised a total of $88.6 million at a $435 million valuation, according to PitchBook, helps shippers, brokers and carriers work together in real time using a software interface on their desktops and mobile phones. Turvo emerged from stealth two years ago with a $25 million Series A led by Activant Capital, with participation from Felicis Ventures, Upside Partnership, Slow Ventures and more. In November, the startup closed a Series B funding of $60 million led by Mubadala Ventures.

“Turvo’s platform is providing this solution to legacy logistics platforms and really maximizing all parts of the supply chain, not just pieces of it, which we were accustomed to at Uber,” Cristol told TechCrunch. “We were excited about how Turvo was innovating around the nucleus of logistics.”

Cristol and Bergevin officially began work at Turvo last week.

News Source = techcrunch.com

It’s the golden age of traditional retail, not its end days

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A lot of people that will say that traditional retail is dying. They’ll point to the rising prominence of e-commerce, which accounts for under 10% of total retail in the U.S. and a whopping 15% or more of total retail in China, as diminishing opportunities for traditional retail. But the reality is that, thanks to technology, the future of traditional retail has never been brighter.

Today, brick-and-mortar retailers not only have unprecedented insight as to what is happening in their stores – from customer behavior, to traffic flow, and more, they also have an arsenal of new tools to keep raising the bar for the customer experience. This transformation can be looked at from three angles: Smart consumption, smart supply chain and smart logistics.

Smart consumption is blurring the boundaries of online and offline for retailers and customers alike. With AR/VR technology in offline stores, customers can walk into a store, and virtually ‘try on’ an article of clothing, for example, without ever visiting a fitting room. Similarly, while sitting at home, they can virtually place a treadmill in their living room to determine the best fit. IoT has even made it possible for customers to make purchases from the comfort of their cars. At every step of the way, the goal is to improve customer retention and loyalty.

Equally as important, smart supply chain is helping retailers improve operational efficiency by leaps and bounds. Whereas traditional retail requires a fair amount of guesswork — what will customers like, how many of each individual item will they want to buy, and over which time period — smart supply chain driven by AI and big data means that retailers have a much better sense of what customers actually want, and when they want it. With dynamic information about sales, pricing and inventory, brands can improve their time to market, inventory control and product design, and retailers can make smarter decisions about their offerings, making the most of confined physical retail spaces.

But if retailers can’t get products into customers’ hands quickly and cost effectively, then all of the efficiency of smart consumption and supply chain is of no use. It is imperative that behind all of the glitzy offline technology and supply chain algorithms, are extremely efficient logistics.

From smart warehousing, which ensures products get moved out and on their way to the customer as fast as possible, to autonomous delivery vehicles, which make urban delivery more efficient through being able to avoid traffic and follow scheduled routes, to drones, smart logistics work their magic behind the scenes to get products to customers’ doors.

Businesses that embrace innovative technology and invest in it wisely will have a better chance of being a step ahead of the competition and their likelihood of success will be magnified.

Technology is no longer just a support for retail. It is the essential tool for retailers to thrive in the market.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Meituan partners with Nvidia, Valeo and Icona for its autonomous delivery platform

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Meituan Dianping, China’s largest on-demand food delivery company, announced today at CES that it has signed three new major partners for the development of its autonomous delivery open platform. They are Nvidia, Italian automotive design company Icona and French automotive supplier Valeo.

This is the first time Meituan Dianping, which went public four months ago in Hong Kong, has attended CES, where it exhibited its Meituan Autonomous Delivery (MAD) platform. Valeo will provide engines and sensors for MAD’s autonomous delivery vehicles and Nvidia’s technology will be used in its research and development and trial operations, while Icona will serve as a design partner for robots and vehicles.

Launched last July in Beijing, after a four-month trial, MAD’s partners already include Uditech, Segway-GX, iDriverPlus and Roadster. As an open platform, MAD’s partners have been able to work on their own autonomous delivery vehicles. As TechNode notes, however, most orders still rely on a human delivery driver for at least part of the journey. For example, autonomous vehicles, including drones and low- or high-speed delivery vehicles, might gather orders from different restaurants and bring them to a pick-up point for the driver, or collect multiple orders and complete deliveries in an office park or university.

In a statement, Meituan senior vice president Wang Puzhong said, “With the surging demand for food deliveries in China, Meituan is leveraging its platform and scale advantages to apply autonomous delivery technologies in its operations. We would like to work together with our partners to integrate resources from all parties to drive the large-scale and commercial application of autonomous delivery in China and around the world.”

As it develops, MAD might give Meituan Dianping an edge over its main rival, Alibaba’s Ele.me, which began drone deliveries last year that it claims will dramatically lower its delivery costs by only requiring drivers for 15 percent of the route.

Meituan Dianping said it is now conducting trial operations of autonomous delivery in “a dozen locations in China,” including Shougang Park and Raffles City in Beijing, Xiong’an New Area in Hebei and Shenzhen’s Lenovo Building. In addition to food delivery, Meituan Dianping is China’s largest e-commerce platform for in-store dining and also owns bike-sharing platform Mobike. It says it had 382.3 million annual transacting users and 5.5 million annual active merchants as of the end of Q3 2018 and operates in 2,800 cities and counties in China.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The limits of coworking

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It feels like there’s a WeWork on every street nowadays. Take a walk through midtown Manhattan (please don’t actually) and it might even seem like there are more WeWorks than office buildings.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Co-working has permeated cities around the world at an astronomical rate. The rise has been so remarkable that even the headline-dominating SoftBank seems willing to bet the success of its colossal Vision Fund on the shift continuing, having poured billions into WeWork – including a recent $4.4 billion top-up that saw the co-working king’s valuation spike to $45 billion.

And there are no signs of the trend slowing down. With growing frequency, new startups are popping up across cities looking to turn under-utilized brick-and-mortar or commercial space into low-cost co-working options.

It’s a strategy spreading through every type of business from retail – where companies like Workbar have helped retailers offer up portions of their stores – to more niche verticals like parking lots – where companies like Campsyte are transforming empty lots into spaces for outdoor co-working and corporate off-sites. Restaurants and bars might even prove most popular for co-working, with startups like Spacious and KettleSpace turning restaurants that are closed during the day into private co-working space during their off-hours.

Before you know it, a startup will be strapping an Aeron chair to the top of a telephone pole and calling it “WirelessWorking”.

But is there a limit to how far co-working can go? Are all of the storefronts, restaurants and open spaces that line city streets going to be filled with MacBooks, cappuccinos and Moleskine notebooks? That might be too tall a task, even for the movement taking over skyscrapers.

The co-working of everything

Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov / iStock via Getty Images

So why is everyone trying to turn your favorite neighborhood dinner spot into a part-time WeWork in the first place? Co-working offers a particularly compelling use case for under-utilized space.

First, co-working falls under the same general commercial zoning categories as most independent businesses and very little additional infrastructure – outside of a few extra power outlets and some decent WiFi – is required to turn a space into an effective replacement for the often crowded and distracting coffee shops used by price-sensitive, lean, remote, or nomadic workers that make up a growing portion of the workforce.

Thus, businesses can list their space at little-to-no cost, without having to deal with structural layout changes that are more likely to arise when dealing with pop-up solutions or event rentals.

On the supply side, these co-working networks don’t have to purchase leases or make capital improvements to convert each space, and so they’re able to offer more square footage per member at a much lower rate than traditional co-working spaces. Spacious, for example, charges a monthly membership fee of $99-$129 dollars for access to its network of vetted restaurants, which is cheap compared to a WeWork desk, which can cost anywhere from $300-$800 per month in New York City.

Customers realize more affordable co-working alternatives, while tight-margin businesses facing increasing rents for under-utilized property are able to pool resources into a network and access a completely new revenue stream at very little cost. The value proposition is proving to be seriously convincing in initial cities – Spacious told the New York Times, that so many restaurants were applying to join the network on their own volition that only five percent of total applicants were ultimately getting accepted.

Basically, the business model here checks a lot of the boxes for successful marketplaces: Acquisition and transaction friction is low for both customers and suppliers, with both seeing real value that didn’t exist previously. Unit economics seem strong, and vetting on both sides of the market creates trust and community. Finally, there’s an observable network effect whereby suppliers benefit from higher occupancy as more customers join the network, while customers benefit from added flexibility as more locations join the network.

… Or just the co-working of some things

Photo: Caiaimage / Robert Daly via Getty Images

So is this the way of the future? The strategy is really compelling, with a creative solution that offers tremendous value to businesses and workers in major cities. But concerns around the scalability of demand make it difficult to picture this phenomenon becoming ubiquitous across cities or something that reaches the scale of a WeWork or large conventional co-working player.

All these companies seem to be competing for a similar demographic, not only with one another, but also with coffee shops, free workspaces, and other flexible co-working options like Croissant, which provides members with access to unused desks and offices in traditional co-working spaces. Like Spacious and KettleSpace, the spaces on Croissant own the property leases and are already built for co-working, so Croissant can still offer comparatively attractive rates.

The offer seems most compelling for someone that is able to work without a stable location and without the amenities offered in traditional co-working or office spaces, and is also price sensitive enough where they would trade those benefits for a lower price. Yet at the same time, they can’t be too price sensitive, where they would prefer working out of free – or close to free – coffee shops instead of paying a monthly membership fee to avoid the frictions that can come with them.

And it seems unclear whether the problem or solution is as poignant outside of high-density cities – let alone outside of high-density areas of high-density cities.

Without density, is the competition for space or traffic in coffee shops and free workspaces still high enough where it’s worth paying a membership fee for? Would the desire for a private working environment, or for a working community, be enough to incentivize membership alone? And in less-dense and more-sprawl oriented cities, members could also face the risk of having to travel significant distances if space isn’t available in nearby locations.

While the emerging workforce is trending towards more remote, agile and nomadic workers that can do more with less, it’s less certain how many will actually fit the profile that opts out of both more costly but stable traditional workspaces, as well as potentially frustrating but free alternatives. And if the lack of density does prove to be an issue, how many of those workers will live in hyper-dense areas, especially if they are price-sensitive and can work and live anywhere?

To be clear, I’m not saying the companies won’t see significant growth – in fact, I think they will. But will the trend of monetizing unused space through co-working come to permeate cities everywhere and do so with meaningful occupancy? Maybe not. That said, there is still a sizable and growing demographic that need these solutions and the value proposition is significant in many major urban areas.

The companies are creating real value, creating more efficient use of wasted space, and fixing a supply-demand issue. And the cultural value of even modestly helping independent businesses keep the lights on seems to outweigh the cultural “damage” some may fear in turning them into part-time co-working spaces.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

News Source = techcrunch.com

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