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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

Transportation Weekly: Amazon’s secret acquisition and all the AV feels

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Welcome to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. I cover all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future — whether it’s by bike, bus, scooter, car, train, truck, robotaxi or rocket. Sure, let’s include hyperloop and eVTOLs, or air taxis, too.

Yup, another transportation newsletter. But I promise this one will be different. Here’s how.

Newsletters can be great mediums for curated news — a place that rounds up all the important articles a reader might have missed in any given week. We want to do a bit more.

We’re doubling down on the analysis and adding a heaping scoop of original reporting and well, scoops. You can expect Q&As with the most interesting people in transportation, insider tips, and data from that white paper you didn’t have time to read. This isn’t a lone effort either. TechCrunch senior reporter Megan Rose Dickey, who has been writing about micro mobility since before the scooter boom times of 2017, will be weighing in each week in our “Tiny But Mighty Mobility” section below. Follow her @meganrosedickey.

Consider this a soft launch. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions, or tips.

Eventually, we’ll have a way for readers to sign up and have Transportation Weekly delivered each week via email. For now, follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers.


This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation will live.

We promised scoops in Transportation Weekly and here is one. If you don’t know journalist Mark Harris, you should. He’s an intrepid gumshoeing reporter who TechCrunch has been lucky enough to hire as a freelancer. Follow him @meharris.

Amazon quietly acquired robotics company Dispatch to build Scout

dispatch-amazon-scout
Remember way back in January when Amazon introduced Scout, their autonomous delivery bot? There was speculation at the time that Amazon had bought the Estonian-based company Starship Technologies. Harris did some investigating and discovered some of the intellectual property and technology behind Scout likely came from a small San Francisco startup called Dispatch that Amazon stealthily acquired in 2017.

It’s time to stop thinking about Amazon as just an e-commerce company. It’s a gigantic logistics company, probably the biggest on the planet, with a keen interest — and the cash to pursue those interests — in automation. Think beyond Scout. In fact, wander on down this post to the deal of the week.


Dig In

Each week, transportation weekly will spend a little extra time on an approach, policy, tech or the people behind it in our ‘Dig In” section. We’ll run the occasional column here, too.

This week features a conversation with Dmitri Dolgov, the CTO and VP of engineering at Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet.

waymo-google-10-years

Ten years ago, right around now, about a dozen engineers started working on Project Chauffeur, which would turn into the Google self-driving project and eventually become an official company called Waymo. Along the way, the project would give rise to a number of high-profile engineers who would go on to create their own companies. It’s a list that includes Aurora co-founder Chris Urmson, Argo AI co-founder Bryan Salesky and Anthony Levandowski, who helped launch Otto and more recently Pronto.ai.

What might be less known is that many of those in the original dozen are still at Waymo, including Dolgov, Andrew Chatham, Dirk Haehnel, Nathaniel Fairfield and Mike Montemerlo.

Dolgov and I talked about the early days, challenges and what’s next. A couple of things that stood out during our chat.

There is a huge difference between having a prototype that can do something once or twice or four times versus building a product that people can start using in their daily lives. And it is, especially in this field, very easy to make progress on these kinds of one-off challenges.

Dolgov’s take on how engineers viewed the potential of the project 10 years ago …

I also use our cars every day to get around, this is how I got to work today. This is how I run errands around here in Mountain View and Palo Alto.


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.
blinky-cat-birdAn early investor, or investors, in Bird appear to be selling some of their shares in the scooter company, per a tip backed up by data over at secondary trading platform EquityZen. That’s not crazy considering the company is valued at $2 billion-ish. Seed investors should take some money off the table once a company reaches that valuation.

We’ve heard that David Sacks at Craft Ventures hasn’t sold a single Bird share. We hear Tusk Ventures hasn’t sold, either. That leaves a few others, including Goldcrest Capital, which was the lone seed investor, and then Series A participants Lead Edge Capital, M13, and Valor Equity Partners.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

While you’re over at Twitter, check out this cheeky account @SDElevator. We can’t guarantee how much of the content is actually “overheard” and how much is manufactured for the laughs, but it’s a fun account to peruse from time to time.

Another new entrant to the mobility parody genre is @HeardinMobilty.


Deal of the week

There’s so much to choose from this week, but Aurora’s more than $530 million Series B funding round announced Thursday morning is the winner.

The upshot? It’s not just that Aurora is now valued at more than $2.5 billion. The primary investors in the round — Sequoia as lead and “significant” investments from Amazon and T. Rowe Price — suggests Aurora’s full self-driving stack is headed for other uses beyond shuttling people around in autonomous vehicles. Perhaps delivery is next.

And believe it or not, the type of investor in this round tells me that we can expect another capital raise. Yes, Aurora has lots of runway now as well as three publicly named customers. But investors like Sequoia, which led the round and whose partner Carl Eschenbach is joining Aurora’s board, T. Rowe Price and Amazon along with repeaters like Index Ventures (general partner Mike Volpi is also on the board) have patience, access to cash and long-term strategic thinking. Expect more from them.

Other deals that got our attention this week:


Snapshot

Speaking of deals and Tesla … the automaker’s $218 million acquisition this month of Maxwell Technologies got me thinking about companies it has targeted in the past.

So, we went ahead and built a handy chart to provide a snapshot view of some of Tesla’s noteworthy acquisitions. tesla-acquisitions-chart1

One note: Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted in 2018 that the company had acquired trucking carrier companies to help improve its delivery logistics. We’ve dug in and have yet to land on the company, or companies, Tesla acquired.

The deals that got away are just as interesting. That list includes a reported $325 million offer to buy Simbol Materials, the startup that was extracting small amounts of lithium near the Salton Sea east of San Diego.


Tiny but mighty mobility

Between Lime’s $310 million Series D round and the seemingly never-ending battle to operate electric scooters in San Francisco, it’s clear that micro mobility is not so micro.

Lime, a shared electric scooter and bikeshare startup, has now raised north of $800 million in total funding, surpassing key competitor Bird’s total funding of $415 million. Thanks to this week’s round of funding, Lime’s micromobility business is now worth $2.4 billion.

Lime currently operates its bikes and scooters in more than 100 cities worldwide. Over in San Francisco, however, Lime has yet to deploy any of its modes of transportation. Since last March, there’s been an ongoing battle among scooter operators to deploy their services in the city. The city ultimately selected Skip and Scoot for the pilot programs, leaving the likes of Lime, Uber’s JUMP and Spin to appeal the decision.

A neutral hearing officer has since determined SF’s process for determining scooter operators was fair, but the silver lining for the likes of JUMP, Spin and most likely, Lime, is that the city may open up its pilot program to allow additional operators beginning in April.


Notable reads

Two recent studies got my attention.

The first is from Bike Pittsburgh, an advocacy group and partner of Uber, that published the findings from its latest AV survey based on responses from local residents. The last time they conducted a similar survey was in 2017.

The takeaway: people there, who are among the most exposed to autonomous vehicles due to all the AV testing on public roads, are getting used to it. A bit more than 48 percent of respondents said they approve of public AV testing in Pittsburgh, down slightly from 49 percent approval rating in 2017. 

  • 21.21% somewhat approve
  • 11.62% neutral
  • 10.73% somewhat disapprove
  • 8.73% disapprove

One standout result was surrounding responses about the fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona involving a self-driving Uber that struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in March 2018. Survey participants were asked “As a pedestrian or a bicyclist how did this change event and it’s outcome change your opinion about sharing the road with AVs?”

Some 60 percent of respondents claimed no change in their opinion, with another 37 percent claiming that it negatively changed their opinion. Nearly 3 percent claimed their opinion changed positively toward the technology.

Bike Pittsburgh noted that the survey elicited passionate open-ended responses. 

“The incident did not turn too many people off of AV technology in general,” according to Bike Pittsburgh. “Rather it did lead to a growing distrust of the companies themselves, specifically with Uber and how they handled the fatality.”

The other study, Securing the Modern Vehicle: A Study of Automotive Industry Cybersecurity Practices, was released by Synopsys, Inc.and SAE International.

The results, based on a survey of global automotive manufacturers and suppliers conducted by Ponemon Institute, doesn’t assuage my concerns. If anything, it puts me on alert.

  • 84% of automotive professionals have concerns that their organizations’ cybersecurity practices are not keeping pace with evolving technologies
  • 30% of organizations don’t have an established cybersecurity program or team
  • 63% test less than half of the automotive technology they develop for security vulnerabilities.

Testing and deployments

Pilots, pilots everywhere. A couple of interesting mobility pilots and deployments stand out.

Optimus Ride, the Boston-based MIT spinoff, has made a deal with Brookfield Properties to provide rides in its small self-driving vehicles at Halley Rise – a new $1.4 billion mixed-use development in Virginia. 

This is an example of where we see self-driving vehicles headed — for now. Small deployments that are narrowly focused in geography with a predictable customer base are the emerging trend of 2019. Expect more of them.

And there’s a reason why, these are the kinds of pilots that will deliver the data needed to improve their technology, as well as test out business models —gotta figure out how to money with AVs eventually — hone in fleet operational efficiency, placate existing investors while attracting new ones, and recruit talent.

Another deployment in the more conventional ride-hailing side of mobility is with Beat, the startup that has focused its efforts on Latin America.

Beat was founded by Nikos Drandakis in 2011 initially as Taxibeat. The startup acquired by Daimler’s mytaxi in February 2017 and Drandakis still runs the show. The company was focused on Europe but shifted to Latin America, and it’s made all the difference. (Beat is still available in Athens, Greece.) Beat has launched in Lima, Peru, Santiago, Chile and Bogota, Colombia and now boasts 200,000 registered drivers. 

Now it’s moving into Mexico, where more competitors exist. The company just started registering and screening drivers in Mexico City as it prepares to offer rides for passengers this month. 

TechCrunch spoke at length with Drandakis. Look out for a deeper dive soon.

Until next week, nos vemos.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Japan’s Sansan raises $26.5M to help Southeast Asia get more from business cards

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The humble business card is a target for disruption in Southeast Asia after Japanese contacts management startup Sansan raised JPY 3 billion ($26.5 million) to expand its business into the region.

Founded way back in 2007, Sansan helps bring business intelligence to companies through a system that helps build connections between users and both internal employees and external contacts using, among other things, business cards.

“Our purpose is to use tech to enhance the utility and value of business cards,” Sansan co-founder and CEO Chikahiro Terada told TechCrunch in an interview. “They are customary for business in most parts of the world, esJapanlly japan, but there’s no easy way to digitize them.”

This new round will bring that focus to Southeast Asia, where Sansan already has an office in Singapore. The capital — which is a Series E round — was provided Japan Post Capital, T. Rowe Price, SBI Investment and DCM Ventures, and it takes Sansan to around $100 million raised to date.

Sansan claims that 7,000 corporations use its core product — also called Sansan — which helps build and organize networks. At its core, users scan another person’s business card which is then digitized, uploaded to the cloud and made part of their database. The Sansan system then allows interactions, such as meetings, calls, notes and more to be added to the entry to help track interactions. The resources are held within companies, rather than employees themselves, which means strategies around sales, marketing and more can be kept organized and centralized.

In addition, Sansan operates a LinkedIn -like service called Eight which is available for free and is linked to the core product, allowing users to update their job, company, etc without having to provide a new business card. Eight has some two million users today, according to Sansan.

Unlike LinkedIn, however, which is commonly used for finding jobs, Terada suggested that Eight and Sansan help maintain networks and increase communication and engagement.

Sansan CEO Chikahiro Terada started the business in 2006 alongside fellow co-founders Kei Tomioka, Joraku Satoru, Kenji Shiomi and Motohisa Tsunokawa

Terada — who previously worked for Oracle in Thailand — said that he sees much potential for the services in Southeast Asia, where the region’s digital economy is expected to triple by 2025, albeit with a greater focus on SMEs rather than Japan-style mega corporations.

Already, Sansan has picked up some 100 or so clients in the region — mostly by targeting Japanese corporations in Singapore — while Eight has reached 100,000 registered users across Southeast Asia since a soft launch in October 2017.

“We want to expand to globally and Singapore is our first step,” said Terada, indicating that there are future plans to look at business in India, Europe and potentially the U.S. further down the line. Elsewhere, the firm is hiring data scientists as it aims to bring additional smarts to its services.

The proposition is interesting — personally speaking I have multiple stacks of business cards sitting idle — but it remains to be seen how open businesses in Southeast Asia will be to paying for the service, even with clear benefits. Saas as a model is still establishing its roots among SMEs while there are already popular options. LinkedIn is, of course, the de facto professional social network while Facebook, which has been ramping up its efforts in that space lately, is also a popular option.

News Source = techcrunch.com

With $50M in fresh funding, Allbirds will open new stores in the US, UK and Asia

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The quintessential venture capitalist’s uniform consists of a pair of designer jeans, a Patagonia fleece vest and $95 wool sneakers.

The company behind the shoes, Allbirds, entered the unicorn club this morning with the announcement of a $50 million Series C from late-stage players T. Rowe Price, which led the round, Tiger Global and Fidelity Investments. The 3-year-old startup founded by Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown has raised $75 million to date, including a $17.5 million Series B last year. Its backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Scooter Braun, Maveron, Lerer Hippeau and Elephant, the venture capital firm led by Warby Parker founder Andrew Hunt.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting the round values Allbirds at $1.4 billion. The company would not confirm that figure to TechCrunch.

Like Warby Parker, San Francisco-based Allbirds began as a direct-to-consumer online retailer but has since expanded to brick-and-mortar, opening stores in San Francisco and New York. It currently ships to locations across the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Next week, the company plans to open its first storefront in the U.K. in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. It will begin shipping throughout the U.K. In 2019.

Using its latest investment, Allbirds will double down on its brick-and-mortar business. In addition to the U.K., the company says it will open even more locations in the U.S., as well as open doors in Asia in the coming months. Tiger Global, which has backed Allbirds since its Series B, may be of help. The firm has offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as partners across Asia.

Allbirds makes eco-friendly wool shoes for men, women and kids via its kid’s line, aptly named Smallbirds. The shoes are made out of sustainable materials, including merino wool, a fabric made from eucalyptus fiber that the company has dubbed “Tree” and “SweetFoam,” a shoe sole made from sugarcane-based, carbon-negative foam rubber.

“Climate change is the problem of our generation and the private sector has a responsibility to combat it,” Zwillinger, Allbirds’ chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This injection of capital will help us bring our sustainable products to more people around the globe, demonstrating that comfort, design and sustainability don’t have to live exclusive of each other.”

It’s been quite the year for venture investment in … shoes. Rothy’s, which makes sustainable ballet flats for women, has raised $7 million and launched a sneaker. Atoms, a maker of minimalist shoes, brought in $560,000 in seed funding from LinkedIn’s ex-head of growth Aatif Awan and Shrug Capital. And GOAT, the operator of an online sneaker marketplace, nabbed a $60 million Series C in February.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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