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Alibaba vies for a piece of China’s booming EV market

There’s no lack of news these days on China’s tech giants teaming up with traditional carmakers. Companies from Alibaba to Huawei are striving to become relevant in the trillion-dollar auto industry, which itself is seeking an electric transition and intelligent upgrade as 5G comes of age.
State-owned automaker SAIC Motor, a major player in China, unveiled this week a new electric vehicle arm called Zhiji, in which Alibaba and a Shanghai government-backed entity are minority shareholders. The tie-up comes as Chinese EV startups like Xpeng and Nio and their predecessor Tesla see their stocks soaring in recent months.

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Uber refused permission to dismiss 11 staff at its EMEA HQ

Uber has been refused permission to dismiss 11 people at its EMEA headquarters in Amsterdam by the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency (UWV), the ride hailing company has confirmed.

The affected individuals did not take up an earlier severance offer as part of wider Uber layoffs earlier this year.

Uber announced major global layoffs of around 15% of its workforce in May — which included around 200 staff based in Amsterdam — blaming the cuts on changes to demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Late last week, Dutch newspaper NRC reported that Uber had been refused permission to fire the staff as the UWV had found there were no grounds for dismissal.

Per its report, affected Uber employees had faced pressure to accept Uber’s severance offer — saying they were disconnected from its internal systems the day after being informed of termination via Zoom video call and were then sent daily reminders to accept dismissal with Uber telling them ‘their position was ceasing to exist’.

Dutch law requires employers to obtain approval from the UWV for planned redundancies. But the majority of the affected staff in this instance accepted its severance offer before the agency had made a decision. Local press reports suggest many of those affected were expats — who may have been unaware of their labor rights under Dutch law.

We reached out to Uber with questions — and a company spokesperson sent us this statement:

Earlier this year we made the difficult decision to reduce our global headcount due to the dramatic impact of the pandemic, and the unpredictable nature of any eventual recovery. The headcount reductions in our EMEA Headquarters in Amsterdam are part of those efforts.

Uber also told us it does not agree with the UWV’s decision to refuse permission for it to dismiss the 11 employees who had not accepted severance, adding that it will review the decision before determining how to proceed.

It said the severance packages offered to the ~200 affected employees included at least 2.5 months of salary, health benefits to the end of the year, outplacement/recruitment support and additional support for Uber-sponsored visa holders.

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Tesla gets a spot on the S&P 500

Tesla will be added to the S&P 500, a milestone that will expand its investor base and put the electric automaker in the same company as heavyweights like Apple, Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft.

The announcement, made Monday afternoon by the S&P Dow Jones Indices, sent shares 13.7% higher in after-market trading. Tesla will officially join the benchmark index prior to trading December 21, the S&P Dow Jones Indices said in a statement.

When Tesla joins the S&P 500, it will be among the most valuable companies on the benchmark. Its weighting will be so influential that the S&P DJI is mulling whether to add the stock at the full float-adjusted market capitalization weight all at once or in two tranches.

“Tesla will be one of the largest weight additions to the S&P 500 in the last decade, and consequently will generate one of the largest funding trades in S&P 500 history,” S&P DJI said in a statement. “However, Tesla itself is very liquid, and adding the stock at the upcoming December quarterly rebalancing coincides with the expiration of stock options, stock futures, stock-index options, and stock-index futures, which may help facilitate the funding trade.”

Joining the S&P 500 has its benefits, as investors that have index-tracked funds will be forced to buy shares. With share prices already popping, that will mean investors will have to sell other stocks to make room for Tesla. Existing investors may, in turn, want to take advantage of that demand and sell. The upshot: The traditionally volatile stock might get a bit more volatile.

The inclusion on the benchmark follows Tesla’s decision in August to split its shares 5 for 1.

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Lyft sees ride revenues recover by nearly 50% in just three months

Shares of Lyft are riding high, popping more than 7% in after-hours trading today after the American ride-hailing giant reported its Q3 earnings.

Lyft, which competes with Uber for rideshare, reported revenues of $499.7 million in the third-quarter, a 48% drop from the $955.6 million in the same year-ago period. That lackluster result is still a 47% improvement over last quarter when Lyft reported $339.3 million in revenue. That’s good?

Investors were heartened by the improvement and Lyft’s ability to beat analysts revenue expectations of $486.45 million. The company’s net loss of $1.46 per share was worse than expected, but investors appeared more bullish than bearish, buying up Lyft equity and boosting its value after the company’s earnings report.

Lyft’s quarter is a story of year-over-year declines and sequential-quarter gains. On that theme, the company’s active riders fell 44% compared to the year-ago quarter, and rose 44% compared to Q2 2020. Its revenue per active rider fell 7% compared to Q3 2019, but rose 2% from the sequentially preceding period.

Like Uber, Lyft is enjoying patience from investors as it digs its way out from a ride-hailing market pummeled by COVID-19; Uber has enjoyed a delivery business and international operations to buffer its ride revenue declines. Lyft, which is focused on the U.S. market and lacks a delivery program like Uber, has been more impacted by the domestic market.

Rising COVID-19 cases and ratcheting lockdowns could threaten Lyft’s recovery. Still, its core economics are not falling to pieces despite the pandemic. In Q3 2020, Lyft’s contribution margin — a metric that is akin to an adjusted gross margin result — was 49.8%. In the year-ago quarter it was 50.1%.

Lyft will return as long as ride volume recovers. Lyft’s next big hurdle is profitability. The company is still on track to achieve adjusted EBITDA profitability by the fourth quarter of 2021, even with a slower recovery, Logan Green said during the company’s earnings call Tuesday, adding that Lyft is taking an extremely disciplined approach to increase its operating leverage. Lyft is positioned to achieve that profitability goal with about 30% fewer rides than what was required when it originally issued its Q4 2021 profitability target last fall, Green said.

Lyft wrapped Q3 with $2.5 billion in cash and equivalents. Its operations have consumed $1.1 billion in cash so far this year, up around $156 million in the third quarter. At $50 million a month, Lyft has lots of room to get back to more pedestrian losses, and year-over-year growth.

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Elon Musk’s Boring Company is setting up operations in Austin

Elon Musk’s tunneling and transportation startup The Boring Company is eyeing Austin for its next project based on several new job postings.

The Boring Company, which last year landed a deal to construct and operate a “people mover” for the Las Vegas Convention Center, tweeted Monday that is was hiring in Austin. Engineering, accountant and business development positions are listed on its website, the type of jobs that suggest that The Boring Company sees enough opportunity in Austin to set up more permanent operations there.

Austin is becoming a hotbed of Musk-related activity. Tesla, which Musk leads, picked in July a site near Austin for its next U.S. factory, a four to five-million-square foot $1.1 billion plant that will assemble the automaker’s futuristic Cybertruck, the Tesla Semi and the Model Y and Model 3 for sales to customers on the East Coast.

Musk described the future factory as an “ecological paradise,” with a boardwalk and bike lanes and where the public will be welcome. It’s unclear if the first customer of The Boring Company will be Tesla.

The Boring Company has five product lines, all of which are centered around tunneling. The startup, which raised $120 million in new funding in summer 2019, offers the base tunnel to customers as well as those designed for use by utilities, pedestrians, freight and it’s so-called Loop service.

The company describes the Loop as an underground public transportation system in which passengers are transported via in autonomous vehicles at up to 150 miles per hour through tunnels between stations. The company says the autonomous vehicles are Tesla Model S, 3, and X. (It should be noted that while Tesla vehicles do have robust advanced driver assistance systems, they are not considered by government bodies such as the U.S. DOT as fully autonomous.)

The Loop is what Las Vegas Las Vegas Convention Center officials sprang for. Under its contract, the LVCC Loop is supposed to transport attendees through two 0.8-mile underground tunnels in Tesla vehicles, four or five at a time. Planning files reviewed by TechCrunch seem to show that the Loop system will not be able to move anywhere near the number of people LVCC wants, and that TBC agreed to.

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Autonomous delivery startup Nuro hits $5 billion valuation on fresh funding of $500 million

Nuro, the autonomous delivery startup founded by two former Google engineers, has raised $500 million, suggesting that investors still have an appetite for long-term pursuits such as robotics and automated vehicle technology. Nuro now has a post-money valuation of $5 billion.

The Series C round was led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., with participation from new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company and Baillie Gifford. The round also includes existing investors such as SoftBank Vision Fund 1 and Greylock.

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by former Google engineers Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu. While the startup was initially bootstrapped by Ferguson and Zhu, it has never struggled to attract investors. Nuro completed its first Series A funding round in China in 2016, a deal that gave NetEase founder Ding Lei (aka William Ding) a seat on Nuro’s board. A second, U.S.-based round in June 2017 raised Nuro’s total Series A funding to $92 million. But it was the monster $940 million investment made by the SoftBank Vision Fund in February 2019 that catapulted Nuro ahead of numerous other startups attempting to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology. Nuro had a $2.7 billion valuation following the Softbank investment, meaning its value doubled in about 18 months. That money has helped it grow to more than 650 employees.

Unlike many other startups in the AV industry, Nuro has focused its effort designing a low-speed electric self-driving vehicle that transports packages, not people. Some of Nuro’s first tests and pilots were with Toyota Prius vehicles equipped with its self-driving system. Nuro partnered in 2018 with with Kroger to pilot a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, which initially used Toyota Prius vehicles, transitioned to its R1 delivery bot. Nuro has also partnered with companies like CVS, Domino’s and Walmart.

The company has since developed a second generation vehicle, known as the R2. This delivery bot, which is designed for local delivery service for restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, received an exemption from the federal government earlier this year that allows it to operate as a driverless vehicle.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented shift in consumer demand for safe and affordable local delivery services,” said Zhu, CEO and co-founder of Nuro said in a statement. “This funding, which brings us together with many of the world’s top investors, positions Nuro confidently toward a future where our world-class technology is adopted into people’s everyday lives.”

The company, which is testing and operating R2 on public roads in Arizona, California and Texas, told TechCrunch that the new funding will allow it to “confidently grow for years to come, with multi-year runway to build in multiple cities and scale across multiple markets.” Nuro’s near-term focus is on scaling its service in Houston and implementing R2 into commercial service.

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Chinese autonomous vehicle startup Pony.ai hits $5.3 billion valuation

Pony.ai, the Chinese autonomous vehicle startup and relative newcomer to the industry, is now valued at $5.3 billion following a fresh injection of $267 million in funding.

The round was led by TIP, an innovation fund within the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board that focuses on late-stage venture and growth equity investments in companies that deliver disruptive technology. Existing partners Fidelity China Special Situations PLC, 5Y Capital (formerly Morningside Venture Capital), ClearVue Partners and Eight Roads also participated in the round.

The new funds will primarily be used for research and development, according to the company.

Pony.ai has won over investors, OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers during its four-year existence. The company, which operates in China and California, has raised more than $1 billion since its founding, including $400 million from Toyota. Pony has several partnerships or collaborations with automakers and suppliers, including Bosch, Hyundai and Toyota.

Pony is building what it describes as an agnostic virtual driver for all sizes of vehicles, from small cars to large trucks, and to operate on both ridesharing and logistics (delivery) service networks. The company said back in 2019 that it was working with OEMs and suppliers to apply its automated technology to the long-haul trucking market. But it’s perhaps best known for its effort around robotaxis.

The company has launched ridesharing and commuter pilots in Fremont and Irvine, California and Guangzhou, China. Last year, a fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers equipped with a self-driving system from Pony.ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform began shuttling customers on public roads. The robotaxi service, called BotRide, wasn’t a driverless service, as there was a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. The BotRide pilot concluded in January 2020.

The company then started operating a public robotaxi service called PonyPilot in the Irvine area. Pony shifted that robotaxi service from shuttling people to packages as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world. In April, Pony.ai announced it had partnered with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine. The new delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said at the time.

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Elon Musk’s Tesla tequila will run you $250 a bottle

Teslaquila, the Tesla -branded liquor that co-starred in CEO Elon Musk’s controversial April Fool’s Day joke about the automaker filing for bankruptcy, has arrived.

The automaker now lists Tesla Tequila (a bit different from the original Teslaquila branding) on its website. The tequila — described as a “small-batch premium 100% de agave tequila añejo made from sustainably sourced highland and lowland agaves,” is housed in a handblown glass bottle shaped in the electric charge symbol. Oh, and it costs $250.

Celeb-produced tequilas are nothing new — and are often lucrative. Casamigos, the tequila brand co-founded by George Clooney, was acquired by Diageo in a deal that valued the company up to $1 billion. Tesla Tequila might be first liquor sold by an automaker. The liquor is produced by Nosotros Tequila, according to the company.

The tequila first popped up in April 2018 when Musk tweeted a photo of himself passed out against a Tesla Model 3 “surrounded by “Teslaquilla” bottles, the tracks of dried tears still visible on his cheeks.” In the photo, Musk is holding a cardboard sign that reads “bankwupt.”

Later that year, Tesla filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark “Teslaquila.”

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Daimler invests in lidar company Luminar in push to bring autonomous trucks to highways

Daimler’s trucks division has invested in lidar developer Luminar as part of a broader partnership to produce autonomous trucks capable of navigating highways without a human driver behind the wheel.

The deal, which comes just days after Daimler and Waymo announced plans to work together to build an autonomous version of the Freightliner Cascadia truck, is the latest action by the German manufacturer to move away from robotaxis and shared mobility and instead focus on how automated vehicle technology can be applied to freight.

The undisclosed investment by Daimler is in addition to the $170 million that Luminar raised as part of its merger with special purpose acquisition company Gores Metropoulos Inc. Luminar will become a publicly traded company through its merger with Gores, which is expected to close in late 2020.

Daimler is taking two tracks on its mission to commercialize autonomous trucks. The company has been working internally to develop a truck capable of Level 4 automation — an industry term that means the system can handle all aspects of driving without human intervention in certain conditions and environments such as highways. That work has accelerated since spring 2019 when Daimler took a majority stake in Torc Robotics, an autonomous trucking startup that had been working with Luminar the past two years. Lidar, the light detection and ranging radar that measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car, is considered a critical piece of hardware to deploy automated vehicle technology safely and at scale.

The plan is to integrate Torc’s self-driving system, along with Luminar’s sensors, into a Freightliner Cascadia truck as well as build out an operations and network center to run automated trucks. Daimler Trucks’ and Torc’s integrated self-driving product will be designed for on-highway hub-to-hub applications, especially for long-distance, monotonous transport between distribution centers, according to Daimler.

Meanwhile, Daimler Trucks is developing a customized Freightliner Cascadia truck chassis with redundant systems to allow Waymo to integrate its self-driving system. In this case, the software development stays in house at Waymo; Daimler is just concentrating on the chassis development.

This dual approach puts Daimler’s ambitions at center stage, which is to have series-production L4 trucks on highways globally. The deal also provides a clearer view of Luminar’s strategy of focusing on what its founder Austin Russell believes are the most likely and shortest paths to commercialized automated vehicles, and in turn, a profitable company.

“Our focus has really been always centered around highway autonomy use cases, which are specifically applicable to passenger vehicles as well as trucks,” Russell said in a recent interview, adding that the aim is to have a product that you can put into series production in a cost-effective capacity.

Luminar has already publicly announced one deal with an automaker to pursue the passenger vehicle use case. Volvo said in May it will start producing vehicles in 2022 that are equipped with lidar and a perception stack developed by Luminar that the automaker will use to deploy an automated driving system for highways. This deal with Daimler locks in the second use case.

“I absolutely do believe that autonomous trucking is an incredibly valuable business model that’s going to be larger than robotaxis and probably closer to being on par with consumer vehicles for the foreseeable future,” Russell said.

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Tesla has increased the price of its ‘Full Self-Driving’ option to $10,000

Tesla has made good on founder and CEO Elon Musk’s promise to boost the price of its “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) software upgrade option, increasing it to $10,000 following the start of the staged rollout of a beta version of the software update last week. This boosts the price of the package $2,000 from its price before today, and it has steadily increased since last May.

The FSD option has been available as an optional add-on to complement Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance technology, even though the features themselves haven’t been available to Tesla owners before the launch of the beta this month. Even still, it’s only in limited beta, but this is the closest Musk and Tesla have come to actually launching something under the FSD moniker — after having teased a fully autonomous mode in production Teslas for years now.

Despite its name, FSD isn’t what most in the industry would define as full, Level 4 or Level 5, autonomy per the standards defined by SAE International and accepted by most working on self-driving. Musk has designed it as vehicles having the ability “to be autonomous but requiring supervision and intervention at times,” whereas Levels 4 and 5 (often considered “true self-driving”) under SAE standards require no driver intervention.

Still, the technology does appear impressive in some ways according to early user feedback — though testing any kind of self-driving software unsupervised via the general public does seem an incredibly risky move. Musk has said that we should see a wide rollout of the FSD tech beyond the beta before year’s end, so he definitely seems confident in its performance.

The price increase might be another sign of his and the company’s confidence. Musk has always maintained that users were getting a discount by handing money over early to Tesla in order to help it develop technology that would come later, so in many ways it makes sense that the price increase comes now. This also obviously helps Tesla boost margins, though it’s already riding high on earnings that beat both revenue and profit expectations from analysts.

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