Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. This is the second edition and seriously people, what happened this week? Too much. Too much!
Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here. As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. (An email subscription is coming).
Off we go … vroom.
There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.
This week, we’ve got some insider info on Didi, China’s largest ride-hailing firm. China-based TechCrunch reporter Rita Liao learned from sources that Didi plans to lay off 15 percent of its employees, or about 2,000 people this year. CEO Cheng Wei made the announcement during an internal meeting Friday morning.
Didi’s troubles with regulators and its backlash from two high-profile passenger murders last year don’t exist in a vacuum. Their struggles are in line with what is happening in the ride-hailing industry, particularly in more mature markets where the novelty has worn off and cities have woken up.
For companies like Didi, Uber, Lyft and other emerging players, this means more resources (capital and people) spent working with cities as well as looking for ways to diversify their businesses. All the while, they must still plug away at the nagging problems of reducing costs and keeping drivers and riders.
Just look at Uber. As Megan Rose Dickey reports, Uber’s stiff losses continued in the fourth quarter. The upshot: Its losses can be attributed to increased competition and significant investment in bigger bets like micro mobility and Elevate. And apparently legal fees. Uber, The Verge reports, sued NYC on Friday to overturn a law that caps drivers.
This week, TechCrunch editor Devin Coldewey digs into the development of a system that can estimate not just where a pedestrian is headed, but their pose and gait too.
The University of Michigan, well known for its efforts in self-driving car tech, has been working on an improved algorithm for predicting the movements of pedestrians.
These algorithms can be as simple as identifying a human and seeing how many pixels move over a few frames, then extrapolating from there. But naturally, human movement is a bit more complex than that. Few companies advertise the exact level of detail with which they resolve human shapes and movement. This level of granularity seems beyond what we’ve seen.
UM’s new system uses LiDar and stereo camera systems to estimate not just the trajectory of a person, but their pose and gait. Pose can indicate whether a person is looking towards or away from the car, or using a cane, or stooped over a phone; gait indicates speed and intention.
Is someone glancing over their shoulder? Maybe they’re going to turn around, or walk into traffic. This additional data helps a system predict motion and makes for a more complete set of navigation plans and contingencies.
Importantly, it performs well with only a handful of frames to work with — perhaps comprising a single step and swing of the arm. That’s enough to make a prediction that beats simpler models handily, a critical measure of performance as one cannot assume that a pedestrian will be visible for any more than a few frames between obstructions.
Not too much can be done with this noisy, little-studied data right now, but perceiving and cataloguing it is the first step to making it an integral part of an AV’s vision system.
— Devin Coldewey
A little bird …
We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.
Every big funding round has an origin story — that magic moment when planets align and a capitally-flush investor gazes across a room at just the right time and spots the perfect company in need of funds and guidance.
One of this week’s biggest deals — see below — was the $940 million that Softbank Vision Fund invested in autonomous delivery robot Nuro. How (and when) Nuro met Softbank is almost as big a story as the funding round itself. OK, well maybe not AS BIG. But interesting, nonetheless.
It turns out that Cruise, the self-driving unit of GM, was in early talks with Nuro, but the parties couldn’t quite meet in the middle, people familiar with the deal told me. Sources wouldn’t elaborate whether Cruise was seeking to acquire Nuro or take a minority stake in the company.
It all worked out in the end, though. The folks at Cruise introduced Nuro to Softbank. That means Cruise and Nuro now share the same investor. Softbank agreed in May 2018 to invest $2.25 billion in GM Cruise Holdings LLC.
Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.
Deal(s) of the week
We have a tie this week, which began with news that Softbank’s Vision Fund invested in autonomous delivery robot Nuro. The week closed with electric automaker Rivian announcing a $700 million funding round led by Amazon.
First Nuro. Michael Ronen, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, and the same person who was a big part of its investment in Cruise, told TechCrunch that the winners in this market will need to address a diverse mix of technological questions. In his view, that’s Nuro.
“Nuro has built a team of brilliant problem solvers whose combined backgrounds in robotics, machine learning, autonomous driving and consumer electronics give them a compelling advantage,” Ronen said.
Amazon’s investment in Rivian is important, particularly when you step back and take a more holistic and historic view. Consider this: The logistics giant stealthily acquired an urban delivery robot startup called Dispatch in 2017 (a discovery Mark Harris made and reported for us last week). Amazon showed off the fruit of that acquisition — its own delivery robot Scout — in January 2018.
Last week, self-driving vehicle startup Aurora raised more than $530 million in a Series B funding round led by Sequoia and with “significant” investments from Amazon and T. Rowe Price. Now, Amazon is backing Rivian.
Based on the deals that we know about, Amazon’s hands are now deep into autonomous delivery, self-driving vehicle software and electric vehicles. Let that sink in.
Other deals that got our attention this week:
- Autonomous truck startup TuSimple hits unicorn status in latest round
- AV shuttle company May Mobility raises $22 million: We talked to May’s Alisyn Malek (watch for this)
- C2A raises $6.2 million for its in-car cybersecurity platform
- Audio tech supplier to Rolls Royce and Xiaomi secures another $13.2 million
- BeliMobilGue raises $10M for its used-car sales platform in Indonesia
- WiTricity acquired some IP assets from Qualcomm that gives the company more than 1,500 patents and patent applications related to wireless charging. Qualcomm Inc. is now a minority WiTricity shareholder.
Sure, TechCrunch focuses on startups. Why auto loans? Because auto loan data can be one of the canaries in the coal mine that is the automotive industry and on a larger scale, the economy. And, delinquency rates ripple through the rest of the transportation world, affecting public transit and ride-hailing too.
The New York Federal Reserve this week released a collection of economic data, including auto loans, which have been climbing since 2011. Auto loans increased by $9 billion this year, a figure boosted by historically strong levels of newly originated loans that will put 2018 in the record books. There were $584 billion in new auto loans and leases appearing on credit reports in 2018, the highest level in the 19-year history of the loan origination data.
Why I’m watching this? Because according to the Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit:
- The flow into 90+ day delinquency for auto loan balances has been slowly trending upward since 2012
- Serious delinquency of auto loans held by borrowers under 30 years old between 2014 and 2016 rose (see chart)
- Rising overall delinquency rates remain below 2010 peak levels. However, there were more than 7 million Americans with auto loans that were 90 or more days delinquent at the end of 2018
Tiny but mighty micro mobility
It was a bit quiet on the micro-mobility front this week, but here’s what jumped out. Unsurprisingly, San Francisco denied Lime’s appeal to operate electric scooters in the city. This is the same decision the city landed on pertaining to both Uber’s Jump and Ford’s Spin appeals. On the bright side for these companies, there may be hope for them to deploy scooters during phase two of the city’s pilot program, which starts in April.
Also in the SF Bay Area, Lyft donated $700,000 to TransForm, an organization focused on improving access to transportation in underserved areas throughout California. In partnership with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Lyft and TransForm will invest in a free bike library and community “parklets” in Oakland, Calif.
Meanwhile, over in Tel Aviv, Lime deployed its electric scooters, joining electric scooter startup Bird. Lime also reportedly plans to deploy its scooters throughout the country of Israel. Next up will be cities in the Gush Dan region.