Transportation Weekly: Didi woes, how Nuro met Softbank, Amazons appetite

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.


ONM …

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.

Read about it here.

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.


Dig In

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.

blinky-cat-bird

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:


Snapshot

Auto

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.

Also in micro mobility …

We read corporate updates to terms of service in our spare time. And this week, Skip sent out an update that included an interesting nugget. It reads:

We’ve updated specific provisions on camera footage. We’ve updated and made more clear that our scooters may be equipped with video camera equipment which we may use to help ensure that our scooters are used properly and in accordance with laws, rules, regulations and policies, to protect against crimes such as theft and vandalism, to help us determine if scooters are being used properly at speeds, locations and on surfaces that are proper and allowed as well as to improve our Services.

In December, Skip unveiled two new scooters — one with a rear-facing camera. The company tested 200 of these scooter in Washington, D.C. (and later rolled out to San Francisco) to monitor whether people were riding on the sidewalk and generally riding safely. At the time, Skip said it wasn’t sure what it would do with the data collected from the cameras.

In other words, Skip’s cameras are on. How they intend to use that data — whether via a warning to the rider, a message after the ride is complete, or remotely slowing the scooter down, isn’t clear.

One startup that is poised to capture this new market of scooter accountability is Fantasmo. The augmented reality mapping startup has a new scooter positioning camera that captures video and then matches that against a map to reliably identify how the scooter is being used. Fantasmo’s camera system is not being used by Skip.


Notable reads

If you’re waiting for the big autonomous vehicle disengagement hot take story from me, you’ll be waiting for awhile. Let me explain.

This week, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released the “disengagement reports” of autonomous vehicle companies with permits to test on public roads in the state. These reports are meant to track each time a self-driving vehicle disengages out of autonomous mode. There are 48 companies that issued reports, which when you combine all the data, drove more than 2 million miles on public roads in autonomous mode between December 2017 and November 2018. That’s a four-fold increase from the year before.

Companies that receive AV testing permits in California, which are issued by the DMV, are required to submit these annually. It’s not that these reports are worthless. They are useful to determine if a company is ramping up its testing on public roads, adding more AVs to its fleet, helpful for spotting trends like ‘why did disengagements suddenly end?’ or to determine if a company is even testing anymore.

And I’ve discovered some interesting information that will become bigger stories or end up as footnotes in the world of AVs. (For instance, Faraday Future says it will begin testing on public roads late this year).

But disengagement reports are not a meaningful way to make comparisons on how companies stack up against each other. Why? Because it’s not an “apples-to-apples” comparison for one, companies report the data in different ways and there is no transparency into the specifics of when and where each disengagement occurred.

Another problem is the miles-per-disengagement figure that we (the media) typically focus on. This data isn’t super useful on its own. This shouldn’t be treated like a report card. As one engineer told me once, you learn only from occasions in which the system does, or wants to do, something different from a good human. The smart AV companies will take the disengagement data and combine it with other information taken from simulation and other forms of offline testing.

The “miles per disengagement” data point doesn’t start to mean anything on its own until a company reaches the validation phase, which is when miles driven are the truest representation of naturalistic driving in the domain and application of interest. How many are at this point? I’m hearing one or two.


Testing and deployments

Much of the talk and marketing materials around flying cars, or eVTOLs, focuses on well-dressed business folks standing on top of skyscrapers, preparing to be whisked away — up and over the terrible traffic below. Other startups have focused on last-mile delivery. But what about long-distance cargo delivery to remote and urban areas?

Elroy Air is one company that is working on this problem. The San Francisco-based startup has been developing an autonomous vertical takeoff and landing cargo transport system that can operate outside of airport infrastructure and carry up to 500 pounds of cargo over 300 miles. Elroy Air just closed a $9.2 million round that included investors Catapult Ventures, Levitate Capital, Lemnos, Precursor Ventures, Haystack, Shasta Ventures, Homebrew, 122West, Amplify Partners, Hemisphere Ventures, the E14 Fund and DiamondStream Partners.

The company said this week it will begin testing its unmanned vertical-takeoff-and-landing drone for commercial deliveries — called the Chaparral — this year and launch a commercial shipping service  in 2020.

These vehicles will be monitored by trained operators at all times during the testing phase, the company said.


On our radar

Let’s not forget that people are using buses and trains everyday. Not in a year. Not in 10. Right now. These transit systems, many of which need expensive upgrades, carry millions of people every day. One of the more interesting examples of the challenges with transit is the L train shutdown in New York.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs to repair a subway tunnel under the East River and initially had planned to shut down the entire tunnel for 15 months, starting in late April. The L train carries 275,000 people between Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, the effected section, every day.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo intervened and now there’s a new plan, which involves running trains through one tunnel tube while repairs are carried out in the other tube. The NYT has the back story.

There’s an upcoming “L Train Shutdown” event this month in Brooklyn that we’re keeping an eye on. URBAN-X, the startup accelerator backed by automotive brand MINI, is hosting a discussion on the future of the L-train and alternative modes of transport. Some interesting folks will be participating, including Lime’s chief program officer Scott Kubly. The event will be held 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm, Feb. 19 at A/D/O, 29 Norman Ave, Brooklyn, NY.

Thanks for reading. 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. 

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/02/16/transportation-weekly-didi-woes-how-nuro-met-softbank-amazons-appetite/

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