The Station: Uber's new battles in the UK, Lucid Motors' second life plans and Cruise acquires Voyage

Kirsten Korosec
·16 min read

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Hi friends and new readers, welcome to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B. Before I forget, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the newsletter if you're interested in attending our upcoming Early Stage conference. I have a gift for you.

Um, there is a #$@%-ton of mobility news to get to, including a few scoops, some investment news and a new "market map" that takes a deep look into the business of mobility-as-a-service apps. Buckle up.

First up, here's the market maps story (I just mentioned) from writer Jason Plautz. The upshot: As transit agencies seek to win back riders, a flurry of platforms -- some backed by giants like Uber, Intel and BMW -- are offering new technology partnerships. Whether it's bundling bookings, payments or just trip planning, startups are selling these mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings as a lifeline to make transit agencies the backbone of urban mobility. Third-party platforms have become more appealing to transit agencies as they scramble to keep buses, trains and rail full of customers.

And yep, this is an Extra Crunch story, which requires a subscription. As I've shared here before, we're bringing more transportation analysis to Extra Crunch. Last month, we had Mark Harris' market analysis on solid state batteries. Next week, Extra Crunch will feature stories on the state of holographic tech in vehicles, the second-life battery marketplace and software plays in the micromobility industry.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin'

Bird peeped up this week (it has been sorta quiet lately) and announced it is investing $150 million into a European expansion plan that will include launching in more than 50 cities this year, a move that it says will double its footprint in the region.

According to Bird, this growth plan is already underway, with the shared micromobility company recently bringing its scooters to Bergen, Norway; Tarragona, Spain; and Palermo, Italy.

Bird emphasized that its European expansion will be more than just a geographic one. The company said it is adding more scooters to its existing fleets and made several other promises as part of its announcement, including plans to launch new mobility products and safety initiatives, "the next generation of recycling and second-life applications for vehicles," investing in equity programs and "securing partnerships across the region."

I might have raised an eyebrow or two when I first read this announcement. Why? Welp, for one, it isn't clear what these new mobility products or initiatives around safety or recycling will be. A Bird spokesperson told me these will be new vehicles and “transport modes” in the region. Bird didn’t provide details about what it means by “securing partnerships,” a phrase that could mean an extension of its franchise program called the Bird Platform or some other kind of arrangement with local governments or operators.

And then there's the bit about that $150 million. A Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch it’s using “existing resources” to fund these various initiatives. However, the pandemic, its acquisition of Circ and its effort to launch operations in new cities while maintaining existing fleets have depleted its funds. (Last June, Bird shut down scooter sharing in several cities in the Middle East, an operation that was managed by Circ.) The company’s last public fundraising announcements were more than a year ago. The company raised $275 million in a Series D round back in September 2019. That round was later extended to $350 million.

Now, this could be the $100 million in convertible debt that Bird reportedly was close to finalizing (per The Information's reporting back in January). But something tells me there is more to this. Stay tuned.

A few other interesting micromobbin' nugs for you ...

Lime and Lyft appear to have secured a license that will allow the companies to exclusively operate scooter and bike-share services in Denver. The city's Department of Transportation & Infrastructure said it is moving two licensing agreements through the Denver City Council approval process. On March 23, the DOTI will present the licensing agreements to Denver City Council's Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee for approval before heading to full council for consideration.

The "license" term is important here and marks a shift in how Denver is thinking about dockless shared scooters and bikes. A license would replace how dockless electric scooter and bike companies currently operate in Denver, which is through a permit. If the licenses are approved by Council, Lyft and Lime would be the only two companies operating vehicles in Denver under the new bike and scooter-share program. The license would be valid for five years.

Superpedestrian, the startup that makes e-scooters equipped with self-diagnostic software is upgrading its product as it prepares for a major expansion into 10 new cities within the next two weeks, TechCrunch's Rebecca Bellan reported. Superpedestrian might not be a household name, but it is an up-and-coming player in the micromobility world. The company has developed AI — which is integrated into the vehicle — that monitors and corrects scooter safety issues in real time.

The next-generation operating system that will provide those upgrades, codenamed “Briggs,” will be uploaded to its global fleet of LINK e-scooters. It includes improvements to geofencing capabilities and battery life, making Superpedestrian more attractive to cities looking for partners who can provide assurances around safety and reliability.

SMART, a startup founded in 2020, revealed its first product: An airless bicycle tire based on technology NASA engineers created to make future lunar and Martian rovers even more resilient. This nifty tech that shows how NASA investments toward space exploration can end up improving life on Earth. SMART has a partnership with NASA through the Space Act Agreement and is part of the agency's formal Startup Program that aims to commercialize some of its innovations.

SMART's METL tire close up
SMART's METL tire close up

Image Credits: SMART Tire Company

The company's "METL tire" came out of its work with NASA's Glenn Research Center, where NASA engineers Dr. Santo Padula and Colin Creager first developed their so-called "shape memory alloy" (SMA) technology. SMA allows for a tire constructed entirely of interconnected springs, which requires no inflation and is therefore immune to punctures, but which can still provide equivalent or better traction when compared to inflatable rubber tires, and even some built-in shock-absorbing capabilities, TechCrunch's Darrell Etherington reports.

SMART's co-founders, "Survivor: Fiji” champion Earl Cole and engineer Brian Yennie, are targeting the cycling market first with their METL tire, which is set to become available to the general public by early next year. SMART intends to bring SMA tires to the automotive and commercial vehicle industries.

Deal of the week

money the station
money the station

Typically, my "deal of the week" has a financial figure tied to it. This time, I don't have those terms. (Feel free to share, if you do.) This deal made it to the top of the list because of its importance in the autonomous vehicle industry.

I am, of course, talking about Cruise acquiring Voyage, a four-year-old autonomous vehicle startup that is well-known in the industry despite its size relative to other major players. Voyage had 60 employees and raised about $52 million compared to giants like Cruise that has a nearly 2,000-person workforce and is valued at $30 billion. But Voyage made an indelible mark on the industry, in large part because of its co-founder and CEO Oliver Cameron. The company, which spun out of Udacity in 2017, is best known for its operations in two senior living communities. Voyage tested and gave rides to people within a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, California, as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida.

I've been told the majority of Voyage’s team will move over to Cruise and Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product. Basically, Cameron will be in charge of anything that touches the customer.

Importantly, Voyage's ride-hailing service (which always included a human safety driver behind the wheel) at the two senior communities, one in California and the other in Florida, will be ending before summer. The Villages community in Florida is massive and it's where Voyage scaled up and at one point had "hundreds" of riders. The shuttering of this service would seem to open up the opportunity to other AV companies; my guess is that Cameron has already fielded a few inquiries.

Voyage’s partnership with FCA, now called Stellantis, will also end once the acquisition with Cruise closes.

Other deals that stood out ...

Aerovel, the manufacturer of uncrewed vertical take-off and landing aircraft designed for surveillance, has raised $2.5 million in Series B capital. The investment is from undisclosed leaders in aviation, according to the company.

Arbe Robotics, a company that sells long-range 4D imaging radar, has agreed to merge with special purpose acquisition company Industrial Tech Acquisitions Inc. The transaction is expected to deliver about $177 million in gross cash proceeds that includes Industrial Tech's $77 million cash-in-trust as well as $100 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, M&G Investment Management, Varana Capital, Texas Ventures and Eyal Waldman, the founder and CEO of Mellanox Technologies. You can check out their investor presentation here.

For a little insight into Arbe, check out this Autonocast podcast episode from 2018, when I — along with my co-hosts Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer — interviewed Arbe CEO Kobi Marenko about his company's high-resolution radar technology.

Charge Amps, the Swedish maker of smart charging stations, cables and cloud software, raised 130 million crowns ($15.3 million) in a funding round led by Swedbank Robur. The company raised the funds ahead of a planned IPO next year, Reuters reported.

Fort Robotics raised $13 million in a round led by Prime Movers Lab. The round also features Prologis Ventures, Quiet Capital, Lemnos Labs, Creative Ventures, Ahoy Capital, Compound, FundersClub and Mark Cuban. The Philadelphia-based company was founded in 2018 by Samuel Reeves, who previous headed up Humanistic Robotics. That fellow Pennsylvania startup is focused on landmine and IED-clearing remote operating robotic systems.

Momenta, the five-year-old Chinese autonomous driving startup, closed another massive round of nearly $500 million. The funding lifts its total funding to more than $700 million and in its short life has attracted a dazzling list of investors, including Kai-Fu Lee's Sinovation Ventures, the government of Suzhou and Daimler.

Momenta's chief of business development Sun Huan told TechCrunch's Rita Liao that the investment marks an important step toward the firm's international expansion. In a few months' time, Sun will head to Stuttgart, the German hometown of Mercedes-Benz, and open Momenta's first European office.

Unagi, the startup behind the portable, design-centric electric scooters, raised $10.5 million in a Series A round led by led by the Ecosystem Integrity Fund with participation from Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels and Gaingels, among others. Unagi, which was launched in late 2018 by former Beats Music CEO and MOG co-founder David Hyman, plans to use the money to fund its expansion and bring its subscription service to six more U.S. cities, including Austin, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Unagi will also be expanding its existing service in the New York and LA metropolitan regions, including all five NYC boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and Northern New Jersey, as well as the Westside and Southeast LA, the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery
the-station-delivery

Lots of news. Let's get to it.

Autonomous vehicles and robotics

Ford Motor announced plans to embed 100 of its researchers and engineers in a new $75 million robotics and mobility facility on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus. The arrangement will give Ford space to conduct robotics research and access to students -- and vice versa -- from the top floor of the four-floor, 134,000-square-foot building. In addition to its fourth-floor lab, Ford will have access to a high-bay garage space to test autonomous vehicles.

Shortly after the event wrapped up, TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater hopped on the phone with Ford’s Technical Expert Mario Santillo, who will help head up the expanded robotics efforts. Here's what Santillo had to say.

Electric

Amazon is expanding to San Francisco customer deliveries via electric cargo vehicles, making it the second of 16 total cities the company expects to bring its Rivian-sourced EVs to in 2021. San Francisco's unique terrain and climate were a couple of the reasons Amazon said it chose the city for its second round of testing. Its EVs, which were designed and built in partnership with Rivian, can last up to 150 miles on a single charge.

BMW takes the wraps off of the all-electric i4 sedan. The German automaker also announced version 8 of its iDrive operating system, which will feature a new dashboard layout and visual design, with two curved screens. It will make its debut in the i4 and iX.

Chanje, EV startup that emerged from stealth in 2017 and is owned by Chinese automotive company FDG, is being sued by truck rental company Ryder for alleged failing to deliver 100 of the 125 vans it was promised, The Verge reported. Ryder says it's owed nearly $4 million. Chanje was on The Autonocast waayyyyy back in 2018. At the time, I was impressed by the idea and the van, which I drove with co-host Alex Roy around downtown Los Angeles. But it seems that Chanje is riddled with problems — and lawsuits. The Verge reported that Chanje has been sued more than once in Los Angeles Superior Court by former employees who say they're owed tens of thousands in back pay and bonuses. The company has also been hit with liens from the California Secretary of State for not paying taxes.

Lucid Motors, which is already experimenting with energy storage systems for commercial and residential customers, is also eyeing ways to repurpose batteries from its electric vehicles, according to this scoop by TechCrunch's Aria Alamalhodaei. While Lucid CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson has previously discussed plans to eventually build energy storage systems like Tesla that uses new batteries, this is the first time the company has talked about second-life applications for the product.

This is interesting because Lucid is still years from having to contend with a large number of used batteries. After all, its first EV, the luxury Lucid Air sedan, isn't coming to market until the second half of 2021.

Hyundai is offering owners of the 2021 Kona Electric and Ioniq Electric access to 250 kWh of complimentary charging (approximately 1,000 miles of EPA estimated driving range) on the Electrify America fast-charging network.

Rivian plans to install more than 10,000 chargers by the end of 2023. The network will have a dual purpose: quickly power its electric vehicle models with fast chargers installed along highways and provide Level 2 chargers at further afield locations next to parks, trailheads and other adventurous destinations. The company said that its so-called Rivian Adventure Network will include more than 3,500 DC fast chargers at over 600 sites, which will only be accessible to owners of its electric vehicles. Each site will have multiple chargers and be located on highways and main roads, often by cafes and shops.

Rivian is also installing thousands of "waypoint" Level 2 AC chargers throughout the United States and Canada. These waypoint chargers will have a 11.5 kW charging speed, which should be able to add up to 25 miles of range every hour for its R1T pickup truck and R1S SUV. The waypoint chargers will be strategically located along and near routes that Rivian customers are likely to take. They will be found at shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, campsites and parks.

Volkswagen AG revealed how it aims to seize the top spot as the world's largest electric vehicle manufacturer, outlining plans to have six 40 gigawatt hour (GWh) battery cell production plants in operation in Europe by 2030. To get there, the automaker put in a 10-year, $14 billion order with Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt -- and that's only one of the six planned factories. A second plant in Germany will commence production in 2025.

Volkswagen Power Day 2021
Volkswagen Power Day 2021

Thomas Schmall, VW Group board member and CEO of Volkswagen Group Components. Image credits: Volkswagen

Ride-hailing

Uber says that drivers in the U.K. who use its ride-hailing app will be treated as workers, a designation that will give them some benefits such as holiday pay. However, even as Uber seemingly concedes to a Supreme Court ruling last month, a new fight could already be brewing over the company's decision to calculate working time from the point a trip commences -- rather than when drivers log on to the app.

All drivers in the U.K. will be paid holiday time based on 12.07% of their earnings, which will be paid out every two weeks. Drivers will also be paid at least the minimum wage after accepting a trip request and after expenses. Eligible drivers in the U.K. will automatically be enrolled into a pension plan with contributions from Uber. These contributions will represent approximately 3% of a driver's earnings.

However ... Uber will only guarantee that drivers' working time and other benefits will accrue once they accept a trip and not based on when they have signed into the app to begin working. That already has labor activists fuming.

Meanwhile, Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for a driver identity system is being challenged in the U.K., where the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE) have called for Microsoft to suspend the ride-hailing giant’s use of B2B facial recognition after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London (TfL).

The union said it has identified seven cases of “failed facial recognition and other identity checks” leading to drivers losing their jobs and licence revocation action by TfL, TechCrunch reporter Natasha Lomas writes.

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