Transportation weekly: Nuro dreams of autonomous lattes, what is a metamaterial, Volvo takes the wheel

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Read the first edition hereAs 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!

This week, we’re shoving as much transportation news, tidbits and insights in here as possible in hopes that it will satiate you through the end of the month. That’s right, TechCrunch’s mobility team is on vacation next week.

You can expect to learn about metamaterials, how traffic is creating genetic peril, the rise of scooter docks in a dockless world, new details on autonomous delivery startup Nuro and a look back at the first self-driving car fatality.


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.

nuro-scout-coffee

Mark Harris is here again with an insider look into autonomous vehicle delivery bot startup Nuro. The 3-year-old company recently announced that it raised $940 million in financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

Harris, during his typical gumshoeing, uncovers what Nuro might do with all that capital. It’s more than just “scaling up” and “hiring talent” — the go-to declarations from startups flush with venture funding. No, Nuro’s founders have some grand ideas from automated kitchens and autonomous latte delivery to smaller robots that can cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. Nuro recently told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it wants introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years.

The company’s origin story and how it’s tied to autonomous trucking startup Ike is just as notable as its “big ideas.”

Come for the autonomous lattes; stay for the story … How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s money


Dig In

What do metamaterials and Volvo have in common? Absolutely nothing. Except they’re both worth higlighting this week.

First up, is an article by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey on a company called Lumotive that has backing from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures. The names Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures aren’t the most interesting components of the story. Nope, it’s metamaterials.

Let us explain. Most autonomous vehicles, robots and drones use lidar (or light detection and ranging radar) to sense their surroundings. Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; in short, lidar helps create a 3D map of the world. (Here’s a complete primer on WTF is Lidar).

However, there are limitations to lidar sensors, which rely on mechanical platforms to move the laser emitter or mirror. That’s where metamaterials come in. In simple terms, metamaterials are specially engineered surfaces that have embedded microscopic structures and work as a single device. Metamaterials remove the mechanical piece of the problem, and allow lidar to scan when and where it wants within its field of view.

Metamaterials delivers the whole package: they’re durable and compact, solve problems with existing lidar systems, and are not prohibitively expensive.

If they’re so great why isn’t everyone using them? For one, it’s a new and emerging technology. Lumotive’s product is just a prototype. And Intellectual Ventures (IV) holds the patents for known techniques, Coldewey recently explained to me. IV is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech — something it has done with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out.

Shifting gears to Volvo

Automakers are rolling out increasingly robust advanced driver assistance systems in production cars. These new levels of automation are creating a conflict of sorts. One on hand, features like adaptive cruise control and lane steering can make commutes less stressful and arguably safer. And yet, they can also cause overconfidence in the system and complacency among drivers. (Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted that complacency is a problem among owners using its advanced ADAS feature called Autopilot). (And yes, I wrote advanced ADAS; it sounds repetitive, but it’s meant to express higher levels of automation and a term I recently encountered from two respected sources)

Some argue that automakers shouldn’t deploy these kinds of automated features unless vehicles are equipped with driver-monitoring systems (DMS are essentially an in-car camera and accompanying software) that can ensure drivers are paying attention. Volvo is taking that a step further.

Driver Monitoring Camera in a Volvo research vehicle

The company announced this week that it will integrate DMS into its next-gen, SPA2-based vehicles beginning in the early 2020s and more importantly, enable its system to take action if the driver is distracted or intoxicated. The camera and other sensors will monitor the driver and will intervene if a clearly intoxicated or distracted driver does not respond to warning signals and is risking an accident involving serious injury or death. Under this scenario, Volvo could limit the car’s speed, call the Volvo on Call service on behalf of the driver or cause the vehicle to slow down and park itself on the roadside.

Volvo’s plans raise all kinds of questions, including privacy concerns and liability. The intent is to add a layer of safety. But it also adds complexity, which could compromise Volvo’s mission. The Autonocast, a podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, talk about Volvo’s plans in our latest episode. Check it out.


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

Remember two weeks ago when we dug into Waymo’s laser bears and wondered whether we had reached “peak” LiDAR? (Last year, there were 28 VC deals in LiDAR technology valued at $650 million. The number of deals was slightly lower than in 2017, but the values jumped by nearly 34 percent.)

It doesn’t look like we have. We’re hearing about several funding deals in the works or recently closed, a revelation that shows investors still see opportunity in startups trying to bring the next generation of light ranging and detection sensors to market.

Spotted …. Former Zoox CEO and co-founder Tim Kentley Klay was spotted at the Self-Racing Car event at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, Calif., this weekend.

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


Deal of the week

Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering and announced it will kick off the roadshow for its IPO. That means the initial public offering will likely occur in the next two weeks. Here’s the S-1 that Lyft filed in early March. This latest announcement also revealed new details, including that its ticker symbol will be  “LYFT” — as one might expect — and that the IPO range is set for between $62 and $68 per share to sell 30,770,000 shares of Class A common stock. Lyft could raise up to $2.1 billion at the higher end of that range, or $1.9 billion at the lower end.

The Lyft news was big — and it’s a story we’ll be following for awhile. However, we wanted to highlight another one of Ingrid Lunden’s articles because it underscores a point I’ve been pushing for awhile: not every important move in the world of autonomous vehicles occurs in the big three of Detroit, Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley.

This week, Yandex, the Russian search giant that has been working on self-driving car technology, inked a partnership with Hyundai to develop software and hardware for autonomous car systems. This is Yandex’s first partnership with an OEM. But it’s not Hyundai’s first collaboration with an autonomous vehicle startup. (Hyundai has a partnership with Aurora too)

Yandex will work with Hyundai Mobis, the car giant’s OEM parts and service division, “to create a self-driving platform that can be used by any car manufacturer or taxi fleet” that will cover both a prototype as well as parts for other car-makers.

Other deals:


Snapshot

uber-bike-crash

One year ago, I parked on a small rise overlooking Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. The mostly dirt knoll, dotted with some trees and a handful of structures known out here as ramadas, was hardly remarkable. Just one other car sat in the disintegrating asphalt parking lot, the result of so many sun-baked days. A group of homeless people had set up at the picnic tables under a few of the structures, their dogs lolling nearby.

And yet, it was here, or specifically on the gleaming road below, that something extraordinary had indeed happened. Just days before, Elaine Herzberg was crossing Mill Avenue south of Curry Road when an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed her. The vehicle was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a human test driver behind the wheel.

I had been in the Phoenix area, a hub for testing autonomous vehicle technology, to moderate a panel on that very subject. But the panel had been hastily canceled by organizers worried about the optics of such a discussion. And so I picked up Starsky Robotics CEO Stefan Seltz Axmacher who was also in town for this now-canceled panel, and we drove to site where Herzberg had died.

I wrote at the time, that “March 18 changed everything—and nothing—in the frenzied and nascent world of autonomous vehicles.” One year later, those words are still correct. The incident dumped a bucket of ice water over the figurative heads of autonomous vehicle developers. Everyone it seemed, had sobered up. Testing was paused, dozens of companies assessed their own safety protocols. Earnest blogs were written. Lawsuits were filed.

And yet, the cogs on the AV machine haven’t stopped turning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Innovation can sometimes “make the world a better place.” But it’s rarely delivered in a neat little package, no strings attached.

I’m hardly the first to reflect or write about this one-year anniversary. There are many takes, some of them hot, others not so much. And there are a few insightful ones; Autonocast co-host Niedermeyer has one entitled 10 Lessons from Uber’s Fatal Self-Driving Car Crash that’s worth reading.

Right now, I’m more interested in those lessons that haven’t been learned yet. It’s partly what prompted us to launch this newsletter, a weekly post that aims to be more than a historical record or a medium to evangelize AV technology.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again. Data is queen. This past week, mobility management startup Passport partnered with Charlotte, N.C., Detroit, Mich. and Omaha, Neb. and Lime to create a framework to apply parking principles, data analysis and more to the plethora of shared micromobility services.

And, in case you missed it, Bird had to let some people go late last week. We’ve learned a few more details since the news broke. That came out to about 40 people out of the ~900-person company. The layoffs were part of Bird’s annual performance review process and only affected U.S.-based employees, TechCrunch learned. Those laid off are eligible for severance, including health and medical benefits. Despite the layoffs, Bird is actively looking to hire for more than 100 positions throughout the company.

Meanwhile, Ford-owned Spin partnered with mobility startup Zagster to deploy scooters in 100+ new cities and campuses by the end of this year.

Megan Rose Dickey


Notable reads

Traffic affects more than people. Take a look at the map pictured above. See the red line? That’s Interstate 15 in southern California. To the east, are inland communities and eventually the San Bernardino National Forest and San Jacinto Mountains.

To the west, are the Santa Ana Mountains and an increasingly isolated family of 20 cougars, the Los Angeles Times reports this week. The 15 and the heavy traffic on it is putting pressure on the gene pool. In the past 15 years, at least seven cougars have crossed the 15. Just one sired 11 kittens. This lack of genetic diversity — the lower documented for the species outside of the endangered Florida panther — could have devastating effects on mountain lions here. A study published in the journal Ecological Applications predicts extinction probabilities of 16 percent to 28 percent over the next 50 years for these lions.

In this specific case, the last natural wildlife corridor in the area — and perhaps the difference between survival and extinction —  is little Temecula Creek.

This phenomenon is happening in other areas as well, causing communities to toy with possible solutions. One option: shuttling the lions over the other side, a move that could cause all sorts of problems. In other places, such as an area near the Santa Monica Mountains, a wildlife overpass has been proposed.

Transit pain points

Meanwhile, digital and mobile ticketing and payment company CellPoint Mobile released a report this week that examines the rising cost of acquiring new riders, mobile technology limitations and outdated procurement processes. The titillatingly named report — Challenges Facing Municipal, Regional and National Transit Agencies in the United States — surveyed 103 ground and mass transit operators in the United States.

Some takeaways and key findings:

  • 30 percent of mass transit providers collect fares through a mobile app; only 39 percent have an app at all
  • 26 percent of transit operators say costs are their biggest challenges. Among metro mass transit agencies, that concern jumps to 40 percent
  • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of national operators and 24 percent of large transit agencies (1,000  to 10,000 employees) say that implementing mobile technology is their single biggest challenge.
  • Customer acquisition is the second-most common challenge in US transportation, cited by 23 percent national, 33 percent regional, and 17 percent of private operators.

Other items of note:


Testing and deployments

Lyft Scooters docks

Dockless scooters have been all the rage; now it seems that cities and scooters startups are considering whether free-floating micromobility might need to be reined in a skosh.

Lyft, which has scooters in 13 cities, recently experimented with parking racks. These parking racks or docks are designed specifically for scooters. The company set up these docking stations in Austin during SXSW and released a handy Guide to Good Scootiquette to encourage better and safer rider behavior.

Meanwhile, an industry around scooter management is emerging. Swiftmile, a startup that developed light electric vehicle charging systems for bike share, has new solar-powered charging platforms for scooters. TechCrunch met Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche in Austin earlier this month and learned that a number of cities are interested in deploying these systems. Swiftmile’s system not only charges the scooters, it also can provide scooter companies with diagnostics and keep the device locked in the dock if it’s malfunctioning. The docks can be programmed to lock the scooters up during certain hours — bar closing time would seem like an optimal time — to keep them from being misused. Systems like these could help scooter companies like Bird and Lime extend the life of their scooters and keep local officials happy.

Autonomous street sweepers

ENWAY and Nanyang Technological University are deploying autonomous street sweepers in the inner city of Singapore as part of a project with National Environmental Agency Singapore. The project began this month and will run into September 2020.

Under the pilot, ENWAY’s autonomous sweeper will clean an area of more than 12 kilometers of roads every day. The sweeper is equipped with numerous sensors, including 2D and 3D lidars, 3D cameras, GNSS. The base vehicle is a retrofitted all-electric compact road sweeper from Swiss manufacturer Bucher Municipal.

The company aims to commercialize autonomous cleaning on public ground in Singapore and abroad.

A demo of the sweeper is in the video below.

Silvercar scales up

On the other end of the transportation spectrum, Silvercar by Audi has rolled out a delivery and pick up service in downtown locations in New York and San Francisco. Silvercar customers can request their rental be dropped off and picked up at home or a location of their choosing for an additional fee. Silvercar also announced plans to bring its premium rental experience to Boston at Logan International Airport on April 15.

If you’ve never heard of Silvercar, you’re forgiven. It’s not exactly widespread. The company aims to remove the headache of traditional car rental. I recently tried it out in Austin during SXSW and found that it is convenient, and works pretty well, but doesn’t remove some of the annoying pinch points of car rentals. Yes, there are no lines. When I got off the plane in Austin, I received a message that my car was ready and to hail my driver who picked me up curbside, drove me to the Silvercar operation, and brought me to my Audi. I used the app to unlock the vehicle.

That’s cool. What would be even better is skipping all those steps and being able to access the vehicle right there in the airport without interacting with anyone. (Granted, not everyone wants that) This new delivery and pickup service in New York and San Francisco gets closer to that sweet spot.

Other stuff:


On our radar

New York Auto Show is coming up and I’ll be in the city right before the show. But then it’s back to the west coast for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, a one-day event held April 18 at UC Berkeley. I’ll be interviewing Anthony Levandowski on stage and moderating a panel with Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson and Uber ATG Toronto chief Raquel Urtasun to talk about building the self-driving stack and how AI is used to help vehicles understand and predict what’s happening in the world around them and make the right decisions.

Also, the PAVE Coalition is hosting its first public demonstration event April 5-7 at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. The public will have an opportunity to ride in a self-driving car, and interactive displays will help visitors understand the technology behind self-driving cars and their potential benefits.

Finally, one electric vehicle thing we’ve been following. Columbus, Ohio won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Smart City Challenge and we’ve been tracking the city’s progress and its efforts to increase electric vehicle adoption.

One of the organizers told TechCrunch that since the beginning of 2017, the cumulative new EV registrations in the Columbus metropolitan area have increased by 121 percent. New EV registrations over this period outpaced the 82 percent expansion in the Midwest region and the 94 percent growth seen across the U.S. over the same time period.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos en dos semanas.

Hackers conquer Tesla’s in-car web browser and win a Model 3

A pair of security researchers dominated Pwn2Own, the annual high-profile hacking contest, taking home $375,000 in prizes including a Tesla Model 3 — their reward for successfully exposing a vulnerability in the electric vehicle’s infotainment system.

Tesla handed over its new Model 3 sedan to Pwn2Own this year, the first time a car has been included in the competition. Pwn2Own is in its 12th year and run by Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative. ZDI has awarded more than $4 million over the lifetime of the program.

The pair of hackers Richard Zhu and Amat Cam, known as team Fluoroacetate, “thrilled the assembled crowd” as they entered the vehicle, according to ZDI, which noted that after a few minutes of setup, they successfully demonstrated their research on the Model 3 internet browser.

The pair used a JIT bug in the renderer to display their message — and won the prize, which included the car itself. In the most simple terms, a JIT, or just-in-time bug, bypasses memory randomization data that normally would keep secrets protected.

Tesla told TechCrunch it will release a software update to fix the vulnerability discovered by the hackers.

“We entered Model 3 into the world-renowned Pwn2Own competition in order to engage with the most talented members of the security research community, with the goal of soliciting this exact type of feedback. During the competition, researchers demonstrated a vulnerability against the in-car web browser,” Tesla said in an emailed statement. “There are several layers of security within our cars which worked as designed and successfully contained the demonstration to just the browser, while protecting all other vehicle functionality. In the coming days, we will release a software update that addresses this research. We understand that this demonstration took an extraordinary amount of effort and skill, and we thank these researchers for their work to help us continue to ensure our cars are the most secure on the road today.”

Pwn2Own’s spring vulnerability research competition, Pwn2Own Vancouver, was held March 20 to 22 and  featured five categories, including web browsers, virtualization software, enterprise applications, server-side software and the new automotive category.

Pwn2Own awarded a total of $545,000 for 19 unique bugs in Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Windows, VMware Workstation, Mozilla Firefox, and Tesla.

Tesla has had a public relationship with the hacker community since 2014 when the company launched its first bug bounty program. And it’s grown and evolved ever since.

Last year, the company increased the maximum reward payment from $10,000 to $15,000 and added its energy products as well. Today, Tesla’s vehicles and all directly hosted servers, services and applications are now in scope in its bounty program

How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s $940 million

Autonomous delivery startup Nuro is bursting with ideas since SoftBank invested nearly $1 billion in February, new filings reveal.

A recent patent application details how its R1 self-driving vehicle could carry smaller robots to cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. The company has even taken the step of trademarking the name “Fido” for delivery services.

“We think there’s something neat about that name,” Nuro founder Dave Ferguson told TechCrunch. “It’s friendly, neighborly and embodies the spirit of a helper that brings you things. It wasn’t intended to extend towards literal robot dogs, although some of the legged platforms that others are building could be very interesting for this last 10-foot problem.”

Another section of Nuro’s patent shows the R1 delivering piping hot pizza and beverages, prepared en route in automated kitchens.

“We tried to build a lot of flexibility into the R1’s compartment so we could serve all the applications that people will be able to think of,” Ferguson said. “A coffee machine is actually a pretty good one. If you go to your local barista, those machines are incredibly expensive. Amortizing them over an entire neighborhood makes sense.”

As automated technologies mature, companies are focusing less on simply getting around and more on how services will connect with actual customers. Delivering goods instead of passengers also means fewer regulations to navigate.

That opportunity has prompted a number of companies, including e-commerce and logistics giant Amazon, FedEx, and numerous startups to explore autonomous delivery.  At CES this year, Continental unveiled a prototype dog-shaped robot for last-yard deliveries, while Amazon has unveiled a sidewalk robot called Scout that is already delivering packages to homes.

The first company to scale automated driving and delivery could start building revenue while those aiming for autonomous taxis are stuck in a maze of laws, safety concerns and consumer skepticism.

Origin story

Softbank’s capital allows Nuro’s founders to run with its many ideas. But even in its earliest days, they benefited from an early injection of cash.

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by Ferguson and another former Google engineer, Jiajun Zhu, after they received multi-million dollar payouts from the company’s infamous Chauffeur bonus plan. Chauffeur bonuses were intended to incentivize engineers who stuck with Google’s self-driving car project. However, the plan’s structure meant that anyone who left after the first payout in 2015 would also receive a large lump sum.

Lead engineer Anthony Levandowski appears to have earned over $125 million from the plan. He used some of the money to start Otto, a self-driving truck company that was acquired by Uber and subsequently became the focus of an epic patent and trade secrets theft lawsuit.

Court filings from that case suggest that Ferguson and Zhu received around $40 million each, although Ferguson would not confirm this. (Another Chauffeur alum, Russell Smith, got a smaller payout and quickly joined Nuro as its hardware lead).

Nuro completed its first Series A funding round in China just three months later, in a previously unreported deal that gave NetEase founder Ding Lei (aka William Ding) a seat on Nuro’s board. Ding was China’s first Internet and gaming billionaire, and was reportedly once the wealthiest person in China. However, his business empire, which spans e-commerce, education and pig farming, recently laid off large numbers of staff.

“William has been a board member and a strong supporter from the very start. But he’s not directing company decisions,” says Ferguson.

A second, U.S.-based round in June 2017 raised Nuro’s total Series A funding to $92 million.

A Nuro spinout

Nuro started pilot grocery deliveries last summer with a Kroger supermarket affiliate in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. The pilot initially used modified Toyota Prius sedans and transitioned in December to its R1 vehicle. “We’re super excited about the application area,” says Ferguson. “87 percent of commerce is still local and 43 percent of all personal vehicle trips in the U.S. are for shopping and running errands.”

Meanwhile, Uber’s self-driving truck program, which had begun with the acquisition of Otto, was on its last legs. Although the program was not publicly canned until July 2018, many of its key personnel left in May. The LinkedIn profiles of engineers Jur van den Berg, Nancy Sun and Alden Woodrow show them going straight from Uber to found Ike, another self-driving truck startup, the same month.

When Ike came out of stealth mode in October, Nuro characterized its relationship with the new company as a partnership, where “we gave Ike a copy of our autonomy and infrastructure software and, in exchange, Nuro got an equity stake in Ike.”

In reality, Ike was more of a spinout. California and Delaware business records show that Ike was not incorporated until July, and shared office space with Nuro until at least the beginning of September. Ike’s founding engineers actually worked at Nuro after leaving Uber. Van den Berg can even be seen in a Nuro team photo that was shot in June and reproduced in Nuro’s Safety Report, wearing a Nuro T-shirt.

Ferguson confirmed that all three Ike founders had worked at Nuro before starting Ike.

“We are always looking for opportunities where the tech that we’ve built could help,” Ferguson said. “Trucking was a really good example, but we recognized that as a company, we couldn’t spread ourselves too thin. It made sense for both sides for the Ike co-founders to build their own independent company.”

Ike CEO Woodrow told TechCrunch recently that it’s using Nuro’s hardware designs and autonomous software, as well as data logging, maps and simulation systems. It raised $52 million in its own Series A in February.

Not to be outdone, Nuro quickly followed with an announcement of a $940 million investment by the SoftBank Vision Fund, in exchange for what Ferguson calls a “very, very significant ownership stake.” Nuro had been introduced to SoftBank after talks with Cruise fell through.

Thousands of bots

Apart from robotic dogs, what does the future hold for a newly cash-rich Nuro?

“We’re very excited about the Scottsdale pilot, but it’s basically one grocery store in one ZIP code,” says Ferguson. Shortly after our interview, Nuro announced that it would be expanding its delivery service to four more ZIP codes in Houston, Texas.

“Next year and onwards, we want to start to realize the potential of what we’re building to eventually service millions of people” Ferguson said. We’re aggressively expanding the number of partners we’re working with and we’re working on how we manufacture a vehicle at a large scale.”

Nuro will likely to partner with an established auto OEM to build a fleet of what Ferguson hopes will become tens or hundreds of thousands of driverless vehicles. Last week, it petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for exemptions to safety standards that do not make sense for a driverless vehicle – like having to install a windshield or rearview mirrors.

Nuro told NHTSA that it wants to introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years. The electric vehicles would have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and appear very similar to the R1 prototype operating in Arizona and Texas today. The R2X will have 12 high-def cameras, radars, and a top-mounted LiDar sensor. Nuro said it would not sell the vehicle but “own and centrally operate the entire fleet of R2Xs through partnerships with local businesses.”

“Providing services is also very expensive,” Ferguson explained. “Look at Uber or Lyft. As we scale up to the population we’re trying to serve and the number of verticals we’re looking at, it requires capital to operate until we’re profitable, which will not happen this year.”

Elon Musk defends tweets in SEC’s contempt proceedings

Tesla CEO Elon Musk argued Friday that his Twitter use did not violate a settlement agreement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and that the agency’s request to have him held in contempt is based on a “radical interpretation” of the order, according to court papers filed in Manhattan federal court.

The SEC has asked a judge to hold Musk in contempt for violating a settlement agreement reached last year over Musk’s now infamous “funding secured” tweet. Under that agreement, Musk is supposed to get approval from Tesla’s board before communicating potentially material information to investors.

Musk contends he didn’t violate the agreement and that the problem lies in the SEC’s interpretation, which he describes as “virtually wrong at every level.” The filing also reveals new details about the settlement negotiations, notably that the SEC sent Musk a draft agreement that would have required him to obtain pre-approval for all public statements related to Tesla, in any format.

Musk and Tesla never agreed to those terms. Instead, Musk says the agreement requires him to comply with Tesla own policy, which would require pre-approval for “written communications that contain, or reasonably could contain, information material to the company or its shareholders.”

The barbs traded via court filings are the latest in an escalating fight between the billionaire entrepreneur and SEC that began last August when Musk tweeted that he had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share.  The SEC filed a complaint in federal district court in September alleging that Musk lied.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC last year without admitting wrongdoing. Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

But the fight was re-ignited last month after Musk sent a tweet on February 19 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year end.

The SEC argued that the tweet sent by Musk violated their agreement. Musk has said the tweet was “immaterial” and complied with the settlement.

GM investing $300 million to build a new electric Chevy in the U.S.

GM announced Friday it will invest $300 million into a Michigan factory to produce a new Chevrolet electric vehicle, reversing a decision to build the EV outside of the United States. The announcement comes on the heels of recent job cuts and plant closures by GM, moves that have complicated bargaining with union workers over a new four-year contract and has sparked intense criticism from President Donald Trump over a decision to end production at a factory in Lordstown, Ohio.

The automaker’s investment into its Orion Township, Michigan assembly plant — the same facility that already produces the all-electric Chevy Bolt — will add 400 new jobs. Orion Assembly, which employs about 880 hourly and 130 salaried employees, also produces the Chevrolet Sonic and the Cruise AV test vehicles.

GM isn’t revealing details about what the new electric vehicle will look like, cost, or any of its performance metrics. It will be designed and engineered off an advanced version of the Bolt EV architecture, the company said. Additional product information and timing for the new Chevrolet EV will be released closer to production.

This new Chevy EV is a separate effort within the company’s newly announced plans to turn Cadillac into an electric brand. Cadillac will be the first brand to get vehicles off a future EV platform, GM said.

GM says its decision to produce the EV in the U.S. was driven by rules of origin provisions in the proposed United States, Mexico and Canada Agreement and because the new EV will be based of an advanced version of the Bolt’s architecture, which is made at Orion.

The announcement comes as GM makes adjustments to where it allocates resources in an effort to cut costs in certain areas and shifts funds towards other programs.

GM has been undergoing a transformation over the past four to five years, getting rid of expensive, money-losing programs like the Opel brand in Europe, and investing more into electrification and autonomous vehicle technology. It has also warned repeatedly of a coming downturn in the traditional automotive business.

In November, GM ramped up its belt-tightening measures with cuts to thousands of factory and white-collar workers, plant closures in North America and the elimination of several car models as it tries to transform into a nimble company focused on high-margin SUVs, crossovers and trucks, and investments in future products like electric and autonomous vehicles.

In addition to layoffs, GM’s unallocated plants have impacted some 2,800 U.S. hourly employees. GM emphasized Friday that the company has job openings at several other U.S. manufacturing plants for U.S. hourly employees impacted by the recent announcement of unallocated plants. Other GM manufacturing plants adding jobs include Flint, Michigan; Spring Hill, Tennessee; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Arlington, Texas; and Toledo, Ohio.

GM confirmed it has 2,700 openings across its U.S. manufacturing plants. To date, 1,100 employees have been placed at other GM plants, with several hundred more in the process of being placed in new jobs. In addition, 1,200 of these employees are retirement eligible.

The automaker also plans to add 1,000 jobs at the Flint Truck Assembly Plant.

Tesla’s customer referral program is back weeks after it was killed off

Tesla killed off its customer referral program way back on Feb. 1, 2019 because the popular program was getting too costly to maintain. But now, less than two months later, Tesla is bringing it back with new incentives aimed at rewarding its customers, and bringing in new ones.

Tesla’s customer referral program had offered a bevy of incentives, including six months of free charging at Supercharger stations, launching a chosen photo into deep space orbit, VIP invitations, and even free Roadsters. The prizes, CEO Elon Musk said at the time, were beginning to add cost to its vehicles. In short: incentives to keep existing customers engaged and drive new sales were cutting into the company’s margins.

Tesla announced Thursday it would introduce a new referral program, a decision that was driven, in part, by customer feedback.

“While our previous Referral Program was very successful, it came with significant costs, and ending the program last year allowed us to pass those savings along to customers,” Tesla wrote in a blog post. “We’ve since restructured the program to save the company money while also offering rewards that are super exclusive.”

Under the new program, if a customer buys a new Tesla using a referral code, both the new and existing owners will receive 1,000 miles of free Supercharging.

Each referral also gives people a chance to win a Founder’s Series Model Y each month and a Founder’s series Roadster supercar quarterly, both signed by Elon Musk and Franz von Holzhausen, the company said.

The Model Y, which was revealed in earlier this month, is expected to come to market in fall 2020. Tesla owners who already have unlimited Supercharging get two chances to win with each referral.

The prizes are still big, but there are stricter rules. In a series of tweets Thursday, Musk said customers can only win each prize once, adding “intent over time is to enable those without a massive social media presence to win.”

Tesla sues former employees, Zoox for alleged trade secret theft

Tesla has filed a pair of lawsuits against a handful of former employees who went to work at self-driving vehicle startup Zoox and Chinese EV automaker Xiaopeng.

The separate lawsuits filed late Wednesday allege former Tesla employees stole trade secrets and used them at their new places of employment. Tesla declined to comment on either lawsuit.

Zoox and Xiaopeng, also known as XPeng have not responded to requests for comment. TechCrunch will update the article once either company responds.

While both lawsuits hinge on different trade secrets, they both share certain similarities: allegations of employees taking sensitive and valuable information as they left Tesla.

In one lawsuit, Tesla alleges that Zoox as well as four former employees Scott Turner, Sydney Cooper, Christian Dement, and Craig Emigh, have made “concerted efforts “to steal Tesla’s proprietary information and trade secrets to help Zoox leapfrog past years of work needed to develop and run its own warehousing, logistics, and inventory control operations.” Tesla called the theft “blatant and intentional.”

Tesla claims in the complaint that the four former employees took “select proprietary Tesla documents useful to their new employer, and at least one of them used Tesla’s confidential information to target other Tesla employees for hiring by Zoox. In the process, they misappropriated Tesla’s trade secrets, violated their agreements with Tesla, and breached their duties of loyalty, all with the knowledge and support of Zoox.”

In a separate case, Tesla alleges former employee Guangzhi Cao, who worked on the company’s Autopilot driver assistance feature, stole source code before abruptly quitting in January and taking a job XPeng. Tesla refers to the company as XMotors in its complaint.

“Tesla’s confidential information is not safe in the hands of XMotors or its employees,” the complaint reads. “Inspired by and on a mission to beat Tesla, XMotors reportedly designed its vehicles around Tesla’s open-source patents and has transparently imitated Tesla’s design, technology, and even its business model. XMotors has also introduced reportedly “Autopilot-like” features (called X-Pilot), and now employs at least five of Tesla’s former Autopilot employees, including Cao.”

Tesla said it has “spent hundreds of millions of dollars” and more than five years developing Autopilot. The company claims that Cao’s action have put that investment is at risk.

“Tesla must learn what Cao has done with Tesla’s IP, to whom he has given it, and the extent to which Tesla has been harmed. Tesla files this lawsuit to compel the return of its valuable IP and protect it from further exploitation, and for all other relief as the facts may warrant,” the complaint reads.

This isn’t the first time Tesla or its CEO Elon Musk have filed lawsuits against several employees before, some of which have been viewed as acts of retribution. In 2017, Tesla dropped its lawsuit just weeks after its original filing against Sterling Anderson, former director of Autopilot, and Aurora, the self-driving vehicle startup he co-founded, after the two parties reached an agreement.

Tesla filed a lawsuit in December seeking $167 million against former employee Martin Tripp, the former employee who Musk has referred to as a saboteur. The lawsuit, originally filed in June and seeking just $1 million at the time, alleges Tripp stole confidential and trade secret information, and gave it to third parties.

Tripp, filed a formal whistleblower tip to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleging Tesla misled investors and put its customers at risk.

Read both lawsuits below.

Aurora’s Sterling Anderson, Uber ATG’s Raquel Urtasun to discuss self-driving cars and AI at TC Sessions

We’re just weeks away from our TC Sessions: Robotics + AI event at UC Berkeley on April 18.

Some of the best and brightest minds are joining us for the day-long event, including Marc RaibertColin AngleMelonee Wise and Anthony Levandowski . Last week, we added to the list of marquee guests and announced a panel with roboticist Ken Goldberg, who is chief scientist at Ambidextrous Robotics and William S. Floyd Jr. Distinguished Chair in Engineering at UC Berkeley, and Michael I. Jordan, the Pehong Chen Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Statistics at UC Berkeley.

Today we’ve got another exciting panel to unveil.

This is the first time artificial intelligence has joined robotics at this TC Sessions event. And what better way to discuss the intersection of AI and robotics than a panel on autonomous-vehicle technology.

Today we’re revealing two people who are among the top thinkers focused on autonomous-vehicle development: Sterling Anderson, co-founder and chief product officer of Aurora, and Uber ATG chief scientist Raquel Urtasun

The pair will dig into the self-driving stack and how AI is used to help vehicles understand and predict what’s happening in the world around them and make the right decisions.Sterling Anderson

Sterling Anderson

In the brain trust of self-driving car developers, Anderson is highly regarded. Prior to founding Aurora with Chris Urmson and Drew Bagnell, Anderson was director of Tesla’s Autopilot program. He also led the design, development and launch of the Tesla Model X, an all-electric SUV that launched in 2015.

Anderson has a PhD in Robotics from MIT. After finishing his doctorate at MIT, Anderson founded a startup called Gimlet Systems with another self-driving car pioneer, Karl Iagnemma. He also worked at McKinsey & Co.

Raquel Urtasun

Raquel Urtasun

Urtasun, chief scientist and head of Uber ATG Toronto, is also an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto.

Urtasun is a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI. Urtasun is a leading expert in machine perception for self-driving cars. She earned her degree from the computer science department at École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne and post-doc at MIT and UC Berkeley. Her research interests include machine learning, computer vision, robotics and remote sensing.

General Admission ($349) tickets are on sale now. Prices go up at the door, so book today!

Students, grab your discounted $45 tickets here.

Startups, make sure to check out our demo table packages, which include three tickets, for just $1,500.

Ford will invest $850 million to add more production capacity for EVs

Ford plans to invest more than $850 million to add more production capacity at a second U.S. factory for its next-generation battery electric vehicle program.

The investment, which will be made through 2023, will focus on expanding Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant in southeast Michigan. The plant investment also includes funding to build the next-generation Mustang and is part of a $900 million investment in Ford’s operations in southeastern Michigan.

The announcement is tied to Ford’s larger and previously announced plan to invest $11.1 billion in developing electric vehicles.

Ford’s all-electric performance SUV that’s coming in 2020, will be produced at its its Cuautitlan, Mexico plant. The next-generation of EVs, which will share a flexible architecture, will be produced at Flat Rock.

“We’ve taken a fresh look at the growth rates of electrified vehicles and know we need to protect additional production capacity given our accelerated plans for fully electric vehicles,” Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of global operations said in a statement. “This is good news for the future of southeast Michigan, delivering more good-paying manufacturing jobs.”

Ford also announced Wednesday it is building its next-generation North American Transit Connect small commercial and passenger van in Mexico, starting in 2021.

Ford’s $11 billion investment will be used to add 16 all-electric vehicles within its global portfolio of 40 electrified vehicles through 2022. At the heart of the company’s electrification effort is its Corktown project, a massive 1.2 million-square-foot space dedicated to its electric and autonomous vehicles businesses.

The goal of Corktown is to create a “mobility corridor” — Ford’s version of its own Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley — that ties hubs of research, testing and development in the academic hub of Ann Arbor to Ford’s Dearborn headquarters, and finally to Detroit.

One of those EVs — and perhaps the most anticipated — will be Mustang-inspired electric crossover that it plans to bring to market in 2020. Ford shared a teaser image last year, depicting a sketch of the vehicle’s backside, which shows a leaning toward the Mustang profile.

The company has also announced plans to offer electrified options in its popular F-Series pickup line.

Postmates’ newest feature is like Uber POOL for food delivery

Postmates is launching a new feature called Postmates Party that lets customers within the same neighborhood pool their orders. In return, these customers get the food delivered for free, eliminating a major pinch point for potential Postmates users.

The feature illustrates how Postmates, one of the earlier entrants to the billion-dollar food delivery wars, is trying to remain competitive by appealing to price-sensitive customers.

Customers using the app can tap on the Postmates Party tab, which will show trending merchants from which people in their neighborhood are ordering at that exact moment. By joining the “party,” customers can share the delivery from popular restaurants and get free delivery.

For now, the company’s party feature will only be offered in a handful of the nearly 3,000 U.S. cities in which it currently operates. The feature is now available in Chicago, Las Vegas, Long Beach, Calif., Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Orange County, Calif. and Philadelphia.

And there is an important caveat. The party feature has a five-minute time limit in which the customer must place their order to get the deal.

“We are driven by the vision of creating a logistics infrastructure that allows goods to move throughout a city at nearly zero cost to the consumer. Postmates Party is the latest innovation in on-demand delivery that will help us deliver on this vision,” Postmates CEO and co-founder Bastian Lehmann said in a statement. “Postmates Party is a fun way to give customers the option to save money by ordering from popular restaurants that people all around them are ordering from in real time.”

Earlier this year, Postmates raised an additional $100 million in equity funding at a $1.85 billion valuation. The round comes four months after the eight-year-old startup drove home a $300 million investment that knocked it into “unicorn” territory.