EVgo to go public via SPAC in bid to power EV charging expansion

EVgo, the wholly owned subsidiary of LS Power that owns and operates public fast chargers for electric vehicles, has reached a deal to become a publicly traded company through a merger with special-purpose acquisition company Climate Change Crisis Real Impact I Acquisition Corporation.

The combined company, which will be listed under the new ticker symbol “EVGO” will have a market valuation of $2.6 billion. LS Power and EVgo management, which today own 100% of the company will be rolling all of its equity into the transaction. Once the transaction closes in the second quarter, LS Power will hold a 74% stake in the newly combined company.

EVgo has raised about $575 million in proceeds through the business combination, including a $400 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE. Investors include Pacific Investment Management Company LLC (PIMCO), funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Wellington Management, Neuberger Berman Funds and Van Eck Associates Corporation, according to the announcement.

EVgo’s leadership will remain intact, with Cathy Zoi continuing as CEO of the combined company.

The deal is the latest in a long string of electric vehicle-related companies to merge with so-called blank check companies, eschewing the traditional path to an IPO. Arrival, Canoo, ChargePoint, Fisker, Lordstown Motors, Proterra and The Lion Electric Company are some of the companies that have merged with SPACs — or announced plans to — in the past eight months.

EVgo is not a new entrant to the electric vehicle industry. The company was founded in 2010 and has spent better part of the decade scaling up its infrastructure. Today, EVgo has chargers in more than 800 locations in 67 major metropolitan markets across 34 states. The company has landed a number of partnerships, including with Albertsons, Kroger and Wawa to locate its chargers at these properties.

EVgo has also struck deals with automakers such as GM and Nissan as well as ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber. In July, GM and EVgo announced plans to add more than 2,700 new fast chargers over the next five years.

While electric vehicles still make up just a fraction of total cars, trucks and SUVs on today’s roads, the industry has forecast that the EV market will increase more than 100-fold between 2019 and 2040, EVgo said. The funds raised through the public market will be used to accelerate its expansion, according to the company.

“Just a few years ago, electric vehicles were considered niche,” EVgo CEO Cathy Zoi said in a statement. “Today, improved technology, lower costs, greater selection and a better appreciation for the performance of EVs is increasingly making them the vehicle technology of choice. With that, the need for fast charging is on the rise.”

Zoi noted that public charging will essential to meet the needs of the estimated 30% of Americans who do not have access to at-home charging as well as the growing number of fleets that are switching to electric vehicles.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth

A month before the COVID-19 pandemic had spread to North America, auto fintech startup MotoRefi — newly armed with nearly $9 million in venture capital — was preparing to bring its refinancing platform to the masses.

CEO Kevin Bennett, and the investors behind the company, saw the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans. What they didn’t anticipate was the sudden uptick in demand fueled by COVID-19 and the uncertainty and chaos that the pandemic created.

MotoRefi, which was born out of QED Investors in 2017, developed an auto refinancing platform that handles the entire process, including finding the best rates,  paying off the old lender and re-titling the vehicle. The company has benefitted from the convergence of two trends sparked by COVID-19 that has turbocharged its business: an accelerated adoption of fintech across the economy and growing attention towards personal finance. 

Now, investors are pouring more money into the startup to help it make the most of the spike in demand for auto refinancing.

MotoRefi said Friday it has raised $10 million in a round led by Moderne Ventures. Liza Benson, a partner at Moderne Venture, will join the board.

“Many people are looking around saying how can they save money?” Bennett said, commenting on the events of the past year. “And while auto refinance historically is in a relatively low awareness category of personal finance, that interest has really grown and accelerated through 2020.”

For instance, Google searches for auto refinance increased about 40% in 2020 over the previous year, he added.

The company said its revenue rose by sixfold, its workforce tripled to more than 150 people and the number of lenders on its platform doubled over the past year. MotoRefi said it refinanced more than $250 million of auto loans in 2020.

“We actually weren’t planning on raising twice in a year,” Bennett said. “But the growth had been pretty noticeable from the investor standpoint in the market.”

That new capital will be used to hire more employees and expand its offerings, according to Bennett, who noted that MotoRefi now operates in 42 states and Washington DC.

MotoRefi has raised more than $24 million to date. The company raised last February $8.6 million in a Series A funding round. That round, which would later grow to $9.4 million, was co-led by Accomplice and Link Ventures. Motley Fool Ventures, CMFG Ventures (part of CUNA Mutual Group) and Gaingels also participated in the round. The Series A round followed $4.7 million in seed funding that MotoRefi announced in March 2019.

Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million towards a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

 

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in a carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible product such as converting ethnaol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks.  Carbon Engineering, is Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski among list of last-minute Trump pardons

Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison on one count of stealing trade secrets, has received a pardon from President Donald Trump.

The full pardon, which was one of 73 issued late Tuesday evening, means Levandowski will avoid a prison cell. The president also commuted 70 sentences. Levandowski received his sentence in August 2020. However, Judge Alsup, who presided over the case, said he didn’t need to report to prison until the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic had passed.

Levandowski could not be reached for comment.

Levandowski’s pardon was supported by technology founders and investors, including Founders Fund’s co-founder Peter Thiel and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey;  trial lawyers Miles Ehrlich and Amy Craig; and businessman and investor Michael Ovitz.

Here is the full description, which includes people who supported the pardon, that was posted by the White House:

Anthony Levandowski — President Trump granted a full pardon to Anthony Levandowski. This pardon is strongly supported by James Ramsey, Peter Thiel, Miles Ehrlich, Amy Craig, Michael Ovitz, Palmer Luckey, Ryan Petersen, Ken Goldberg, Mike Jensen, Nate Schimmel, Trae Stephens, Blake Masters, and James Proud, among others. Mr. Levandowski is an American entrepreneur who led Google’s efforts to create self-driving technology. Mr. Levandowski pled guilty to a single criminal count arising from civil litigation. Notably, his sentencing judge called him a “brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs.” Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good.

Levandowski has been a polarizing figure in the autonomous vehicle industry. He is by all accounts — even among some of his harshest critics — a brilliant engineer. His bravado and risk-taking combined with a likable, even affable personality won him followers and rivals.

He has been vilified as a thieving tech bro, unceremoniously ejected from Uber, and forced into bankruptcy by a $179 million award against him. He has also been heralded as a star engineer who was an early pioneer of autonomous vehicles. Levandowski was one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. He was rewarded handsomely  — about $127 million by Google — for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court documents.

The criminal case that led to Levandowski’s sentencing in August is part of a multi-year legal saga that has entangled Levandowksi, Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

In 2016, Levandowski left Google and started Otto with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, under the indemnification agreement between Uber and Levandowski, the company was compelled to defend him.

While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft and patent infringement. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial but ended in a settlement in 2018, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

While Levandowski wasn’t a defendant in the Waymo v Uber suit, he would soon face a bigger obstacle.

In August 2019, the U.S. District Attorney charged Levandowski alone with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Levandowski and the U.S. District Attorney reached a plea deal in March 2020. Under that agreement, Levandowski admitted to downloading thousands of files related to Project Chauffeur. Specifically, he pleaded guilty to count 33 of the indictment, which is related to taking what was known as the Chauffeur Weekly Update, a spreadsheet that contained a variety of details including quarterly goals and weekly metrics as well as summaries of 15 technical challenges faced by the program and notes related to previous challenges that had been overcome.

The U.S. District Attorney’s office had recommended a 27-month sentence. Levandowski had sought a fine, 12 months home confinement and 200 hours of community service. Alsup ultimately determined that home confinement would “[give] a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”

Instead, Alsup sentenced Lewandowski to 18 months, but delayed his prison time until the pandemic was under control. Levandowski also agreed to pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo and a fine of $95,000.

Elon Musk said it was ‘Not a Flamethrower’

After two days locked up in an Italian prison, American Max Craddock was finally able to make his case to a judge.

“It’s not a weapon of war,” his lawyer told the investigating magistrate. “It’s a toy they sell to children.”

Craddock had been arrested in the Sardinian port city of Olbia in June 2018 after trying to board a private party bus with a collectible flamethrower from Elon Musk’s latest startup, The Boring Company. Craddock had painted his flamethrower black, and written on it the name of a floating music festival in the Bahamas he had attended the previous year while starring in reality TV show Unanchored.

Alarmed by the sight of what he thought was a gun, the bus driver refused to drive off, and then called the police.

“They were very chill at first,” Craddock told TechCrunch in a recent phone interview. “But as the night went on, it kept getting worse. I spent the first night in jail in Olbia and then they took me to prison.”

When Craddock managed to get a lawyer, she told him the judge would probably just let him go with a warning. Instead, the magistrate ordered him back to his cell. That was when Craddock, pictured below, learned possession of a flamethrower in Italy can carry a 10-year prison sentence.

A few months later, author John Richardson was sitting down to work at his home in London, when there was a loud knock at the door. He opened it and five police officers barged in wearing tasers and tactical gear.

“I think a couple of them also had handguns,” Richardson told TechCrunch. “But I’m slightly hazy on that because my legs went wobbly.”

The police officers sat Richardson down on his sofa and informed him that they had a warrant to search the premises. “I was, like, what’s going on here?” Richardson recalled. “Then something clicked and I said, ‘Is this about the flamethrower?’ ”

The raid was indeed about his flamethrower.

Craddock and Richardson are not the only Boring Company customers to have fallen foul of law enforcement.

More than 1,000 flamethrower purchasers abroad have had their devices confiscated by customs officers or local police, with many facing fines and weapons charges. In the U.S., the flamethrowers have been implicated in at least one local and one federal criminal investigation. There have also been at least three occasions in which the Boring Company devices have been featured in weapons hauls seized from suspected drug dealers.

The upshot: What Musk and his army of fans thought was just another of his money-spinning larks is having real-world consequences for people and countries not in on the joke.

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions from TechCrunch for this story.

The spark of an idea

Inspired by Los Angeles traffic, Musk launched The Boring Company in December 2016. The startup’s mission was to solve urban traffic jams by moving cars through tiny tunnels. But re-engineering sewer tunneling technology to build a revolutionary subterranean transportation network doesn’t come cheap. In an effort to drum up awareness and funds, Musk announced in December 2017 a limited run of novelty flamethrowers designed and branded by The Boring Company.

It was a scheme that had produced results earlier that year. Musk raised $1 million just weeks after launching sales of a $20 Boring Company hat.

“I’m a big fan of Spaceballs, the movie,” Musk told Joe Rogan during an infamous podcast in 2018. “They have a flamethrower in the merchandising section of Spaceballs, and, like, the kids love that one.”

The device uses a standard propane gas canister and is functionally similar to propane torches for melting ice, killing weeds or applying roofing materials. But with its rifle-style stock, pistol grip and sci-fi styling, the Boring Company’s flamethrower had a very different aesthetic — more post-apocalyptic party accessory than everyday yard maintenance.

Musk did his best to hype sales, tweeting to his Twitter followers, which numbered about 22 million at the time: “Flamethrower obv best way to light your fireplace/BBQ. No more need to use a dainty ‘match’ to ignite!”

He also threw a launch party in Los Angeles, where Craddock was one of the first 1,000 customers to collect a flamethrower, just before his European trip. “I removed the gas canister, put the flamethrower in my carry-on, and had no trouble on the flights,” he said.

Musk’s influence and the appeal of the product provided a winning combination.

“I had no intention of going around setting fire to stuff,” said Richardson. “I just thought it looked pretty cool, and was something I could potentially flip for a lot more money down the line.”

The Boring Company would make 20,000 flamethrowers and sell them at $500 each, netting the young company $10 million.

‘Not’ a Flamethrower

The 20,000 flamethrowers quickly sold out, with orders flooding in from around the world. As the shipping date neared, however, The Boring Company realized its scorching new product could also be a legal hot potato.

“We are told that various countries would ban shipping of it, that they would ban flamethrowers,” Musk told Rogan in 2018. “So, to solve this problem for all of the customs agencies, we labelled it, ‘Not a Flamethrower.’ “

“Did it work? Was it effective?” asked Rogan. “I don’t know. I think so. Yes,” Musk replied.

The correct answer was no.

In London, the flamethrower came to the attention of Operation Viper, a rapid response team dedicated to tackling gun crime. Working with customs officials, Viper tracked Musk’s flamethrowers en route to the nation’s capital. “There has been a debate as to whether these are firearms,” one of the Viper officers wrote in an email to Richardson. “Similar flamethrowers have been seized right across London.” One Londoner had his laptop and several cellphones confiscated along with the flamethrower.

Flamethrower raids were also happening around the UK and across Europe. A YouTube vlogger in Manchester was targeted by police after featuring the Boring Company’s gadget in one of his videos, while up to 1,000 purchasers in Switzerland had devices confiscated and were issued fines. One took his case to court, saying the flamethrower was little different from a school Bunsen burner. He lost.

Not just a European problem

Without the immediacy of a Customs check, the backlash to Musk’s flamethrowers in the United States took longer to arrive. But in June 2019, a Democratic lawmaker in the New York State Senate introduced a bill that would criminalize owning and using Musk’s flamethrower.

“Elon Musk’s Boring Company released a new flamethrower… without any concern to the training of the purchasers or their reasons for buying,” reads S1637. “This bill establishes that owning and using a flamethrower is a criminal act, unless it is used for agricultural, construction or historical collection purposes. These dangerous devices should not be sold to civilians, and use needs to be restricted to trained professionals.”

Not every police force believes that new laws are necessary — finding that existing ones are enough. In June 2020, police in Springfield, Mass., stopped a car for a missing inspection sticker. One of the officers noticed what he thought was a rifle hidden beneath a seat — actually a Boring Company flamethrower. Its owner, passenger Brandon McGee, was charged with carrying a dangerous weapon and an “infernal machine” (a device for endangering life or property using fire).

The same month, FBI agents executing a search warrant against a Pennsylvania man, Brandon Althof Long, stumbled across his Boring Company flamethrower propped against a wall. Long had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to riot and cause civil disorder, and conspiracy to use fire to commit a felony, during riots in Ohio protesting police brutality.

The agents seized the flamethrower out of concern for their safety, which a U.S. district judge later ruled lawful. “Other individuals could be located inside the house and the flamethrower could have been used to endanger officers as they retreated from Long’s home,” she wrote.

Novel items like flamethrowers are rarely specified in law, says Ryan Calo, a law professor and co-founder of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington. “Some items – like guns or spring knives – are weapons ‘per se,’ meaning that they are always weapons. But most statutes have an ‘or other deadly weapon’ clause as well, meaning that anything that is capable of causing serious bodily harm, even a rock, can be a weapon in the right circumstances,” he said.

The problem is, what circumstances? A flame-spouting weed-killer might not attract the interest of police, whereas a similar device styled like an assault rifle is more likely to be considered threatening. “And if you use the item during the commission of another crime, this can lead to a distinct offense of using a deadly weapon to commit a felony,” said Calo.

For all Musk’s portrayal of the Not a Flamethrower as just an entertaining toy, police forces — and criminals — in North America are increasingly treating them as dangerous weapons. In rural Wisconsin, a two-year narcotics investigation led police to arrest two men in July 2020 with a hoard of drugs, cash and weapons. Among the cocaine, pistols and assault rifles prominently displayed in the traditional seizure photo was a Boring Company flamethrower. Similar seizures were displayed by police in Canada in December and again this month.

guelph guns-seized- boring company flamethrower

Guelph Police Service lays out items seized including Not a Flamethrower, the novelty item sold by The Boring Company. Image credit: Guelph Police

No company has complete control over what customers do with its products. However, this isn’t the first time a product connected to Musk has been misused.

Tesla, the electric automaker led by Musk, has been criticized for naming its advanced driver assistant system Autopilot and for calling the $10,000 add-on option Full Self-Driving (FSD) even though the driver must remain engaged at all times and is legally liable. A German court has banned the company from using the terms “Autopilot” or “full potential for autonomous driving” on its website or in other marketing materials.

Safety advocates have argued that using terms like Autopilot and FSD misrepresents the capabilities of the system. The name, along with the lack of an in-cabin camera that monitors the driver, has led owners to push well beyond the bounds of the system.

Videos showing Tesla owners misusing Autopilot and FSD abound on YouTube. Some have had run-ins with law enforcement. One Canadian man was charged for sleeping in his Tesla as it drove down the highway.

Eternal flame

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

John Richardson eventually got his Not a Flamethrower back from the Metropolitan police. He now intends to keep it out of the public eye, at least until it’s worth selling. “I’m happy to sit on it for however long,” he said. “And if there is a zombie apocalypse, at least I’ve got one.”

For now, Craddock remains the only person that TechCrunch can identify as having been incarcerated solely for possessing a Not A Flamethrower. “It was a hair-raising experience,” he said. “I’m in the middle of nowhere in Sardinia, on 24-hour lockdown with an older guy giving off Mafia vibes.”

After nearly a week in prison, Craddock was abruptly handed his belongings (flamethrower aside) and set free. “My lawyer asked the judge, ‘Do you really want to be the guy on international news keeping an American in jail over this toy?’,” he said. “I think that was the key to getting me out.”

Craddock took the first plane home. He says he now regrets taking the flamethrower abroad, and carrying it in public: “I would have preferred not to have spent that week in an Italian prison but now I’ve got a hell of a story.”

He also has another flamethrower.

“As soon as I got back, I built myself a new one,” said Craddock. “You can follow YouTube videos with links to all the things you need. It’s pretty simple.”

Bolt Mobility launching into 48 new markets after snapping up Last Mile’s assets

Bolt Mobility, the Miami-based micromobility startup co-founded by Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, is expanding to 48 new markets after acquiring the assets of Last Mile Holdings.

Bolt Mobility’s rise and Last Mile’s demise captures the uncertainty that plagued micromobility companies in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic upended business models that were, in some cases, already on shaky ground.

Bolt Mobility and Last Mile were both negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolt Mobility, for instance, had to shut down in several markets in early 2020 due to the pandemic. The company rebounded after it tweaked its business model and began to partner with local operators, added GM’s former VP global design Ed Welburn as an adviser and came out with a new scooter equipped with dual brakes, 10-inch wheels, LED lights, swappable batteries with 25 miles of range and NanoSeptic surfaces on its handlebars and brake levers designed to rid these common contact points of germs and bacteria.

Last Mile Holdings didn’t fare as well.

If Last Mile Holdings doesn’t sound familiar, the brands it once owned might. Last Mile was a holding company that owned the OjO Electric scooters and Gotcha Mobility, which had a portfolio of electric trikes, scooters and bikes. The company acquired Gotcha in a $12 million cash and stock deal that closed in March 2020.

As Bolt Mobility grew, with its customer base hitting 300,000 users in 2020, Last Mile hit headwinds. Last Mile Holdings, which traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange under MILE, ended up selling its U.S. assets in an auction. Bolt Mobility acquired substantially all of the assets of the company for a credit bid of $3 million, according to a filing at the end of the year.

Those assets include 8,500 new devices, including e-scooters, e-bikes, pedal bikes and sit-down cruisers and licenses to operate in 48 new markets, the majority of which (more than 30) are exclusive contracts, according to Bolt CEO Ignacio Tzouma. The 48 new markets include 18 university campuses.

“The acquisition represents a significant expansion for Bolt on all fronts,” Tzoumas said, adding that the company brought on former Gotcha Chief Operating Officer Matt Tolan, who will now serve as Bolt’s chief commercial officer, as well as about 20 team members who were formerly a part of Gotcha’s tech and operations teams.

Riders in Bolt’s new markets will continue to be able to access and use the e-scooters, e-bikes and pedal bikes through the Gotcha Mobility and Ojo Electric iOS and Android mobile apps. Bolt is working with cities and universities to transition these markets to Bolt’s platform. The acquisition adds e-bikes to the Bolt platform for the first time. Although, the company was already developing its own line of e-bikes that it plans to launch later this year.

Gotcha Powered By Bolt

Image Credits: Bolt Mobility

Bolt credits its new business model for helping it survive and even thrive in 2020. Instead of continuing to handle the complex and expensive task of fleet management and operations, Bolt decided to partner with local companies. These partners operate Bolt’s fleets on the ground in each individual market. This customizable approach allowed for a business partnership model in select markets where Bolt leased scooters to delivery workers, restaurants and other small businesses, the company said. 

By July, Bolt and its partners were operating in five new or re-launched markets. Bolt also has a backlog of agreements with partners for an additional 20 markets that the acquisition is primed to fulfill, according to the company. 

Tzoumas said Bolt was able to execute the deal without taking on any additional debt, and “under terms that will allow us to continue devoting our resources to expanding and improving our services in all of the markets where we operate.” The acquisition was funded in part by Fuel Venture Capital, an existing Bolt investor.  Bolt is also backed by Sofreh Capital and The Yucaipa Companies.

“We founded Bolt because we believe in micromobility as a movement that can transform the way people live and move within their communities,” Usain Bolt said in a statement. “This expansion proves that anything is possible for micromobility when you support it with talented people, innovative technology, and the incredible work ethic of the Bolt team.”

Rivian raises $2.65B as it pushes towards production of its electric pickup

Rivian has raised $2.65 billion as it prepares to begin production this summer of its all-electric pickup truck.

The round, which was led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., also included Fidelity Management and Research Company, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Coatue and D1 Capital Partners as well as several other existing and new investors.

Rivian is now valued at $27.6 billion, according to a person familiar with the investment round.

The capital comes at a critical time for Rivian, which is undertaking the design, development, production and delivery of two consumer vehicles — the R1T pickup truck the R1S SUV — build out of its electric vehicle charging network as well as fulfilling an order for 100,000 commercial delivery vans for Amazon.

“The support and confidence of our investors enables us to remain focused on these launches while simultaneously scaling our business for our next stage of growth,” Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe said in a statement.

This latest round follows two years of heavy investment activity that began in earnest after the company unveiled its electric SUV and pickup truck at the 2018 LA Auto Show.

Just months after that reveal, Rivian announced a $700 million funding round led by Amazon. More deals and investments would follow, including a $500 million investment from Ford — along with a promise to collaborate on a future EV program — and a $350 million investment by Cox Automotive in September 2019. The company closed the year with an announcement that it had raised a $1.3 billion round led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. with additional participation from Amazon, Ford Motor Company and funds managed by BlackRock.

The stream of capital didn’t stop in 2020. Rivian announced in July it had raised $2.5 billion in a round led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. New investors Soros Fund Management LLC, Coatue, Fidelity Management and Research Company and Baron Capital Group along with existing shareholders Amazon and BlackRock joined the round.

To date, Rivian has raised $8 billion since the start of 2019.

Rivian factor Normal Illinois

Rivian’s factory in Normal, Illinois.

Rivian hasn’t held back on spending that capital. The company has put more than $1 billion into its factory in Normal, Illinois. The factory, which once produced the Mitsubishi Eclipse through a joint venture between Mitsubishi and Chrysler Corporation, has been completely updated and expanded.

The overhaul of the 3 million-square-foot is on schedule, but not yet complete, according to the company. A pilot line is operational and is producing validation prototypes of its R1T pickup truck daily.

Rivian also plans to produce the delivery vans for Amazon at the factory. The first van deliveries will be made to Amazon in late 2021.

The Station: CES trends and Uber plots another spinoff

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back 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 launch into the news of the week, let’s take care of some housekeeping. First, you might have noticed that The Station landed in your email inbox on Sunday, not Saturday.

I have received some feedback that suggests the newsletter is typically read on Sundays. Do you have an alternate view? Please reach out with your opinion on this matter.

When would you like to see The Station? And what do you like and dislike about the newsletter?

One last item: I am now transportation editor at TechCrunch. The title change comes with more responsibility and a mission. I’ll be bringing on more freelancers to expand our “future of transportation” coverage. Mark Harris, an investigative reporter who has already delivered some wonderful articles for us, will be a more regular fixture here. Harris has a knack for rooting out news tucked inside legal documents and filings such as his Tesla tariffs article in 2019 and insights into the passenger capability of Elon Musk’s Las Vegas Loop project.

I hope to add more faces to the transportation bureau in the weeks and months to come.

Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

CES roundup

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Maybe it was the virtual format, but autonomous vehicle technology didn’t play a starring role at CES this year as it has in the past.

Instead, several other themes emerged at CES, mostly around infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems. And continuing a trend in 2020, there were several gigantic screens, including the Mercedes Hyperscreen that is pictured below.

Pioneer, Harman and Panasonic all revealed future products aimed at bringing more audio and visual technology into the vehicle. Harman, for instance, unveiled three new “experience concepts,” that can turn the infotainment system in a vehicle into a concert hall, recording studio or gaming center.

Panasonic also announced a partnership with UK startup Envisics to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of head-up displays for cars, trucks and SUVs. Head-up displays, or HUDs, seemed to be everywhere this show. The technology isn’t new. But recent advances are pushing the capabilities of these systems, which are integrated in the dash of a vehicle and project images onto the windshield to aid drivers with navigation and provide other alerts.

Envisics Navigation

Image Credits: Envisics

GM had perhaps the biggest presence at the virtual 2021 CES, at least within the transportation sector. The automaker chose the tech trade show to announce a new business unit called BrightDrop that will focus on electric vans and other products and services for the commercial market. But that wasn’t all.

GM used the opportunity to tease its upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EUV — a vehicle that will have GM’s hands-free highway driving assist technology known as Super Cruise — as well as the Cadillac Celestiq dashboard and even a new logo. The intent of this bouquet of announcements was clear: GM wants the world — and shareholders — to know it’s serious about electrification and connected car tech.

GM’s numerous announcements were hard to miss — there was even an eVTOL. Conversely, Mobileye’s announcements flew a bit under the radar, but are arguably as notable. 

GM showed off two concepts at CES 2021: an autonomous shuttle and a personal eVTOL.

Mobileye outlined plans to expand its autonomous vehicles testing to more cities, which was expected and is in line with the company’s previously stated plans.

What stood out to me was a talk that Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua gave which outlined the company’s vision and progress.

The recap: Mobileye is taking a three-pronged strategy to developing and deploying automated vehicle technology that combines a full self-driving stack — that includes redundant sensing subsystems based on camera, radar and lidar technology— with its REM mapping system and a rules-based Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) driving policy.

Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data by tapping into nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with its tech to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems. Shashua said Mobileye’s technology can now map the world automatically with nearly 8 million kilometers tracked daily and nearly 1 billion kilometers completed to date.

The company provided more details at CES about a new lidar System on Chip product that is under development and will come to market in 2025. The lidar, which will use Intel’s specialized silicon photonics fab, is notable because Mobileye is known for its camera-based technology. To be clear, Mobileye is not backing away from that camera-first approach. Shashua explained Mobileye believes the best technological and business approach is to develop a camera-first system and use the lidar and radar as add-ons for redundancy.

In short: Mobileye has the money and existing network to commercialize automated vehicle technology and bring it to the masses.

Below is sampling of our transportation-related CES coverage:

Mercedes unveils Hyperscreen, a 56-inch screen for its flagship EQS electric vehicle

GM targets delivery with new EV business unit BrightDrop

Mobileye is bringing its autonomous vehicle test fleets to at least four more cities in 2021

Sony reveal more details on its secretive Vision S sedan

Holographic startup Envisics partners with Panasonic to fast track in-car AR tech

Startups look beyond lidar for autonomous vehicle perception

BMW previews its next-generation iDrive infotainment system

Sono Motor plans to license the tech that powers it solar electric car

Air taxi startup Archer partners with FCA

Another Uber spinoff is in the works

POSTMATES OUSTER 1

Postmates’ Serve robot is equipped with cameras as well as lidar from Ouster.

Remember when I predicted that autonomous delivery would gain momentum in 2021? It seems that sometimes I am right!

Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year for $2.65 billion, is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company called Serve Robotics.

You might recall Serve, the yellow and black-emblazoned autonomous sidewalk delivery bot that was developed and piloted by Postmates X. This robot, which recently partnered with Pink Dot Stores for deliveries in West Hollywood, will likely be the centerpiece of the new startup.

I learned of a few important details of this plan, which is not yet settled. Uber will maintain a stake in this new startup. Uber’s stake was initially low, but has since popped to about 25%, according to sources familiar with the deal.

The company would be run by Ali Kashani, who heads up Postmates X and leads the Serve program. Anthony Armenta would lead the startup’s software efforts and Aaron Leiba would be in charge of hardware — keeping the same positions they hold at Postmates X.

I’ll fill y’all in with more details as I learn them.

Uber planning to spin out Postmates’ delivery robot arm

Another Uber spinout is in the works.

Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year for $2.65 billion, is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company, according to several people familiar with the plans.

The startup is being referred to as Serve Robotics, a nod to the yellow and black-emblazoned autonomous sidewalk delivery bot that was developed and piloted by Postmates X. The Serve robot, which recently partnered with Pink Dot Stores for deliveries in West Hollywood, will likely be the centerpiece of the new startup.

Uber declined to comment.

Under the deal, which is being shopped to investors, the company would be run by Ali Kashani, who heads up Postmates X and leads the Serve program. Anthony Armenta would lead the startup’s software efforts and Aaron Leiba would be in charge of hardware — keeping the same positions they hold at Postmates X.

Uber would retain an ownership stake in Serve Robotics and maintain a commercial agreement with the startup. Serve would get the IP and assets in exchange.

There is not a legal entity — as of yet — named Serve Robotics. However, a website domain serverobotics.com was registered January 6.

Uber’s path to profits

The spinoff would be in line with Uber’s streamlined business strategy that began to take shape after its public market debut in May 2019 and accelerated last year as the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on the ride-hailing company. Two years ago, Uber had enterprises across the transportation landscape from ride-hailing and micromobility to logistics, public transit, food delivery and futuristic bets like autonomous vehicles and air taxis. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has dismantled the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach as he pushes the company towards profitability.

In 2020, Uber offloaded shared scooter and bike unit Jump in a complex deal with Lime, sold a stake worth $500 million in its logistics spin off Uber Freight and rid itself of its autonomous vehicle unit Uber ATG and its air taxi play Uber Elevate.

Aurora acquired Uber ATG in a deal that had a similar structure to the Jump-Lime transaction. Aurora didn’t pay cash for Uber ATG. Instead, Uber handed over its equity in ATG and invested $400 million into Aurora, which gave it a 26% stake in the combined company,

In a similarly crafted deal, Uber Elevate was sold to Joby Aviation in December.

Delivery remained the one area that Uber has invested in. The company, seeing an opportunity as demand skyrocketed for its Uber Eats delivery service, started looking for an acquisition to strengthen its position. Uber tried and failed to buy Grubhub, losing out to European heavyweight Just Eat Takeaway.

Uber landed on Postmates and in July 2020 agreed to buy the delivery startup in an all-stock deal valued at $2.65 billion. The deal closed in December.

Serve, the friendly robot

Postmates’ exploration into sidewalk delivery bots began in earnest in 2017 after the company quietly acquired Kashani’s startup Lox Inc. As head of Postmates X, the company’s R&D arm, Kashani set out to answer the question: ‘why move two-pound burritos with two-ton cars?’

Postmates revealed its first Serve autonomous delivery bot in December 2018. A second-generation — with an identical design but different lidar sensors and few other upgrades — emerged in summer 2019 ahead of its planned commercial launch in Los Angeles.

merchant loading serve

Instead of working with a partner, Postmates used its own delivery data to form the foundation of how it would design and deploy a sidewalk bot, according to comments Kashani made during TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 event in October.

“When you look at the data and see that over half of deliveries are within a short distance it becomes a no brainer — these robots can actually complete them,” Kashani said at the time in reference to the application of autonomous delivery bots for delivery.

The Postmates X used historical delivery data from the company to develop a simulation, which was then used in the design of the Serve bot. It helped the team determine what battery life would be needed and the size of the cargo hold, among other features.

The bot only represented a sliver of Postmates’ delivery business. However, the company has seen an increase interest in the bot in Los Angeles and San Francisco — the two cities where it commercially operates — as COVID-19 fueled demand for contactless delivery.

Kashani noted back in October that the bots had completed thousands of deliveries in Los Angeles and was preparing to expand into the city’s West Hollywood enclave. That expansion launched late last year with a twist. The Serve robots were changed to a bright pink to match the signature color of the Pink Dot stores.

Amazon’s newest product lets companies build their own Alexa assistant

Amazon is selling access to the underlying technology stack of Alexa to let companies — starting with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — build their own intelligent assistants with unique voices, skills and wake words.

The new Alexa Custom Assistant product, which was announced Friday, can coexist and cooperate with the Alexa assistant. Theoretically, this means an automaker could choose to use the custom assistant to interact with drivers on specific products and services tied to the vehicle as well as integrate the Alexa voice assistant for other needs. For instance, if a driver asks Alexa to roll down a car window, the request will be routed to the brand’s assistant, Amazon explained. If a customer asks the brand’s assistant to play an audio book, the request will be routed to Alexa.

Yes, that means your next car could have two Alexas.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will be the first Alexa Custom Assistant customer. An FCA-branded intelligent assistant is being built for integration in select vehicle models, according to Amazon.

Amazon’s pitch isn’t just to automakers, however. The e-commerce giant said it can be used to build intelligent assistants into mobile applications, smart properties, video games and consumer electronics. The Alexa Custom Assistant is based on the Alexa technology stack. The custom wake words are created with the same process used for developing the Alexa wake word. Amazon will give companies access to Alexa’s voice science experts to help guide them through the recording process and develop the voice using advanced machine learning algorithms. Developers also have access to Alexa’s pre-built capabilities such as communications, local search, traffic, and navigation, to further accelerate time to market.

The aim of this new product, Amazon says, is to give companies an efficient and cost-effective way of delivering an intelligent assistant to its customers. The path of building an intelligent AI-based assistant is complex, typically involves long development cycles, and requires resources to build it from scratch and maintain over time, Amazon argues.

Of course, it’s also another way to ensure Alexa is in more devices, even if it goes by another name.