The future of car ownership: Building an online dealership

Buying a car is painful. Dealerships are the worst, and the options are endless. The rise of the Internet produced powerful tools for shoppers, but in the end, most buyers still have to trudge down to a car lot.

For this series of articles, TechCrunch spoke with several founders and investors attempting to rethink car buying. It’s clear these startups are the underdog in this fight. Most consumers buy cars the same way as their grandparents did and for good reason. Dealerships nationwide fought for years to enact laws and regulations that protect their businesses.

Several young companies are attempting to put the dealership online. Companies like Carvana, Shift, Vroom and Joydrive are putting the entire car buying process online, allowing customers to buy, trade-in and even test drive vehicles without talking to a salesman in an oversized golf pullover.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at companies like Fair that are moving consumers away from purchasing and into short-term leases. Even automakers are trying something new. Tesla sells directly to consumers while Volvo, BMW, Mercedes and others are launching subscription options to give owners even more flexibility.

The three new dealerships

Several companies are building online car dealerships. Shoppers find and buy a vehicle solely through these sites, and often, the cars are delivered to the buyer. These online dealerships even take trade-ins.

Three services dominate this space, and they were all founded in 2013. Carvana, Shift, and Vroom hit the market at the same time but have experienced different paths. One thing is clear though: it takes hundreds of millions of venture capital money to build an online dealership.

Emily Melton, co-founder and managing partner, Threshold Ventures (formally known as DFJ Ventures), points to consumer’s changing expectations and an optimized process across all kinds of vehicles. She invested in Shift’s recent $140m round.

Audi recalls its electric SUV over battery fire risk

Audi today issued a voluntary recall in the U.S. for the E-Tron SUV due to the risk of battery fire. An Audi spokesperson told Bloomberg that no fires had been reported over the 1,644 E-Trons Audi has sold. According to the recall, Audi found moisture can seep into the battery cell through a wiring harness. There have been five cases worldwide where this has caused a battery fault warning.

The E-Tron is the German car maker’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. The model is just now hitting the market worldwide, and Audi has sold 540 in the U.S.

I drove the E-Tron late last year and found it a confident vehicle. It’s not Tesla fast, but it’s packed with Audi’s creature comforts and has a fun powertrain with plenty of acceleration. However, it has a range of just over 200 miles on a charge, making it far less capable than its chief competitor, the Tesla Model X.

Owners who take Audi up on the recall will be compensated with an $800 cash card and a loaner vehicle while it’s in the shop.

Review: The stunning 2019 Audi Q8 has a deal-breaking flaw

The 2019 Audi Q8 is the shape of the future. It’s beautiful as it successfully merges the look of a sports sedan with the shape of an SUV. It has flowing lines, crisp angles and just the right look on and off the road. Inside, it’s comfortable though a bit smaller than the name suggests. And under the hood, Audi paired a capable V6 engine with a 48-volt battery, creating a mild-hybrid setup that supposedly helps with fuel economy.

Yet after spending a lot of time in the Q8, I found it backwards. Most crossovers provide the comfort of a sedan with the utility of an SUV. This one has the rough comfort of an SUV with the limited utility of a sedan. Worse yet, driving the Q8 around town can be a frustrating experience.

I spent a couple of weeks in the new Q8 on a road trip from Detroit through Canada to New York City. I took it over the countryside, around hilly passes, and through four of the five boroughs. My kids spilled Cheetos in the back. I lived in this car for thousands of miles. This experience is different from most vehicles reviews. Most car reviews are penned after a few hundred miles in the car, which can often lead to milquetoast conclusions. Not this time.

I don’t like the Q8. The bad outweighs the good. The stunted driving characteristics ruin the otherwise gorgeous vehicle.

[gallery ids="1839614,1839618,1839616,1839617,1839613,1839615"]

Review

The sedan is bleeding out, and the crossover is holding the knife. Consumers are overwhelming, picking these quasi-SUVs over sedans or sport utility vehicles. There’s a good reason, too. Crossovers often provide the supple ride quality of a sedan with the utility of an SUV. I’m sorry to report the Q8 does the opposite. It has the rough ride of an SUV and the limited utility of a sedan.

The Q8 has a puzzling powertrain. It doesn’t like to go forward. Several times throughout my time with the Q8, I nearly got into an accident because of the timing of the transmission. It often left me hanging in the middle of the road while it took its time to translate the engine’s instructions to the tires. I was honked at constantly while in NYC.

A turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 rests under the hood, and Audi says it’s good for 335 HP and 369 pound-foot of torque. The Q8 is not underpowered, and it sports a version of ZF’s ubiquitous 8-speed transmission. The Audi Q8 is one of the first internal combustion vehicles to be paired with a 48-volt mild hybrid system. This is said to help improve fuel economy by relegating acceleration to a mild hybrid setup, and this could prove to be the cause of my frustration.

Whoever’s to blame, in real life, the transmission feels like it doesn’t use the first and second gear. There’s a second or two hesitation between the time the pedal is engaged until the car decides to move forward. Once underway, the Q8 is a lovely expressway cruiser with plenty of power to overtake meandering sedans. At speed, it’s comfortable and confident. At a standstill, it’s hesitant and frustrating.

I’m not alone in this frustration. Car and Driver says the Q8 is “it felt hesitant around town unless we crushed the gas pedal.” Motor1 says, “At times [the transmission is] clunky, particularly when accelerating…” Motor Trend stated, “We noted, however, a longish delay in the delivery of torque after you give it some beans.”

Audi built the Q8 as a multipurpose utility vehicle and equipped it with several driving modes, including Dynamic, which lowers the vehicle and supposedly changes the transmission response. Select Off Road or All Road, and the Q8 raises a few inches, providing better ground clearance. This is handy on Michigan roads where post-winter potholes are the size of bathtubs.

These driving modes give the Q8 added utility and foreshadow a future where cars better adapt to their driver’s needs. Audi has offered similar features for years but not to this extreme. The Sport mode drops the Q8 to the ground while the Off-Road mode raises the Q8 to a level where it could tackle serious terrain.

Sadly, the adjustable modes did not address the lackluster powertrain. Even in Sport mode, the Q8’s transmission was sluggish.

At least the Q8 is comfortable.

The interior of the Q8 is lovely and features Audi’s new dual-touchscreen infotainment center. I love it. Audi long had the best user interface in the industry. This one is entirely different and even better.

There are two touchscreens in the middle of the Q8. The one on the top handles media, mapping, and vehicle settings. The one on the bottom is for climate control. Both feature fantastic haptic feedback. Hit a button on the screen, and a slight vibration makes it feel like you touched a real button.

To me, this dual screen setup is a better solution than a giant screen like Tesla or Ram uses in their vehicles. In Audi’s solution, both are tilted to provide easy access, and there’s less of a learning curve. The setup follows the general button placement found in cars for the last few decades. Climate is always on and always on the bottom. The radio and mapping screen is on the top and can be turned off to reduce distractions.

A screen lives behind the steering wheel, too, and sports a similar layout to Audi’s current system. The driver can easily switch between information screens with the speedo and tach on either side. Hit a button on the steering wheel, and the gauges reduce in size while the map increases. It’s a handy feature.

The Q8’s seats are fantastic and nearly make up for the lackluster driving capabilities. They’re firm yet forgiving with endless adjustments. The seats, with their built-in massagers, made the boring Ohio turnpike a bearable experience.

The Q8’s interior space is not as ample as I expected and I think it has to do with the naming scheme. The Q8 joins the small Q5 and seven-seater Q7 in Audi’s lineup. The name suggests the Q8 is larger than the Q7 in the same way that the Audi sedan A8 is larger than the A7. But it’s not. The Q8 is a five-passenger vehicle with less cargo room available than the Q7.

I was able to get three suitcases and a couple of backpacks in the back. The lack of storage space is evident throughout the cabin. The center console is only two smartphone’s deep. There isn’t a spot for sunglasses. Two adults could sit in the backseat, but I would fight for the front.

Again, the Q8 is comfortable, and a nice size, but the name suggests a larger vehicle.

Like it or not, the Q8 is the shape of the future. Its sheet metal conveys a sense of on or off-road sportiness. The Q8 is designed around the driver, too, and the Q8 could be a fantastic package. It looks beautiful inside and out; I love the shape and form of the Q8. It’s stunning and comfortable to sit in. I don’t like how the Q8 drives.

Audi proves two little screens are better than one big screen

I’m spending some time in the new Audi Q8, and the car company equipped the crossover with its latest infotainment system. I love it, fingerprints, dust and all.

The grimy screens are part of the story. I could have cleaned up the screens for the photos, but I thought it was essential to show the screens after a couple of weeks of use.

There are two screens placed in the center stack of the Q8. The top one features controls for the radio, mapping system, and vehicle settings. The bottom screen is for climate controls and additional controls like garage door opener and the vehicle’s cameras. Both have haptic feedback, so the buttons feel nearly real.

Both screens are tilted at the right angle, and the shifter is built in a way that provides a handy spot to wrist your wrist, steadying it as you hit the screens.

Car companies are, turning to touchscreens over physical buttons. It makes sense on some level, as screens are less expensive and scalable across vehicles. With screens, car companies do not need to design and manufacture knobs, buttons, and sliders but instead create a software user interface.

Tesla took it to the next level with the debut of the Model S in 2012. The car company stuck a massive touchscreen in the center stack. It’s huge. I’m not a fan. I find the large screen uncomfortable and impractical to use while driving. Other car companies must agree as few have included similar touchscreens in their vehicles. Instead of a single touchscreen, most car makers are using a combination of a touchscreen with physical knobs and buttons. For the most part, this is an excellent compromise as the knobs and buttons are used for functions that will always be needed like climate control.

Audi is using a similar thought in its latest infotainment system. The bottom screen is always on and always displays the climate control. There’s a button that reveals shortcuts, too, so if the top screen is turned off, the driver can still change the radio to a preset. The top screen houses buttons for the radio, mapping, and lesser-used settings.

The user interface uses a dark theme. The black levels are fantastic even in direct sunlight, and this color scheme makes it easy to use during the day or night.

The touchscreens have downsides but none that are not present on other touchscreens. Glare is often an issue, and these screens are fingerprint magnets. I also found the screen to run hot to the touch after a few minutes in the sun.

Apple CarPlay remains a source of frustration. The Q8 has the latest CarPlay option, which allows an iPhone to run CarPlay wirelessly. It only works sometimes. And sometimes, when it does work, various apps like Spotify do not work in their typical fashion. Thankfully, Apple just announced a big update for CarPlay that will hopefully improve the connectivity and stability.

The infotainment system is now a critical component. Automakers must build a system that’s competent and feels natural to the driver and yet able to evolve as features are added to vehicles through over-the-air updates. Automakers must build a system that works today and continues to work years from now.

Audi latest infotainment system is impressive. It does everything right: it’s not a distraction, it’s easy to use, and features fantastic haptic feedback.

Review: Ring’s new outdoor lighting products are brilliant

Ring’s new outdoor lighting products are impressive. It’s rare, even in 2019, for something to work out of the box, but that’s what happened when I installed Ring’s outdoor lighting products. They just worked.

You know the drill. You get a gadget and go to install it. Somewhere during the installation, it fails or hiccups. The thing doesn’t connect to Wifi, or it fails during an update, or something. Eventually, you’ll get it working after a few minor issues are solved.

Ring’s outdoor lighting products installed without issue. I took them out of the box, threw aside the instructions, and installed them in a logical manner. And 20 minutes later, I had five new lights configured to my home’s network and installed around my house. Brilliant.

This isn’t Ring’s first lighting product. TechCrunch tested Ring’s video spotlight last year and found it just as impressive with an easy installation and straight-forward feature set. Unlike that product, these new lights lack the camera, which make them significantly less expensive.

The new lighting products are clearly the result of Ring’s purchase of Mr. Beams. The company purchased the lighting company in January 2018 before Amazon purchased Ring in February 2018. Like Mr. Beams lights, Ring’s new lights are just a light and a motion sensor. The lighting products are a natural extension of Ring’s offering and best yet they’re relatively inexpensive.

These lighting products lack cameras found in the rest of Ring’s products but still have motion sensors that work in conjunction with Ring’s cameras. If, say, the $25 step light senses motion, it kicks on the light but can also trigger a Ring camera to start recording. Likewise, if a Ring camera notices movement, it will begin recording but also trigger a series of lights to turn on.

The products are priced competitively considering their set of features. A small steplight is $25, a pathway light is $29, a big spotlight is $40, and a floodlight is $50. A $50 bridge is required to connect the lights to a local network. Or, if you want to connect existing low-voltage landscape lighting to the system, Ring sells a $100 transformer.

There are similar products on the market. Ring’s offering is not unique, but its integration and ease of installation set it apart. The new outdoor lighting products is a significant addition to Ring’s ecosystem, which now includes security lighting, indoor and outdoor cameras, security systems, and, of course, a video doorbell.

Roland’s tiny R-06 recorder is better than your phone’s recorder app

In an era when the smartphone can do everything, why do you need a standalone audio recorder? Roland, makers of music gear, might have an answer.

Their R-07 voice recorder is about as big as original iPod and is designed for music recording, practice, and playback. It features two microphones on top as well as an auxiliary microphone in. It also includes a headphone jack and supports Bluetooth.

As a recorder the R-07 is a single-touch marvel. You record by turning it on and pressing the center button. It records to MicroSD card and can create up to 96 kHz 24-bit WAVs and 320 kbps MP3s. It runs on USB power or two AA batteries.

A Scene mode makes the R-07 a bit more interesting. It has built-in limiters and low cut, essentially features that will make voices crisper. Further, you can set it to “Music Long” to record longer performances while using less drive space.

Rehearsal mode lets you hear live audio through audio playback, a great feature for budding musicians.

Finally you can control up to four devices at once via Bluetooth, allowing you to mic various members of a band, for example.

The R-07 costs an acceptable $199 and is shipping now. While it doesn’t beat a massive recorder with dual mics and XLR inputs like the Zoom H6 in terms of versatility, in terms of portability and sound quality – not to mention music-friendly features, the R-07 is a great alternative to the Voice Memos app on your phone.
In an era when the smartphone can do everything, why do you need a standalone audio recorder? Roland, makers of music gear, might have an answer.

Their R-07 voice recorder is about as big as original iPod and is designed for music recording, practice, and playback. It features two microphones on top as well as an auxiliary microphone in. It also includes a headphone jack and supports Bluetooth.

As a recorder the R-07 is a single-touch marvel. You record by turning it on and pressing the center button. It records to MicroSD card and can create up to 96 kHz 24-bit WAVs and 320 kbps MP3s. It runs on USB power or two AA batteries.

A Scene mode makes the R-07 a bit more interesting. It has built-in limiters and low cut, essentially features that will make voices crisper. Further, you can set it to “Music Long” to record longer performances while using less drive space.

Rehearsal mode lets you hear live audio through audio playback, a great feature for budding musicians.

Finally you can control up to four devices at once via Bluetooth, allowing you to mic various members of a band, for example.

The R-07 costs an acceptable $199 and is shipping now. While it doesn’t beat a massive recorder with dual mics and XLR inputs like the Zoom H6 in terms of versatility, in terms of portability and sound quality – not to mention music-friendly features, the R-07 is a great alternative to the Voice Memos app on your phone.

Cruise says its AV successfully completed 1,400 unprotected left-hand turns

Unprotected left-hand turns are tough for robots and humans alike. The compounding variables of crossing in front of oncoming traffic make it one of the toughest maneuvers in driving. It’s one of the toughest challenges for self-driving platforms — even more so as drivers often look for non-verbal cues from other drivers to when it’s safe to cross.

Cruise, the self-driving division within General Motors, today released a video reporting it successfully completed 1,400 such turns within a 24-hour period. The test took place on the busy and hilly streets of San Francisco. Some of the examples on the video show a vehicle cautiously entering an intersection only to wait for another vehicle to pass before making the turn. Other times, the vehicle is assertive and enters the turn without delay. Only four examples are shown, though Cruise insists they have video proof of all 1,400. None of the videos show the Cruise vehicle navigating around crossing pedestrians.

“In an unpredictable driving environment like SF, no two unprotected left-turns are alike,” Kyle Vogt, president & CTO, Cruise said in a released statement. “By safely executing 1,400 regularly, we generate enough data for our engineers to analyze and incorporate learnings into code they develop for other difficult maneuvers.”

Self-driving companies often rely on data collected from its vehicles. Successful or not, both instances will give the engineers data that can be added to existing models to make future rides more successful. In this case, having successfully completed 1,400 in a short amount of time will give Cruise’s engineers loads to work with.

Cruise is permitted to test about 180 Generation 3 vehicles on public roads in California. It didn’t state how many vehicles were needed to complete this test.

My desk doesn’t deserve the $600 Dyson Lightcycle lamp

Like many of you, I’m assuming, my desk was purchased at Ikea and is the center of my life. Such as it is, the desk is littered with bits of crackers, memory cards, branded Moleskin notebooks and countless coffee cups. I’m not a slob. I just live here. The desk is clean enough.

Then Dyson sent me its new task light to try out. My desk suddenly felt dirty. After assembling the light, I looked around and took inventory of my life and choices. If I was going to have something as lovely as this on my desk, I would have to have a cleaner space. I cleaned up my desk.

[gallery ids="1831413,1831417,1831415,1831420,1831419"]

Review

The Dyson Lightcycle is, well, a light. It makes the room brighter. And because it’s made by Dyson, it’s over-engineered and expensive. The Lightcycle is $600 and I’m not going to attempt to justify it’s price. I can’t. This is a product that costs countless times over its utility.

First the good.

The light works. Hit a button on the top and it turns on. Slide your finger across the top and the light’s brightness and color temperature changes.

The light is constructed with an insane attention to detail. It’s perfectly balanced. As the light slides up and down its main poll, a counterweight ensures an effortless motion. Likewise the light arm slides back and forth on three large wheels. All awhile, its seemingly wireless with all the connections and wires hidden throughout the mechanisms.

The Dyson Task light is beautiful. It’s impossible to look at the light and not be impressed by the construction. The function of the design is perfect for my desk. I placed it in the center of my workspace and the long arms allows it to reach where ever it’s needed.

The light works great and thanks to adjustable color temperatures, works in every situation. There are two touch-sensitive bars on top of the unit. Just slide a fingertip across the bars to make the light brighter or change the color temp. Dyson took the light temperatures option to the next level. The owner can connect the lamp to a smartphone app through Bluetooth, and when the light is connected, it will sync the color temp to the idea setting to match the owner’s location on Earth. It’s a clever function and is said to have a host of mental and physical benefits.

According to Dyson, this lamp’s LED unit is good for 60 years thanks to a heat pipe system. It’s said to pull the excess heat generated by the LED away from the unit, ensuring it lasts as long as possible.

And now the bad.

This lamp costs $600. That’s a hard sell. There are countless minimalist task lamps on the market. None have all the features found on the Dyson Lightcycle but one could argue that a person doesn’t need all of the features.

I found the light produced by the Lightcycle adequate. The intensity is adjustable and there’s even a supercharged mode that turns the intensity up to 11 — but that’s only accessible through the smartphone companion app. To me, when you need extra light, you need it immediately and not after the 30 seconds needed to use an app.

The Lightcycle’s main selling point is the automatic adjustable color temperature. It’s a lovely feature and my eyes feel after using this lamp. Just to be clear, there are a lot of products on the market for much less than the Lightcycle that can replicate the ideal color temperature. Get one. They’re a great gadget to have around in the winter months.

Bottom line

I can’t recommend a person spends $600 on a light. That said, the Dyson Lightcycle is a lovely object, should last a lifetime, and works as advertised.

Clinc raises $52m Series B as it marches towards IPO

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Clinc is today announcing a $52 million Series B. The company behind the conversational AI platform netted cash from Insight Partners, DFJ Growth, Drive Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners, and others.

This round of financing brings Clinc’s total amount of funding to $60 million and will help Clinc scale its conversational AI to new markets. Clinc plans to reach 140 employees by the end of 2019 and intends to move into a new 26,000 square foot office in Ann Arbor, MI. According to Clinc, the company achieved a 300% year-over-year revenue growth and expects to more than triple the business again this year.

“We’ve had phenomenal growth and built unbelievable momentum in a very short period of time,” said Jason Mars, Clinc CEO. “Now we’re adding more world class investors to support our growing team as we work to accelerate the pace of innovation and to reshape the conversational AI landscape, one industry at a time.”

Mars explained to TechCrunch that it sought specific investors for this round that could help take the company to its initial public offering. Jeff Lieberman, Insight Partners’ Managing Director, is joining Clinc’s board of directors and brings significant IPO experience to the boardroom as he previously helped several companies go public including Event, Shutterstock, and Website Pros. With this round, Clinc also adds DFJ’s Randy Glein to its board of advisors.

Mars said this round of financing could be its last before going public. He hopes to take the company straight to an IPO from here and noted that the capital gives the company several years of runway.

With this round, Clinc now has investors on both coasts along within the middle of the country where it’s based.

Clinc was founded in Ann Arbor, MI in 2015 and has remained committed to the Midwest city since its launch in 2016. The company currently has offices elsewhere including Europe, Asia, and throughout the States. CEO Mars tells TechCrunch that the short term plan is to keep key management in Ann Arbor, but it’s plausible that other offices will eventually have more staff.

The company’s conversational AI platform is unique in the industry and has allowed the company to make inroads in different markets. Its deep neural network product can be trained to work in a variety of industries, and Clinc currently works with major banks, automakers, quick-service restaurants, and healthcare companies. The company recently showed off how it could work in video games, too.

Clinc showed off its system at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. Watch his demo here.

Rivian debuts a pull-out kitchen for its electric pickup trick

Sometimes you need scrambled eggs. And with that thought, toady at the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ, Rivian announced a major accessory for its electric pickup: A camp kitchen. The unit slides out from the Rivian R1T’s so-called gear tunnel that lives between the bed and cab. The kitchen includes storage and a stove that’s powered by the R1T’s 180kWh battery pack.

This kitchen unit is the first significant concept Rivian has unveiled for the pickup’s unusual gear tunnel. This space provides another locked storage compartment for the pickup — but why have it all, many asked when it was revealed? And now, with this kitchen unit, Rivian is responding to the questions. It seems Rivian wants to make its vehicles the center of an ecosystem of add-ons. The company already revealed racks, vehicle-mounted tents and even a flashlight that hides in the side of the driver’s door. Expect more camping and outdoor gear as Rivian cements its brand image around adventurers.

Rivian is positioning its products for a particular lifestyle. Think Patagonia-wearing, Range Rover-driving, outdoorsy types or at least those who aspire to have that image. It’s a smart play, and so far, Rivian has stayed true to this image. All of its advertisements, social media posts, and appearances make it clear that Rivian is carefully aligning its brand image.

Trucks and SUVs are generally marketed to workman and families. TV commercials feature dusty men hauling bails of hay and women unloading groceries and closing the rear tailgate with her foot. But not Rivian.

So far Rivian has shown its products in the backwoods, running trails and sitting next to campfires. The people in the commercials are on an adventure, wearing coats by The North Face and sleeping in REI tents. With the kitchen from today’s announcements, they can pull a kitchen out of their pickup and make some coffee.

Rivian tells TechCrunch this is just a concept, but the company intends to bring this unit to production. There are likely to be other units for the gear tunnel. I, for one, would love to have a slide-out dog washing and drying station because there’s nothing worse than putting a muddy dog in a truck.

[gallery ids="1829340,1829341,1829342,1829343,1829344"]