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.

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.”

Gates-backed Lumotive upends lidar conventions using metamaterials

Pretty much every self-driving car on the road, not to mention many a robot and drone, uses lidar to sense its surroundings. But useful as lidar is, it also involves physical compromises that limit its capabilities. Lumotive is a new company with funding from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures that uses metamaterials to exceed those limits, perhaps setting a new standard for the industry.

The company is just now coming out of stealth, but it’s been in the works for a long time. I actually met with them back in 2017 when the project was very hush-hush and operating under a different name at IV’s startup incubator. If the terms “metamaterials” and “Intellectual Ventures” tickle something in your brain, it’s because the company has spawned several startups that use intellectual property developed there, building on the work of materials scientist David Smith.

Metamaterials are essentially specially engineered surfaces with microscopic structures — in this case, tunable antennas — embedded in them, working as a single device.

Echodyne is another company that used metamaterials to great effect, shrinking radar arrays to pocket size by engineering a radar transceiver that’s essentially 2D and can have its beam steered electronically rather than mechanically.

The principle works for pretty much any wavelength of electromagnetic radiation — i.e. you could use X-rays instead of radio waves — but until now no one has made it work with visible light. That’s Lumotive’s advance, and the reason it works so well.

Flash, 2D and 1D lidar

Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; this can be accomplished in several ways.

Flash lidar basically sends out a pulse that illuminates the whole scene with near-infrared light (905 nanometers, most likely) at once. This provides a quick measurement of the whole scene, but limited distance as the power of the light being emitted is limited.

2D or raster scan lidar takes an NIR laser and plays it over the scene incredibly quickly, left to right, down a bit, then does it again, again and again… scores or hundreds of times. Focusing the power into a beam gives these systems excellent range, but similar to a CRT TV with an electron beam tracing out the image, it takes rather a long time to complete the whole scene. Turnaround time is naturally of major importance in driving situations.

1D or line scan lidar strikes a balance between the two, using a vertical line of laser light that only has to go from one side to the other to complete the scene. This sacrifices some range and resolution but significantly improves responsiveness.

Lumotive offered the following diagram, which helps visualize the systems, although obviously “suitability” and “too short” and “too slow” are somewhat subjective:

The main problem with the latter two is that they rely on a mechanical platform to actually move the laser emitter or mirror from place to place. It works fine for the most part, but there are inherent limitations. For instance, it’s difficult to stop, slow or reverse a beam that’s being moved by a high-speed mechanism. If your 2D lidar system sweeps over something that could be worth further inspection, it has to go through the rest of its motions before coming back to it… over and over.

This is the primary advantage offered by a metamaterial system over existing ones: electronic beam steering. In Echodyne’s case the radar could quickly sweep over its whole range like normal, and upon detecting an object could immediately switch over and focus 90 percent of its cycles tracking it in higher spatial and temporal resolution. The same thing is now possible with lidar.

Imagine a deer jumping out around a blind curve. Every millisecond counts because the earlier a self-driving system knows the situation, the more options it has to accommodate it. All other things being equal, an electronically steered lidar system would detect the deer at the same time as the mechanically steered ones, or perhaps a bit sooner; upon noticing this movement, it could not just make more time for evaluating it on the next “pass,” but a microsecond later be backing up the beam and specifically targeting just the deer with the majority of its resolution.

Just for illustration. The beam isn’t some big red thing that comes out.

Targeted illumination would also improve the estimation of direction and speed, further improving the driving system’s knowledge and options — meanwhile, the beam can still dedicate a portion of its cycles to watching the road, requiring no complicated mechanical hijinks to do so. Meanwhile, it has an enormous aperture, allowing high sensitivity.

In terms of specs, it depends on many things, but if the beam is just sweeping normally across its 120×25 degree field of view, the standard unit will have about a 20Hz frame rate, with a 1000×256 resolution. That’s comparable to competitors, but keep in mind that the advantage is in the ability to change that field of view and frame rate on the fly. In the example of the deer, it may maintain a 20Hz refresh for the scene at large but concentrate more beam time on a 5×5 degree area, giving it a much faster rate.

Meta doesn’t mean mega-expensive

Naturally one would assume that such a system would be considerably more expensive than existing ones. Pricing is still a ways out — Lumotive just wanted to show that its tech exists for now — but this is far from exotic tech.

CG render of a lidar metamaterial chip.The team told me in an interview that their engineering process was tricky specifically because they designed it for fabrication using existing methods. It’s silicon-based, meaning it can use cheap and ubiquitous 905nm lasers rather than the rarer 1550nm, and its fabrication isn’t much more complex than making an ordinary display panel.

CTO and co-founder Gleb Akselrod explained: “Essentially it’s a reflective semiconductor chip, and on the surface we fabricate these tiny antennas to manipulate the light. It’s made using a standard semiconductor process, then we add liquid crystal, then the coating. It’s a lot like an LCD.”

An additional bonus of the metamaterial basis is that it works the same regardless of the size or shape of the chip. While an inch-wide rectangular chip is best for automotive purposes, Akselrod said, they could just as easily make one a quarter the size for robots that don’t need the wider field of view, or a larger or custom-shape one for a specialty vehicle or aircraft.

The details, as I said, are still being worked out. Lumotive has been working on this for years and decided it was time to just get the basic information out there. “We spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the technology to investors,” noted CEO and co-founder Bill Colleran. He, it should be noted, is a veteran innovator in this field, having headed Impinj most recently, and before that was at Broadcom, but is perhaps is best known for being CEO of Innovent when it created the first CMOS Bluetooth chip.

Right now the company is seeking investment after running on a 2017 seed round funded by Bill Gates and IV, which (as with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out) is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech. There are partnerships and other things in the offing, but the company wasn’t ready to talk about them; the product is currently in prototype but very showable form for the inevitable meetings with automotive and tech firms.

Trump’s views about ‘crazy’ self-driving cars are at odds with his DOT

President Donald Trump is an automated-vehicle skeptic, a point of view that lies in stark contrast with agencies within his own administration, including the U.S. Department of Transportation .

According to a recent scoop by Axios, Trump has privately said he thinks the autonomous-vehicle revolution is “crazy.” Trump’s point of view isn’t exactly surprising. His recent tweets about airplanes becoming too complex illustrates his Luddite leanings.

The interesting bit — beyond a recounting of Trump pantomiming self-driving cars veering out of control — is how his personal views compare to the DOT.

Just last week during SXSW in Austin, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the creation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council, an internal organization designed to resolve jurisdictional and regulatory gaps that may impede the deployment of new technology, such as tunneling, hyperloop, autonomous vehicles and other innovations.

“New technologies increasingly straddle more than one mode of transportation, so I’ve signed an order creating a new internal Department council to better coordinate the review of innovation that have multi-modal applications,” Chao said in a prepared statement at the time.

Meanwhile, other AV-related policies and legislation are in various stages of review.

The DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced Friday that automated-vehicle petitions from Nuro and General Motors are advancing to the Federal Register for public review and comment.

The parallel viewpoints have yet to collide. There’s no evidence that Trump’s personal views on autonomous-vehicle technology has been inserted into DOT policy. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t.

AV companies are hip to this eventuality and are taking steps now to educate the masses — and Trump. Take the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) coalition, as one example. PAVE launched in January with a founding group that included a number of major automakers, technology companies and organizations with a stake in autonomous vehicles, including Audi, Aurora, Cruise, GM, Mobileye, Nvidia, Toyota, Waymo and Zoox to spread the word about advanced vehicle technologies and self-driving vehicles. Their message: This tech can transform transportation and make it safer and more sustainable.

Waymo has also teamed up with AAA on a public education campaign to spread the word about autonomous-vehicle technology and how it could impact safety and help people get around. The partnership, announced recently, is with AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah (AAA NCNU), a regional organization that oversees operations in seven markets, including well-known hubs of autonomous vehicle development such as Arizona and California.

Algolux announces Ion, a development platform for autonomous vision systems

Algolux, founded in 2015, isn’t exactly a household name in the already-crowded world of automotive computer vision. But the Quebec-based startup has generated some interest among investors. For instance, it’s raised $13.4 million, including a $10 million Series A led by General Motors Ventures last May. Not bad, given the fact that it’s remained a virtual unknown, up until now.

Today, Algolux is unveiling Ion, a platform that gives companies a set of tools and an embedded software stack to help them build their own perception systems. It’s essentially a plug-and-play solution, a departure from the common approach today in which companies are confined to siloed systems that often don’t integrate as easily with other systems. 

Algolux’s system brings the company’s machine learning and computer vision technologies to users looking to build an end-to-end solution, incorporating various regulations from governing bodies and safety features designed to help systems operating in tricky environments.

The company says Ion can be used to make more traditional systems, or “radical new designs.” This capability is applicable to any sensor type, processor type, and perception task. Ion relies on the deep neural network Eos and Atlas, a number of different modules designed for camera tuning. It provides developers a mix and match approach based on their individual needs.

In a letter to TechCrunch, VP Dave Tokic notes the key differentiator between the company and its competition is a kind of brand agnosticism that lets companies use different products for different needs and to keep cost down.

“Our Ion Platform consists of tools (Atlas) and embedded software stacks (Eos) to uniquely provides an end-to-end approach to teams building perception systems,” he tells TechCrunch. “This allows the team to optimize and deep learn across both sensing and perception (even up to planning and control) for significantly better performance and to break down today’s design process silos. This capability is applicable to any sensor type, processor type, and perception task.”

Transportation Weekly: Waymo unleashes laser bear, Bird spreads its wings, Lyft tightens its belt

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch . This is the fifth edition of our newsletter and we love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here, here and here. As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. (An email subscription is coming). 

This week, we explore the world of light detection and ranging sensors known as LiDAR, young drivers, trouble in Barcelona, autonomous trucks in California, and China among other things.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

This week, we’re going to put our on analysis hats as we explore the world of LiDAR, a sensor that measures distance using laser light to generate highly accurate 3D maps of the world around the car. LiDAR is considered by most in the self-driving car industry (Tesla CEO Elon Musk being one exception) a key piece of technology required to safely deploy robotaxis and other autonomous vehicles.

There are A LOT of companies working on LiDAR. Some counts track upwards of 70. For years now, Velodyne has been the primary supplier of LiDAR sensors to companies developing autonomous vehicles. Waymo, back when it was just the Google self-driving project, even used Velodyne LiDAR sensors until 2012.

Dozens of startups have sprung up with Velodyne in its sights. But now Waymo has changed the storyline.

To catch you up: Waymo announced this week that it will start selling its custom LiDAR sensors — the technology that was at the heart of a trade secrets lawsuit last year against Uber.

Waymo’s entry into the market doesn’t necessarily upend other companies’ plans. Waymo is going to sell its short range LiDAR, called Laser Bear Honeycomb, to companies outside of self-driving cars. It will initially target robotics, security and agricultural technology.

It does put pressure on startups, particularly those with less capital or those targeting the same customer base. Pitchbook ran the numbers for us to determine where the LiDAR industry sits at the moment. There are two stories here: there are a handful of well capitalized startups and we may have 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.

The top global VC-backed LiDAR technology companies (by post valuation) are Quanergy, Velodyne (although mostly corporate backed), Aurora (not self-driving company Aurora Innovation), Ouster, and DroneDeploy. The graphic below, also courtesy of Pitchbook, shows the latest figures as of January 31, 2019.

Dig In

Researchers discovered that two popular car alarm systems were vulnerable to a manipulated server-side API that could be abused to take control of an alarm system’s user account and their vehicle.

The companies — Russian alarm maker Pandora and California-based Viper (or Clifford in the U.K.) — have fixed the  security vulnerabilities that allowed researchers to remotely track, hijack and take control of vehicles with the alarms installed. What does this all mean?

Our in-house security expert and reporter Zack Whittaker digs in and gives us a reality check. Follow him @zackwhittaker.

Since the first widely publicized car hack in 2015 proved hijacking and controlling a car was possible, it’s opened the door to understanding the wider threat to modern vehicles.

Most modern cars have internet connectivity, making their baseline surface area of attack far greater than a car that doesn’t. But the effort that goes into remotely controlling a vehicle is difficult and convoluted, and the attack — often done by chaining together a set of different vulnerabilities — can take weeks or even longer to develop.

Keyfob or replay attacks are far more likely than say remote attacks over the internet or cell network. A keyfob sends an “unlock” signal, a device captures that signal and replays it. By replaying it you can unlock the car.

This latest car hack, featuring flawed third-party car alarms, was far easier to exploit, because the alarm systems added a weakness to the vehicles that weren’t there to begin with. Car makers, with vast financial and research resources, do a far greater job at securing their vehicle than the small companies that focus on functionality over security. For now, the bigger risk comes from third parties in the automobile space, but the car makers can’t afford to drop their game either.


A little bird …

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

blinky-cat-bird

The California Department Motor Vehicles is the government body that regulates autonomous vehicle testing on public roads. The job of enforcement falls to the California Highway Patrol.

In an effort to gauge the need for more robust testing guidelines, the California Highway Patrol decided to hold an event at its headquarters in Sacramento. Eight companies working on autonomous trucking technology were invited. It was supposed to be a large event with local and state politicians in attendance. And it was supposed to validate autonomous trucking as an emerging industry.

There’s just one problem: only one AV trucking company is willing and able to complete this course. We hear that this AV startup actually already went ahead and completed the test course.

The California Highway Patrol has postponed event, for now, presumably until more companies can join.

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


Deal of the week

Instead of highlighting one giant deal, let’s step back and take a broader view of mobility this week. The upshot: 2018 saw a decline in total investments in the sector and money moved away from ride-hailing and towards two-wheeled transportation.

According to new research from EY, mobility investments in 2018 reached $39.1 billion, down from $55.2 billion in the previous year. (The figures EY provided was through November 2018).

Ride-hailing companies raised $7.1 billion in 2018, a 73 percent decline from the previous year when $26.7 billion poured into this sector.

Investors, it seems, are shifting their focus to other business models, notably first and last-mile connectivity. EY estimates $7 billion was invested in two-wheeler mobility companies such as bike-sharing and electric scooters in 2018. The U.S. and China together have contributed to more than 80 percent of overall two-wheeler mobility investments this year alone, according to EY research shared with TechCrunch.

Other deals:


Snapshot

Let’s talk about Generation Z, that group of young people born 1996 to the present, and one startup that is focused on turning that demographic into car owners.

There’s lots of talk and hand wringing about young people choosing not to get a driver’s license, or not buying a vehicle. In the UK, for instance, about 42 percent of young drivers aged 17 to 24, hold a driver’s license. That’s about 2.7 million people, according to the National Travel Survey 2018 (NTS) of the UK government’s department of transport. An additional 2.2 million have a provisional or learner license. Combined, that amounts to about 13 percent of the car driving population of the UK.

In the UK, evidence suggests that a rise in motoring costs have discouraged young people from learning. And there lies one opportunity that a new startup called Driver1 is targeting.

Driver 1 is a car subscription service designed exclusively for first car drivers aged 17 to 24. The company has been in stealth mode for about a year and is just now launching.

“The young driver market is being underserved by the car industry, Driver1 founder Tim Hammond told TechCrunch. “And primarily it’s the financing that’s not available for that age group. It’s also something that’s not really affordable for any of the car subscription models like Fair.com and it’s not suitable for the OEM subscription services either financially or from an age perspective for young drivers.”

The company’s own research has found this group wants a newer car for 12 to 15 months.

“The car is the extension of their device,” Hammond said, noting these drivers don’t want the old junkers. “They want their iPhones and they want the car that goes with it.”

The company is working directly with leasing companies — not dealerships — to provide young drivers with 3 to 5-year-old cars that have lost 60 percent or so of their value. Driver1 is targeting under $120 a month for the customer and has a partnership with remarketing company Manheim, which is owned by Cox Automotive.

The startup is focused on the UK for now and has about 600 members who have reserved their cars for purchase. Driver1 is aiming to capture about 10 percent of the 1 million or so young people in the UK who pass their learners permit each year. The company plans it expand to France and other European countries in the fall.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

Bird Rocking Out GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Ca-caw, ca-caw! That’s the sound of Bird gearing up to launch Bird Platform in New Zealand, Canada and Latin America in the coming weeks. The platform is part of Bird’s mission to bring its scooters across the world “and empower local entrepreneurs in regions where we weren’t planning to launch to run their own electric-scooter sharing program with Bird’s tech and vehicles,” Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden told TechCrunch.

MRD’s two cents: Bird Platform seems like a way for Bird to make extra cash without having to do any of the work i.e. charging the vehicles, maintaining them and working with city officials to get permits. Smart!

Meanwhile, the dolla dolla bills keep pouring into micromobility. European electric scooter startup Voi Technology raised an additional $30 million in capital. That was on top of a $50 million Series A round just three months ago.

Oh, and because micromobility isn’t just for startups, Volkswagen decided to launch a kind of weird-looking electric scooter in Geneva. Because, why not?

Megan Rose Dickey

One more thing …

Lyft is trimming staff to prepare for its IPO. TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden learned that the company has laid off about 50 staff in its bike and scooter division. It appears most of these folks are people who joined the Lyft through its acquisition of  electric bike sharing startup Motivate a deal that closed about three months ago.


Notable reads

It’s probably not smart to suggest another newsletter, but if you haven’t checked out Michael Dunne’s  The Chinese Are Coming newsletter, you should. Dunne has a unique perspective on what’s happening in China, particularly as it related to automotive and newer forms of mobility such as ride-hailing. One interesting nugget from his latest edition: there are more than 20 other new electric vehicle makers in China.

“Most will fall away within the next 3 to 4 years as cash runs out,” Dunne predicts.

Other quotable notables:

Here’s a fun read for the week. TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney wrote about a YC Combinator startup Jetpack Aviation.The startup has launched pre-orders this week for the moonshot of moonshots, the Speeder, a personal vertical take-off and landing vehicle with a svelte concept design that looks straight out of Star Wars or Halo.


Testing and deployments

Spanish ride-hailing firm Cabify is back operating in Barcelona, Spain despite issuing dire warnings that new regulations issued by local government would crush its business and force it to fire thousands of drivers and leave forever. Turns out forever is one month.

The Catalan Generalitat issued a decree last month imposing a wait time of at least 15 minutes between a booking being made and a passenger being picked up. The policy was made to ensure taxis and ride-hailing firms are not competing for the same passengers, following a series of taxi strikes, which included scenes of violence. Our boots on the ground reporter Natasha Lomas has the whole story.

Sure, Barcelona is just one city. But what happened in Barcelona isn’t an isolated incident. The early struggles between conventional taxis and ride-hailing operations might be over, but that doesn’t mean the matter has been settled altogether.

And it’s not likely to go away. Once, robotaxis actually hit the road en masse — and yes, that’ll be awhile — these same struggles will pop up again.

Other deployments, or, er, retreats ….

Bike share pioneer Mobike retreats to China

On the autonomous vehicle front:

China Post, the official postal service of China, and delivery and logistics companies Deppon Express, will begin autonomous package delivery services in April. The delivery trucks will operate on autonomous driving technologies developed by FABU Technology, an AI company focused on intelligent driving systems.


On our radar

There is a lot of transportation-related activity this month. Come find me.

SXSW in Austin: TechCrunch will be at SXSW. And there is a lot of mobility action here. Aurora CEO and co-founder Chris Urmson was on stage Saturday morning with Malcolm Gladwell. Mayors from a number of U.S. cities as well as companies like Ford and Mercedes are on the scene. Here’s where I’ll be. 

  • 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (local time) March 9 at the Empire Garage for the Smart Mobility Summit, an annual event put on by Wards Intelligence and C3 Group. The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, will also be on hand.
  • 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. (local time) March 12 at the JW Marriott. The Autonocast and founding general partner of Trucks VC, Reilly Brennan will hold a SXSW podcast panel on automated vehicle terminology and other stuff.
  • 3:30 p.m (local time) over at the Hilton Austin Downtown, I’ll be moderating a panel Re-inventing the Wheel: Own, Rent, Share, Subscribe. Sherrill Kaplan with Zipcar, Amber Quist, with Silvercar and Russell Lemmer with Dealerware will join me on stage.
  • TechCrunch is also hosting a SXSW party from 1 pm to 4 pm Sunday, March 10, 615 Red River St., that will feature musical guest Elderbrook. RSVP here

Nvidia GTC

TechCrunch (including yours truly) will also be at Nvidia’s annual GPU Technology Conference from March 18 to 21 in San Jose.

Self Racing Cars

The annual Self Racing Car event will be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California.

There is still room for participants to test or demo their autonomous vehicles, drive train innovation, simulation, software, teleoperation, and sensors. Hobbyists are welcome. Sign up to participate or drop them a line at [email protected].

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 la próxima vez.

Waymo to start selling standalone LiDAR sensors

Waymo, the Google self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet, will start selling its custom LiDAR sensors — the technology that was at the heart of a trade secrets lawsuit last year against Uber .

The company announced Wednesday in a blog post that it will sell is light detection and ranging sensors, or LiDAR, to companies outside of self-driving cars. Waymo will initially target robotics, security, and agricultural technology. The sales will help the company scale its autonomous technology faster, making each sensor more affordable through economies of scale, Simon Verghese, head of Waymo’s Lidar team wrote in a Medium post.

LiDAR measures distance using laser light to generate highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car. It’s considered by most in the self-driving car industry a key piece of technology required to deploy robotaxis and other autonomous vehicles safely. (Although not everyone agrees.)

Waymo has dedicated significant resources — time, people and money —  towards the development of LiDAR in an effort to improve their capability and lower the cost. It’s a fundamental piece of the business and in 2017 prompted the company to file a lawsuit against Uber alleging theft of trade secrets by a former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski—and the alleged use of those secrets by Uber.  The trial began in 2018; Uber and Waymo eventually reached a settlement.

Waymo has developed three LiDAR sensors. The company has been using a medium-range LiDAR, which is located on top of the car, since the early days of its project. Engineers there developed a short range and a long range LiDAR.

For now, Waymo is only going to sell its Laser Bear Honeycomb product, a short range sensor that has a 95 degree vertical field of view and up to 360 degree horizontal FOV, which allows one Honeycomb sensor to “do the job of three other 3D sensors stacked on top of one another,” Waymo says.

The Honeycomb has a minimum range of zero, which means the sensor can see objects immediately in front of it.  The short-range LiDAR would be most useful for low speed applications when onear bject detection and avoidance is necessary.

Waymo does have customers already; the company isn’t naming them just yet. And it’s not disclosing the unit price of these LiDAR sensors. However, looking back at comments from Waymo CEO John Krafcik does help hone in on the price.

In January 2017, Krafcik said Waymo engineers were able to bring the cost of LiDAR down 90 percent from the industry norm of $75,000 for a single top-of-the-range LiDAR. In other words, Krafcik was telling the world that Waymo’s top-of-range LiDAR cost about $7,500.

“This is critical as we look to commercialize self-driving technology,” Krafcik said at time, during a keynote at the Detroit Auto Show.

Insiders say those costs have fallen further thanks to continuous advances by the team. And considering that this short-range LiDAR is cheaper than the top-of-range product, the price is likely under $5,000 a unit.

Lowering the cost and size of LiDAR sensors has been a pursuit taken up by industry mainstay Velodyne, which the Google self-driving project, now Waymo used until 2012, as well as dozens of others including Luminar, Israeli startups Innoviz and Oryx Vision, and Ouster. A recent count of LiDAR startups hovered around 70, according to sources in the industry.

Brodmann17 nabs $11M for its automotive computer vision tech that runs on any CPU

Efficient computer vision systems are a critical component of autonomous and assisted driving vehicles, and now a startup that has developed a way to deliver computer vision technology without relying on costly and bulky hardware — by building deep learning software that can run even on low-end processors — has secured a round of funding as it gears up for its first services later this year.

Brodmann17 — named after the primary visual cortex in the human brain — has raised $11 million in a Series A round of funding led by OurCrowd, with participation also from Maniv Mobility, AI Alliance, UL Ventures, Samsung NEXT, and the Sony Innovation Fund.

Brodmann17’s edge technology (necessary for rapid computations) is designed to be used in any automotive application that requires artificial intelligence to see and process objects, roads and wider landscapes, competing with the likes of Intel’s Mobileye, services being developed by other OEMs like Bosch, and some automakers like BMW.

The challenge that all these and many other players in the self-driving industry are tackling is that as cars start to be viewed more as hardware, they are taking on some of the biggest feature challenges ever tackled in the world of tech. Autonomous systems are not only expensive but they consume a lot of energy and take up a lot of space in the vehicle, so everyone is looking for solutions that can be less of a strain in one or ideally all of these areas.

The pitch from Brodmann17 is that its core product essentially does just that: its deep-learning based computer vision technology is designed as a “light weight” solution, which can work even on smaller, low-end processors. (Note: it works on low-end CPUs but not nearly as well as on the faster ones.)

The plan is for Brodmann17’s tech to eventually be a part of fully autonomous deployments, but with self-driving vehicles still some years away from being a reality, CEO Adi Pinhas — a deep learning and computer vision specialist who co-founded the company with two other AI scientists, Amir Alush and Assaf Mushinsky — said that its first commercial efforts will come in the form of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS): it’s currently working with a global, tier-one automaker to incorporate its technology into front and rear cameras to make more accurate identifications of still and moving objects when a human is still behind the wheel.

That is not a small fish: ADAS is not only already a key component of many newer vehicles, but its ubiquity and functionality will continue to grow. ADAS systems — which are often supplied in part or entirety by third parties to carmakers — was a $20 billion market in 2017 and is projected to reach nearly $92 billion by 2025.

I first met the founding team of Broadmann in Tel Aviv, where they are based, a couple of years ago, when it was just four guys working in a corner of the Samsung NEXT incubator in the city, showing me the the earliest versions of how its tech was able to sit on small processors and identify with a lot of nuance different small and large objects that are encountered in a typical driving scenario.

Fast forward to today, and the company now has 70 people, mostly engineers, now working out of its own digs, and the startup is continuing to hire as it gears up beyond that early development phase.

Pinhas said that in these last couple of years, he’s seen some interesting evolutions in how the tech world, and the wider automotive industry, have approached the concept of autonomous cars.

On the one hand, everyone is throwing what they can at self-driving, and that will inevitably help accelerate roadmaps for new prototypes and tests. On the other hand, that increased effort is also leading to more pragmatism on just how much work lies ahead and how more elements of self driving might come sooner than full-fledged systems.

“Right now, to me it looks like the market may have taken a step back. Everyone wants to speed up development on autonomous systems, but at the same time I noticed how this year at CES, no one was talking about Level 5,” Pinhas said, referring to the highest level of autonomy in driving services, and the big tech event in January where many of the next big shiny new services get shown off for the first time. “I think the thinking now is, even a working Level 4 deployment would be great. Let’s do that and see how well we can get robo-taxis driving in well-defined scenarios.”

That’s where Brodmann17’s push into ADAS comes in: it gives the company a foothold in future deployments and services while also proving the concept by powering services that are live today. 

The other interesting development that Pinhas noted is a shift in focus from volumes of training data, to developing smarter neural networks to calculate and understand that data. “It used to be ‘who has more data’, but now everyone has it,” he said. “Now it’s about the algorithms for training. Experts have long thought that neural networks” — designed to “think” like humans — “will solve everything but the key is still figuring out how best to train those networks. Just throwing data at them will not solve this.” Notably, this is an area where Broadmann17 has put focus for some time, “and others are also starting to now.”

Pinhas admits that Mobileye is the most advanced company in the automotive computer vision market today, although we are still at such an early stage of development that there is room for more innovation, and more startups and other large companies to make an impact. This is why investors are interested in Brodmann17, and why the startup has already started working on its next round to supply itself with capital for the next phase.

“We are convinced that Brodmann17 is one of the best deep AI companies out there. The company has a very experienced management team and exceptional technical leadership that has created a major leapfrog in the fundamentals of AI algorithms,” said Eli Nir, Senior Partner at OurCrowd, said. “Brodmann17’s technology opens the doors for low computation implementation of AI – significantly lowering cost, complexity, and price, and can be used over many sectors and industries. We are very excited to lead this round and take part in the future success of the company.”

Prosecutors find Uber not criminally liable in 2018 Arizona self-driving crash that killed a pedestrian

Yavapai County prosecutors said today that Uber is not criminally liable in a crash last year when one of its self-driving cars fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

The autonomous SUV, which had a backup driver behind the wheel, collided with Elaine Herzberg while she was walking across the street. She later died as a result of her injuries. After the crash, Uber suspended its self-driving test program on public roads for nine months.

In a letter to the Maricopa County Attorney, prosecutor Sheila Polk wrote that based on its investigation, the Yavapai County Attorney’s office had determined that a video of the collision “likely does not accurately depict the events that occurred.” While “there is no basis” for Uber to be held criminally liable, Polk recommended that case be referred to Tempe police to collect further evidence related to the vehicle’s backup driver, Rafaela Vasquez. Police said last year Vasquez had been watching streaming videos on her smartphone while sitting behind the wheel.

Polk wrote that her office believes an expert analysis of the video to “closely match what (and when) the person sitting in the driver’s seat of the vehicle would or should have seen that night given the vehicle’s speed, lighting conditions and other relevant factors.”

Though Uber was found not criminally liable in the Tempe crash, The Information reported in December that a Uber manager had sent executives an email to warn about safety issues in its autonomous vehicle unit less than a week before Herzberg was killed.

TechCrunch has contacted Uber for comment.

Anthony Levandowski will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI April 18 at UC Berkeley

Late last week, we announced the schedule for April 18’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI event at UC Berkeley, including some heavy hitters like Marc Raibert, Melonee Wise and Ken Goldberg. At the time, we noted we still had some big names left to reveal — and we weren’t joking.

Today we’re excited to announce that we’ll be joined by autonomous vehicle pioneer Anthony Levandowski.

Levandowski is the co-founder and CEO of Pronto, a new startup developing aftermarket kits for semi-trucks. The company is touting the safety potential of autonomous vehicle technologies for cross-country hauls. “We are not building technology that tells vehicles how to drive,” he wrote in a Medium post announcing Pronto’s launch. “Instead, our team of engineers is building tech that can learn how to drive the way people do.”

Before founding Pronto, Levandowski served as the head of Uber’s autonomous vehicle program and helped Google develop its own initiative that ultimately became Waymo. The engineer began his career by building the autonomous motorcycle Ghostrider for DARPA’s Grand Challenge.

Early-bird ticket sales end in less than two weeks. Grab your ticket for just $249 today and save $100. Student tickets are on sale for just $45 and can be purchased here.

Are you an early-stage startup in robotics or AI? Grab a $1,500 demo table at the event and get your company in front of 1,000+ tech enthusiasts and investors.