Self-driving car startup Zoox gets a new CEO

Self-driving car startup Zoox has selected its new CEO following the unexpected firing of co-founder and former CEO Tim Kentley-Klay in August. According to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, he and the board of directors believed “that to take the company through the next stage and to scale the company, we thought finding someone with executive and operational experience would be helpful to the company,” he told TechCrunch.

That’s where, Aicha Evans (pictured above) comes in. Evans is Intel’s now-former chief strategy officer, and will join Zoox as CEO and member of the board of directors on February 26.

“I’m thrilled to join Zoox and challenge the status quo with an autonomous mobility system built from the ground up,” Evans said in a press release. “Mobility is approaching a major inflection point, and Zoox has set itself apart from entrenched players as the only company creating a solution purpose-built to meet the needs of a fully autonomous future. I look forward to helping the company’s exceptionally talented team continue to grow as we unlock more technical and commercial milestones.”

Evans spent 12 years at Intel, where she was responsible for leading the company’s transition from a PC-centric business to a data-centric one. She also served as a general manager in the communication and devices group.

Finding someone with creativity and leadership to guide Zoox through its next stage, Levinson said, was a challenging and complex task. That’s why the company was excited when they found Evans, who has experience running a 7,000-person engineering team.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission granted Zoox a permit to participate in the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. During the testing period, Zoox must have a safety driver behind the wheel and will not be allowed to charge passengers for rides. And, as part of the program, Zoox must provide data and reports to the CPUC regarding any incidents, number of passenger miles traveled and passenger safety protocols.

“We haven’t publicly announced a passenger service yet, but it does allow us in the development phase to give rides to non-Zoox employees,” Levinson said. “We’ve been wanting to do that for some time now, so I’m really proud of our regulatory team for working with the CPUC.”

Zoox’s long-term plan is to publicly deploy autonomous vehicles by 2020 in the form of its own ride-hailing service. The cars themselves will be all-electric and fully autonomous.

While Zoox currently has clearance to operate Level 3 vehicles with passengers, it will need additional approval from the CPUC to operate its Level 5 vehicles without a safety driver on board.

To date, Zoox has raised more than $750 million in venture funding.

World’s most valuable AI startup SenseTime unveils self-driving center in Japan

The world’s highest-valued artificial intelligence startup SenseTime has set foot in Japan. The Beijing-based firm announced on Friday that it just opened a self-driving facility in Joso, a historic city 50 kilometers away from Tokyo where it plans to conduct R&D and road test driverless vehicles.

The initiative follows its agreement with Japanese auto giant Honda in 2017 to jointly work on autonomous driving technology. SenseTime, which is backed by Alibaba and last valued at more than $4.5 billion, is best known for object recognition technologies that have been deployed in China widely across retail, healthcare and public security. Bloomberg reported this week that the AI upstart is raising $2 billion in fresh funding,

Four-year-old SenseTime isn’t the only Chinese AI company finding opportunities in Japan. China’s biggest search engine provider Baidu is also bringing autonomous vehicles to its neighboring country, a move made possible through a partnership with SoftBank’s smart bus project SB Drive and Chinese automaker King Long.

Japan has in recent years made a big investment push in AI and autonomous driving, which could help it cope with an aging and declining workfoce. The government aims to put driverless cars on Tokyo’s public roads by 2020 when the Olympics takes place. The capital city said it already successfully trialled autonomous taxis last August.

SenseTime’s test park, which is situated near Japan’s famed innovation hub Tsukuba Science City, will be open to local residents who could check out the vehicles slated to transport them in a few years.

“We are glad to have the company setting up an R&D center for autonomous driving in our city,” said Mayor of Joso Takeshi Kandatsu in a statement. “I believe autonomous driving vehicles will bring not only revolutionary changes to our traffic system, but also solutions to regional traffic problems. With the help of SenseTime, I look forward to seeing autonomous cars running on the roads of Joso. We will give full support to make it happen.”

Self-driving car startup Zoox gets permit to transport passengers in California

While more than 60 companies have received permits to test their driverless vehicles in California, Zoox has become the first permitted to actually transport people in those vehicles. The California Public Utilities Commission today granted Zoox a permit to participate in the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot.

During the testing period, Zoox must have a safety driver behind the wheel and will not be allowed to charge passengers for rides. And, as part of the program, Zoox must provide data and reports to the CPUC regarding any incidents, number of passenger miles traveled and passenger safety protocols.

“This is an important milestone on our pathway to deploying a fully autonomous commercial service,” Zoox head of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs told TechCrunch via email.

This comes three months after Zoox tested autonomous rides as part of the Global Action Summit, and four months after Zoox co-founder Tim Kentley-Klay’s ouster from the company in late August. His firing came about a month after Zoox closed a $500 million funding round led by Mike Cannon-Brookes of Grok Ventures, which brought its total amount of funding to $800 million.

Zoox ultimately aims to commercially deploy autonomous vehicles by 2020 in the form of its own ride-hailing service. The cars themselves will be all-electric and fully autonomous. Meanwhile, ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft are also working on autonomous vehicles, as well as a number of other large players in the space.

Zoox’s permit with the CPUC is good until December 21, 2021. For some background, the CPUC has two pilot programs in place. One is for passenger testing with a safety driver and the other is for passenger testing without a safety driver in the vehicle.

Report: A manager at Uber’s self-driving unit warned executives about safety issues just days before fatal crash

Less than a week before a Uber self-driving SUV prototype struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona last March, a manager sent executives an email cautioning that its autonomous vehicle unit needed to “work on establishing a culture rooted in safety,” reports The Information.

Robbie Miller, then a manager in the unit’s testing operations, was preparing to leave the company when he warned that “cars are routinely in accidents resulting in damage” and backup drivers, who sit behind the wheel in self-driving cars for safety reasons, weren’t properly trained or fired even if they made repeated mistakes.

In his March 13 email, Miller wrote that “the cars are routinely in accidents resulting in damage. This is usually the result of poor behavior of the operator or the AV technology. A car was damaged nearly every other day in February. We shouldn’t be hitting things every 15,000 miles. Repeated infractions for poor driving rarely results in termination. Several of the drivers appear to not have been properly vetted or trained.” Miller, who previously held positions in self-driving programs at Google and Otto, also gave a comprehensive list of suggestions he believed would reduce the likelihood of accidents.

Five days later, on March 18, the Tempe collision occurred, resulting in the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing a street when she was hit by the SUV. Uber immediately halted testing of its autonomous cars on public roads and reached a settlement with Herzberg’s family two weeks later. It was later revealed in a police report that the car’s backup safety driver was watching videos on her phone when the crash occurred. The incident also raised serious questions about the safety of Uber’s self-driving technology system.

Uber resumed testing of its self-driving cars in July, but in manual mode and with new safety standards in place. Before the crash, Uber had planned to launch a limited self-driving taxi service in the suburbs of Phoenix that would let users hail autonomous cars without backup drivers. Alphabet’s Waymo, one of Uber’s main rivals in the autonomous vehicle space, launched a self-driving taxi service there last week, but with backup drivers.

The email, obtained and published by The Information, was sent to Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s autonomous vehicle unit and John Thomason, vice president of software, as well as five other executives and lawyers.

It details several safety incidents that had occurred in the months before the fatal collision in Arizona, including one in which a prototype swerved off the road and drove on the sidewalk for several meters. Miller described delays in reviewing incident logs and wrote “This is not how we should be operating.”

During that period, Uber continued to test hundreds of self-driving vehicles on the streets of San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, before the program was brought to a temporary halt by the fatal accident in Tempe.

Miller’s suggestions included reducing the size of Uber’s fleet of autonomous vehicles by 85% so the software quality team could better review safety incidents, have more than one backup driver in each prototype (Uber had previously used two backup drivers per vehicle), and allow individual employees, including engineers or operation managers, to shut down testing if they believed there were potential safety issues.

“The cars are collecting more than enough data for the engineers to be aware of and solve the issues they encounter. Reducing the fleet size dramatically would not change that nor would it slow down the current rate of progress,” Miller wrote. “It would significantly reduce ATG’s likelihood of being involved in an accident. This sentiment is echoed widely throughout ATG.”

The Information report says that Miller’s assertions were supported by interviews with five current and 15 former Uber employees. While Meyhofer and the other executives who were sent the email did not respond to it, Miller was told by his supervisor that the team would discuss it. The Information’s sources also said his suggestions were discussed during the internal safety review that followed the Tempe accident.

TechCrunch has contacted Uber for comment.

Waymo is testing what it should charge for its robotaxi service

Self-driving startup Waymo, a Google spin -off owned by parent company Alphabet, has started to test pricing models for rides in its autonomous vehicles in Phoenix, the latest indication that the company is preparing to launch a commercial robotaxi service.

Waymo has not launched a wide-scale commercial robotaxi service in Phoenix — or anywhere — just yet. But it is getting closer.

Waymo’s early rider program, designed to give a vetted group of real people the ability to use an app to hail a self-driving vehicle, has been expanded, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat explained Thursday during the company’s quarterly earnings call. Waymo started testing pricing models within its app during the third quarter, Porat said.

The early rider program had 400 participants the last time Waymo shared figures on the program. A Waymo spokesperson declined to elaborate on how much it had grown.

“As part of our early rider program, we have recently begun testing pricing models within our app,” a Waymo spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Pricing is currently experimental and intended solely to solicit feedback from early riders and does not reflect the various pricing models under consideration for a public service.”

Waymo has been inching toward a commercial service in Phoenix since it began testing in the suburbs like Chandler in 2016. It started in earnest when Waymo launched the early rider program in April 2017. Later that year, Waymo removed employees and passengers from its test fleet, sending empty self-driving minivans onto the streets of greater Phoenix.

By May of this year, Waymo began allowing some early riders to hail a self-driving minivan without a human test driver behind the wheel. More recently, the company launched a public transit program in Phoenix focused on delivering people to bus stops and train and light-rail stations.

Testing continues in other cities as well, including Mountain View, California and Austin. The company announced earlier this month that its autonomous vehicles have driven 10 million miles on public roads in the United States.

Self-driving car startup Zoox is raising $500 million at a $3.2 billion valuation

Zoox, a once-secretive self-driving car startup, is closing a $500 million at a $3.2 billion post-money valuation, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Prior to the deal, Zoox was valued at $2.7 billion, Zoox confirmed to TechCrunch. The round, led by Mike Cannon-Brookes of Grok Ventures, brings its total amount of funding to $800 million.

Zoox’s plan, according to Bloomberg, is to publicly deploy autonomous vehicles by 2020 in the form of its own ride-hailing service. The cars themselves will be all-electric and fully autonomous. Meanwhile, ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft are also working on autonomous vehicles, as well as a number of other large players in the space.

Zoox, which turned four years old this month, is a 500-person company founded by Tim Kentley-Klay and Jesse Levinson. In the meantime, head over to Bloomberg for the full rundown.

Apple reportedly partners with Volkswagen for self-driving employee shuttles

Apple has decided to work with Volkswagen for some of its self-driving car efforts, The New York Times reported today. The plan, according to the NYT, is to turn some of Volkswagen’s T6 Transporter vans into autonomous shuttles for employees.

However, this project is reportedly behind schedule and taking up much of the time of Apple’s autonomous driving team. According to the NYT, Apple’s lengthy talks pertaining to partnerships with manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have ended.

A Volkswagen T6 van

Earlier this month, Apple’s fleet of self-driving cars registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles grew to 55 vehicles. That means Apple has the second largest fleet of self-driving cars in California, with General Motors’ Cruise coming in at number one. Apple’s standard autonomous vehicle tests rely on Lexus SUVs that have been equipped with sensors and autonomous hardware.

I’ve reached out to Apple and Volkswagen, and will update this story if I hear back.

Waymo van involved in serious collision in Arizona

A Waymo self-driving vehicle was involved in a serious accident in Chandler, Arizona earlier this afternoon. Local police  said there were minor injuries from the incident after a sedan swerved into the Waymo van to avoid another collision.

Although Waymo has said it will be testing vehicles without safety drivers in Arizona, this was not one of them. An operator was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash, though the car was in autonomous mode, police said.

Aerial footage and images posted online by onlookers show that this was no fender-bender. The sedan’s front crumple zone is wrecked and glass is broken; the van is in better shape, though its front right tire is crushed in. Both vehicles have since been towed.

Reportedly the sedan was traveling eastbound and swerved to avoid another car at an intersection, straying into the westbound lanes and hitting the Waymo van. What actions if any the latter took to avoid the collision are unknown at this time, though an analysis by the company would of course provide that info. I’ve asked the company for comment and will update if I hear back.

Update: The police provided me with the following statement, which doesn’t add much but confirms the above:

We are currently investigating a minor injury collision involving two vehicles, one of which is a Waymo autonomous vehicle. This afternoon around noon a vehicle (Honda sedan) traveling eastbound on Chandler Blvd. had to swerve to avoid striking a vehicle traveling northbound on Los Feliz Dr. As the Honda swerved, the vehicle continued eastbound into the westbound lanes of Chandler Blvd. & struck the Waymo vehicle, which was traveling at a slow speed and in autonomous mode. There was an occupant in the Waymo vehicle sitting in the driver’s seat, who sustained minor injuries. Both the Waymo vehicle & the Honda were towed from the scene. This incident is still under investigation

Mobileye chastises Uber by detecting struck pedestrian in footage well before impact

A self-driving vehicle fatally striking a pedestrian is a tasteless venue for self-promotion, but it’s also an important time to discuss the problems that created the situation. Mobileye CEO and CTO Amnon Shashua seems to do a little of both in this post at parent company Intel’s blog, running the company’s computer vision software on Uber’s in-car footage and detecting the person a full second before impact.

It first must be said that this shouldn’t be taken to demonstrate the superiority of Mobileye’s systems or anything like that. This type of grainy footage isn’t what self-driving — or even “advanced driver assistance” — systems are meant to operate on. It’s largely an academic demonstration.

But the application of a competent computer vision system to the footage and its immediate success at detecting both Elaine Herzberg and her bike show how completely the Uber system must have failed.

Even if this Mobileye object detection algorithm had been the only thing running in that situation, it detected Herzberg a second before impact (on highly degraded data at that). If the brakes had been immediately applied, the car may have slowed enough that the impact might not have been fatal; even a 5 MPH difference might matter. Remember, the Uber car reportedly didn’t even touch the brakes until afterwards. It’s exactly these types of situations in which we are supposed to be able to rely on the superior sensing and reaction time of an AI.

We’re still waiting to hear what exactly happened that the Uber car, equipped with radar, lidar, multiple optical cameras and a safety driver, any one of which should have detected Herzberg, completely failed to do so. Or if it did, failed to take action.

This little exhibition by Mobileye, while it should be taken with a grain of salt, at least gives a hint at what should have been happening inside that car’s brain.

Tempe police chief says Uber “preliminarily…would likely not be at fault” for fatal crash

The chief of police in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber self-driving car just hit and killed a pedestrian, has told the San Francisco Chronicle that “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident.”

Chief Sylvia Moir explained after viewing the car’s own video of the event that “she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” and that “it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode.”

A lighted crosswalk was nearby but the place where the accident occurred was in the dark. The car would almost certainly have been aware of the pedestrian, but it’s also possible that she moved out in front of the car faster than the car could reasonably be stopped.

The details are known only to Uber and the authorities at present and it wouldn’t be right to speculate too far, but Moir certainly seems to suggest that the latter scenario is a possibility.