You can bid for a seat on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight on July 20

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is offering up one seat on the inaugural flight of its sub-orbital rocket New Shepard, set to take place July 20 – but instead of a fixed price ticket sale, the seat will go to the highest bidder.

It’ll work like this: from May 5-19, bidders will be able to bid any amount on an auction website. From May 19, the bids will be made “unsealed,” or made visible, and bidders have continually exceed the highest bid to remain in the running for the seat. Bidding will conclude June 12 with a live online auction.

From Blue Origin’s website, it looks like the overall flight will be relatively quick, with the craft reaching apogee, or its highest point, four minutes after takeoff. The capsule containing the astronauts (and the lucky bidder) will land 10 minutes after takeoff near its launch site in West Texas.

Blue Origin said the winning bid will be donated to its charitable foundation, Club for the Future.

In recent weeks Blue Origin has conducted a dress rehearsal of astronaut loading and unloading. This is only the most recent move from the company, which has been testing and flight-certifying its spacecraft for the past few years. We will update the story as more information becomes available on the auction.

Wisk Aero and Blade Urban Air Mobility partner to bring electric air taxi services to the skies

Once the design, manufacturing and certification of electric aircraft is complete, urban air mobility companies face a cascade of logistical issues, including building an app that connect customers to rides and finding dedicated take-off and landing areas.

A new partnership between autonomous air taxi developer Wisk Aero and air mobility ride platform Blade Urban Air Mobility aims to provide a solution.

Under the terms of the agreement, Wisk will own and operate up to 30 aircraft on Blade’s network of dedicated air terminals along short-distance routes. Wisk will be compensated based on flight time, along anticipated minimum flight hour guarantees, the companies said in a news release Wednesday.

It’s a smart move for both companies. Blade does not own aircraft itself, but instead brokers private air travel service through a digital platform. However, the craft they offer are conventional rotorcraft, such as helicopters and seaplanes. The partnership will help “accelerate Blade’s transition from conventional rotorcraft to safe, quiet, emission-free Electric Vertical Aircraft,” Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of Blade, said in a statement.

Wisk, born out of a joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing, will be able to benefit from Blade’s experience as an air mobility service provider. Once Wisk achieves certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, it will be able to immediately ramp up via Blade’s network.

The companies say they are committed to an “open-network” approach to Urban Air Mobility, with Wisk providing aircraft to multiple customer platforms and likewise Blade using many different electric aircraft developers for its ride services. Not all electric vertical take-off and landing companies will likely take the partnership route. Joby Aviation CEO JoeBen Bevirt has stated publicly that the company intends to be vertically integrated between its vehicle development and air taxi operations.

Blade is one of a suite of air mobility companies, including Joby, that have announced its intention to go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company. In December 2020 Blade said it would merge with SPAC Experience Investment Corp at a valuation of $825 million. The deal includes $400 million in gross proceeds and $125 million in private investment in public equity (PIPE).

Ford, BMW lead Solid Power’s $130M Series B round

A Solid Power manufacturing engineer holds two 20 ampere hour (Ah) all solid-state battery cells for the BMW Group and Ford Motor Company. The 20 ampere hour (Ah) all solid-state battery cells were produced on Solid Power’s Colorado-based pilot production line. Source: Solid Power.

Solid state battery systems have long been considered the next breakthrough in battery technology, with multiple startups vying to be the first to commercialization. Automakers have been some of the top investors in the technology, each of them seeking the edge that will make their electric vehicles safer, faster and with increased range.

Ford Motor Company and BMW Group have put their money on battery technology company Solid Power.

The Louisville, Colorado-based SSB developed said Monday its latest $130 million Series B funding round was led by Ford and BMW, the latest signal that the two OEMs see SSBs powering the future of transportation. Under the investment, Ford and BMW are equal equity owners and company representatives will join Solid Power’s board.

Solid Power received additional investment in the round from Volta Energy Technologies, the venture capital firm spun out of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Solid state batteries are so named because they lack a liquid electrolyte, as Mark Harris explained in an ExtraCrunch article earlier this year. Liquid electrolyte solutions are usually flammable and at risk of overheating, so SSBs are considered to be generally safer. The real value of SSBs versus their lithium-ion counterparts is the energy density. Solid Power says its batteries can provide as much as a 50% to 100% increase in energy density compared to rechargeable batteries. Theoretically, electric vehicles with more energy dense batteries can travel longer distances on a single charge.

This latest round of investment will help Solid Power boost its manufacturing to produce battery cells with the company’s highest ampere hour (Ah) output yet. Under separate joint development agreements with Ford and BMW, it will deliver to the OEMs 100 Ah cells for testing and vehicle integration from 2022.

Until this point, the company has been manufacturing cells with 2 Ah and 10 Ah output. “Hundreds” of 2 Ah battery cells were validated by Ford and BMW late last year, Solid Power said in a statement. Meanwhile, it is currently producing 20 Ah solid-state batteries on a pilot basis with standard lithium-ion equipment.

As opposed to the 20 Ah pilot-scale cells – which are composed of 22-layers at 9×20 cm – these 100 Ah cells will have a larger footprint and even more layers, Solid Power spokesman Will McKenna told TechCrunch. (‘Layers’ refers to the number of double-sided cathodes, McKenna explained – so the 20 Ah cell has 22 cathodes and 22 anodes, with an all-solid electrolyte separator in-between each, all in a single cell.)

Unlike Solid Power’s manufacturing, traditional lithium-ion batteries must undergo electrolyte filling and cycling in their production processes. Solid Power says these additional steps accounts for 5% and 30% of capital expenditure in a typical GWh-scale lithium-ion facility.

This isn’t the first time Solid Power has landed investments from the automakers. The company’s $20 million Series A in 2018 attracted capital from BMW and Ford, as well as Samsung, Hyundai, Volta and others. It’s part of a new wave of companies that have attracted the attention of OEMs. Other notable examples include Volkswagen-backed QuantumScape and General Motors, which has put its money on SES.

Ford is also independently researching advanced battery technologies and is planning on opening a $185 million R&D battery lab, the company said last week.

Volvo AG and Daimler Trucks team up in hydrogen fuel cell joint venture

Competitors Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks are teaming up to produce hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul trucks, which the companies say will lower development costs and boost production volumes. The joint venture, which is called cellcentric, aims to bring large-scale “gigafactory” production levels of hydrogen fuel cells to Europe by 2025.

While the two companies are teaming up to produce the fuel cells via the cellcentric venture, all other aspects of truck production will remain separate. The location of the forthcoming gigafactory will be announced next year. The companies also did not specify the production capacity of the forthcoming factory.

Even as Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks used ambition-signaling terms like “gigafactory” — a term popularized by Tesla due to the giga capacity of its factories — executives added a few cautionary caveats on their goal. Europe’s hydrogen economy will depend in part on whether the European Union can produce a policy framework that further drives down costs and invests in refueling stations and other infrastructure, executives noted in a media briefing. In other words, manufacturers like Daimler and Volvo that are looking to invest in hydrogen face a ‘chicken and the egg’ problem: boosting fuel cell production only makes sense if it occurs in tandem with the buildout of a hydrogen network, including refueling stations, pipelines to transport hydrogen, and renewable energy resources to produce it.

“In the long run, I mean, this must be a business-driven activity as everything else,” Volvo CTO Lars Stenqvist told TechCrunch. “But in the in the first wave, there must be support from our politicians.”

Together with other European truck manufacturers, the two companies are calling for a build out of hydrogen refueling stations around Europe of around 300 by 2025 and around 1,000 by 2030.

The Swedish and German automakers suggested policies such as a tax on carbon, incentives for CO2-neutral technologies or an emissions trading system could all help ensure cost-competitiveness against fossil fuels. Heavy-duty trucking will only compose a fraction of hydrogen demand, around 10%, Stenqvist pointed out, with the rest being used by industries such as steel manufacturing and the chemical industry. That means the push for hydrogen-supportive policies will likely be heard from other sectors, as well.

One of the biggest challenges for the new venture will be working to decrease inefficiencies associated with converting hydrogen to electricity. “That’s the core of engineering in trucking, to improve the energy efficiency of the vehicle,” Stenqvist said. “That has always been in the DNA of engineers in our industry … energy efficiency will be even more important in an electrified world.” He estimated that the cost of hydrogen would need to be in the range of $3-4 per kilogram to make it a cost-effective alternative to diesel.

Volvo is also making investments in battery electric technologies and Stenqvist said he sees potential use cases for internal combustion engines (ICE) run on renewable biofuels. He is in agreement with Bosch executives who said earlier this month that they see a place for ICE in the future. “I’m also convinced that there is a place for the combustion engines for a long period of time, I don’t see any end, I don’t see any retirement date for the combustion engines,” he said.

“From a political side, I think it would be completely wrong to ban a technology. Politicians should not ban – should not approve technologies – they should point out the direction, they should talk about what they want to achieve. And then it’s up to us as engineers to come up with the technical solutions.”

Ford to open new lab to develop next-gen lithium-ion and solid-state batteries

Ford Motor Company will open a $185 million R&D battery lab to develop and manufacture battery cells and batteries, a first step toward the automaker possibly making battery cells in-house. The facility comes as yet another signal to consumers and other automakers that the auto giant is no longer hedging its bets on the transition to battery electric vehicles.

Company executives declined to provide a timeline on when Ford might scale its battery manufacturing, but it is clear that the company intends this facility to lay the groundwork for such a future.

The Ford Ion Park will be based in southeast Michigan and will be home to more than 150 employees across battery technology development, research and manufacturing. The facility will likely be around 200,000 square feet and will open at the end of 2022. The facility will be supported by Ford’s batteries benchmarking test laboratories in nearby Allen Park, Michigan, which is already testing battery cell construction and chemistries. Also nearby are Ford’s product development center in Dearborn and Ford’s battery cell assembly and e-motor plant in Rossville.

The new facility will be led by Anand Sankaran, who is currently Ford’s director of electrified systems engineering. He described it as a “learning lab” to create both “lab-scale and pilot-scale assembly of cells,” including next-gen lithium-ion and solid-state batteries.

Ford is thinking about the transition to BEVs in phases, Hau Thai Tang, Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer, explained. In this first phase, when BEVs are being largely purchased by early adopters, Ford’s working with external supplier partners. The company is now preparing for phase two, when Ford will bring more products to market and BEVs will take more of the market share. “So in preparation for that next transition into the second phase, we want to give Ford the flexibility and the optionality to eventually vertically integrate,” Tang said.

“Our plan to lead the electric revolution will certainly be dependent on the progress that we make on battery energy density, as well as cost,” Tang told reporters Tuesday.

“The formation of the Ford Ion Park team is a key enabler for Ford to vertically integrate and manufacture batteries in the future,” Tang said. “This will help us better control our supply and deliver high-volume battery cells with greater range, lower cost and higher quality.”

This would be a huge boost for domestic manufacturing of battery cells, which is dominated by companies based in Asia, such as Panasonic (Tesla’s main supplier), South Korea-based LG Chem and SK Innovation, Ford’s current battery cell supplier. Executives said the global pandemic and the semiconductor shortage have highlighted the importance of having a localized and domestically controlled supply chain.

“We know in terms of batteries, it’s a very capital-intensive business to be in,” Tang said. “The best tier one suppliers in the world spend a large amount of their revenue on R&D spending, and then the capital expenditure required to build and stand up battery plants is quite high. So as we think about this, the scale and volume that we would need to have dedicated sites for Ford is a big consideration, and we’ve talked about how bullish we see this transition happening. We’re at a point where now, there’s sufficient scale for us to entertain having greater levels of vertical integration at some point.”

Wingcopter debuts a triple-drop drone to create “logistical highways in the sky”

German startup Wingcopter has launched a new autonomous delivery drone designed to remove a technical bottleneck hindering the growth of drone transport services.

The Wingcopter 198, which was revealed Tuesday, is capable of making three separate deliveries per flight, the company said. Wingcopter has couched this multi-stop capability as a critical feature that will allow it to grow a cost-efficient — and hopefully profitable — drone delivery as a service business.

The company, which was founded in 2017, got its start manufacturing drones. It used the revenue to scale and now expand its business model to include drone-delivery-as-a-service. “That’s actually our next mission, to not just build drones, but to build networks,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. The company’s website is now promoting the delivery business, which aims to provide healthcare, e-commerce and grocery delivery among other services. It’s ultimate aim is to create “logistical highways in the sky,” according to a statement by Plümmer.

The key to this delivery nirvana, the company claims, is its patented tilt-rotor propellant mechanism that combines the advantages of two drone types — the multicopter, which gives drones their smooth vertical take-off and landing capabilities and the ability to hover precisely in the air, with the fixed wing, which provides fast flight times over long distances.

The new model Wingcopter 198 has a top speed of 93 miles an hour and can carry payloads up to 13 pounds for a distance of about 47 miles from a single battery charge. It can travel up to 68 miles when carrying lighter cargo, the company said.

Plümmer explained that the tilt-rotors can also automatically respond to gusts of wind and other inclement weather conditions. Its architecture includes eight motors for redundancy and safety reasons.

Image Credits: Wingcopter

 

The drones, which are equipped with sensors and software to avoid obstacles and drop parcels at designated sites, are all automated. This level of automation allows one human operator to monitor and control up to 10 of these new drones from a computer equipped with Wingcopter’s control station software anywhere in the world. Plümmer explained that running the drones is a simple as the operator pressing ‘start’ on the software program from anywhere in the world.

Plümmer also touted the scalability of the tilt-rotor system, noting that it could be applied (theoretically) to a larger aircraft to carry cargo, or even human passengers.

“It’s just a cost factor,” Plümmer said, noting that the company already employs people who have the experience in aviation and aerial engineering required to one day take the tilt-rotor aircraft to scale. “However, we thought, let’s start with the smaller version … get these 1000s of [flight] hours, 1000s of kilometers, and take these learnings into every next generation of Wingcopter so they will constantly get bigger, first for cargo, later for mobility.”

Plümmer said they’ve drawn a hard line at working with any company or government institution that would use their drones for military or surveillance purposes.

“It’s mainly moral,” he said of the objection. “We believe it would be really not fitting to our vision. Our vision is to save lives and improve life by using drone technology and drone solutions.”

Looking to the future, the company is currently pursuing a type certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, which would allow it to operate commercial flights in the United States. If they receive this certification, they will be one of only a handful of competitors operating in the space. They’ve also set their sights on another funding round, fresh of the heels of a $22 million Series A round in January. The company has around 120 employees but with an additional injection of capital in a Series B, it could hire people with expertise in AI, piloting and production.

Tesla wants to make every home a distributed power plant

Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants to turn every home into a distributed power plant that would generate, store and even deliver energy back into the electricity grid, all using the company’s products.

While the company has been selling solar and energy storage products for years, a new company policy to only sell solar coupled with the energy storage products, along with Musk’s comments Monday, reveal a strategy that aims to scale these businesses by appealing to utilities.

“This is a prosperous future both for Tesla and for the utilities,” he said. “If this is not done, the utilities will fail to serve their customers. They won’t be able to do it,” Musk said during an investor call, noting the rolling blackouts in California last summer and the more recent grid failure in Texas as evidence that grid reliability has become a bigger concern.

Last week, the company changed its website to prevent customers from only buying solar or its Powerwall energy storage product and instead required purchasing a system. Musk later announced the move in a tweet, stating “solar power will feed exclusively to Powerwall” and that “Powerwall will interface only between utility meter and house main breaker panel, enabling super simple install and seamless whole house backup during utility dropouts.”

Musk’s pitch is that the grid would need more power lines, more power plants and larger substations to fully decarbonization using renewables plus storage. Distributed residential systems — of course using Tesla products — would provide a better path, in Musk’s view. His claim has been backed up in part by recent studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that the U.S. can reach a zero-carbon grid by more than doubling its transmission capacity, and another from Princeton University showing that the country may need to triple its transmission systems by 2050 to reach net-zero emissions.

Musk is imagining a radically different electricity grid system than the one we have today, which is centrally controlled and run by grid operators, independent organizations such as the California Independent System Operator or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It’s a vision that is riddled with bureaucratic and logistical challenges. Utilities and regulatory policy would need to solve how to handle a large influx of so-called “distributed energy resources,” such as solar panels on residential roofs, which may run contrary to utilities’ long-established business models.

It’s important to note that whether renewables-plus-storage will be alone sufficient to decarbonize the energy grid is a contentious question. Many experts believing that the land use demands, storage requirements and intermittency issues of renewables may make their role as the country’s primary electricity generator a pipe dream. But Musk has long been bullish on the renewables-plus-storage model, tweeting last July that “physics favors electric transport, batteries for stationary storage & solar/wind for energy generation.”

Engineered earworms on TikTok aren’t that far off from disinfo campaigns

Ever since I read this Bloomberg story about how songs are engineered to go viral on TikTok, I’ve had one thought in my head – if you can call it that – it’s more of a noise, or impression: 

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Yes, it’s the sound of internally screaming. Just when I thought I understood how deeply social media algorithms have hijacked our desires, tastes and preferences – WHAM! Another jab straight to the nose. I have to admit, I was blindsided by this one. It knocked me out.

Now, I understand that I work for a website called TechCrunch, emphasis on the tech, but if this story doesn’t make you feel at least a teensy bit like a Luddite, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re probably like that character in the Matrix, Cypher, who wants to be plugged in.

Is that harsh? I mean, companies are going to company, and partnerships with major record labels is a common sense move for a social media app all about honing the art of short, clever combinations of sound and video. And fair dues to the creators, many of them in college or high school, for jumping at the chance to make some money and get a little bit of fame.

But it’s probably not too harsh when you consider what else is possible when catchiness is weaponized. Here’s what we know: whether it’s internet memes or political slogans or Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, what drives information dissemination is not the truthfulness of the content or the credibility of the speaker but 1) how easy it is to remember and 2) how quickly it sparks conversations. 

And would you look at that! Those are exactly the variables music producers optimize for today. What the Bloomberg story highlights, inadvertently or not, is how a #1 pop hit and a piece of political disinformation are not all that different, aesthetically. Everyone’s an entertainer.

Now read to the end of the Bloomberg story. Get to the part where it’s revealed that ByteDance (the Chinese company that owns TikTok), in response to threats of a U.S. ban on the app, recruited creators to orchestrate a seemingly grassroots lawsuit against the proposed ban. And I think: damn. Attention really is the most precious commodity in the world. And we’re just…giving it away.

(Cue the internal screams.)

Bosch sees a place for renewable fuels, challenging proposed European Union engine ban

Bosch executives on Thursday criticized proposed EU regulations that would ban the internal combustion engine by 2025, saying that lawmakers “shy away” from discussing the consequences of such a ban on employment.

Although the company reported it is creating jobs through its new businesses, particularly its fuel cell business, and said it was filling more than 90% of these positions internally, it also said an all- or mostly-electric transportation revolution would likely affect jobs. As a case in point, the company told reporters that ten Bosch employees are needed to build a diesel powertrain system, three for a gasoline system — but only one for an electrical powertrain.

Instead, Bosch sees a place for renewable synthetic fuels and hydrogen fuel cells alongside electrification. Renewable synthetic fuels made from hydrogen are a different technology from hydrogen fuel cells. Fuel cells use hydrogen to generate electricity, while hydrogen-derived fuels can be combusted in a modified internal combustion engine (ICE).

“An opportunity is being missed if renewable synthetic fuel derived from hydrogen and CO2 remains off-limits in road transport,” Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner said.

“Climate action is not about the end of the internal-combustion engine,” he continued. “It’s about the end of fossil fuels. And while electromobility and green charging power make road transport carbon neutral, so do renewable fuels.”

Electric solutions have limits, Denner said, particularly in powering heavy-duty vehicles. The company earlier this month established a joint venture with Chinese automaker Qingling Motors to build fuel cell powertrains in a test fleet of 70 trucks.

Bosch’s confidence in hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic fuels isn’t to the exclusion of battery-electric mobility. The company, which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of automotive and industrial components, said its electromobility business is growing by almost 40 percent, and the company projects annual sales of electrical powertrain components to increase to around €5 billion ($6 billion) by 2025, a fivefold increase.

However, the German company said it was “keeping its options open” by also investing €600 million ($721.7 million) in fuel cell powertrains in the next three years.

“Ultimately Europe won’t be able to achieve climate neutrality without a hydrogen economy,” Denner said.

Bosch has not been immune from the effects of the global semiconductor shortage, which continues to drag into 2021. Board member Stefan Asenkerschbaumer warned that there is a risk the shortage “will stifle the recovery that was forecast” for this year. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company executives told investors earlier this month that the situation may persist into 2022.

No one behind the wheel in deadly Tesla crash Saturday night, say authorities

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is opening an investigation into a crash involving a Tesla that authorities say was operating with no one behind the wheel, which left two men dead on late Saturday evening outside of Houston.

The 2019 Tesla Model S went off the road after it failed to negotiate a slight curve, local CBS-affiliate KHOU-TV reported. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told local reporters that the accident was unprecedented.

“Our office has never experienced a crash scene like this,” he said. “Normally, when the fire dept arrives, they have a vehicle fire under control in minutes, but this went on for close to four hours.” The long burn time was reportedly due to the electric vehicle batteries repeatedly reigniting.

More than 30,000 gallons of water were used to put out the fire. One of the victims was in the front passenger seat and the other was in the backseat, “and at the time of the accident there was no one in the [driver’s] seat,” Herman said.

Earlier on the day of the crash, Tesla CEO Elon Musk retweeted news that the company released its first-quarter 2021 safety report. “Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle,” he said. Tesla describes its Autopilot as a “suite of driver assistance features” and states that it requires “active driver supervision.”

“NHTSA is aware of the tragic crash involving a Tesla vehicle outside of Houston, Texas,” an spokesperson told TechCrunch. “NHTSA has immediately launched a Special Crash Investigation team to investigate the crash. We are actively engaged with local law enforcement and Tesla to learn more about the details of the crash and will take appropriate steps when we have more information.”

TechCrunch reached out to Tesla for comment and will update the story if the company responds.