Google brings that cheap flight data and the feds investigate Elon’s glass house
Welcome back to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B. Kirsten is away, so I’ll be your host this week.
It’s been another week of probes into Tesla that appear to be coming from all sides:
First, let’s start with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system (ADAS). As part of an ongoing investigation into the ADAS after a series of Teslas crashed into emergency vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is requesting more info from the automaker. This time, it’s about a software change that allows drivers to use the system for extended periods of time without prompting the driver to place their hands on the wheel. The NHTSA said this could “lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”
Meanwhile, in Tesla’s battery department, federal prosecutors are investigating Tesla’s performance claims after Reuters reported that the EV maker exaggerated the potential driving distance of its vehicles.
And finally, the Elon Musk–owned automaker is reportedly under the microscope from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for using company funds to — *checks notes* — build a giant glass house for Musk near Tesla’s Austin HQ.
Have I missed anything?
Before we jump into the news, a little update about TechCrunch Disrupt. Kyle Vogt, CEO and co-founder of Cruise, will be joining us September 20 on the Disrupt Stage in a session called “The Robotaxi Revolution.”
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If you’re into e-bikes, you’ve probably noticed that the new ones are being built with GPS tracking enabled, ostensibly so you can find your bike if someone steals it. But most people aren’t going to track down their bike and confront a potentially dangerous thief, and the police probably have more important things on their plates.
Enter BackPedal, a UK-based startup that’s building a business model around e-bike recovery. Using a network of on-the-ground recovery agents, good relationships with police, and GPS tracking, the company will go and get your stolen e-bike for you.
The business model is a monthly subscription service, starting at £8.99 per month, that also includes insurance in the event that the startup can’t reclaim the bike. But so far, BackPedal boasts a 90% success rate and is working on improving that rate as it grows across the U.K.
Deal of the week
Chinese EV startup XPeng will acquire the smart EV assets of ride-hailing giant Didi for $744 million. The Didi assets will become a new sub-brand called “Mona” under XPeng and is scheduled to launch in 2024. There are several reasons why this piqued my interest.
The deal marks Didi’s surrender of its carmaking dream. The firm has been slowly climbing out from under a dark cloud following a series of regulatory crackdowns from the Chinese government, so selling off a money-hemorrhaging EV business was a good way for Didi to focus back on ride-hailing.
The deal might also help XPeng, a Tesla competitor, expand its market reach, particularly if Didi features Mona vehicles as a preferred option for riders.
A partnership between the two companies could boost both XPeng’s autonomous driving technology and Didi’s robotaxi pursuits. In April, Didi said it was working with Chinese carmakers to deploy self-developed robotaxis to the public by 2025. And while XPeng has mainly focused on ADAS, the automaker has been making moves to test its G9 SUV as a commercial autonomous vehicle.
Real quick before we get to the other deals . . .
Chinese startups are beginning to get the OK to sell shares abroad — but they have to adhere to China’s strict new set of rules. Two startups that have surfaced recently are Zeekr, a young yet well-financed EV brand under Chinese auto giant Geely, and WeRide, an autonomous driving startup that’s raised over $1 billion in funding. Zeekr has been given the green light to issue up to 926 million common shares on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and WeRide is allowed to issue 159 million shares on either the NYSE or Nasdaq.
Both the guidance set by Beijing and an agreement by the U.S. to accept auditing of Chinese companies by Chinese accounting firms means there’s now a path forward to IPO abroad. This has led to a slight rebound in Chinese IPOs.
Other deals that caught my attention . . .
The Biden administration is offering $15.5 billion in funds and loans to spur the EV transition. The money will go toward retooling existing auto factories for electric, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as well as boosting battery manufacturing domestically.
Bosch’s deal to acquire TSI Semiconductors has gone through, but it’s facing some hurdles. The company said it needs subsidies from the U.S. government to carry out its full expansion plans. California has approved a $25 million tax credit for the factory.
Lyft lead independent director, Sean Aggarwal, bought over $1 million in Lyft shares. The company’s share price rose around 11% in the days that followed.
Redwood Materials, the battery recycling and materials startup founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, raised $1 billion to expand the U.S.’s battery supply chain.
VanMoof, the flashy e-bike startup that declared bankruptcy this summer, has gotten a lifeline. British e-scooter company Lavoie has acquired the business, with plans to invest in the brand and relaunch the business. Sources told TechCrunch that Lavoie paid “tens of millions” of euros for VanMoof.
Notable news and other tidbits
Ford‘s BlueCruise hands-off ADAS has been approved for use in Germany.
Tesla has dropped the price of its “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) beta software to $12,000, down from $15,000. The EV maker didn’t say why, but I have my suspicions. As other ADAS, like Ford’s BlueCruise, takes off, Tesla could be trying to implement dynamic pricing to stay ahead of the game. But I think it’s more about data. Musk has made no bones about the importance of achieving actual full self-driving, and to do so with only cameras and no lidar or radar will require all the data Tesla can get its hands on. A cheaper FSD cost might incentivize more buyers to install the controversial software.
AB316, a California bill that would ban fully driverless heavy-duty AVs in the state, is getting close to making it to the state’s Senate floor. The California DMV has spoken out, saying the ban will not increase safety and will instead have a chilling effect on the development of technology in California that’s intended to increase safety on roadways.
Cruise is beginning manual data collection in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and Las Vegas, even as its tech comes under scrutiny in its hometown of San Francisco. This article runs through what that means and lists all the markets Cruise is in today.
Volvo Autonomous Solutions has successfully removed its safety driver in an active commercial mining operation in Norway.
Electric vehicles, charging & batteries
FreeWire Technologies, an EV charging tech company, unveiled an AI-enabled prediction tool to help business and C-store retailer customers to determine the optimal locations to place EV charging stations. The tool will be available across the U.S. and in four Canadian provinces in Q1 2024.
Fisker revealed more details about its Pear crossover EV, but what we found most interesting was the automaker’s confirmation that Foxconn would indeed be building the EV at its Lordstown, Ohio, factory. CEO Henrik Fisker told TechCrunch in August that the deal was still not finalized, and indeed we still have some questions. Like, what other details do Foxconn and Fisker need to hammer out? And how on earth does Fisker think it’ll be able to pull off building a sub-$30,000 EV at a profit?
Mercedes-Benz is opening its first EV DC fast-charging hubs in Atlanta, China and Germany, starting in the fourth quarter of 2023. This is the automaker’s first step toward installing 2,000 charging hubs worldwide by the end of 2024, and 10,000 chargers by 2030.
Tesla has also packed higher-end Model S and Model X features — like ambient lighting and ventilated seats — into the refreshed Model 3.
Apple has filed a patent for an augmented reality heads-up display. Whether or not Apple is actually working on its mythical Apple Car, this product would make good use of the company’s XR tech.
General Motors is using Google’s AI chatbot, Dialogflow, to power its OnStar in-car concierge service. The AI will be able to handle non-emergency requests, like routing, navigation and answering questions about GM vehicles in an oh-so-lifelike way.
Speaking of Google, Google Flights has released a new feature that will help travelers figure out the cheapest time to book. The new insights tool will lean on historical trend data to let consumers see when prices have typically been the lowest to their chosen destination on their selected dates.
Toyota Motor Europe has launched Toyota Open Labs, an innovation platform designed to bring together startups with business units across the Toyota ecosystem. The goal is to help transform Toyota into a mobility company with expertise across energy, circular economy, carbon-neutral tech, smart communities and more.
Rivian has brought on Dr. Kjell Gruner as chief commercial officer and president of business growth. Gruner comes to the table with 25 years of automotive experience, most recently serving as CEO of Porsche Cars North America. He also worked as director of strategy at Mercedes-Benz for six years.
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.