A final rule for AVs and Cruise’s Kyle Vogt on why he’s ready to be CEO again

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox. 

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.

It was a busy week of “future of transportation” news, and lucky for us, we have a new reporter here at ProWellTech ready to dig into the beat. Reporter Jaclyn Trop has had a long career writing about automotive and other ways we move around this world. She’ll be focused on EVs and in-car tech, so expect more stories like her coverage of Rivian’s earnings, Google’s push into transportation and VR entertainment systems coming to cars.

Some fun Jaclyn Trop facts: she has driven vehicles in more than 50 countries. In her view, the worst traffic she encountered was in China, the scariest roads were in Montenegro and the best roads she has driven on were in Bahrain.

Follow her @jaclyntrop on Twitter. Or email her a tip at jaclyn.techcrunch@gmail.com.


Finally, I am in Austin for a few days to attend SXSW. If you’re in the city, please come meet me at one of two panels I will be moderating. The first one, called “The Sustainable Approach to Mobility for Everyone, Everywhere,” will begin at 2:30 p.m. CT March 14 at The Line Hotel. Speakers will be Ashwin Dias, global head of electrification at Uber, Avinash Rugoobur, president at Arrival and Selika Talbott, founder and CEO of Autonomous Vehicle Consulting.

I will also be moderating a panel at 11:30 a.m. March 16 at the Hilton Austin Downtown. This panel, called “Catalyzing Zero Transportation for All,” will feature Carlos Gonzalez, senior director of global business development at Enel X North America and Adam Gromis, public policy manager of sustainability and environmental impact at Uber.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to Kirsten at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin

Move over, Gogoro, there’s a new micromobility battery swapping startup in town. Berlin-based Swobbee just raised $6.5 million to expand its battery-swapping network, which focuses more on e-bikes and e-scooters than e-mopeds like Gogoro, across Germany and into two new European markets.

Speaking of Gogoro, the company just unveiled a solid-state swappable battery prototype, which it hopes will lead to higher capacity and range and a lower chance of catching fire.

Baltic e-bike company Ampler has added two new pedal-assist bikes to its five-strong lineup. Each of Ampler’s bikes tries to offer something for everyone with variations in size, taste, and design. The company is also opening two new showrooms in Amsterdam and Zurich.

Bird is launching a bikeshare integration with Lisbon’s public bike service, Gira. As part of Bird’s Smart Bikeshare integration, now Gira’s e-bikes will be visible on the Bird app.

Joco, the docked electric bike service that launched in New York City last April to rival Citi Bike, is pivoting its business away from consumer rides and toward last-mile delivery. The move comes after Joco was sued by the city for operating a bike share without prior authorization from the NYC Department of Transportation.

Future Motion, makers of the fun-looking Onewheel electric boards, sent their first shipments of the new flagship Onewheel GT units to customers from its San Jose facility.

Lime has partnered with sustainable fintech platform Aspiration to offer Lime riders the chance to fund the planting of a tree for each ride. Aspiration members will be incentivized to choose a greener mode of transport with free access to LimePrime for up to 12 months.

Rad Power Bikes has updated its RadMini to be the RadExpand5, the fourth model the company has released in the last six months and a lightweight foldable e-bike. Priced at $1,299, the bike has a rear rack included and new 4-inch wide tires.

Superpedestrian was added to Fast Company’s annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies.

The American motorcycle company Indian Motorcycle and the lifestyle adventure brand Super73 have teamed up to create the eFTR Hooligan 1.2, an electric moto-inspired bike at $3,999.99.

Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Yamaha plans to bring its first three e-bikes to market by the end of 2022.

— Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

We are watching and waiting with anticipation for this one. I’m talking about Mobileye and its plan to go public.

Mobilieye, which was acquired by Intel for about $15 billion in 2017, filed confidentially for an initial public offering this week. We’re still waiting on lots of information, including the number of shares that will be offered and the price.

What we do know is that Mobileye has a multi-billion-dollar business supplying automakers with computer vision technology that powers advanced driver assistance systems and is taking aim at the robotaxi market as well.

We’ve known about Intel’s plan to free Mobileye for months now. But in this market, the company’s IPO will likely get more attention. Why? Well, as ProWellTech’s Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim write in their analysis: “with today’s IPO market frozen like a glacier, any and all exit data is welcome. If Mobileye manages a smooth IPO at an attractive price, the company could help shake loose the exit market for tech companies. No single IPO will fix a bear market, but it would help.

In contrast, if Mobileye struggles when it debuts, or its IPO is pushed back due to market conditions, we’ll know that the public markets remain pretty darn closed for unicorns and other late-stage startups.”

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Autobrains, the Israeli startup that believes it has figured out how to fix the 1% margin of error typical in self-driving with a “self-learning” approach, raised $19 million. The funding rounds out its Series C at $120 million. The first tranche of this investment was made public in November 2021, and altogether the investor list includes Temasek, previous strategic backers Continental and BMW i Ventures, and new backers Knorr-Bremse AG and VinFast.

AutoFi, the San Francisco-based auto financing startup, raised $85 million with a post-funding valuation of $700 million from Santander Holdings USA, SVB Financial Group, the parent of Silicon Valley Bank, and Crosslink Capital.

Fetch, that built a self-service truck rental app, has raised $3.5 million to help expand their team and operations. The round was led by NextView Ventures, and backed by Knoll Ventures, Zeno Ventures, Nassau Street Ventures and a number of angels.

Forto, the Berlin-based freight forwarding and logistics company, raised $250 million in a round led by technology investment firm Disruptive and including SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The funding nearly doubled the Forto’s valuation to $2.1 billion in eight months, Reuters reported.

Nvidia made its first investment in the sidewalk delivery bot sector. The chipmaker and AI company invested $10 million in Uber spinout Serve Robotics. The startup led by Ali Kashani said it will use capital to further expand its sidewalk delivery robot service outside Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Tiger Global Management, one of the most active startup investors, including in the transportation sector, is focusing on early stage. Apparently, partners at the firm have committed $1 billion of their own cash to invest in seed funds that focus on backing the youngest startups, The Information reported, citing unnamed sources.

A chat with Kyle Vogt

A couple of weeks ago, Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt took back the CEO spot. If you recall, Vogt had vacated the top seat at GM’s self-driving car subsidiary in January 2019 when Dan Ammann took over. Vogt moved into the CTO spot.

At the time, the move seemed to make sense. Cruise had grown from a small startup with 40 employees to more than 1,000 by the time Ammann took over. But in late December 2021, Ammann departed in what insiders told me was a surprising and sudden development.

I caught up with Vogt and thought I would share some of his sentiments and other insights with you. Here are the highlights.

I asked Vogt about why he gave up the CEO spot only to take it back a few years later. He said:

The first few years of Cruise was when it was at a very different stage for the company. It was about building something from scratch and getting it up and running.

When Dan came in and took over as CEO, I thought that was a great move at the time because it helped us get through some of the scaling challenges of going from a few 100 people up to a couple 1,000.

And now, as we’re on the verge of commercialization, and the company is in a very good position and much larger scale, I wanted to reflect on that and make sure that this is the right time for me to take over and that we had the best person possible running Cruise.

I asked him why he wasn’t the right person before and when a founder should and should not step back from the CEO job.

I think a good leader knows when they’ve reached their limits, and the best thing for the company is to bring in someone to augment their skills. I felt like I was over my skis a little bit at the time Dan came on, so it was perfect.

Since then, I’ve been surrounded by really great leaders, both at Cruise and GM, and had a chance to basically catch up to where I think we need to be and perhaps get ahead of the curve a bit.

And so it’s a different situation, but I think the challenging thing for any founder is to step aside when it’s the right thing for the company. And, you see time and time again when people do that, it works out well. And when they don’t, and they wait too long, that works out not so well. So I’m glad I did. I think it was the right move for the company at that stage. And I’m also happy with today’s move.

I asked Vogt what he learned after giving up the CEO position a few years ago.

It’s not rocket science, just experience, you know, like managing teams of a few 1,000 people — the job of a CEO shifts to be more about attracting and retaining world-class leaders. These are VPs or senior VPs and the way you manage VPs and senior VPs is very different than a first line engineering manager.

And so for me, it was just getting experience, learning how to attract and work with really great leaders that expect a high degree of autonomy, a high degree of responsibility, but when given the right environment, will knock it out of the park.

Vogt told me that to go from nothing to “something that can have meaningful change” founders should be thinking on a decade-long timescale. Cruise is approaching that decade mark. So, what does achievement or “building something” mean to Vogt and what can we expect over the next couple of years? His answer:

This is something that we’ve run into a number of times in the AV industry, which is that when things are improving or scaling exponentially, it’s really hard to predict exactly what the Y axis is going to be in two years out.

But what I will say is, what we’re seeing today is really the tip of the iceberg. The amount of development and energy going into just this first commercial deployment that we have in San Francisco was enormous.

And now that the initial deployment has happened, I think you’re going to continue to see a massive rate of progress that was kind of hidden behind the veil before because we hadn’t done our first product launch. That rate of improvement, that increase in scale is going to start happening pretty rapidly now that we’ve crossed that initial threshold and we’ve decided we’re ready for early customers.

Notable news and other tidbits

Autonomous vehicles

The big AV news this week wasn’t a funding round or partnership. Nope, it was a first-of-its-kind final rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) that finally gives autonomous vehicles and vehicles with automated driving functions heir own set of motor vehicle safety standards. The ruling begins to provide clarity on how passenger safety should be defined in vehicles that are designed without features like driver’s seats and steering wheels.

Taking a closer read of this 155-page document, you find all sorts of insights in to companies and what they’re angling for. Ford, GM, Nuro, Tesla, Uber, Waymo and Zoox all made comments in the document (check it out!). Tesla, which currently does not have an autonomous vehicle but sells an advanced driver assistance product for $12,000 that is called “Full Self-Driving” had some of the more interesting arguments.

In one example, Tesla argued that driving controls should include instances where manual controls may be removable, or “locked” or where the vehicle may be operated remotely by portable steering controls within the vehicle, such as cell phones or tablet.”

NHTSA disagreed “stating the new definition is meant to encompass traditional driving controls, not future
controls that have not yet been developed.”

Kodiak Robotics, the autonomous trucking startup, partnered with Ceva Logistics to deliver freight autonomously between Dallas-Forth Worth and Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City.

Pony.ai issued a recall following an October crash in California, according to the NHTSA. This is the first recall of an automated driving system, according to the agency.

Finally, I recommend reading this well-reported story from Wired about Rafaela Vasquez, one of the central figures in the Uber self-driving crash that occurred in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018.

Electric vehicles

I have resisted giving Elon Musk his own category in this newsletter, but with so much news coming from him and his companies, perhaps I should. This week, the big Elon news (besides that he apparently has another child with former partner Grimes) is his efforts to back out of a 2018 settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The settlement is tied to his infamous tweet in 2018 that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. Musk’s lawyer Alex Spiro made two filings this week. One asked a federal judge to terminate the consent decree, an agreement with the SEC that among other things required some of his tweets be pre-approved by a lawyer. The filing argues that the SEC’s oversight borders on micromanagement and continues to infringe on Musk’s freedom of expression.

The second and separate filing disputed SEC’s initial claims that Musk defrauded investors with the tweet. Musk claims he was forced to settle with the SEC because it threatened the viability of Tesla as well as his numerous other companies, including The Boring Company, Neuralink and SpaceX.

ok, moving on to other EV news  …

EVs could get a lot more expensive thanks to surging nickel prices, according to a recent Morgan Stanley research note.

Electric Last Mile Solutions has problems. Lots of problems, including that the SEC has opened an investigation into the company and an impending cash crunch.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) are collaborating with Ford Motor and GM (in separate pilots) to test how the automakers’ EVs can provide backup power for customers’ homes in the California utility’s service area.

People

May Mobility, the AV technology startup, named Manik Dhar as its first chief commercial officer. Dhar previously served as chief revenue officer at data-annotation firm CloudFactory. He also had stints at Zūm, Google and Orace.

The company also added Seiji Miyasaka, president of SPARX Capital Investments, and Yosuke Tsuruta, vice president of dealer experience and mobility at Toyota Motor North America, to its board. Masaru Kusutani of Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., and Takamichi Kono of Toyota Tsusho Corporation are also joining as board observers.

Scale AI appointed Plaid co-founder, William Hockey, to the company’s board of directors. Hockey, the co-founder of Plaid, is joining to will help the Scale team expand products to meet growing customer demand and support more data types and use cases across industries, including finance, e-commerce, transportation and logistics and government, according to the company.

Waze appointed Yannis Simaiakis as its new chief strategy and insights officer. He was previously at Via and McKinsey and Co.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2022

Join us on May 18-20 for TC Sessions: Mobility.  Whether you’re an early or even late-stage founder, an investor, engineer or builder, or you’re focused on the policies and ethics of new mobility technologies, this event is for you. Plus, you’ll get hands-on with the latest autonomous, electric and flying vehicles!

Register before April 1st, 2022 with this link and get 30% off our already low-priced Early Bird Pass. This discount is not valid for student tickets or startup demo packages and is not able to be combined with any other discounts.

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