What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is licensing patents rather than selling technology to Toyota – in other words, Toyota gets the right to use ideas patented by Microsoft, but not products or services built on top of them. That suggests that, while Microsoft has an impressive patent portfolio, it hasn’t necessarily built with those patents technology carmakers consider valuable. And that remains a big challenge for Microsoft in the connected car space – Windows and related technologies have been used in cars in the past, and Azure is being used as a cloud service behind some connected car services today, but Microsoft continues to struggle to build technologies carmakers actually want to use in cars, while other players continue to make headway in the space. I could certainly see Microsoft doing more deals like this – indeed, it describes this as a first for a new auto licensing program – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft is any closer to a stronger role in in-car technology.
Uber’s autonomous cars drove 20,354 miles and had to be taken over at every mile, according to documents – Recode (Mar 16, 2017)
One of the great things about autonomous driving technology is that regulators require companies to keep track of how those cars are performing, and in the case of California that data is published annually, providing a great insight into how each company’s technology is advancing. However, occasionally, internal documents on testing emerge that provide lots of detail too, and such documents have apparently been leaked to Recode (and BuzzFeed). There’s lots of interesting data here, and it suggests progress is being made and Uber is driving lots of miles in its various cars. It’s worth comparing some of the numbers here for Uber with those reported by other companies in California by way of putting them in context: Uber says its rate of disengagements per mile is 0.8, for example, whereas Waymo’s cars in California are now at a rate of 0.2 per 1000 miles, or some 4,000 times better. Now, Waymo’s cars have been driving in the state for much longer than Uber’s, but that’s still a massive discrepancy in performance. And it’s also worse than Tesla’s rate of 182 disengagements over 550 miles driven in 2016. So it appears Uber has a long way still to go in autonomous driving, and it’s therefore remarkable that it’s already using these cars to ferry real passengers around Pittsburgh.
This feels like something of a slime ball move on Uber’s part on two fronts: firstly, trying to move the court case with Waymo out of open court and behind closed doors; and secondly, essentially trying to push the case off its back and onto Levandowski’s. I had said previously that the course was going to be fascinating for the details it would provide about how Uber developed technologies and how it would defend against what look like fairly solid allegations, but if it gets its wish here we won’t get to see any of that. But I think it’s the attempt to make this a case about an employee rather than the company that seems particularly sleazy – if the allegations are indeed true, then Uber and not Levandowski benefited the most, and making this seem like a dispute between an employee and former employer feels like a total misrepresentation.
via USA Today
Nvidia Partners with Bosch and Truck Maker Around Autonomy (Mar 16, 2017)
Here are two partnership announcements from Nvidia, the first a deal with automotive component maker Bosch to incorporate Nvidia chips in self-driving solutions, and the second with truck maker PACCAR for self-driving truck technology. Nvidia continues to be one of the biggest names in autonomous driving, and certainly one of the most successful chip vendors (hence Intel’s Mobileye deal). These deals come on top of lots of existing ones, but trucks are a particularly interesting area – it feels like that’s a segment of the market that could actually see real-world adoption of autonomy much sooner than cars.
I think it’s safe to say that Tesla’s plans for Model 3 manufacturing represent the biggest test the company and Elon Musk have faced by a long way. The ramp contemplated is so rapid and takes the company so far beyond its historical production rate that it seems almost impossible for it to meet its targets. And yet here it is raising more money to fund what’s going to be a massive capital spend in the first half of the year to prepare for that production run that’s scheduled to begin in July. In the first half of last year, the company spent around half a billion dollars on capex, and it plans to spend $2-2.5 billion in the first half of 2017, which gives some sense of just how big the leap is from anything the company has done in the past. That’s going to cause a massive cash drain, hence the new funding. Musk continues to execute extremely well on his long-term plans eventually, but hitting short-term targets continues to be his big weakness, and it feels like the Model 3 is either going to be the worst example of that flaw or the biggest possible exception to the pattern. I’m betting it’s the former.
For all the hyberbolic references to monopolies that sometimes afflict the tech industry, here’s a case where one company really does have what appears to be a monopoly, and on a critical component for autonomous vehicles: LIDAR. LIDAR is the same visual radar technology at the heart of the Waymo-Uber lawsuit, because they’re two of only a very small number of companies currently attempting to make their own, while everyone else buys them from Velodyne at $30-40,000 a pop. The global market for LIDAR is currently in the thousands, and the company expects to ship around ten thousand this year, but it and others would obviously have to ramp to tens of millions a year to supply the global automotive industry in the longer term. And those prices will come down massively – Waymo has supposedly reduced the cost dramatically for its own units.
via The Information
California and Michigan have to be the two states where the most testing of autonomous vehicle technology is being done, with the former home to most of the tech companies in the space and the latter the home of several legacy automakers. The FT is here citing data from the California DMV, which you can see in its raw form here. What’s fascinating is the mix of companies here, as I’ve said before – there are several traditional carmakers (VW, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Honda, Ford, and Subaru), several big names from the tech world (Waymo, Tesla, Uber, Baidu, Faraday Future, and Cruise [now part of GM]), and a variety of other smaller companies. But Waymo has by far the largest number of cars and miles driven (and most accidents). But the California DMV is certainly the source of some of the most interesting data on self-driving testing anywhere in the world right now.
via Financial Times
Pay-as-you-drive insurance isn’t a brand new concept – indeed, I remember a colleague writing a report on this about five years ago when I was at Ovum. The basic concept is that the insurance company finds a way to measure actual driving behavior and then offers lower rates to those drivers who drive most safely. There are a number of pilots and active programs underway already, and this Tesla program just takes it a step further by focusing on drivers who turn on the Autopilot feature. Outside of this program, Root measures actual driving behavior through an app, but with Autopilot-enabled Teslas, there’s apparently no such hurdle to overcome. That’s great validation for Tesla (especially given the recent worries over its latest software), and also for autonomous driving technology as a whole – a key argument made by essentially all of its proponents is that it will be safer than human drivers. I’ll be curious to see if this program eventually gets expanded to cover other ADAS systems (since Autopilot is technically ADAS rather than autonomous technology), and whether Root’s data backs up Tesla’s claims about safety over time.
Twitter’s former head engineer Alex Roetter lands at Larry Page’s flying car startup Kitty Hawk – Business Insider (Mar 7, 2017)
The details of this story aren’t all that interesting unless flying cars are a particular obsession. What’s most interesting here is actually that Larry Page is now doing in separate (often secretive) entities things which in the past might well have been done by divisions of Google. I’ve often said that a lot of what now sits in the Other Bets segment at Alphabet began life as a twinkle in Larry or Sergey’s eye, or as a passion project of sorts, and that’s always struck me as a rather inappropriate use of shareholders’ money. So, it’s interesting to see that not only is Alphabet paring back the Other Bets and exercising greater financial discipline around them in general, but the Google founders are also starting to make those bets with their own money. Both feel like progress.
via Business Insider
Self-driving cars are watching us and recording our data whether or not we’re watching the road — Quartz (Mar 7, 2017)
This article is part good reporting, part opinion, and comes with a clear point of view (which I’d articulate as “carmakers are collecting too much data on us and our driving behavior with insufficient transparency and opt-outs”). But the reporting is well worth reading whether or not you agree with that point of view: the piece does a good job of spelling out all the data that’s being collected by various automakers old and new, and what it’s being used for. And indeed, this data is critical for developing both ADAS and autonomous driving systems, because it’s only by measuring real-world human driver behavior at massive scale that cars can be taught both how to drive like human beings (which is important for trust and comfort) and how to drive better than human beings (which is important for safety). The legacy carmakers obviously have a big advantage here because they have many more cars on the road and hitting the road each year than newcomers like Tesla, let alone non-carmakers like Uber and Google. But it’s how that data is collected and used that makes all the difference here – putting advanced sensors in cars is critical to getting the rich data needed, but it also raises big privacy concerns which I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more about in the coming years.
It’s impossible to imagine any major car manufacturer putting out an ADAS system or autonomous driving technology that was as unready (and as apparently unsafe) as Tesla’s Autopilot software currently appears to be – it would be catastrophic for their brands and reputations. That’s probably the single biggest difference between Tesla and the major legacy automakers at this point, and it’s simultaneously what allows Tesla to move so much faster and what may end up causing major image, safety, and regulatory problems for the company as well. Moving fast and breaking things may be a fine motto for a social network, but it’s clearly not the right approach for a car. The very fact that the current feature set is said to be in beta feels like completely the wrong model for this environment. Tesla seems to be being helped by the fact that many of its drivers are early adopter types and eager to test even technology that isn’t completely ready, but I’m guessing they will feel differently if they or family members are hurt or killed in an accident because of this faulty steering and other erratic behavior. Tesla really ought to pull these updates and roll cars back to previous versions until it fixes the problems.
Toyota’s approach to autonomous driving strikes me as exactly the right one – as this article briefly explains, it’s approaching the problem from two different perspectives, one of which is about improving existing ADAS systems within the cars we’re driving today and in the near future, with the other being focused on Level 4 and 5 autonomy. I continue to be very skeptical that any car company is going to work its way incrementally and smoothly through the levels from 2 to 3 to 4, and believe much more strongly that we’re going to see a Big Bang shift from Level 2 to Level 4, which means that transition is likely to take quite some time. That doesn’t mean things like cruise control, self parking and so on aren’t going to get a lot smarter in the meantime, and that’s a good thing, but it does mean that true autonomy is both a long way away and likely to arrive all at once rather than incrementally. And of course because companies like Toyota have tens of millions of cars on the road already, they’re able to capture lots of data that will help with both the incremental ADAS and eventually autonomous technologies.
via The Verge
I’ve argued that the big car companies are actually participating pretty actively in the three big shifts occurring in their industry at this point, rather than just sitting idly by, and GM’s Maven business is a good example of some of that engagement, albeit on a fairly small scale. This new model doesn’t seem all that compelling – at over $1000 per month (including insurance, gas, and parking) it’s a little steep for a month’s Volt rental, which would cost you a fraction of that on a longer-term basis. But at least the company is experimenting. Other Maven services are a lot more interesting, and I had an interesting conversation with some of the team at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Maven Home is designed for high-end apartment complexes, for example, where owners get access to cars on an on-demand basis through their building, and GM is also doing interesting things with both Uber and Lyft separately.
This is an interesting but not altogether unexpected step. There’s an analogy here to Amazon’s discounted Echo-only music service, which takes advantage of the same limitations to offer a lower price for something that would normally cost more. GM is now offering $20 for unlimited data, which is the same as it used to charge for 2GB of in-car WiFi data. AT&T continues to sell in-car connectivity to carmakers at a rapid rate – about a million subs per quarter – but these subs are mostly extremely basic at the outset, covering just in-car telematics for a few dollars a month. Only if subscribers actually start buying the additional features such as OnStar and this kind of in-car WiFi does AT&T start to generate a more meaningful revenue per user, so being more aggressive about the pricing, especially as AT&T reintroduces unlimited plans for its own services, makes a lot of sense. And of course since GM gets a cut, it’s strongly incentivized to sell these services too.
Tesla Reports Q4 2016 Financial Results (Feb 22, 2017)
The last in our trio of financial results today comes from Tesla. This Wall Street Journal piece from this morning does a great job highlighting some of the investor enthusiasm about Tesla in the face of its continued failure to hit expectations and deliver on its own production and other promises. In the end, today’s results were a mixed bag – both production and deliveries in Q4 were down slightly on Q3 but well up on Q4 last year, revenue was up almost double year on year, and the Solar City business looks to be breaking even on gross margin. But overall, the company had big net losses, ate massive amounts of cash in the quarter, and continues to be a long way from its production targets for the Model 3 which is supposed to start shipping in July. It’s also about to embark on a huge increase in battery production, with three additional Gigafactories being planned for construction starting later this year. Meanwhile, the company’s valuation is now ahead of Nissan’s, despite producing losses and massively fewer cars – the power of trajectory and belief in a disruptive business model.
via Tesla (PDF)
Avis Budget Group to Supply Uber Drivers With Zipcars (Feb 8, 2017)
Two alternatives to traditional car ownership come together here, as Avis/Budget provides Zipcars to Uber drivers on an hourly basis. This deal could help expand Uber’s base of potential drivers beyond those who already own a car including among those who only want to drive part time, as well as dealing with the sometimes thorny issue of insurance. The big car rental companies are each trying to figure out how they fit into these new models – Enterprise has been approaching carmakers with offers to help them manage ride sharing fleets, and now there’s this deal between another of the big names and Uber. Meanwhile, some of the big carmakers themselves have been buying or taking stakes in smaller new rental companies as a way of hedging against a future of less car ownership. Though a lot of the disruption in this space has been driven by startups coming in from outside the industry, each of the legacy players has an enormous vested interest in ensuring a strong role in the future models too.
Amazon is fond of making announcements around cool but generally far-off concepts around the end-of-year holidays as a way of giving its brand a boost just when people are thinking about buying lots of stuff online. The timing here may be a coincidence, but it certainly won’t hurt Uber to have some flying car stories out there at a time when its brand has taken something of a knock in the US from the immigration brouhaha. Flying cars are probably the only thing Uber is working on that’s even further out than its autonomous cars in terms of timelines – hiring a NASA engineer to head the project is a great PR move, but there’s no chance we’re seeing anything like this in any American cities anytime soon. Take all the regulatory hurdles associated with autonomous cars and then put them in the sky and you have some idea of what these VTOL (vertical take off and landing) vehicles would have to overcome to go into production, even with human drivers/pilots. And as with autonomous driving, Uber’s cavalier attitude towards regulation doesn’t give me lots of confidence that they’re the ones I want pioneering this technology.
This is Uber’s second partnership with a carmaker around autonomous driving – it already has one with Volvo, under which Volvo supplies the base vehicle along with redundant power supply and other features which is then plugged into Uber’s autonomous driving “brain”. It looks like the Daimler/Mercedes relationship will be similar. Both Alphabet’s Waymo and Uber have now made clear statements to the effect that they don’t see value in trying to build cars, a topic on which Apple still seems to be somewhat uncertain. What’s less clear is whether Uber, like Waymo, sees a role for itself in designing the hardware to go into cars, such as LIDAR. These tie-ups between carmakers and ride sharing services make plenty of sense: if autonomous driving is going to have a role in the near term, it will likely be as part of ride sharing or ride hailing services, which have narrowly defined geographic areas in which they operate – that’s the same reason Ford’s aggressive 2021 goal is designed for a fleet scenario rather than retail sales. It’s also interesting to see a premium brand like Mercedes associated with Uber here – though limos were an important part of the early value proposition for Uber, the focus has since shifted well down market towards UberX and Uber Pool.
The Google Car was supposed to disrupt the car industry. Now Waymo is taking on suppliers – Recode (Jan 28, 2017)
This is a subtle shift, but an important one – one that began to become apparent a few weeks back. Alphabet is fundamentally a software, rather than hardware, company (Google’s recent push into first party hardware notwithstanding) – that’s where its skills have always lain, and where it has been able to add the most value both in its own products and in partnering with others. However, in the car space, it’s increasingly clear that Waymo will pair those software skills with developing hardware skills around things like LIDAR, and potentially attempt to sell packages of hardware and software or even complete systems, rather than just providing the software brains that will leverage hardware from other suppliers in cars. There are pros and cons here – on the one hand, Waymo doesn’t yet have great credibility in hardware in cars, and so trying to bundle the two together may threaten its ability to sell its software. On the other hand, it didn’t have much credibility in self-driving software either a few years back, but has earned it over time and now has partnerships with FCA, among others, so perhaps it can win trust in the same way with hardware as it makes progress here.
Proposed state law would require emissions-free autonomous vehicles, and tax them by the mile – The Boston Globe (Jan 20, 2017)
As regulators and governments seek to provide a legal framework for autonomous driving, we’ll see something of a dichotomy between those who try to be as welcoming as possible to experiments and development of the technology, and those who see this as yet another opportunity to drive tax revenue or other separate goals. These lawmakers in Massachusetts seem to be taking the second approach, proposing that autonomous cars pay a per-mile road tax and produce zero emissions. Contrast this with Arizona’s governor, who has been very open to testing of autonomous vehicles and famously invited Uber’s self-driving cars to his state when they were banned from San Francisco. San Francisco, of course, is somewhere in the middle, largely open to testing of the technology, but with reasonable limits. Just as there will be fierce competition between tech companies around autonomous driving, there will be competition between states and cities around the technology too. Policies such as those being advocated in Massachusetts are likely to do little to endear the state to would-be autonomous driving companies.