Oct 19, 2018

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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1 big thing: This EV startup for adventure-goers has a bigger plan

RJ Scaringe and his EV skateboard. Photo illustration: Axios visuals

Rivian founder RJ Scaringe thinks he's figured out the smart play for his electric vehicle startup: Make EVs for outdoor adventurers and then license his battery-powered “skateboard” to other companies that want to sell automated EVs, but lack their own technology.

Why it matters: After 100 years, automobiles are shifting away from gasoline, steering wheels and personal ownership. But there are a lot of EV startups out there, and most have had a rocky go of it — so you’d better have a solid business plan, innovative technology, manufacturing chops and plenty of capital.

Scaringe claims to have it all. “We’re building a business in the middle of an earthquake,” he says.

Details:

  • Rivian plans to launch 2 battery-electric vehicles in 2020: a 5-seat pickup and a 7-passenger SUV. They'll debut at the Los Angeles auto show in November and will be built at a factor in Illinois.
  • A choice of 3 battery packs under the floor will be offered, the largest good for up to 450 miles of range.
  • That EV “skateboard” will be the foundation for as many as 6 Rivian vehicles.
  • They'll have semi-automated (Level 3) capability at launch, but are already designed to support fully self-driving technology (Level 4), which is expected to come later.
  • For well above $75,000, a person can probably buy their own Rivian. But people are more likely to subscribe to Rivian’s lifestyle services — hire an off-road EV for a ski weekend, camping trip and other adventures.

Yes, but: Rivian has plenty of competition. Tesla proved electric cars can be cool, inspiring copycats like Faraday Future, NIO and Lucid Motors. There are even some EV truck manufacturers: Workhorse and Bollinger.

Rivian plans to differentiate itself with its focus on high-end subscription lifestyle vehicles.

  • The EV "skateboard" can be modified to suit many types of vehicles, as well as things like jet skis or snowmobiles.
  • Rivian is also plotting a B2B play to share its technology with other companies.

Rivian has raised $500 million to date, mostly from Dubai-based conglomerate Abdul Latif Jameel, a big Toyota and Lexus distributor with ties to MIT.

  • Scaringe says he’s currently in talks with 6 potential strategic investors, both tech giants and automakers, but won’t name them.
  • Currently, there are about 450 employees, with about half at its engineering center in Plymouth, Mich., and the other half in 2 California locations.
  • The board and management team are led by auto industry veterans from companies like McLaren, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and Ford.

Scaringe's backstory is that he grew up restoring classic Porsches in Florida and then went to MIT for a doctorate with the intention of starting a car company.

  • He founded Rivian in 2009, in the middle of the global recession, and managed to raise a few million dollars for a sporty battery-powered coupe.
  • By 2011, he realized he was off track and redefined the company’s mission around the future of mobility.

The bottom line: If Rivian succeeds, the sharing of its technology could be one of the biggest reasons. Imagine companies like Amazon, Starbucks or Apple launching their own mobility fleets on top of a generic platform.

2. Self-driving cars need a new kind of map
Video: Mapper.ai

Self-driving cars currently lack the common sense needed to navigate using a traditional human map so they need reliable, high-precision maps, Neehar Garg, head of product at Mapper.ai, writes for Axios.

The big picture: A new class of machine maps are essential to safe and predictable vehicle autonomy. But what’s obvious to human drivers can be incredibly difficult to replicate in code, as can collecting the necessary data.

The GPS map on your smartphone can afford to be a little imprecise — even though it doesn't know the difference between a sidewalk and a street, it trusts that you do. AV maps are more demanding. They need:

  • Incredible precision, within 10 cm, to compensate for the car's inability to understand context.
  • Granular instructions, like which lane the car is in and even overhead clearances and road elevation.
  • Constant connection, to provide information even when GPS signals are weak or missing.

The catch: Collecting accurate 3D data of cities and keeping the information up-to-date is expensive and time-consuming.

What to watch: Smaller, cheaper sensors to create and update these machine maps will make the hardware lighter and scalable, while delivering better accuracy.

Go deeper: Read the entire post.

3. Hackable: AV systems needed for road safety

A mechanic working with a car diagnostic system. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

Under current regulations, vehicles must allow connection to their diagnostic systems for analysis and repair, but this access point is vulnerable to hacking, writes Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Why it matters: AVs are highly dependent on networked component controllers that enable different parts of the car to communicate. A security breach could affect safety-critical functions. Despite these risks, there are still no rules in place to mitigate this security vulnerability.

Details: On-board diagnostic (OBD) technology connects automotive electronic control units (ECUs) — which manage throttle, steering, lights, brakes and more — to the Controller Area Network (CAN) data bus. It also allows service technicians to connect diagnostic equipment to assess the car’s pollution controls, sensors, safety-critical ECUs and other components.

What’s new: In hands-free driver assistance systems and other AV technology, virtually all the components controlled by the CAN bus are needed to assure operational safety.

What to watch: The aviation sector has taken on these risks through both government and industry standards, and has employed countermeasures that could serve as models for AVs.

Go deeper: Read the entire post.

4. Bad trade policy could cost U.S. its lead

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The U.S. has a competitive advantage in the development of self-driving cars, but risks squandering it by disrupting global markets with tariffs on imported vehicles, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a science and technology policy think tank.

Why it matters: After decades of decline, the U.S. auto industry stands to re-emerge as a global leader by leveraging America’s competitive advantage in IT hardware and software. But trade policies intended to protect American workers could trigger reciprocal actions, cutting off markets for U.S. vehicles, ITIF says.

What's at stake: Most of the $80 billion invested in AV research between August 2014 and June 2017 occurred in the U.S, says the Brookings Institution, including by foreign automakers, who do much of their research and development here.

What’s needed: ITIF recommends policies that reinforce the U.S. advantage for developing, testing and producing AVs, such as:

  • Federal regulations that encourage AV testing and deployment.
  • Increased tax credits for R&D.
  • An emphasis on engineering and computer education.
  • Support for collaborative R&D.

What to watch: The threat of auto tariffs are hanging over talks that started this week on new bilateral trade deals with the EU, the U.K. and Japan.

5. Driving the conversation

Uber-Waymo: Must-read account of the legal fight between Waymo and former superstar engineer Anthony Levandowski (Charles Duhigg — The New Yorker)

Progress report: DARPA vet looks at how far AVs have come (Brian Salesky — Medium)

Deliveries: Why cargobikes, not drones, make more sense for urban deliveries (Carlton Reid — Forbes)

Car culture: The movement to keep humans, not robots, in the driver's seat. (Jamie L. LaReau — Detroit Free Press)

Watch: Here's what the Motor City could be like in 50 years (video) (Trevor Pawl — TedX Detroit)

6. What I'm driving

2019 Hyundai Kona electric SUV. Photo: Hyundai

Sharing my insights on some of today's most advanced vehicles ...

This week I got behind the wheel of the plug-in version of Hyundai's new compact crossover SUV, the Kona.

Details: This is an electric vehicle that checks all the boxes, offering ...

  • A popular small crossover design.
  • A class-leading 258-mile battery range.
  • 201 horsepower.
  • 290 lb-feet of torque.

The problem: This car is made in Korea, and global demand is hot. When it arrives in the U.S. in early 2019, sales will be limited to California at first. Eventually other Zero Emission Vehicle states will get them — but they will not be widely available in the U.S.

The price is expected to be around $37,000, before the $7,500 federal tax credit.

One advantage is that the Kona arrives just as tax credits for Tesla buyers begin to phase out (though one lawmaker is seeking an extension).

Joann Muller