Volkswagen purchases PayByPhone for parking

Volkswagen purchases PayByPhone for parking

PayByPhone, the app that lets you pay for parking (and parking tickets) with a smartphone, has been acquired by Volkswagen Financial Services. PayByPhone is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and operates in Canada, the US, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Australia. In 2016, company processed $250 million in parking payments from 12.5 million users.

Volkswagen Financial Services had already bought Sunhill Technologies, the largest cashless payment solution in Germany, last year, so PayByPhone expands the company’s parking payment possibilities.

“It is important to make the distinction that it is Volkswagen Financial Services (VWFS) who acquired us, and they have a charter to focus on general mobility services,” said PayByPhone CEO Kush Parikh in an email interview. “Outside of being the largest parking payment provider, the key asset we bring to the table is the relationship we have via our flagship mobile applications with our users. The mobile relationship is a one to one relationship that can extend into a myriad of additional services.”

PayByPhone is focusing on parking payments first before branching into other mobility technology spaces, like car sharing or ride hailing applications for this service. “Our plans are focused on making the parking payment experience as seamless and easy as possible for users,” Kush wrote. The company already has a program in London where license plates are coordinated with a user account when the car arrives in a lot, and then the user is charged for her parking time when she leaves. “[This] can quite easily be extended into the autonomous vehicle movement,” Kush said.

PayByPhone’s expansion hasn’t been hindered so much by its ability to scale as by an entrenched parking industry “that continues to hold on to archaic cash and credit card based systems, which are very capital intensive,” as Kush put it. PayByPhone does expect that VWFS’s investment will help the company expand into new countries.
Kush noted that while the company will be focused on making parking payments as seamless as possible, they do have an eye on the future. “Parking is a great way to attract users where their identities can be used for a myriad of additional services, including movement around cities (aka smart cities) and distributing our service into any application, such as mapping and travel applications.”

Most Autopilot features could come to Teslas with updated hardware next week

Most Autopilot features could come to Teslas with updated hardware next week

Newer Tesla Model S and Model X owners get a big benefit vs. their predecessors – all the sensors and computing power onboard needed to achieve full self-driving when the software’s ready. But they also had to deal with a temporary inconvenience, since they shipped without the majority of Tesla’s current Autopilot features, which provides advanced semi-autonomous driving for use on highways, including automated steering for lane-keeping, and adaptive speed for maintaining distance with other cars. Tesla CEO Elon Musk says that owners of so-called “Hardware 2” Tesla vehicles won’t have to wait long to get their  functioning Autopilot update, however.

The update has required additional time because it’s actually different from the original Autopilot system, and takes advantage of new on-board computer vision capabilities made possible by the changes to the sensor and computer hardware.

Musk notes that “most of” the original Autopilot functionality will be pushed via this update, but he doesn’t specify exactly what. The major features still not present in HW2 vehicles include emergency braking, blind spot detection, smart cruise control, auto steer and auto lane change, but other features also still need to be added to reach parity.

Again, owners of the newer Tesla hardware stand to benefit in the long run – only their cars will eventually be able to drive fully autonomously, after all, and in the meantime Autopilot improvements that aren’t possible using the old sensor loadout and computing stack will probably make it to their vehicles, too. But those in possession of the new cars are probably happy that Tesla appears to be on track to deliver an end-of-2016 treat with the addition of some of these highlight features.

Autonomous cars seen as smarter than human drivers

Autonomous cars seen as smarter than human drivers

PwC released the results of its latest survey on the future of automotive technology, and it seems Americans are coming around to the idea of autonomous cars, ride hailing and car sharing. So much so that 66 percent of respondents said they think autonomous cars are probably smarter than the average human driver.

PwC, a global provider of professional services, directly surveyed 1,584 people aged 16 and older in the U.S. to ask them about the future of transportation. They found that people’s acceptance of the new technology depended more on their attitudes toward technology than their age and that people wanted practical tech as opposed to shiny doodads.

Gen X and Gen Y, which covered ages 21 through 49 in this study, were the most likely to be enthusiasts who were interested in all the new automotive technology. People older than 50 and younger than 20 were less interested in any automotive tech at all.

It’s interesting to note that the top three technologies that people would consider paying more for were emergency-related. Comprehensive vehicle tracking, remote vehicle shutdown and a driver override system were on the wish lists of more than two-thirds of respondents. Those technologies even outranked gesture controls and perfect integration with smartphones.

Ride-sharing usage via services like Uber are slowly creeping upward, with 37 percent of respondents saying they’d used ride sharing at some point. Of the remainder who hadn’t used ride sharing, 55 percent said they were interested in trying it. But you’ve been warned, Uber: while 74 percent of respondents believed that “ride sharing does not hurt the economy,” 72 percent did believe the industry should be regulated. That interest did not extend to car sharing. Only 23 percent had used a service like Zipcar or car2go, and only 37 percent were interested in even trying it out.

As for autonomous cars, people were mostly worried about safety, including the possibility of their car being hacked. But people also gave lots of positive responses for using self-driving cars, like being better transportation for the elderly and having fewer accidents. So people are concerned about self-driving cars being safe, but they’re also willing to concede that they’ll probably follow the rules of the road better and crash less.

The study found that 13 percent of consumers saw no advantages to autonomous vehicles. When asked if they’d be willing to give up some privacy for access to high-tech features like augmented reality displays in autonomous vehicles, 60 percent said no. And 53 percent (part of those who were concerned about safety) said they were “scared of self-driving cars,” so there are still barriers to overcome for our robot overlords.

Uber deploying self-driving cars from San Francisco pilot in Arizona instead

Uber deploying self-driving cars from San Francisco pilot in Arizona instead

Uber will be rolling out its third-generation self-driving test vehicles, which are sensor-lated Volvo XC90 SUVs, in Arizona following their loss of registration in California. An Uber spokesperson tells TechCrunch that the cars actually left for Arizona by truck on Tuesday morning, and that they will be deployed there “in the next few weeks” with the full support of state Governor Doug Ducey.

Earlier on Thursday, Governor Ducey tweeted his clear support for Uber’s self-driving test, basically articulating an unqualified desire to have Uber redirect its efforts to Arizona. GM is also testing self-driving vehicles in Arizona, with a Scottsdale pilot launched earlier this year, and the state has also been working with Google’s self-driving car project, now its own company under Alphabet known as Waymo.

Uber met with the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California state Attorney General’s office on Wednesday, after refusing to pursue a permit for testing autonomous driving in the state and continuing its San Francisco city pilot anyway. The result of the meeting was that the DMV revoked registration for 16 of Uber’s vehicles, the test fleet it had deployed with autonomous hardware and software in SF.
California’s DMV said it had also invited Uber once again to complete its permitting process, a required step for any company looking to test autonomous tech on public roads in the state. Uber said it would instead look to deploy its vehicles elsewhere, and it clearly wasted no time in doing so.

Uber maintains that it did not require the permit because its vehicles still required a driver present at all times, and were not truly classified as autonomous cars under the California DMV’s definition. The ride-hailing company provided TechCrunch the images above of its XC90 fleet being loaded on Otto semi-trucks for transport to Arizona.

Tesla update caps Autopilot at posted speed limit on undivided roads

Tesla update caps Autopilot at posted speed limit on undivided roads

Tesla is pushing out an update that will cap the max speed of Autopilot at the posted speed limit while using Autosteer, which controls the wheel while maintaining the car’s lane when engaged, TechCrunch has confirmed. The cap applies on undivided roads, and replaces previous functionality that allowed them to exceed the posted limit by up to 5 mph on these kinds of roadways.

Autopilot still doesn’t have this kind of speed limit restriction on divided highways, where the 90 mph global cap still applies, as Electrek first reported.
Restrictions like this are likely a wise safety measure, since the posted limits are there for a reason, even if in practice human drivers rarely actually match it exactly. Tesla has also previously added more features to alert drivers of when they need to resume manual control of the vehicle and put their hands on the steering wheel.

Tesla is also working on an updated Autopilot system called Enhanced Autopilot that will take advantage of the autonomous driving sensors and onboard computing power that all new Tesla vehicles have been shipping with since October, though it’ll also be limited to vehicles shipped since then, too. Tesla CEO Elon Musk noted this week that progress on that system was coming along nicely, though it doesn’t appear as though it’ll be made available before the end of this year.

Volkswagen teases a self-driving EV concept with retractable steering wheel

Volkswagen teases a self-driving EV concept with retractable steering wheel

Volkswagen is extending the I.D. concept family it debuted at the Paris Motor Show earlier this year with a new concept car in the same line to be fully revealed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January. The carmaker teased the concept today, revealing a few details about the car, including that it’s designed to be fully self-driving in the future.

The new addition to the I.D. family will also be a fully electric vehicles, based on Volkswagen’s new Modular Electric Drive (MEB) base, which is the new platform Volvo is using as the anchor for its plan to diversify and expand its EV line to over 30 models introduces over the coming decade.

This new concept looks like it’ll be much more future-focused than the I.D. unveiled at the Paris Motor Show, which Volkswagen said will eventually become the first production vehicle based on its MEB. It’s truly designed for autonomy – there’s a steering wheel on board, but it vanishes when the user pushes the VW logo buttoning its center, retracting into the dash to provide more room for the driver to stretch out.

It sounds like a design that’s truly looking to articulate a real vision of how we might use our vehicles in a post-driving world. No doubt it’ll also be a long time before we see anything like this on the road, but watching how VW’s thinking about incorporating autonomous tech into  consumer vehicles is still interesting.

Uber stops San Francisco self-driving pilot as DMV revoked registrations

Uber stops San Francisco self-driving pilot as DMV revoked registrations

Uber has confirmed that it will stop its self-driving pilot in San Francisco, following a meeting today with the California DMV and Attorney General’s office. The DMV revoked the  registration on 16 self-driving test vehicles Uber was using in its pilot.

The DMV tells TechCrunch that it invited Uber to complete its permitting process at the same time it revoked it the vehicle registrations. Uber told TechCrunch that it will instead be  looking to deploy the vehicles elsewhere for the time being. Here’s Uber’s statement on the matter in full:

We have stopped our self-driving pilot in California as the DMV has revoked the registrations for our self-driving cars. We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.

Uber had begun updating self-driving Volvo X90 SUVs in San Francisco on December 14, providing service to randomly selected uberX customers in the area. It chose not to pursue the permit the state issues to companies for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads, arguing that its cars didn’t require such permits as they could not operate completely autonomously at this stage.

While initially Uber continued its pilot even in the face of regulatory objections, both the DMV and California’s Attorney General’s office said that Uber would face legal repercussions, including injunctive action, if they maintained the active service.

Uber currently operates another trial of its self-driving technology, in Pittsburgh, where its Advanced Technology Group is based. Those trials, which began earlier this year, use Ford Focus vehicles retrofitted with autonomous sensors and onboard computing, and will continue.

BMW to open a new autonomous driving development center near Munich

BMW to open a new autonomous driving development center near Munich

BMW has already staked its claim in the self-driving production timeline, with plans to release an autonomous electric car by 2021. To help meet that goal, the carmaker is opening a dedicated facility aimed at developing connected and automated driving tech in Unterschleissheim, Germany near Munich. The facility is designed to begin operations in mid-2017, and will host more than 2,000 employees once it’s fully completed.

All aspects of development, all the way up to road tests, are planned for the new facility. The talent team at the location will pool a number of different groups from around the world, bringing together software engineers, machine learning specialists and more under one roof. BMW notes that this will make it possible to streamline the development process for its vehicles, allowing engineers to write code and then put it live in a test vehicle on location for instant trial and feedback.

BMW’s focus here appears to be on making its tech-focused development teams nimbler and more responsive.

Other automakers and suppliers have already taken similar steps, with many choosing to open engineering facilities in Silicon Valley in order to be closer to software development talent pools. Meanwhile, North American car companies like GM, which has a few different venues for its work on self-driving, including Detroit and Oshawa, are sticking closer to home.

BMW’s testing of its automated driving tech is currently set to begin near its new facility in Munich, with a target kick-off date of sometime in 2017.

Uber losses expected to hit $3 billion in 2016 despite revenue growth

Uber losses expected to hit $3 billion in 2016 despite revenue growth

Uber’s losses are growing from $2.2 billion last year to an expected $3 billion this year, according to multiple reports this week from The Information and others.

It’s hard to fathom Uber operating so far from profitability at a time when it feels like an established mainstream brand on the global stage.

Hip hop stars like Drake or Wiz Khalifa commonly name check Uber now in their lyrics, and multiple Hollywood studios have signed big names, including Will Ferrell,  to produce and star in comedies about Uber drivers.

The ride hailing pioneer is expected to surpass $5.5 billion in net revenue in 2016, according to a Bloomberg report, up from an estimated $2 billion in revenue last year.

While that kind of sales growth is normally impressive, considering the $3 billion in anticipated losses, Uber is apparently spending $1.55 for every dollar it makes.
An Uber spokesperson said the company does not comment on its financials.

Here’s where we know Uber has spent some of that scratch: developing self-driving vehicles, growing its food delivery business, paying drivers and employees, and a lot of affiliated lawsuits and lobbying.

Human drivers remain a serious cost center for Uber, even as the company has shifted its compensation practices over the years to lower the cost of every trip it makes.

Besides having to pay drivers, Uber has to fight competitors to keep them working  within the Uber marketplace, which takes incentives, bonuses, advertising and a solid driver-side mobile app.

Of course, Uber has also spent money defending itself in multiple lawsuits filed by drivers around employment classification and more.

The company also reportedly spent hundreds of millions on improving its map-tech so it won’t have to rely on outside partners for its navigation systems and location data.

This year, Uber continued to make strategic acquisitions as well, buying up artificial intelligence startup Geometric Intelligence, and self-driving truck startup Otto, in a quest to become a leader in autonomous vehicles and logistics.

But as those acquisitions were taking shape, bookings slowed down for Uber towards the end of 2016.
That was to be expected, as soon as Uber backed off its efforts to compete in China. It merged its business there with that of Didi Chuxing, its strongest regional competitor, in exchange for a stake in the combined entity.

Though it meant fewer trips taken by Uber worldwide, that move freed up the company to focus on other initiatives like ramping up its UberEATS food delivery service to more than 50 cities.

Uber’s efforts to develop and test self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh and most recently San Francisco are probably a bigger hit to the company’s bottom line.

Since autonomous vehicles could one day allow Uber to operate fleets with few or possibly no human drivers, it seems likely that investors will continue to support the company’s spending there.

But at the same time, competitors are flocking into this space, making the cost of recruiting and retaining talent sky high in a way it simply wasn’t before Google turned its self-driving car project into a full-fledged business unit called Waymo.
Because most of its competitors are also privately held companies— including Lyft in the U.S., Ola in India, Grab in Southeast Asia, and Gett in Europe—  it’s hard to know how Uber’s spending stacks up versus competitors precisely.
However, ridehailing industry insiders believe Uber is still spending more wisely on the ridesharing portion of its business than U.S. competitors Lyft. One person familiar with both companies’ financials told TechCrunch that Lyft spends some 50% more per trip than Uber does, namely giving discounts and promotions to riders and incentives to drivers.

Here’s how Montréal is turning to Bluetooth to address traffic congestion

Here’s how Montréal is turning to Bluetooth to address traffic congestion

Connected city infrastructure and cars that talk back could potentially do a lot to help ease traffic conditions, but in the meantime, the city of Montréal in Quebec, Canada is using a more immediately available tech to try to address its urban traffic problem: Bluetooth. The city has installed over a hundred Bluetooth signal detectors over the past couple of months, with the aim of being able to monitor and analyze traffic patterns in real-time daily, instead of just once a year during an annual traffic study.

The new project, described by Radio-Canada, will track Bluetooth devices being used by people in vehicles, tagging their unique MAC address and then looking for it again at other sites to judge how quickly cars are moving through traffic. The data gathered isn’t tied to any specific individuals, but can help the city keep an eye on how the flow of cars are moving through a city.

Keeping a closer eye on traffic patterns is definitely helpful in terms of city planning, making it possible to do stuff that could positively impact congestion throughout the year, instead of just as the result of a once-annual review. And Bluetooth tracking hardware is relatively cheap to install, and doesn’t require any special vehicle-to-infrastructure communications tech to be built-in to cars on the road.

Montréal has another plan to put Bluetooth to use in helping with roadway traffic, too – it hopes to install hockey puck-sized sensors in street spaces starting in 2018, so that it can know when a spot is empty and direct drivers to those locations. City transportation officials have found that a significant percentage of congestion results from drivers circling looking for a spot, so being able to guide them directly could potentially cut down on a lot of unnecessary cars on the road.

BlackBerry opens a research center for self-driving tech in Canada

BlackBerry opens a research center for self-driving tech in Canada

A former smartphone powerhouse wants to be an instrumental part of the coming smart car revolution, and BlackBerry is deepening its investment int he field with a new autonomous driving research center opening for business on Monday in Ottawa, Reuters reports. BlackBerry is one of three initial organizations to get clearance from the government of Ontario to test self-driving vehicles in the province on public roads.

BlackBerry’s bet on self-driving is mainly riding on QNX, the company it acquired in 2010, and whose software later became the basis for its BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system. QNX had been a part of Harman International at the time, and was focused on infotainment system software even back then.

For its initial tests, BlackBerry will be using Ford Lincoln vehicles retrofitted with autonomous vehicle hardware and software, and the former smartphone maker also has an agreement in place with Ford to work with it directly, with an expanded mandate that includes not only infotainment, but also security software and likely also autonomous driving features, though neither BlackBerry nor ford are getting quiet so specific about their work together just yet.

BlackBerry may be able to ride the interest in self-driving tech to renewed relevance, but it’s also going to face a lot of competition. At the software level, companies like Delphi are looking to provide production-ready autonomous hardware and software to automakers, and a number of other players are also in the space, including chipmakers like Qualcomm (through NXP), Intel and Nvidia, and while these companies focus on hardware, they’re also developing software that they could end up supplying to push sales of their primary business.

The new research facility will be an extension of BlackBerry’s existing QNX operations in Ottawa, and will also focus on advanced driver assist features like automatic emergency breaking and intelligent cruise as well as development of full autonomy.

OS builder Thundersoft buys UI maker Rightware for $68M to expand in automotive

OS builder Thundersoft buys UI maker Rightware for $68M to expand in automotive

Thundersoft, a company out of China that designs operating systems for drones and other connected devices, has made an acquisition to drive deeper into automotive technology: it has paid €64 million ($68 million; RMB471 million) for Rightware, a company out of Helsinki that develops graphical user interfaces for connected devices, with a special focus on automotive: its Kanzi product is currently used in some 20 automotive brands, the company said.
The deal should close in early 2017.

Thundersoft makes operating systems and other platform tools for device makers. Acquiring a company like Rightware that focuses on graphical interfaces for automotive systems positions Thundersoft as a stronger offering for customers looking at end-to-end solutions.
There is a clear opportunity here, since car makers are turning to outside partners like these to both provide technology but also guidance in how to navigate themselves as the car industry continues to evolve. (This has also been some of the logic driving car groups buying into mapping companies, and partnering with tech companies to build and develop new in-car systems.)
Thundersoft, which was founded in 2008 and is publicly traded in China, has taken strategic backing from companies like Qualcomm and Intel. It is using the acquisition not only to build out its business in the car industry, but also to help it grow more outside of China. Rightware is its first acquisition outside of China.

“The automotive market is one of the fastest growing segments for Thundersoft, and we are providing in-vehicle infotainment and cluster OS solutions to our customers worldwide,” said Larry Geng, CEO of Thundersoft, in a statement. “Cars are getting smarter — with rich applications and fully optimized OS solutions. Rightware has the best user experience design technology, which will be featured in more connected cars in the market. In combination with Rightware’s unique technology, design knowhow and world-class talent, we can bring more value to our customers and transform the automotive industry with our innovations.”

Rightware — which will continue to operate as an independent company, currently employing 50 but also now hiring more — has been around since 2009 but its last round of disclosed funding was a $5 million round back in 2014, so it seems like this, in part, is one way of expanding its business in a climate where remaining a smaller independent player may have been more challenging.

Kanzi is expected to power over 25 million cars by 2022. With Thundersoft, we can expand this footprint further and support our customers even better,” said Jonas Geust, CEO of Rightware, in a statement. “We see that the specialisation within the global automotive industry software will continue. This creates a huge possibility for us to position Kanzi as the industry standard software solution. The arrangement further strengthens our presence in the growing Asian automotive market and complements our strong footprint in the European and American automotive markets.”

Another notable point is that Rightware originally started out focusing on building a platform for graphic interfaces for all kinds of devices, with the emphasis on phones and tablets, before focusing on cars. This in itself is an interesting shift that speaks to the pace of change in the car world today, and how many have come to see it as a key piece of “hardware” while mobile has somewhat slowed down in growth and development as customers have consolidated essentially on two platforms, Android and iOS. 

Rightware said that current management will remain and “re-invest in the company” as part of the deal. (This presumably means that they have kept a stake in the transaction at least for the initial earn out.) Existing shareholders include Finnish Industry Investment Ltd, Inventure Fund Ky, Nexit Ventures, the current management and the company founders.