Faction On The Eccentric CEO Podcast

Ain McKendrick – Medium

Last week I wrote about Faction, a Y-Combinator start-up creating autonomous motorcycle-class vehicles. I’m now listening to an episode of The Eccentric CEO podcast in which host Aman Agarwal interviews Faction founder Ain McKendrick.

McKendrick talks a lot about how thoroughly motorcycle-class vehicles like rickshaws and scooters have penetrated Asia, but how rare they are in North America. Food for thought.

It’s A Roomba For Golf Courses

https://assets.website-files.com/5d2a7a40b9b05dd3c13ea7e7/6050f187c4167e66e5f5d09e_new-graze-person-4.jpg

The title jests a little bit, of course. This is awesome. Graze – Autonomous Mowing.

“Graze is building electric, autonomous lawn mowers specifically for the commercial landscaping industry to counter labor shortages and rising wages in the US.”

What I love about this is how huge the opportunity is and simultaneously how trivial it seems. That’s kind of a perfect combination.

Graze touts commercial landscaping as a $100 billion industry. I believe it. I’ve always heard just how insanely expensive turf management is.

And yet.

This isn’t a vehicle traveling 25 mph down city streets. It’s not even a tractor, which has the potential to wreck a field and impair the food supply.

The worst thing that’s going to happen here is the golf greens get chewed up and they have to order replacement sod.

Honestly, it just seems like a lot of fun. I know nothing about the company or the team or their prospects. But it’s a great market and they’re taking investors!

I’m now their 9th Twitter follower.

Raquel Urtasun Launches Waabi

University of Toronto computer science professor Raquel Urtasun is launching a self-driving car startup called Waabi, as my Forbes editor Alan Ohnsman reports. Urtasun created the KITTI dataset, which remains a standard benchmark for robotic perception. She also joined Uber ATG as their chief scientist.

My friends at Uber ATG always had great things to say about her, so I’m excited she’s going out on her own. It’s also a natural result of Uber’s sale of ATG to Aurora, which is a minority investor in Waabi.

Waabi is launching with an $83.5 million funding round. For context, that’s more money than Voyage raised in total, across four years and deployment with real passengers (and safety operators). Waabi should be able to do a lot with $83.5 million dollars, presumably all the more so in Toronto, a lower cost region than Silicon Valley. According to TechCrunch, Waabi already employs 40 people.

Waabi seems likely to pursue a machine-learning first approach to autonomous vehicle development, based both on Urtasun’s statements and her academic background. Even the name, “Waabi”, hints at the goal.

Waabi means “she has vision” in Ojibwe and “simple” in Japanese.

Kirsten Korosec, TechCrunch

Ohnsman reports in Forbes that Waabi plans to focus “heavily on cutting-edge AI tools and less of what Urtasun calls a traditional ‘robotics’ mindset.” Urtasun is a deep learning expert, so I would expect to see a deep-learning-first approach at Waabi, or maybe even a deep-learning-only approach.

“You end up with an approach that requires much less to actually develop. It’s much less capital-intensive and doesn’t require this driving and driving and driving on the road. You get much more automated, fast-paced solutions, and with the ability to come up with much more complex systems.”

Raquel Urtasun in Forbes.com

That focus is reminiscent of Drive.ai, which applied a similar ML-first philosophy to self-driving cars, and also had an academic foundation. Drive.ai eventually ran out of funds and was acquihired by Apple.

Deep learning continues to advance, however, and with Urtasun at the helm, a deep-learning-first approach to self-driving may finally be poised to succeed.

CPUC Approves Cruise Driverless Autonomous Vehicles

California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) - California Emerging  Technology Fund

Big news on Friday! The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved Cruise to offer a driverless autonomous vehicle service to the public.

“Cruise is the first entrant into the CPUC’s Driverless Pilot program, in which passengers can ride in a test vehicle that operates without a driver
in the vehicle.”

California Public Utilities Commission

CPUC regulates taxis and other transportation carriers in the state. As always, Kirsten Korosec at TechCrunch nicely summarizes the news.

“In order to launch a commercial service for passengers here in the state of California, you need both the California DMV and the California PUC to issue deployment permits. Today we are honored to have been the first to receive a driverless autonomous service permit to test transporting passengers from the California PUC.”

Prashanthi Raman, Cruise Director of Government Affairs, in TechCrunch

Small steps toward the future!

Trucks Venture Capital

Trucks Venture Capital just closed their second fund, at a size of $52,525,252. I don’t understand the significance of that number, other than the periodicity. In any case, congratulations to them!

Trucks is the preeminent mobility-focused venture capital firm in San Francisco, and arguably the world. They’ve been a big fish in a small pond, and the pond has been getting bigger, so now they are getting bigger.

Reilly Brennan, one of the founders of the firm, is well-known in the industry for his weekly Future of Transportation newsletter.

Trucks’ portfolio includes AEye, Bear Flag Robotics, Gatik, Joby, May Mobility, nuTonomy, Starsky Robotics, and many other mobility startups. Several of those companies have exited, one way or another, which is a credit to the firm.

They’re also launching a Growth Fund, to invest in larger companies, ideally companies from their seed funds that have grown into larger funding needs. The fund is open to the public right now, so take a look and consider participating!

The Growth Fund has an unusual structure, in which participants can provide $5,000 or more per quarter, and each quarter gets its own fund. I think this means you could invest as little as $5,000 in the growth fund (although you must be an accredited investor).

If so, that’s a pretty nifty deal.

My First Cruise AV Ride

Yesterday I took my first ride in a Cruise autonomous vehicle! It was so much fun.

You can see in the photo that my car was named Tamale. Cruise names its vehicles playfully 🤗

Tamale took me from Cruise headquarters to the Pacific Heights neighborhood and back. That took a little under an hour, in San Francisco traffic.

Along the way we went up and down lots of hills, through several construction zones, and across multi-way intersections.

I sat in the back, while two Cruise technical operators sat in the front.

The vehicle’s ability to navigate really complex situations amazed me. I’ve seen vehicles handle these situations many times as an engineer, replaying rides at my computer. But riding in the vehicle really emphasizes the vehicle’s performance, and the complexity of the task.

I also observed lots of small potential improvements, many of which I know the engineering teams at Cruise are already tackling.

Riding in a self-driving car is a great way to appreciate just how impressive artificial intelligence and robotics is, and what the future holds in store.

I hope everybody gets the opportunity 🚗 😊

Tangram’s Sensor Industry Map

Tangram put together this “2021 Perception Sensor Industry Map”, with 75 companies. Note that Tangram itself focuses on vision, and the tagline for the map is “vision-enabled platforms.”

Lidar has gotten lots of attention in the past few years, and the combination of the scanning and flash lidar sections is the largest on the map.

I’m curious about sensors that get less attention, such as ultrasonic, thermal, and even radar.

I confess I’m not even sure what “CMOS” means in this context. CMOS is a type of integrated circuit, but I don’t know how that ties into perception sensors.

If you do know, leave a please note in the comments.

Lots going on in perception right now!

Faction

The latest fundraising round from Faction crossed my LinkedIn feed today. Their tagline is, “Faction develops driverless vehicles that have the speed and performance of cars, but at the cost of a motorcycle.”

This makes a ton of sense to me. Autonomous vehicles are likely to converge on form factors radically different than the four-door, four-wheel vehicles that have been designed for human drivers and owners.

I met Faction CEO Ain McKendrick several years ago, when I was at Udacity and he was at Cngyn. Cngyn is a below-the-radar company that builds self-driving vehicles for industrial environments, like ports and mines. I imagine that experience gives Faction a headstart in figuring out how to work with unconventional vehicles.

Faction is the first AV company I can remember coming out of Y-Combinator, although surely it must not be the only one. AVs require timelines and levels of funding out of the gate that seem beyond the incubator model.

Nonetheless, Faction managed to land Trucks VC as an investor. They’re the smartest folks in the business, so that is a real vote of confidence.

F-150 Lightning Shows Ford’s Momentum

The Ford F-150 Lightning is a huge hit. The vehicle is marketed as model year 2022 and won’t reach customers until 2023, but the launch has been an unqualified success.

Ford’s stock price, which has languished for as long as I’ve paid attention to it, reached a five year high. That’s a low bar for a raging bull market, but a real accomplishment for Ford. Perhaps more impressively, Ford’s stock has tripled in the last twelve months.

Ford started to gain momentum last year, with the announcement of the Mustang Mach-E, an electric SUV that wows. The F-150 Lightning shows Ford is serious about the future of electrification.

My Forbes.com colleague Sam Abuelsamid writes, “It is quicker off the line than any model in the history of the F-series,” and praises both its towing strength and off-road capabilities.

Reilly Brennan, arguably the highest-profile automotive venture capitalist is impressed.

“Not only is the price [starting under $40,000] surprising but the ideas around vehicle-to-home charging, frunk and power outlets speak to the utility of the truck in a way beyond typical EV announcements.”

Reilly Brennan, Future of Transportation

Alex Tabarrok, who is an economist and blogger, not an automotive gearhead, calls the Lightning, “An Electric Vehicle for Red America.”

I agree.

Ford is building an electric truck that Red America won’t just have to settle for, but one that will actually excite all of us.

Monday Autonomous Vehicle Roundup

Eggenhofer Nick | Cattle Drive | MutualArt
Cattle Drive by Nick Eggenhofer