Mark Fields, Former Ford CEO, Buys 100,000 Teslas For Hertz

Hertz appoints ex-Ford boss Mark Fields as interim CEO | Auto Remarketing

Mark Fields just purchased 100,000 Teslas for Hertz’s rental car fleet. The deal is being hailed as biggest rental car purchase ever.

Mark Fields was CEO of Ford Motor Company during my time as an engineer there. I even got to sit in the background when Jim Cramer came to film a Mad Money clip with Fields.

Not long after I left Ford, however, Fields was unceremoniously shown the door, presumably the result of a languishing stock price. The stock price only got worse from there, while Fields moved into a new job in private equity.

Now Ford stock is roaring back, and Fields has a new new job, as CEO of Hertz.

The rental car company went bankrupt over the COVID summer of 2020, and is itself climbing, maybe quite “roaring”, back.

Bloomberg reports that Hertz is paying something close to full price for the fleet of Teslas, and the order size represents around 10% of Tesla’s annual manufacturing capacity.

This strikes me as a bet on Tesla’s status as an iconic car company. There are lots of nice cars Hertz could have purchased, but really only a few that I think most consumers would views as “iconic”: Tesla, Rolls-Royce, Mini, maybe the cute little electric Fiats.

I get why Fields didn’t purchase 100,000 Ford Mustang Mach-Es, even if those might be better cars.

The purchase also moves Hertz a bit closer toward Mobility as a Service. Reporting also mentions that Hertz will build a charging network to support its electrifying rental fleet and to complement the existing Tesla super-charger network.

Indy Autonomous Challenge

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently hosted teams of university students who programmed cars to drive the track autonomously, in an event called the Indy Autonomous Challenge. A team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), in Germany, took first place.

This is such a neat endeavor, and the team that organized the event deserves a ton of credit for pulling it off, as do the university students, of course.

This is a somewhat different endeavor from building a regular self-driving car, just as race car driving is different from regular driving.

For one thing, this event was a time trial – each car was on the track by itself, and the goal was simply to complete two laps as fast as possible.

This eliminates some of the core responsibilities of autonomous vehicles, such as perception, prediction, and behavior.

Instead, teams can focus on pushing the limits of the vehicles’ localization, motion planning, and control software. Those limits turn our to be very, very fast.

It’s a lot of fun to watch.

NVIDIA DriveWorks 4.0

NVIDIA has been plugging away at self-driving for years now, and by all accounts making a lot of progress. They are arguably the world’s leading artificial intelligence company, due to the importance of its GPU products for deep learning.

Their self-driving business model isn’t totally clear – whether they will sell systems to OEMs or Tier 1 suppliers or even launch their own autonomous service. But they publish a lot of great research and software that impacts in the industry.

They just announced DriveWorks 4.0.

NVIDIA DriveWorks provides middleware functions on top of NVIDIA DRIVE OS that are fundamental to autonomous vehicle development. These consist of the sensor abstraction layer (SAL) and sensor plugins, data recorder, vehicle I/O support, and a deep neural network (DNN) framework. It’s modular, open, and designed to be compliant with automotive industry software standards.”

The closest analogy is probably Baidu’s Apollo self-driving ecosystem, which has seen more deployment within China.

Both of these are ambitious but somewhat under-the-radar efforts that I think may wind up surprising us.

Motional Passenger Experience

Motional has a neat blog post that describes several subtle features they’re incorporating to improve the passenger experience.

One theme I notice is trying to communicate features to users both in the mobile app and also on the vehicle. Different passengers will presumably respond better to cues in different places.

For example, the Motional app will work with the vehicle to make sure each passenger gets in the correct car.

“If a rider can’t find their vehicle, we’re exploring ways to help them locate their ride, such as using their phone to tell the robotaxi to flash its lights or honk its horn. Passengers may also be able to locate their ride by matching an identifier on their phone — a number, for example — to the same identifier shown on an LED panel on the vehicle’s exterior.”

Motional is also offering passengers several buttons that call a human customer support representative.

Importantly, the vehicles will be accessible to a wide range of passengers, through features like Braille, raised shapes, and physical buttons to complement touch screens.

There’s lots of other human-centered design features and ideas in the post, as well. Worth a read!

Aurora As A Service

Aurora Horizon and Aurora Connect, Aurora's subscription driver-as-a-service products will enable customers to deploy Aurora-powered trucks and ride-hailing passenger vehicles simply and seamlessly. (Photo: Aurora)

Aurora recently announced two programs – Horizon and Connect – to allow partners to rent driver systems for trucks and automobiles, respectively.

The announcement is pretty high-level and thin on details. There’s not a lot of context on how, exactly, the driver gets to the customer. Does the driver come with an Aurora vehicle, or can an Aurora driver be installed in a customer-owned vehicle?

But it’s a small step toward the dream of autonomy-as-a-service. The goal is something like Amazon Web Services, whereby any person or business with a credit card can rent a small vehicle, and then a small collection of vehicles, and then progressively larger vehicles that scale up and down, on-demand.

Luminar, Software, And Autonomy

Screen in the passenger seat of a vehicle.

Luminar’s $5 billion market capitalization is by far the largest of the half-dozen lidar start-ups competing for business among both automotive manufacturers and autonomous vehicle technology companies. The growth to support that valuation may well come as much from software and artificial intelligence as from the hardware sensors on which Luminar has so far built its business.

In I interview Luminar Vice President Aaron Jefferson about their partnerships with automotive manufacturers, their future as a software-oriented company, and the long-term vision.

The Road To Autonomy Podcast

The Road to Autonomy Podcast | Brulte & Company

Grayson Brulte recently hosted Cruise Senior Director Prashanthi Raman on his Road to Autonomy podcast. Raman is a leader on Cruise’s government affairs team. The episode was great – they discussed public policy, Cruise’s all-electric fleet, California regulators, and more.

That got me looking at past episodes of the podcast. I found a whole bunch that I’m excited to play, and one I played immediately.

That was Brulte’s episode with Alan Ohnsman, Forbes Senior Transportation Editor. Alan is one of the most informed and perceptive minds in autonomous vehicles.

Their discussion ranged from electric vehicles to autonomous trucking to public transit to logistics to the Los Angeles Olympics. It is amazing.

I recommend both episodes, and probably the entire podcast series, highly.

GM Investor Day

I spent a good chunk of today watching yesterday’s GM Investor Day presentation, which is available online.

I watched Mary Barra (GM CEO), Travis Katz (BrightDrop CEO), Dan Ammann (Cruise CEO), and Doug Parks (GM EVP for Product Development), all of whom were great.

Two of Dan Amman’s slides really struck me. One is the slide above, which breaks out some very high level unit economics for Cruise. Unit economics are sometimes hard to come by in the autonomous vehicle industry, and I love that Dan put them out there.

I also like this slide that predicts Cruise’s ramp, in terms of new vehicle additions.

Presentations are great, but numbers are even better. Kudos to Dan Ammann for bringing the numbers.

Walmart Delivers For Home Depot

Walmart GoLocal

Walmart announced today a partnership to deliver online purchases for Home Depot. This is the first partnership in Walmart’s new GoLocal white-label delivery service.

On the one hand, this is another salvo in the Amazon vs. Everybody retail competition. All of Amazon’s competitors, which include both Walmart and Home Depot, have to hang together.

On the other hand, this seems like a really savvy move by Walmart to become the delivery network for retail. Uber and Lyft already do this for people, DoorDash and Uber Eats already do this for food, but nobody has yet done this for packaged goods. Arguably Amazon does this in a sense, with its “Everything Store” and third-party marketplace.

But Walmart still has a pretty wide open field to aggregate suppliers. The real competitive advantage seems like it would accrue if Walmart were to aggregate customers. If GoLocal were to become a destination website, that would further motivate suppliers to join the platform “on Walmart’s terms” (to paraphrase Stratechery’s Ben Thompson).

That has some serious implications for autonomous vehicles. Argo has already chosen to launch on Lyft, because that is where the ridesharing customers are. If Walmart succeeds with GoLocal, perhaps that is where the delivery customers will be.