Investors Clara Brenner, Quin Garcia and Rachel Holt on SPACs, micromobility and how COVID-19 shaped VC

Few people are more closely tapped into the innovations in the transportation space than investors. They’re paying close attention to what startups and tech companies are doing to develop and commercialize autonomous vehicle technology, electrification, micromobility, robotics and so much more.

Clara Brenner, co-founder and managing partner of Urban Innovation Fund; Quin Garcia, the managing director of AutoTech Ventures; and Rachel Holt, co-founder and general partner of Construct Capital talked (and debated) about how the pandemic affected the venture world and deal flow; why AutoTech Ventures was hesitant to invest in micromobility; on how to incentivize micromobility; and, of course, their take on the rise of mergers with special purpose acquisition companies as a route to going public. They also shared their thoughts on the most overlooked opportunities they are interested in within the transportation space.

How the COVID-19 pandemic shaped VC

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, and VC was no exception. Holt and Garcia explained some of the effects they saw on startups — both new and existing — over the past year.

Holt: There was enough dislocation in transportation, and in some other areas, that happened through COVID, that it’s just the time when, whether it’s buyers or cities or others are just evaluating what the new world order should look like. And I think that just creates a lot of opportunity. … When you have a shock to the system like COVID, it creates just an opportunity for everyone, whether it’s inside companies, whether it’s founders, or whether it’s cities and governments and other entities to take a step back and say, OK, what do we want the next five years to look like? (Timestamp: 4:18, 4:55)

Self-driving trucks startup Kodiak Robotics snags investment, partnership from Bridgestone

Tire-making giant Bridgestone has taken a minority stake in Kodiak Robotics, the Silicon Valley-based startup developing autonomous trucks, as part of a broader partnership to test and develop smart tire technology.

While the terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Kodiak Robotics co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told TechCrunch that this is a direct financial investment. Bridgestone CTO Nizar Trigui has also joined the Kodiak board as an observer.

The deal involves more than capital. The two companies have also formed a strategic partnership focused on advancing Bridgestone’s tire tech and fleet management system. Kodiak will use Bridgestone’s sensor-laden tires and fleet management system on its self-driving trucks, which are used to carry freight between Dallas and Houston as part of its testing program. The company recently said it is expanding its freight carrying pilots to San Antonio. Kodiak also tests its self-driving trucks — always with a safety operator behind the wheel — in and around Mountain View, California.

Semi-trucks travel 100,000 to 150,000 miles a year, Burnette said, adding that tire integrity and tire monitoring are integral to the safety of trucking, whether they’re driven by a human or computer.

“Safety of an autonomy system ultimately comes down to our ability to manipulate the tires that touch the road when you are accelerating or braking or steering,” Burnette said. “You need to be able to rely on your tires to actually perform the way they are expected to perform otherwise your safety envelope is not necessarily guaranteed.”

Kodiak will use these smart tires to monitor pressure, temperature and even measure the loads on the wheels, which plays a role in vehicle dynamics and maneuverability. Kodiak will share the data it collects with Bridgestone, which the company can use to improve the chemistry of its tires.

Tire companies like Bridgestone already collect basic information from telematics providers that helps determine where trucks are driven, what types of roads they use as well as tire pressure and temperature. Predictive models are then developed based on that data.  Autonomous vehicle companies bring an added value to tire companies, Burnette noted. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks are loaded with sensors of their own, which allows the company to collect massive amounts of driving data that can help Bridgestone understand exactly how its tires are being used.

“Autonomy providers like Kodiak have all of the raw data specifically on how the trucks are being driven,” he said. “We know what the forces are, we know what the steering is, we know what the braking pressures that were being commanded in real time. And so we can gather a wealth of data that has never been previously possible to collect for companies like Bridgestone.”

This allows Bridgestone to build predictive models that will more accurately be able to predict the eventual lifetime and also possibly give warnings to when tires may fail out of field. “And that’s ultimately what Kodiak  is really interested in,” Burnette added.

The news follows Kodiak’s announcement in May that it was partnering with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its autonomous vehicle technology in Asia. The ultimate aim of the SK partnership is to sell and distribute Kodiak’s self-driving technology in the region. Kodiak will examine how it can use SK’s products, components and technology for its autonomous system, including artificial intelligence microprocessors and advanced emergency braking systems. Both companies have also agreed to work together to provide fleet management services for customers in Asia.

EV battery swapping startup Ample charges up operations in Japan, NYC

EV battery swapping startup Ample has locked in two partnerships this month that will help fuel an expansion into Japan and New York City after years of working on the technology. The startup, which was founded in 2014 and came out of stealth in March, said Tuesday it has partnered with Japanese petroleum and energy company Eneos to jointly deploy and operate battery swapping infrastructure in Japan.

Over the next year, the two companies will pilot Ample’s fully automated swapping technology with a focus on ride-hailing, taxi, municipal, rental and last-mile delivery companies. Ample and Eneos will also evaluate whether swapping stations can offer other uses, such as a backup source of power for the energy grid. It is still early days for the partnership and few details have been disclosed; Ample, for instance didn’t share when the pilot program would begin or where in Japan it would initially launch. However, even with these scant details, Eneos’ interest signals that battery swapping — at least for Ample — is gaining some believers. 

The Eneos announcement comes a few days after Ample launched a separate partnership with Sally, a New York City-based EV rental company for ride-hailing, taxi and last-mile deliveries. Ample and Sally will roll out five to 10 stations in NYC by the fourth quarter of this year, with plans to expand into other markets in 2021, according to Khaled Hassounah, founder and CEO of Ample

Ample’s partnership with Sally will also expand to San Francisco in the next couple of months. Depending on the cost of using both services, this might be an advantageous deal for ride-hailing drivers in California, at least, where the state just decreed 90% of Uber and Lyft drivers must be in EVs by 2030

“The goal is to ultimately make swapping stations as ubiquitous as gas stations,” Hassounah told TechCrunch.

Ample came out of stealth this March with five operational stations in the Bay Area and a partnership with Uber that entails drivers renting vehicles directly from Ample that have been retrofitted with the startup’s battery technology. 

“The Ample architecture is designed to be integrated into any modern electric vehicle,” Levi Tillemann, VP for policy and international outreach at Ample, told TechCrunch. “Unlike a standard electric vehicle, where you have a battery pack that is never meant to be removed from the car, with the Ample system, you replace the battery pack with an adapter plate that essentially shares the exact same dimensions as the OEM designed battery pack. That adapter plate is the architecture that allows for battery swap.”

Ample’s standardized battery modules work with every vehicle that has been configured to run on the Ample platform, says Tillemann. With Ample’s partnership with Sally, the company will begin stepping away from running its own fleet, which it essentially launched to prove its business model. The company will work with Sally and probably other fleet and rental companies in the future to make vehicles Ample-enabled.

“Ample’s battery swapping works with any electric vehicle and dramatically reduces the cost and time it takes to install EV infrastructure by being a drop-in replacement for the OEM battery and does not require any modification to the car (either hardware or software),” said Hassounah. 

One of the concerns that puts ride-hailing drivers off switching to EVs is the amount of time it takes to charge a battery. Hassounah says swapping a battery only takes 10 minutes, but that the company aims to reduce that to five minutes by the end of the year. Having a more efficient and seamless process might help ride-hailing drivers and logistics companies make the switch.

“Currently, drivers pay 10 cents per mile for swapping services, including energy, and the range varies based on the car model and battery size,” said Hassounah. “The price of the service varies depending on the price of electricity, but our goal is to have it be 10% to 20% cheaper than gas.”

When drivers want to swap a battery, they’ll use Ample’s app to find nearby stations and then initiate the autonomous swap. Each station can serve about five to six cars per hour, but the company expects to be able to serve double that by the end of the year. That said, this also depends on the amount of available power at a given site.

Tillemann says as Ample expands, the company aims to one day work with existing OEM partners to offer consumers the choice of having Ample production plates installed into their new vehicles on the production line.

“Our unit costs are very favorable for the battery swap systems,” he said. “They do not cost a lot to deploy, and that means, with a relatively low number of vehicles our battery swap architecture is economical and profitable.”

Eneos, which previously invested in Ample, according to the company, is committed to providing the next generation of energy supply. The company is also exploring hydrogen and recently partnered with Toyota’s Woven City, a futuristic prototype city that’s being built in Japan, to power the metropolis using hydrogen.