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Another autonomous vehicle startup shutters, Zoox expands driverless testing and investor fervor for AI escalates

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Welcome back to TechCrunch Mobility — your central hub for news and insights on the future of transportation.

I spent a few days in Austin for SXSW, where I met with up founders and executives, caught a few talks and even moderated two panels. While generative AI was clearly the big attraction, the future of transportation still garnered attention from investors, urban planners, founders, corporations and media. I heard a lot of conversations about how autonomous vehicles would fit into cities as well as debates over what technology could help alleviate traffic and reduce emissions.

I caught an interesting conversation between Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who predicted the company would be greener, more affordable and challenge Amazon in the future. These goals seem a bit more attainable — and higher on the priority list — now that Uber has finally ticked the profitability box.

Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana was also at SXSW, where she announced the company will begin offering a robotaxi service to the public in Los Angeles this week and in Austin by the end of the year. Side note: we’re hearing the service in Austin will likely come sometime this summer. Perhaps I will be back in the city sooner than expected!

Alrighty, let’s jump into the rest of the news of the week!

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

EV startup Fisker has spent the last few months courting dealerships in an effort to pivot away from a Tesla-style direct sales model after struggling to sell half the cars it made in 2023.

It seemed the company had made some progress on that front. However, a little bird told us that one of the dozen-or-so dealerships it had signed up has already called it quits. Fisker Ourisman, which was supposed to be the newest extension of the Ourisman Automotive Group, has walked away from the startup and wiped the website it set up to promote Fisker’s Ocean SUV just one month after singing the deal.

The dealership loss comes as the Wall Street Journal reported Fisker hired outside help to consider a possible bankruptcy filing.

It’s not immediately obvious if any other dealers have followed suit. Mike Domenicone, the owner-operator of Classic of Atlanta, said he’s given more than 150 test drives and sold out the first shipment of Ocean SUVs at his new “Classic of Fisker” offshoot.

Got a tip for us? Email Kirsten Korosec at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com or Sean O’Kane sean.okane@techcrunch.com. If you prefer to remain anonymousclick here to contact us, which includes SecureDrop (instructions here) and various encrypted messaging apps.

Deal of the week

money the station

If you’re looking for yet another example of investor enthusiasm for AI just take a look at the latest fundraise over at autonomous vehicle software company Applied Intuition.

The company raised $250 million in a round that sent its valuation up to $6 billion and included a who’s who of high-profile investors. The Series E round was led by Lux Capital’s Bilal Zuberi, investor Elad Gil, and Porsche Investments Management, the sports car maker’s independent venture arm. Others joining the round were Andreessen Horowitz, Mary Meeker’s growth fund Bond and even Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg.

Applied Intuition says it is pushing to bring more artificial intelligence to the automotive, defense, construction and agriculture sectors. As reporter Sean O’Kane wrote, the company appears to have nailed a particular sweet spot for VCs who are on the hunt for startups with AI products that cross into large industries with big budgets — defense being one hot area — with seemingly endless opportunities.

Other deals that got my attention …

Anaphite, a battery technology startup, raised £1.6 million ($2 million)via a government-backed grant investment led by Elbow Beach Capital.

inDrive, a mobility app that includes ride-hailing and other urban services, expanded its financing arrangement with General Catalyst to $300 million, up from the initial $150 million secured in 2023.

Joyride, a micromobility software provider, raised $5.2 million in Series A funding round led by Yamaha Motors and includes returning investments from Urban Innovation Fund, Proeza Ventures, Two Small Fish Ventures and Export Development Canada (EDC).

Motional, the autonomous vehicle technology startup Motional, secured a bridge loan that provides a temporary financial reprieve as the company searches for a longer-term source of funding, TechCrunch exclusively learned.

Telo, the electric vehicle startup aiming to produce a pint-sized pickup truck, raised $5.4 million in a round from Neo and Spero Ventures. Marc Tarpenning, a Spero venture partner and Tesla co-founder, will be joining the board.

Volvo Car invested an undisclosed amount into UK startup Breathe Battery Technologies. Volvo plans to integrate the startup’s battery management software into its next generation of electric vehicles to improve charging time by 30%.

Notable reads and other tidbits

Autonomous vehicles

Apptronik, the Austin-based robotics startup, has partnered with Mercedes-Benz. The two companies will collaborate on identifying and then testing applications for highly advanced robotics in Mercedes-Benz Manufacturing.”

Aurora showcased its autonomous vehicle system during an analyst and investor day at its headquarters in Pittsburgh. The company demonstrated how Peterbilt 579 semi-trucks equipped with the latest Aurora Driver system (and no human behind the wheel) handled real-world driving conditions on closed course.

Phantom Auto, a remote driving startup that launched seven years ago amid the buzz of autonomous vehicle technology, shut down after failing to secure new funding. The startup had raised $95 million since its founding and had customers. And we’re told they were close to raising more funds before that fell through. We’ll be watching to see what happens to Phantom Auto’s IP.

Zoox expanded its driverless testing — in terms of operational hours, conditions and geography — near its Foster City, California headquarters and in Las Vegas. The driverless Zoox, which is not yet open to the public, is now operating along five miles of road from the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. Zoox is expected to open up to public riders in Las Vegas later in 2024.

Electric vehicles, batteries & charging

Coreshell, a battery materials startup, revealed a breakthrough that could lower the cost of lithium-ion batteries.

Lucid Motors is stuck in a trademark fight over the name of its Gravity SUV.  Google Ventures-backed EV charging company Gravity Inc. filed a “petition for cancellation” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) in December asking for Lucid’s Gravity trademark to be revoked.

India will lower import taxes on certain electric vehicles for companies committing to invest at least $500 million and setting up a local manufacturing facility within three years, a policy shift that could bolster Tesla’s plans to enter the South Asian market.

Lordstown Motors emerged from bankruptcy with a new name — Nu Ride Inc. — and a nearly singular focus: continuing its lawsuit against iPhone-maker Foxconn for allegedly “destroying the business of an American startup.” The reconstituted version of Lordstown Motors will also pursue “potential business combinations,” though it did not say what kinds of mergers it is seeking.

Ride-hailing

Uber and Lyft are leaving Minneapolis over a minimum wage law.

This week’s wheels

Image Credits: Kirsten Korosec

While I was in Austin, I took a demo ride on public streets in a self-driving VW ID Buzz prototype. This wasn’t a true driverless ride as a human safety operator was still behind the wheel. However, it did give me some insight into how VW ADMT — the autonomous driving, mobility and transport subsidiary at the German automaker — is progressing. The final and commercial version of the driverless ID. Buzz AD, which will be designed for ride-hailing, is expected to launch in 2026.

You might recall that VW’s autonomous vehicle ambitions were wrapped up in Argo AI, a startup backed solely by the automaker and partner Ford. The two companies pulled financial support for Argo AI, leading to its shut down. VW then turned to Mobileye and has since pursued a different path towards automated driving that lies in contrast to Waymo, Cruise, Zoox and Motional.

VW and Mobileye believe in a progressive approach in which technology found in advanced driver assistance systems used in modern cars can progress to a driverless system used in robotaxis. It’s similar to what Tesla has argued.

My ride wasn’t totally smooth, although I didn’t expect it to be. However, the vehicle did see and stop suddenly when a human-driven vehicle came popping out of an alley unexpectedly. One hiccup came as we approach a double-parked emergency vehicle. The ID. Buzz sat for awhile before the safety operator took control and drove around it.

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