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Truck Talk: Autonomous range-finding edition

Truck Talk: Autonomous range-finding edition

This week we’re looking at the plethora of lidar companies chasing autonomous vehicle business; asking three questions of Torc Robotics CEO Michael Fleming; and circling the globe with new business announcements. Plus, some people, places and things. Starting next Friday, Truck Talk will be delivered by email if you subscribe at:

Business for all?

Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, is a critical element of autonomous vehicles. The technology reads objects up to 1,000 meters away, sending signals back to onboard computer processors that create a virtual map of the road ahead for a robot driver. 

Startups in the space are darlings of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), so-called shell companies that investors hand a blank check to raise money specifically to invest in a private company, often a startup with little or no revenue. 

Two of them — Luminar Technologies (NASDAQ: LAZR) and Velodyne (NASDAQ: VLDR) — are public following business combinations with SPACs. Two more are on their way. Israel-based Innoviz Technologies announced a definitive merger Dec. 10 with Collective Growth Corp. (NASDAQ: CGRO). Innoviz plans to combine business with Collective Growth this quarter. Less than two weeks after Innoviz, Ouster Inc. said it would merge with Colonnade Acquisition Corp. (NYSE: CLA). That merger expects to close in the first half. 

A lidar point cloud from Ouster Inc. (Photo: Ouster)

And then there were five. AEye Inc. on Tuesday announced a definitive merger agreement with CF Finance Acquisition Corp. III (NASDAQ: CFAC). The merger expects to close in the second quarter. 

All five claim leadership in either airborne and terrestrial lidar, the two main types. All have lofty revenue projections. Each claims business on the books. But …

Kyle Vogt, co-founder and CEO of Cruise Automation, a General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) subsidiary, knows startups. He has two unicorns to his name. Vogt sold the livestreaming video game platform Twitch to Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) for $970 million in 2014. Two years later, GM paid $1 billion for Cruise, which depends on lidar for its self-driving cars to see their way around San Francisco.

3 questions with Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics

Founded in 2005, Torc Robotics was a teenage software startup when Daimber Trucks AG paid an undisclosed sum to jump-start its self-driving truck ambitions in March 2019. We caught up with co-founder and CEO Michael Fleming on Zoom this week after Torc announced a data management deal with Amazon Web Services.  

Michael Fleming

How has the two years being part of Daimler Truck worked out?

“I’m incredibly happy. Our team is performing incredibly well. The support that we have from [Daimler Trucks North America CEO] Roger [Nielsen] and [Daimler AG CEO] Martin Daum is incredible. We have the full backing of the Daimler organization.”

What does the coming independence of Daimler Truck mean to Torc?

“I consider it to be a positive thing because Daimler Trucks will have more autonomy and ability to make decisions that focus on the trucking customers. So what’s good for Daimler Trucks is good for Torc.”

A growing number of your competitors, like Aurora, Plus and TuSimple, now have tie-ups with truck makers. Does everyone have their dance partners now?

“We’re looking for commitment to the long term [with Daimler]. It’s tough for me to speculate on the other partnerships out there. But if you do some digging, it seems like there’s several rounds of musical chairs.”

Roam around the world (hat tip to the B-52’s)

In quick succession this week, startups cast new lines of global business. Hyzon Motors, fresh from a SPAC merger announcement, said it will make 1,500 fuel cell trucks for New Zealand by 2026. Its partner, Hiringa Energy, will build a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. … Back home, Hyzon is renovating 78,000 square feet of industrial space in Honeoye Falls, New York and plans to add 100 new jobs over the next three years. …

The Volta Zero urban freight electric truck (Photo (Volta)

Stockholm-based Volta Trucks tapped California-based electric bus manufacturer Proterra Inc. to make batteries for its Volta Zero urban freight electric truck. The startup also named Tesla’s former head of global charging infrastructure, Drew Bennett, as senior VP of network operations. …

Lordstown Motors Corp. (NASDAQ: RIDE) is entering the beta version of the skateboard that underpins its Endurance electric pickup truck in the 2021 SCORE International San Felipe 250. The 290-mile single loop race is part of the SCORE World Desert Championship race series.  

Fill-ups, new jobs and augmented reality

DTNA’s Laura Kinkle tries out the HoloLens 2 from Microsoft. (Photo: Daimler)

TravelCenters of America Inc. (NASDAQ: TA) is making good on its franchise expansion plan. TA expects to open more than 20 franchised TA Express travel centers this year in California and 10 other states where CEO Jon Pertchik says “sufficient land to provide for a more expansive traditional TA does not exist.” … ZF Friedrichshafen AG is investing $200 million and creating 500 jobs in South Carolina to build its Powerline 8-speed automatic transmission. Production begins in 2023. … DTNA says a pilot program using Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MFST) augmented reality HoloLens 2 is helping it communicate virtually with dealers and customers. Subject matter experts can project service manuals, schematics and other documentation across their field of vision while troubleshooting vehicle repairs.

That’s a wrap for this week. Thanks for reading.  



19 February 2021, 17:02