Chinese internet giant Baidu has secured permits to offer a fully driverless commercial robotaxi service, with no human driver present, in Chongqing and Wuhan via the company’s autonomous ride-hailing unit, Apollo Go.
Baidu’s wins in Wuhan and Chongqing come a few months after the company scored a permit to provide driverless ride-hailing services to the public on open roads in Beijing. The difference here is the service in Beijing is still not a commercial service — Baidu is offering free driverless rides in the name of R&D and public acceptance — and Beijing’s permit still requires a human operator in the front passenger seat of the vehicle.
When Baidu launches in Wuhan and Chongqing, it’ll be the first time an autonomous vehicle company is able to offer a fully driverless ride-hailing service in China, Baidu claimed. Meanwhile in the U.S., Cruise recently began offering a driverless commercial service in San Francisco, and Waymo has been offering one in Arizona since 2020.
“This is a tremendous qualitative change,” said Wei Dong, vice president and chief safety operation officer of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, in a statement. “We believe these permits are a key milestone on the path to the inflection point when the industry can finally roll out fully autonomous driving services at scale.”
In Wuhan, Baidu’s service will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m and cover a 13 square kilometer area in the city’s Economic and Technological Development zone, which is known as China’s ‘Auto City.’ Chongqing’s service will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in a 30 square kilometer area in Yongchuan District. Each city will have a fleet of five Apollo 5th generation robotaxis, according to Baidu.
The zones where Baidu will operate aren’t densely populated, and they feature many new, wide roads that make it easier to operate autonomous systems. Both cities provide favorable regulatory and technological environments for Baidu to kick off its first commercial driverless service. In Chongqing, the Yongchuan District has been a pilot zone for autonomous driving, in which 30 robotaxis have accumulated 1 million kilometers’ worth of test driving.
The zone in Wuhan where Apollo Go will operate has revamped 321 kilometers of roads for testing AVs since 2021, which includes 106 kilometers’ worth that are covered by 5G-powered vehicle-to-everything (V2X) infrastructure. AVs can rely on V2X technology to collect real time information about their surrounding environment and share those perceptions with other vehicles or infrastructure, essentially giving the robotaxis another form of sensor to fall back on, aside from onboard lidar, radar and cameras. V2X infrastructure also helps Baidu monitor vehicles remotely and pilot the vehicles if necessary.
Last month, Baidu revealed the designs for its sixth generation electric robotaxi, the Apollo RT6 EV, which is a cross between an SUV and a minivan that comes with a detachable steering wheel. The company said it was able to trim production costs by developing the battery electric architecture in house, bringing the per-vehicle cost to $37,000 per unit. This will help Baidu get to a point of small scale testing and deployment of the RT6 by next year, branching out to large scale in 2024.
Aside from its new service in Wuhan and Chongqing and its driverless service in Beijing, Apollo Go also has a presence in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Changsha, Cangzhou, Yangquan and Wuzhen. Baidu said it plans to expand its ride-hailing service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030. By the end of this year, Baidu expects to add another 300 Apollo 5th gen robotaxis to its existing fleet, the company said.
Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022
Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.
The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.
TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.
The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.
Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.
Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.
The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.
Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development
Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.
It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.
In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.
“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”
While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.
Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.
Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.
“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”
Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors
Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.
Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.
Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.
We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.
For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”
There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.
As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.
There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.
Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.
At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.
Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.
Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.
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