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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.

Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving arm, raises $2.5B in second external investment round

Waymo, Google’s former self-driving project that is now a business unit under Alphabet, said Wednesday it raised $2.5 billion in its second outside funding round. The company said in a blog post it will use the funds to continue growing Waymo Driver, its autonomous driving platform, and growing its team.

The round saw participation from existing investors Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz, AutoNation, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Fidelity Management & Research Company, Magna International, Mubadala Investment Company, Perry Creek Capital, Silver Lake, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., Temasek, and additional investor Tiger Global.

The news comes only a few months after former CEO John Krafcik announced in April that he was stepping down from leading the company after five years in the position. The CEO position is now being held jointly by Tekedra Mawakana, former COO, and Dmitri Dolgov, who joined the original self-driving project at Google and was CTO.

Krafcik led the company through its first external $2.25 billion investment round in March 2020. That round was later expanded by $700 million a few months later. But Krafcik could be a polarizing figure in the company, as TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec noted.

In addition to its Waymo One commercial ride-hailing service, which operates in the Metro Phoenix, Arizona area, the company has continued to build out its Waymo Via trucking and cargo transportation service. Earlier this month Waymo announced it was entering a “test run” with J.B. Hunt for transportation services between Houston and Fort Worth.

Polestar to build its first all-electric SUV in the United States

Polestar, Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand, will manufacture its first all-electric SUV in the United States.

The automaker said Wednesday that the Polestar 3 will be assembled at a plant shared with Volvo Cars at a factory in Ridgeville, South Carolina. The Polestar 3 follows the all-electric Polestar 2 sedan and the hybrid grand tourer Polestar 1. Production of Polestar 3 is expected to begin globally in 2022.

Polestar COO Dennis Nobelius said production in the U.S. will reduce delivery times, the environmental impact associated with shipping vehicles around the world and the price of the Polestar 3.

“All of this makes the brand even more competitive in the critical American sales market,” Nobelius said.

Polestar also plans to open around 25 retail spaces in the United States this year, where customers can take test drives, free pick-up and delivery servicing and mobile service.

The Polestar 3 is being built for U.S. customers, making this the first vehicle from the brand to be manufactured in the country. The announcement comes two months since Polestar raised $550 million in its first external round led by Chongqing Chengxing Equity Investment Fund Partnership, Zibo Financial Holding and Zibo Hightech Industrial Investment. SK Inc., the South Korean global conglomerate, and a range of other investors also participated.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

Since its launch, Polestar has opened a manufacturing facility in China, built a global sales and distribution operation, and launched two vehicles, the Polestar 1 and the all-electric Polestar 2.