Google partners with Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi to put Android into millions of vehicles

Google will partner with Renault -Nissan-Mitsubishi, the largest auto alliance in the world by vehicle sales, to put Android-based infotainment systems into millions of cars, the companies told Wall Street Journal. The alliance’s next-generation infotainment system and dashboard displays will use Android and launch in 2021.

Drivers will be able to access Google’s maps, app store and voice assistant from their vehicle’s dashboards. The new partnership is a giant step forward for Google’s ambitions to get its operating system into more cars (the alliance sold a combined 5.5 million vehicles in the first half of this year, putting it ahead of Volkswagen and Toyota Motor).

The alliance’s executives told WSJ that they decided on the partnership because many of their customers are accustomed to using Google Maps and other apps and prefer sticking with them instead of using software developed by automakers when they drive.

Auto executives have also become more comfortable with Google, which made its software open source in 2007. Kal Mos, the alliance’s vice president of connected vehicles, told the Wall Street Journal that “the trust was built in the last few years.”

By partnering with Google, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi ups the ante on rival automakers to partner with tech companies instead of developing their own software ecosystems. While this may win customers over, it also means potentially ceding control over valuable user data to companies like Google and Apple. Mos told WSJ that Google will have access to data collected from its in-car apps, but must ask for user permission first.

Other automakers that are already integrating Google apps into their vehicles include Volkswagen, which put Google Earth into the Audi’s in-car navigation system, and Volvo Cars, which said its next in-car infotaintment system will run on Android.

Russian arms manufacturer Kalashnikov unveils its answer to Tesla

The Russian weapons manufacturer Kalahsnikov, best known for making the AK-47 machine gun, has unveiled a fleet of electric and hybrid cars, buggies and motorcycles this week — including an electric vehicle that the company says will rival Tesla.

While it’s a noble goal to take competitive aim at the world’s most famous electric vehicle brand, the retro-styled concept car, dubbed the CV-1, bears a closer resemblance to another, more infamous car from the soviet era… the Trabant.

That’s a vehicle, by the way, whose Fahrvergnügen is best illustrated by the Conan O’Brien’s demonstration below.

The CV-1 is based on the retro-IZH-21252 model known as the “Combi” and is a test bed for Kalashnikov’s electric drive train, which the company said was developed in-house. The Combi has a cruising range of 350 kilometers and can go from 0 to 100 kilometers in roughly 6 seconds, so says the company.

Batteries for the new electric vehicle from Kalashnikov have a capacity of 90 kilowatts per hour.

At the same gun show where the new EV was unveiled, Kalashnikov also showed off a hybrid buggy and an electric motorcycle to complete its hattrick.

The four-seat buggy can purportedly achieve speeds of up to 100 kilometers-per-hour and has separate electric engines for its front and rear wheels, along with hydraulic shock absorbers. According to Russian news agency RT, the vehicles are a relatively recent addition to the Russian military’s mobility arsenal.

Kalashnikov’s new electric motorcycle for police units

Kalashnikov may have Tesla in its sights, but the car company likely has more to fear from U.S. regulators than it does from a Russian competitor. At this point, the weapons manufacturer might find more of a market for another machine it debuted at the Russian military trade show — its golden, metal-plated killer robot (!!).

Here’s a selection of images below, courtesy of Kalashnikov, of the new electric vehicle.

With assistance from Jon Russell

BMW’s Alexa integration gets it right

BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google Assistant — to its cars. Ahead of its official launch in Germany, Austria, the U.S. and U.K. (with other countries following at a later date), I went to Munich to take a look at what using Alexa in a BMW is all about.

As Dieter May, BMW’s senior VP for digital products told me earlier this year, the company has long held that in-car digital assistants have to be more than just an “Echo Dot in a cup holder,” meaning that they have to be deeply integrated into the experience and the rest of the technology in the car. And that’s exactly what BMW has done here — and it has done it really well.

What maybe surprised me the most was that we’re not just talking about the voice interface here. BMW is working directly with the Alexa team at Amazon to also integrate visual responses from Alexa. Using the tablet-like display you find above the center console of most new BMWs, the service doesn’t just read out the answer but also shows additional facts or graphs when warranted. That means Alexa in a BMW is a lot more like using an Echo Show than a Dot (though you’re obviously not going to be able to watch any videos on it).

In the demo I saw, in a 2015 BMW X5 that was specifically rigged to run Alexa ahead of the launch, the display would activate when you ask for weather information, for example, or for queries that returned information from a Wikipedia post.

What’s cool here is that the BMW team styled these responses using the same design language that also governs the company’s other in-car products. So if you see the weather forecast from Alexa, that’ll look exactly like the weather forecast from BMW’s own Connected Drive system. The only difference is the “Alexa” name at the top-left of the screen.

All of this sounds easy, but I’m sure it took a good bit of negotiation with Amazon to build a system like this, especially because there’s an important second part to this integration that’s quite unique. The queries, which you start by pushing the usual “talk” button in the car (in newer models, the Alexa wake word feature will also work), are first sent to BMW’s servers before they go to Amazon. BMW wants to keep control over the data and ensure its users’ privacy, so it added this proxy in the middle. That means there’s a bit of an extra lag in getting responses from Amazon, but the team is working hard on reducing this, and for many of the queries we tried during my demo, it was already negligible.

As the team told me, the first thing it had to build was a way to switch that can route your queries to the right service. The car, after all, already has a built-in speech recognition service that lets you set directions in the navigation system, for example. Now, it has to recognize that the speaker said “Alexa” at the beginning of the query, then route it to the Alexa service. The team also stressed that we’re talking about a very deep integration here. “We’re not just streaming everything through your smartphone or using some plug-and-play solution,” a BMW spokesperson noted.

“You get what you’d expect from BMW, a deep integration, and to do that, we use the technology we already have in the car, especially the built-in SIM card.”

One of the advantages of Alexa’s open ecosystem is its skills. Not every skill makes sense in the context of the car, and some could be outright distracting, so the team is curating a list of skills that you’ll be able to use in the car.

It’s no secret that BMW is also working with Microsoft (and many of its cloud services run on Azure). BMW argues that Alexa and Cortana have different strengths, though, with Cortana being about productivity and a connection to Office 365, for example. It’s easy to imagine a future where you could call up both Alexa and Cortana from your car — and that’s surely why BMW built its own system for routing voice commands and why it wants to have control over this process.

BMW tells me that it’ll look at how users will use the new service and tune it accordingly. Because a lot of the functionality runs in the cloud, updates are obviously easy and the team can rapidly release new features — just like any other software company.

The well-funded startups driven to own the autonomous vehicle stack

At some point in the future, while riding along in a car, a kid may ask their parent about a distant time in the past when people used steering wheels and pedals to control an automobile. Of course, the full realization of the “auto” part of the word — in the form of fully autonomous automobiles — is a long way off, but there are nonetheless companies trying to build that future today.

However, changing the face of transportation is a costly business, one that typically requires corporate backing or a lot of venture funding to realize such an ambitious goal. A recent funding round, some $128 million raised in a Series A round by Shenzhen-based Roadstar.ai, got us at Crunchbase News asking a question: Just how many independent, well-funded autonomous vehicles startups are out there?

In short, not as many as you’d think. To investigate further, we took a look at the set of independent companies in Crunchbase’s “autonomous vehicle” category that have raised $50 million or more in venture funding. After a little bit of hand filtering, we found that the companies mostly shook out into two broad categories: those working on sensor technologies, which are integral to any self-driving system, and more “full-stack” hardware and software companies, which incorporate sensors, machine-learned software models and control mechanics into more integrated autonomous systems.

Full-stack self-driving vehicle companies

Let’s start with full-stack companies first. The table below shows the set of independent full-stack autonomous vehicle companies operating in the market today, as well as their focus areas, headquarter’s location and the total amount of venture funding raised:

Note the breakdown in focus area between the companies listed above. In general, these companies are focused on building more generalized technology platforms — perhaps to sell or license to major automakers in the future — whereas others intend to own not just the autonomous car technology, but deploy it in a fleet of on-demand taxi and other transportation services.

Making the eyes and ears of autonomous vehicles

On the sensor side, there is also a trend, one that’s decidedly more concentrated on one area of focus, as you’ll be able to discern from the table below:

Some of the most well-funded startups in the sensing field are developing light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies, which basically serve as the depth-perceiving “eyes” of autonomous vehicle systems. CYNGN integrates a number of different sensors, LiDAR included, into its hardware arrays and software tools, which is one heck of a pivot for the mobile phone OS-maker formerly known as Cyanogen.

But there are other problem spaces for these sensor companies, including Nauto’s smart dashcam, which gathers location data and detects distracted driving, or Autotalks’s DSRC technology for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. (Back in April, Crunchbase News covered the $5 million Series A round closed by Comma, which released an open-source dashcam app.)

And unlike some of the full-stack providers mentioned earlier, many of these sensor companies have established vendor relationships with the automotive industry. Quanergy Systems, for example, counts components giant Delphi, luxury carmakers Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz and automakers like Hyundai and Renault-Nissan as partners and investorsInnoviz supplies its solid-state LiDAR technology to the BMW Group, according to its website.

Although radar and even LiDAR are old hat by now, there continues to be innovation in sensors. According to a profile of Oryx Vision’s technology in IEEE Spectrum, its “coherent optical radar” system is kind of like a hybrid of radar and LiDAR technology in that “it uses a laser to illuminate the road ahead [with infrared light], but like a radar it treats the reflected signal as a wave rather than a particle.” Its technology is able to deliver higher-resolution sensing over a longer distance than traditional radar or newer LiDAR technologies.

Can startups stack up against big corporate competitors?

There are plenty of autonomous vehicle initiatives backed by deep corporate pockets. There’s Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is subsidized by the huge amount of search profit flung off by Google . Uber has an autonomous vehicles initiative too, although it has encountered a whole host of legal and safety issues, including holding the unfortunate distinction of being the first to kill a pedestrian earlier this year.

Tesla, too, has invested considerable resources into developing assistive technologies for its vehicles, but it too has encountered some roadblocks as its head of Autopilot (its in-house autonomy solution) left in April. The company also deals with a rash of safety concerns of its own. And although Apple’s self-driving car program has been less publicized than others, it continues to roll on in the background. Chinese companies like Baidu and Didi Chuxing have also launched fill-stack R&D facilities in Silicon Valley.

Traditional automakers have also jumped into the fray. Back in 2016, for the price of a cool $1 billion, General Motors folded Cruise Automation into its R&D efforts in a widely publicized buyout. And, not to be left behind, Ford acquired a majority stake in Argo AI, also for $1 billion.

That leaves us with a question: Do even the well-funded startups mentioned earlier stand a chance of either usurping market dominance from corporate incumbents or at least joining their ranks? Perhaps.

The reason why so much investor cash is going to these companies is because the market opportunity presented by autonomous vehicle technology is almost comically enormous. It’s not just a matter of the car market itself — projected to be over 80 million car sales globally in 2018 alone — but how we’ll spend all the time and mental bandwidth freed up by letting computers take the wheel. It’s no wonder that so many companies, and their backers, want even a tiny piece of that pie.

Buick unveils an all-electric SUV concept and it’s exactly what GM needs

General Motors is spinning up its electrification plans and today announced the stunning, poorly-named Buick Enspire concept at Auto China 2018. As a concepts go, this one looks great and rather feasible.

GM says its powered by Buick’s eMotion powertrain that can produce a maximum output of 410 kW (roughly 550 hp). This should make it good for a 4 second sprint to 60 mph. Range is clocked at 370 miles and the battery can be recharged to 80 percent within 40 minutes. It supports both fast and wireless charging.

The 2018 Buick Enspire all-electric concept SUV

Inside is an augmented reality windshield, OLED display and wood center console. And since this is just a concept and nothing is real, the Enspire features a 5G connection.

GM made a big promise in 2017 to release 20 electric vehicles within the next five years. The company is going all-in on electric vehicles and something like this Buick would fit nicely in the world of crossovers and mild SUVs. I think it looks better than the Tesla Model X, but of course, the Model X is real and this is just a concept.

The Envision was announced in China where the Buick nameplate is well-loved. It will be interesting to see if GM releases this sharp SUV under a different brand though. To me, throw a new grill on it, drop the dumb name and that SUV could be the future of Chevy.

Pricing and availability were not announced.

SF Motors reveals first two EVs, aims to ship its first SUV by next year

SF Motors has revealed its first two models, electric vehicles aiming for 2018 production and 2019 street dates. The electric vehicle technology company with a headquarters in Silicon Valley, as well as a globe-spanning R&D footprint and manufacturing facilities in both China and the U.S., and it’s aiming to distinguish itself rom the established market with unique powertrains, autonomous features and shared technology development.

Their first two cars are the SF5 and SF7, a smaller and a mid-sized all-electric SUV. The SF5 is aiming to have a pre-order date of 2018, and will also aim to ship in 2019 to customers if all goes to plan. They’ll feature “proprietary” powertrain technology that will achieve 1000 horsepower and a 0-to-60 mph acceleration time of under 3 seconds.

Range is rated at over 300 miles by EPA standards, SF Motors says, thanks to a “patented” battery system that emphasizes safety through design. The automaker is also working on a future battery system that would incorporate battery units directly into the vehicle’s chassis, for a more streamlined design.

A lot of SF Motors’ secret sauce comes down to in-house development of key systems, the automaker says, including its own in-house electronic controller design. It’s also testing “protective autonomy,” systems that use deep learning and LiDAR sensor perception to create a “safer ride,” with road tests in California, Michigan and China currently in progress as of earlier this month. The full extent of this system and how it works hasn’t been detailed, but it will automated driving tasks with “minimal human input” required, per SF Motors.

The company is debuting its first target production vehicles today, but it’s also hoping to potentially provide its proprietary powertrain and battery tech design to other automakers via license, which could help it get over the early hurdles of production ramp that most young EV companies hoping to take on Tesla and other legacy automakers face.

VW Atlas Cross Sport concept shows hybrids have an exciting future

If this is the future of hybrids, I’m all in. Volkswagen just took the cover off its Atlas Cross Sport SUV, which features a plug-in hybrid drive powertrain that features two electric motors and a V6 engine. Together, they produce 355 horsepower. And it looks great, too.

The inside and out of this concept is loaded with future-leaning technology including a massive screen, digital cockpit and a seemingly endless amount of LEDs. The center infotainment system can be controlled by touch or gesture though since this example is just a concept, it’s unclear if gesture controls will make it into production.

The powertrain is the most exciting part. The Atlas Cross Sport is equipped with the same 3.6L V6 engine found in the standard Atlas. But the Cross Sport features dual electric motors with a 54 hp motor in the front and a rear motor that outputs 114 hp. An 18.0 kWh lithium-ion battery housed in the vehicle’s central tunnel powers the battery. Volkswagen says its configuration allows the output to be 355 HP, up from 310 hp if a conventional hybrid system was used.

The company expects the SUV to hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, thus proving it’s worthy of the Sport badging as the regular Atlas runs 60 mph at 7.9 seconds.

The concept features several drive modes though it’s not clear at this time if the production vehicle will have similar abilities. In E-Mode, the vehicle drives on just the rear motor and has a range of around 26 miles. Like the Chevy Volt

Volkswagen says this is headed to production, too, with a 2019 release. The company’s Chattanooga, Tennessee facility will build the vehicle.

This concept is built off the MQB platform that’s responsible for the seven-seat Atlas. In this variation, the vehicle is 7.5 inches shorter than the Atlas though the wheelbase is the same. It shows the flexibility of the platform, which can result in a traditional 7-seat people hauler or a 5-passenger sports SUV with different powertrains and dimensions.

Volkswagen is not alone in adding hybrid powertrains to SUVs. Ford announced two weeks ago it intends to offer five hybrid SUV models in the coming years.

Hybrid systems could see a resurgence in popularity as models such as the Cross Sport show they can be used for more than just increasing fuel economy.

Volkswagen’s I.D. Vizzion electric sedan aims for 2022 production

 Volkswagen’s big centerpiece for this year’s Geneva Motor Show is the I.D. Vizzion, the latest in its I.D. EV lineup and the car that’s designed to lead the pack as a premium offering. Volkswagen talked a lot about the Vizzion’s future-focused design and features yesterday during a special pre-show press unveiling, but on Tuesday it also detailed some more realistic… Read More

Volkswagen’s latest I.D. concept EV is a stunner self-driving sport sedan

 Volkswagen has revealed its latest I.D. concept vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland: The I.D. Vizzion, which is a lot less sleepy than all those ‘Zs’ might suggest. The Vizzion is by far my favorite of the I.D. line in terms of pure design, with sporty lines on a roomy but sleek sedan that packs all-wheel pure electric drive, an estimated range of around 413 miles… Read More

Jaguar reveals the new all-electric I-PACE SUV

 Jaguar has finally fully revealed the official I-PACE all-electric SUV, a vehicle with just under 240 miles of range and a 0 to 60 mph time of under five seconds. The car can also charge to 80 percent from empty in 40 minutes using special quick charger hardware, and a 15-minute top-up is good for around 62 miles of additional range. The I-PACE looks like Jaguar’s best attempt to do a… Read More