How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s money

Autonomous delivery startup Nuro is bursting with ideas since SoftBank invested nearly $1 billion in February, new filings reveal.

A recent patent application details how its R1 self-driving vehicle could carry smaller robots to cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. The company has even taken the step of trademarking the name “Fido” for delivery services.

“We think there’s something neat about that name,” Nuro founder Dave Ferguson told TechCrunch. “It’s friendly, neighborly and embodies the spirit of a helper that brings you things. It wasn’t intended to extend towards literal robot dogs, although some of the legged platforms that others are building could be very interesting for this last 10-foot problem.”

Another section of Nuro’s patent shows the R1 delivering piping hot pizza and beverages, prepared en route in automated kitchens.

“We tried to build a lot of flexibility into the R1’s compartment so we could serve all the applications that people will be able to think of,” Ferguson said. “A coffee machine is actually a pretty good one. If you go to your local barista, those machines are incredibly expensive. Amortizing them over an entire neighborhood makes sense.”

As automated technologies mature, companies are focusing less on simply getting around and more on how services will connect with actual customers. Delivering goods instead of passengers also means fewer regulations to navigate.

That opportunity has prompted a number of companies, including e-commerce and logistics giant Amazon, FedEx, and numerous startups to explore autonomous delivery.  At CES this year, Continental unveiled a prototype dog-shaped robot for last-yard deliveries, while Amazon has unveiled a sidewalk robot called Scout that is already delivering packages to homes.

The first company to scale automated driving and delivery could start building revenue while those aiming for autonomous taxis are stuck in a maze of laws, safety concerns and consumer skepticism.

Origin story

Softbank’s capital allows Nuro’s founders to run with its many ideas. But even in its earliest days, they benefited from an early injection of cash.

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by Ferguson and another former Google engineer, Jiajun Zhu, after they received multi-million dollar payouts from the company’s infamous Chauffeur bonus plan. Chauffeur bonuses were intended to incentivize engineers who stuck with Google’s self-driving car project. However, the plan’s structure meant that anyone who left after the first payout in 2015 would also receive a large lump sum.

Lead engineer Anthony Levandowski appears to have earned over $125 million from the plan. He used some of the money to start Otto, a self-driving truck company that was acquired by Uber and subsequently became the focus of an epic patent and trade secrets theft lawsuit.

Court filings from that case suggest that Ferguson and Zhu received around $40 million each, although Ferguson would not confirm this. (Another Chauffeur alum, Russell Smith, got a smaller payout and quickly joined Nuro as its hardware lead).

Nuro completed its first Series A funding round in China just three months later, in a previously unreported deal that gave NetEase founder Ding Lei (aka William Ding) a seat on Nuro’s board. Ding was China’s first Internet and gaming billionaire, and was reportedly once the wealthiest person in China. However, his business empire, which spans e-commerce, education and pig farming, recently laid off large numbers of staff.

“William has been a board member and a strong supporter from the very start. But he’s not directing company decisions,” says Ferguson.

A second, U.S.-based round in June 2017 raised Nuro’s total Series A funding to $92 million.

A Nuro spinout

Nuro started pilot grocery deliveries last summer with a Kroger supermarket affiliate in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. The pilot initially used modified Toyota Prius sedans and transitioned in December to its R1 vehicle. “We’re super excited about the application area,” says Ferguson. “87 percent of commerce is still local and 43 percent of all personal vehicle trips in the U.S. are for shopping and running errands.”

Meanwhile, Uber’s self-driving truck program, which had begun with the acquisition of Otto, was on its last legs. Although the program was not publicly canned until July 2018, many of its key personnel left in May. The LinkedIn profiles of engineers Jur van den Berg, Nancy Sun and Alden Woodrow show them going straight from Uber to found Ike, another self-driving truck startup, the same month.

When Ike came out of stealth mode in October, Nuro characterized its relationship with the new company as a partnership, where “we gave Ike a copy of our autonomy and infrastructure software and, in exchange, Nuro got an equity stake in Ike.”

In reality, Ike was more of a spinout. California and Delaware business records show that Ike was not incorporated until July, and shared office space with Nuro until at least the beginning of September. Ike’s founding engineers actually worked at Nuro after leaving Uber. Van den Berg can even be seen in a Nuro team photo that was shot in June and reproduced in Nuro’s Safety Report, wearing a Nuro T-shirt.

Ferguson confirmed that all three Ike founders had worked at Nuro before starting Ike.

“We are always looking for opportunities where the tech that we’ve built could help,” Ferguson said. “Trucking was a really good example, but we recognized that as a company, we couldn’t spread ourselves too thin. It made sense for both sides for the Ike co-founders to build their own independent company.”

Ike CEO Woodrow told TechCrunch recently that it’s using Nuro’s hardware designs and autonomous software, as well as data logging, maps and simulation systems. It raised $52 million in its own Series A in February.

Not to be outdone, Nuro quickly followed with an announcement of a $940 million investment by the SoftBank Vision Fund, in exchange for what Ferguson calls a “very, very significant ownership stake.” Nuro had been introduced to SoftBank after talks with Cruise fell through.

Thousands of bots

Apart from robotic dogs, what does the future hold for a newly cash-rich Nuro?

“We’re very excited about the Scottsdale pilot, but it’s basically one grocery store in one ZIP code,” says Ferguson. Shortly after our interview, Nuro announced that it would be expanding its delivery service to four more ZIP codes in Houston, Texas.

“Next year and onwards, we want to start to realize the potential of what we’re building to eventually service millions of people” Ferguson said. We’re aggressively expanding the number of partners we’re working with and we’re working on how we manufacture a vehicle at a large scale.”

Nuro will likely to partner with an established auto OEM to build a fleet of what Ferguson hopes will become tens or hundreds of thousands of driverless vehicles. Last week, it petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for exemptions to safety standards that do not make sense for a driverless vehicle – like having to install a windshield or rearview mirrors.

Nuro told NHTSA that it wants to introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years. The electric vehicles would have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and appear very similar to the R1 prototype operating in Arizona and Texas today. The R2X will have 12 high-def cameras, radars, and a top-mounted LiDar sensor. Nuro said it would not sell the vehicle but “own and centrally operate the entire fleet of R2Xs through partnerships with local businesses.”

“Providing services is also very expensive,” Ferguson explained. “Look at Uber or Lyft. As we scale up to the population we’re trying to serve and the number of verticals we’re looking at, it requires capital to operate until we’re profitable, which will not happen this year.”

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Streaming subscriptions surpassed cable worldwide in 2018

In brief: In 2015 subscriptions to streaming platforms overtook satellite packages for the first time, and the inexorable rise of platforms like Netflix, Prime Video and Hulu has continued apace. New data from the Motion Picture Association of America shows that in 2018 streaming finally surpassed cable subscriptions to become the king of televisual consumption.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) puts out an annual report, the ‘theatrical and home entertainment market environment’, or ‘THEME Report.’ Among the many topics covered, there’s an interesting section on in-home entertainment figures that illustrate how people worldwide are watching their favorite shows.

From 2017 to 2018 the number of subscriptions to online video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu jumped by a massive 27%, increasing by 131.2 million subscriptions for a total of 613.3 million. While that jump is interesting by itself, the major achievement for the online giants is that they have toppled cable TV packages for the first time.

The MPAA report also offers some interesting context. The huge jump in online video subscriptions contrasts with a dip in the overall number of cable users. For the last four years, cable subscriptions have been consistently going down, as more and more people opt for ‘cable-cutting’. In the period of 2017 to 2018, a 2% drop meant that be the end of the year cable packages totalled 556 million.

Interestingly, cable still saw an increase in revenues, growing by $6.2 billion to $118 billion. So even with fewer people being subscribed to cable packages, total revenues still jumped by almost 6%. Cable still manages to hold the top spot for revenues for now, but the MPAA report indicates that streaming platforms are catching up, as they fast approach the $100 billion mark.

One point should be noted – according to the MPAA, most people have both a cable service and an online subscription. But this news that streaming has overtaken cable will no doubt be good news for anyone who only uses streaming platforms. If studios know that there’s a larger potential audience on Netflix or Amazon than there is on traditional cable channels, they have every incentive to make their best content available on those platforms.

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A first look at Microsoft’s new Chromium-powered Edge browser

Microsoft is rebuilding its Edge browser on Chromium. The software maker has been testing versions of this browser internally at Microsoft, and now The Verge has secured an exclusive first look at the early work thanks to source who wishes to remain anonymous. While the previously leaked screenshots made Edge look very similar to Chrome, Microsoft is adding its own touches and animations to make it look and feel like a Windows browser.

When you first install the Chromium version of Edge, Microsoft will prompt you to import favorites, passwords, and browsing history from Chrome or Edge (depending on your default). The setup screen also prompts you to pick a style for the default tab page before you start browsing.

Most of the user interface of the browser is a mix of Chrome and Edge, and Microsoft has clearly tried to add its own little touches here and there. There’s a read aloud accessibility option, and it simply reads the page out loud like it does in existing versions of Edge. Some features that you’d expect from Edge are missing, though. Microsoft hasn’t implemented a dark mode just yet, and the set aside tabs feature isn’t available.

Microsoft also has support for extensions, and a dedicated extensions page for ones that it has approved. You’ll also be able to install Chrome extensions from Google’s online store, just by flipping a switch in the extensions settings. We’ve tried a number of extensions like 1Password and Ghostery, and they work just like you’d expect them to in Chrome.

Microsoft is offering up sync support for extensions in the settings interface for this new version of Edge, but it doesn’t look like it will be available straight away. The page notes that “more of the features listed above will become available for sync in the coming months.” You can only currently sync favorites, but not settings, history, extensions, open tabs, passwords, and autofill information.

For an early version of Edge built on Chromium, Microsoft’s new browser feels very polished. It’s also very fast to launch and browse around with. If Microsoft can keep up this good work and keep Edge optimized in the future, I can’t see a reason to need to use Chrome on Windows anymore. I would never have recommended Edge before as it was often slow, clunky, and didn’t always work with websites properly. This new Edge feels entirely different, thanks to its Chromium backend.

It’s not yet clear when Microsoft will make this new version of Edge available publicly, but given the most recent internal builds are stable and work well, it’s likely to arrive very soon. We’ll keep you updated on exactly when Microsoft plans to start beta testing its Chromium-powered Edge browser.


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The new iMac is $200 off, and PlayStation Plus subscriptions are 25 percent off

Several of the week’s best deals have been happening for the past few days, but they’re worth highlighting again.

The new iMac with a Retina 4K display is $200 off during the preorder phase at B&H Photo. This model features an 8th Gen Intel Core i3 processor, AMD Radeon Pro 555X discrete graphics, and of course, a 4K screen. One major downside is its 1TB 5,400RPM hard drive, which is embarrassingly slow for a modern computer, regardless of who manufactures it. If you’re all right with that, this is a good deal.

A 25 percent-off discount for a one-year subscription to PlayStation Plus has been a mainstay in our deals coverage this week. The subscription is usually $59.99, but you can get it now for $44.99.

TCL’s 65-inch 6-series Roku-capable 4K HDR TV is $819.99 at Walmart, Amazon, and Target. This is the most affordable price that we’ve seen for this model, and it’s among the best 4K TVs that you can buy for under $1,000.


Walmart still takes $30 off of a new Mario-themed Switch game when you buy a Nintendo Switch console. This sale was originally set to end on March 16th, but it’s obviously lasted quite a bit longer than expected.

There are two generations of Pixel phones on sale this weekend. The Google Pixel 3 starts at $599 ($200 off) at the Google Store. If you want to save a little money on Google’s last-gen phone, Best Buy is selling the Google Pixel 2 XL for $399.99 without a carrier commitment. Just hit “Activate Later” on the product page to opt out of signing up for service.

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NASA posts image of a powerful fireball exploding over Earth

Dark streak left by meteor as it fell through Earth's atmosphere.
Dark streak left by meteor as it fell through Earth’s atmosphere.
Image: nasa

Boom.

A radiant fireball exploded over the remote Bering Sea in Dec. 2018, though it wasn’t until some three months later that scientists, scouring satellite images, discovered the dramatic event. NASA’s Terra satellite — an Earth-observing satellite the size of a small school bus — also unwittingly documented the fiery explosion, and the space agency released photos of the meteor’s violent passage through Earth’s atmosphere on Friday.

Fireballs — which are bright meteors breaking apart in the atmosphere — are common events, though this December explosion was quite potent, as the most powerful known fireball since 2013.

“The explosion unleashed an estimated 173 kilotons of energy, or more than 10 times the energy of the atomic bomb blast over Hiroshima during World War II,” NASA said on Friday.

Fireball over the Bering Sea.

Fireball over the Bering Sea.

Image: nasa

NASA’s GIF shows both the meteor’s trail and an orange-colored cloud that the exploded space rock left behind. 

A meteor needn’t be too big to make a vibrant scene. The object was just a few meters across, noted astrophysicist Caleb Scharf. But its steep angle and high velocity helped this speeding space rock pack a punch. 

It’s difficult for most meteors to survive a descent through Earth’s atmosphere, as they’re baked and scorched by friction while plummeting through the sky. 

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