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A look at the soaring valuations of Rivian and Cruise with transportation VC Reilly Brennan

Perhaps more than most, Reilly Brennan loves cars and trucks. The native Michigander happily did grunt work for an automotive magazine as an undergrad at the University of Michigan before landing a gig as a trackside communications manager at General Motors, spending a few years as an editor and a general manager with an automotive publisher called NextScreen, then becoming a programming director for AOL’s automotive properties.

His next role would be on the West Coast, as executive director of an automotive research program at Stanford, where Brennan continues to be a lecturer. Little surprise that soon after, a seed-stage fund began to make sense, too, and thus was born Trucks Venture Capital, which has since made dozens of bets out of a $20 million debut effort and is wrapping up a larger fund soon.

Late last week, we talked with Brennan about two of the fastest-soaring valuations we’ve seen recently in the automotive sector: that of the electric vehicle company Rivian, which raised a giant new round last week at a nearly $30 billion post-money valuation, and Cruise Automation, which also raised a giant new round last week, and also at $30 billion valuation. (Along with some other interesting bets, Trucks managed to write an early check for Cruise before it was acquired in 2016 by GM, which maintains majority ownership of the company.)

We wondered if even an auto aficionado might deem things a little bubbly. You can listen to that full conversation here. In the meantime, the excerpts below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TC: Who are your investors in Trucks VC? Are they individuals? Are any auto manufacturers that are trying to get a look at nascent technologies?

RB: We have some former execs from the car industry in the tech world, and a handful of family offices and definitely some large strategic companies. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you their names because I’ve signed documents that prevent me from doing that. But one of the cool things about our little Rolodex of [limited partners] is that our founders — when they want to come in and do something in transportation — it’s an easy doggie door into a lot of those entities, whether they’re people or businesses. One of the things I love about [the mix is] there’s probably no part of a vehicle, whether you’re talking about a car, truck, a bike, or a plane, that one of our investors couldn’t help out with.

TC: Do you look to be the first money into your deals?

RB: One of the interesting learnings I had in the first fund was, we were just trying to participate; we were just happy to be at the party. So we were participating in rounds that other people were leading, and our checks [from Fund I] were anywhere from $100,000 to a few thousand dollars.

The new fund is designed to take advantage of leading rounds [because] halfway through our first fund, founders would ask us to lead rounds, and frankly, the fund wasn’t big enough to do that. Our new fund is really designed so we can lead seed rounds, and that’s what we do. We’ll lead or co-lead and sit on the board. Usually, we’re  owning about 10% to 12% of a company at seed.

TC: One of Truck’s early checks went to Cruise, the self-driving car company that GM acquired for an amount that has variously been reported as more than $1 billion, as well as for closer to $500 million . . .

RB: The Cruise investment, my [fellow general partners] Jeff and Kate made. I can’t tell you specifically what the acquisition price was, but it was pretty good. That being said, if you read about the valuation of Cruise now within General Motors, or that of another [self-driving] company we invested in, Nutonomy, which was acquired by [automotive supplier] Delphi [for $450 million in 2017] and is now essentially a company called Motional, they’re pretty high.

I think a lot about those early exits because they validated the space, but I also think a lot of the early investors probably wish they had more ownership. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have sold. But you look at the valuation of Cruise and Motional today — if you put those two entities together — it’s more than the valuation of General Motors, or maybe Ford Motor Company.

TC: But is Cruise’s valuation perhaps too high right now? They still have a very long lead time to making money.

RB: I would agree with you that in the public market, it feels a little bubbly when it comes to electric vehicles and some of these ideas related to technology and auto. But I do think a lot of these companies look at the opportunity to automate things greater than just robo-taxis. Last year in particular provided good insight into how the logistics and delivery part of automation is probably on the nearer term horizon than robo-taxis and therefore more valuable.

TC: How much have valuations been driven up by Tesla, whose valuation now dwarfs all the major car manufacturers?

RB: One of the things the market appears to want is the simple story, and belief in Tesla is now highly aligned to [thinking that] this is just the way that transportation is going to be organized. It’s going to be a zero-emission vehicle that is highly connected and maybe attached to a consumer in a new way.

You’re seeing the same with a lot of these pure-play EV companies, whether it’s [carmaker] Fisker doing a SPAC or the way that [carmaker] Neo is received in China. There’s this purity of their message.

You can argue, successfully, that a lot of other companies have more engineering or a greater dealer network or more IP around a particular idea, but when it comes to the public market stuff, it really is about painting the picture in this one specific way that’s aligned with the future. And right now, the public markets really don’t like that composite, liberal arts approach to vehicle manufacturing; they really just want one thing that aligns very well with the future, which they believe is better electric vehicles.

TC: This seemingly applies to the Detroit carmaker Rivian. What do you think of this company that’s valued at nearly $30 billion yet hasn’t yet sold a truck or SUV? You aren’t one of its investor. Does its valuation make sense to you?

RB: From an engineering perspective, Rivian is probably one of the companies I respect most out of this new breed of manufacturers.

Tens years ago, when they started, there were a lot of new supercar entrepreneurs who were trying to start something new, but they were always small batch ideas. Like, maybe you could get 100 people to buy one. But they weren’t really well-aligned with what consumers were buying, which is increasingly utilities and trucks. So Rivian’s approach, with the segment it’s going after, is really smart, and it has fantastic engineering. So I’m actually quite bullish on Rivian.

In a year’s time, there will probably be two big events for Rivian. One, they will deliver the first batch of [electric delivery vans being built for investor] to Amazon, along with [other orders] to some of the early customers. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they’re public at some point in the next year.
They haven’t told me that; just my own personal speculation here.

TC: When you say it will go public, do you mean through a traditional IPO or maybe through a giant SPAC? Would what you guess?

I bet that Rivian will probably do a traditional IPO, that’s my guess. But they could also do a SPAC at some point. [Either way] I think the public markets are going to be really interested in Rivian. I just think there’s really good stuff there.

TC: Have you been able to test-drive its cars? Have you seen its tech up close? What makes you so confident that what Rivian is building is superior?

RB: I think the point of view they have about the segments is really interesting In the U.S., they are going after two great-growing segments in the business, which is utilities and trucks where, by the way, there’s a lot of margin, and there’s nobody specifically going after those segments.

The Rivian engineering that I speak about is really about the hires they’ve made and a lot of things they’ve done for years in advance of getting these vehicles ready. They’ve got a lot of amazing talent from big manufacturers. They made an unusual but really smart investment in a vehicle assembly facility that they purchased for relatively cheap years ago that was owned by Mitsubishi. And they put together all these components well in advance of anybody really even knowing about them, which is really smart.

Obviously, there’s still a huge amount of risk. What I’m saying is not investment advice. I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there that’s head and shoulders above many of the other EV companies, where there’s not a lot of substance, to be candid.

TC: My colleague Kirsten reported in December that Rivian is developing a network of charging stations along interstate highways and also at spots like hiking trails to accommodate who it imagines will be its customers. Does that make sense to you? Relatedly, how many different types of charging stations are we going to have in the world?

[Regarding the location of its stations], it’s definitely a nice ingredient in the story they’re trying to tell, though I don’t think you’ll see a Rivian charger at the entry point of every national park. They’ll probably have access to other charging networks. One of the things we’re seeing in the U.S. is you have some of these dedicated networks like Tesla has, and then you have a lot of agnostic [stations], where you can plug in and charge in a lot of other places, and Rivian will likely take advantage of that. An open question would be whether Rivian builds its own [larger] dedicated network that has a lot of coverage, and I don’t know about that yet.

The other component about Rivian that’s really fascinating is what they do for service and maintenance. I saw an open job that Rivian had a few months ago around remote diagnostics, and one of the bullet points of the job posting was that this job was really designed so that people didn’t have to go back to the dealership. [It begs the question of]: could you design experiences digitally,  as with [on-demand remote doctor visits], where you could potentially talk to somebody live, you could [have Rivian] assess the vehicle, or maybe walk you through a situation where you can fix something that would prevent a lot of the trips to dealer?

If you consider the traditional dealer and OEM relationship, a lot of the ways that cars are designed is that they’re constantly having to go back to the dealer. Rivian’s point of view on that is really different, and that’s one of the other reasons it’s one to watch.

Alibaba vies for a piece of China’s booming EV market

There’s no lack of news these days on China’s tech giants teaming up with traditional carmakers. Companies from Alibaba to Huawei are striving to become relevant in the trillion-dollar auto industry, which itself is seeking an electric transition and intelligent upgrade as 5G comes of age.

State-owned automaker SAIC Motor, a major player in China, unveiled this week a new electric vehicle arm called Zhiji, in which Alibaba and a Shanghai government-backed entity are minority shareholders. The tie-up comes as Chinese EV startups like Xpeng and Nio and their predecessor Tesla see their stocks soaring in recent months.

Alibaba’s ties with SAIC can be traced back to 2015 when they jointly announced a $160 million investment in internet-connected cars. The partners moved on to form a joint venture called Banma (or ‘Zebra’) and Alibaba has since developed a slew of auto solutions for the Banma platform to enable everything from voice-activated navigation to voice ordering coffee, which is, of course, linked to the Alipay e-wallet.

Alibaba is certainly not SAIC’s exclusive supplier, as it’s also worked closely with the likes of BMW and Audi as well over the years.

For SAIC’s new EV brand, Alibaba will continue to be its “technology solution provider,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The other tech giant making big moves in auto is Huawei. Just this week, the telecoms equipment and smartphone maker announced it would fold its smart car unit into its consumer business group, which previously focused on handsets. The expanded group will continue to be steered by Richard Yu, regarded as the man who helped grow Huawei from an underdog in the mobile industry to a leading global player.

Huawei’s ambition in auto is “not to manufacture cars but to focus on developing ICT [information and communications technology] to assist automakers in producing cars,” the firm asserts in the statement, addressing rumors that it wants to encroach on traditional carmakers’ turf.

Huawei’s phone business has taken a hit since U.S. sanctions hobbled its supply chain. It sold its budget phone brand Honor recently in the hope that the spinoff, independent from Huawei, will be free from trade curbs.

China’s electric carmaker WM Motor pulls in $1.47 billion Series D

Chinese electric vehicle startup WM Motor just pocketed an outsize investment to fuel growth in a competitive landscape increasingly coveted by foreign rival Tesla. The five-year-old company raised 10 billion yuan ($1.47 billion) in a Series D round, it announced on Tuesday, which will pay for research and development, branding, marketing and expansion of sales channel.

WM Motor, backed by Baidu and Tencent, is one of the highest funded EV startups in China alongside NIO, Xpeng and Li Auto, all of which have gone public in New York. With its latest capital boost, WM Motor could be gearing up for an initial public offering. As Bloomberg’s sources in July said, the company was weighing a listing on China’s Nasdaq-style STAR board as soon as this year.

Days before its funding news, WM Motor unveiled its key partners and suppliers: Qualcomm Snapdragon’s cockpit chips will power the startup’s in-cabin experience; Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system will give WM vehicles self-parking capability; Unisplendour, rooted in China’s Tsinghua University, will take care of the hardware side of autonomous driving; and lastly, integrated circuit company Sino IC Leasing will work on “car connectivity” for WM Motor, whatever that term entails.

It’s not uncommon to see the new generation of EV makers seeking external partnerships given their limited experience in manufacturing. WM Motor’s rival Xpeng similarly works with Blackberry, Desay EV and Nvidia to deliver its smart EVs.

WM Motor was founded by automotive veteran Freeman Shen, who previously held executive positions at Volvo, Fiat and Geely in China.

The startup recently announced an ambitious plan for the next 3-5 years to allocate 20 billion yuan ($2.95 billion) and 3,000 engineers to work on 5G-powered smart cockpits, Level-4 driving and other futuristic auto technologies. That’s a big chunk of the startup’s total raise, which is estimated to be north of $3 billion, based on Crunchbase data and its latest funding figure.

Regional governments are often seen rooting for companies partaking in China’s strategic industries such as semiconductors and electric cars. WM Motor’s latest round, for instance, is led by a state-owned investment platform and state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor, both based in Shanghai where the startup’s headquarters resides. The city is also home to Tesla’s Gigafactory where the American giant churns out made-in-China vehicles.

In July, the Chinese EV upstart delivered its 30,000th EX5 SUV vehicle, which comes at about $22,000 with state subsidy and features the likes of in-car video streaming and air purification. The company claimed that parents of young children account for nearly 70% of its customers.

BlackBerry makes China push as the OS for Xpeng smart cars

The once-pioneering BlackBerry is pretty much out of the smartphone manufacturing game, but the Canadian company has been busy transitioning to providing software for connected devices, including smart cars. Now it’s brought that section of its business to China.

This week, BlackBerry announced that it will be powering the Level 3 driving domain controller of Xpeng, one of the most-funded electric vehicle startups in China and Tesla’s local challenger. Baked in Xpeng’s intelligent cockpit is BlackBerry’s operating system called QNX, which competes with the likes of Android and Linux to enter automakers’ next-gen models.

Sitting between BlackBerry and Xpeng’s tie-up is middleman Desay SV, which specializes in automotive system integrators like Aptiv. Desay SV, founded in 1986, has an illustrious past as a previously Sino-German joint venture that involved Siemens. The Huizhou-based company today supplies to Tier 1 automotive brands and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in China and around the world.

The kernel of Xpeng’s domain controller is NVIDIA’s Xavier cockpit chip for automated cars, so a good amount of software and hardware in Xpeng’s new car is based on foreign technologies.

The mass-produced Xpeng model in the spotlight is an electric sports sedan numbered P7. It features a processing unit that can calculate “the vehicle’s driving status and provides 360-degree omnidirectional perception with real-time monitoring of the surrounding environment to make safe driving decisions,” according to the announcement.

“Desay SV Automotive has extensive experience in intelligent cockpits, smart driving and connected services. Augmented with the safety expertise of BlackBerry QNX, together we can address the diverse needs of an auto industry that is undergoing meaningful transformation,” said John Wall, senior vice president and co-head of BlackBerry Technology Solutions, in a statement.

“To that end, it’s a real privilege to have BlackBerry technology powering the intelligent driving system within Xpeng Motors innovative new P7 system.”

The partnership arrives as Alibaba and Xiaomi backed-Xpeng is looking to raise up to $1.1 billion from its initial public offering in New York. Its Chinese rivals Li Auto and NIO raised similar amounts from their U.S. IPOs.

Volvo's Tesla killer to arrive in 2019 with a 250-mile range

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Volvo is building an electric vehicle, and, somewhat surprisingly, it’s not going to cost a ton of money. 

According to Automotive News, Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of the luxury car maker’s USA arm, told journalists at the Geneva auto show that the company aims to launch the car in 2019 with a $35,000 – $40,000 price. 

Very few details are known about the car at this point — not even its size has been decided — but Kerssemakers claimed it will have a range of at least 250 miles. 

Volvo already offers hybrid variants of several of its models, including the XC90 SUV and the V60, but it doesn’t have a purely electric car.  Read more…

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